Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Michelle Richmond talks about Golden State, chance, colonizing Mars, and so much more

Let's see. The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Dream of the Blue Room. No One You Know. The Year of Fog. Brilliant works of art by the amazingly talented Michelle Richmond. She's got two book  about to come out, Hum and Other Stories, from the Fiction Collection and the book she's talking about today, Golden State. In Golden State,  Richmond follows fractured lives during the course of one terrifying day: a young doctor at a VA hospital, her pregnant troubled sister, and a hostage situation. About the chances we choose to take and the lives we try to fashion, the book is both harrowing and haunting.

I'm thrilled to have Michelle here. Thank you, thank you, Michelle. 

Golden State takes place across one day, and yet in that day, whole lives are really lead. I deeply admired the masterful way you played with time, breaking it apart, in order to give us pieces of different stories before we got to the whole. Did you always know this was the structure? How difficult was it to write?

The story began, really, with the idea of the main character, Julie, making her way across town on a broken ankle over the course of a single day. I wanted to use this structure to allow Julie, who is about to turn forty, to reflect on how she got to this point in her life--the mistakes she's made, the people she has loved, the path she has taken. While I've never written a novel set in a single day before, I tend to write in a similar pattern--of present action interspersed with reflection--in all of my novels. It's just the most natural-feeling way for me to write a story, perhaps because I am always so interested (not just in novels, but also in life) about where people came from, what made them who they are.

With Golden State, however, an extra wrinkle was added--a hostage situation that's taking place at the hospital where Julie works. It was quite challenging to figure out where the pieces fit. Writing a novel, as you know, is like putting together a huge puzzle. I actually laid the chapters out on my dining room floor for weeks at a time, during various phases of the process, to figure out where things went. 

There are so many brilliant parts of the novel about what it's like to work in a VA hospital, what it's like to be a vet. What kind of research did you do, and what about your research surprised you?

There is one reason the novel ended up being set at the VA: After The Year of Fog came out, when I was just beginning to think of this new idea for a novel, my son began preschool at a wonderful little one-room school on the campus of the VA hospital in San Francisco. Most of the parents worked at the hospital, and one of them, a very respected and accomplished general internist, was kind enough to allow me to trail him for a day and sit in on a diagnostic lecture. The school was integrated in interesting ways with the hospital. On Halloween, the children would go trick or treating through the hallways. And they would take walks on the beautiful grounds, perched over the Pacific Ocean. I was deeply inspired by the place.

When I was trying to flesh out the character of the sister who has returned from Afghanistan, I communicated with an old high school friend who has served several tours as a Marine in Afghanistan. And when I was in college, I lived with (and was engaged to) a guy who ended up spending his senior year of college in Iraq as part of Desert Storm. When he returned home, he was deeply changed. I saw the effects of PTSD first hand. Now, twenty years later, I can look back and feel empathy for that very young man whose personality was altered by war. I didn't realize it when I was writing the book, but looking back and reading it, I realize that the character of Dennis is probably inspired in part by that experience, and by the reality that the invisible scars our veterans carry last for decades.

Like your brilliant THE YEAR OF FOG, Golden State deals with another aspect of losing a child. As a mother, I'm both terrified and drawn to those kinds of themes. Can you talk about how it is for you?

Yes, I think writing comes from a lot of places--our dreams, our aspirations, and also, in some measure, our fears. I cannot imagine anything worse than losing a child. When I was writing The Year of Fog, I was not yet a mom, but I had nieces, and my relationship with them informed my writing about Abby's relationship with Emma, the six-year-old girl who goes missing in that book. Now, as a mother, I have such sweet memories of the time when my son was very small, and the sweetness and intensity of that mother-child bond is something I tried to capture in Golden State. But the reverse side of maternal joy, that deep and blissful connection we feel to our children, is the fear that we will lose them or not be able to protect them. In both The Year of Fog and Golden State, this fear is realized, with terrifying consequences. And I wonder if writing is also some way of staving off the worst. The things we almost can't bear to imagine are often the things we can't help but imagine, and those mental wanderings make it into our books.

There's a thread in the book about chance. One character says that you can look at a lotto ticket as a waste, since you have no chance of winning. But you can also look at it as a chance--someone has to win, and it might be you. Can you talk a bit about that please? I found that incredibly hopeful.

Yes! As I write this, a man in San Jose just won over 300 million dollars in the super lotto! He is a working class guy who was on vacation with his family, and when he came home he thought he should check the ticket he'd bought before he left, and lo and behold, he had the numbers. While I don't play the lottery (much), I am always fascinated by the stories of those who win. It's impossible, right? But actually, it isn't. Improbable, yes, but not impossible.

Tom, Julie's husband, is a beloved radio personality in San Francisco, and the host of a show called Anything Is Possible. He and Julie are different--he believes anything and everything is possible, while she's far more circumspect. I pay close attention to news about space, and I think part of the reason I do that is that it's so amazing to me, the things scientists discover on a daily basis--billions of new earth like planets in our universe, species long thought to be extinct that are actually thriving in the Ecuadorian rain forest. It's wonderful, the possibilities of our world. Strange possibilities come to fruition on a public level and a personal one all the time. In the book, California's attempted secession is emblematic of that idea--things seem crazy and impossible until they happen...and then we have to admit that they weren't crazy and impossible after all.

What's your writing life like? Was writing this book different from working on any of the others and if so, how so? 

Writing on this book went very slowly (five years), in part because my responsibilities are different than they were when I was writing The Year of Fog, and in part because there was a great deal of complexity that I had to sift through while writing Golden State. I discarded hundreds of pages, entire plot lines. I spent many months researching secession, because originally the narrator had an ancestor who fought secession in the south and had been disowned by the family for doing so. Now there is absolutely no vestige of that character or that plot line left in the book! More than a hundred pages of writing were ultimately condensed to three pages, a road trip that Julie and Tom take through Mississippi early in their marriage. 

I write while my son is in school, but not every day. I also do editing on the side, and I have this little publishing venture called Fiction Attic Press, a literary labor of love that keeps sending me down the rabbit hole! My 2014 resolution is to try to concentrate more on my own books.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Oh, my, what a wonderful question! Space--for the reasons mentioned above. There is currently a contest going on whereby one can apply to go on a private spacecraft to colonize Mars. When I saw that a writer had made the first cut, I was so jealous. I mean, I want to go to Mars, because who wouldn't want to be the first writer on Mars? I mean, talk about leaving behind a legacy of your work! Talk about being remembered! But the problem is, I don't want to live on Mars. I am quite happy in California, where everything is green. And I don't think my husband and son would tag along, which makes it out of the question. But in my next book, there is a character who is searching for intelligent life in the universe. Last year I went to the SETI conference. Bizarre stuff. And yes, I'm obsessed.

What question didn't I ask?

You asked everything, Caroline! 

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