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'All of My Novels Begin by Asking the Question, "What if?" - Meeting 'Golden State' Author Michelle Richmond

14/01/2014 15:11 GMT | Updated 15/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Golden State is a powerful, mesmerizing new novel that explores the intricacies of marriage, family, and the profound moments that shape our lives.

Infused with emotional depth and poignancy, Golden State takes readers on a journey over the course of a single, unforgettable day--through an extraordinary landscape of love, loss, and hope.

I caught up with the book's author, Michelle Richmond, last week to talk secession and forgiveness.

I'd like to start the interview by asking you about your decision to set Golden State against the backdrop of California's possible secession from the United States. What was your inspiration?

The topic of secession pops up fairly frequently in the US. Texas has been threatening to secede forever, but there has also been talk of secession by New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and California. California has a massive economy and is often politically at odds with the rest of the country.

So the secession talk from this coast is often driven by economics, as well as by differences of opinion on things like gun control, the environment, and gay marriage. California also donates far more money to the federal government than it receives in services, so there is a sense of dissatisfaction with the draining of wealth from the state. This satisfaction is heightened during times of war and political unrest. In the novel, the dissatisfaction has reached a boiling point.

I was particularly inspired by the idea that things that seem impossible or absurd can actually come to pass fairly quickly. In California, it takes a relatively small number of signatures to get an initiative on the ballot.

I began working on this book in 2008. At the time, a lot of people told me, "It could never happen." They thought the premise of the book was too unrealistic. But in the past few months, secession talk from various states has frequently been front page news. As the novel goes to press, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur is trying to garner support for a petition to split California up into six states--not secession, but a radical redrawing of our boundaries and of the nation's political map. It's absurd, yes, but it is also quite possible.

All of my novels begin by asking the question, "What if?" In this case, the question was, "What if secession really did make it to the ballot?"

The novel is also the story of a personal rift. Julie, the Veterans Administration doctor who is the center of the novel, is going through a divorce. Secession seemed the ideal backdrop against which to set this other rift. What holds us together? What breaks us apart? What happens when the desire to disconnect is stronger than the desire to stay together?

How did you manage the switch between the national crisis you portray and the personal drama, Julie's story, at the heart of the novel?

This was a challenge. It felt important to get the national crisis on the page within the first few chapters. In order for the reader to buy the idea of the secession vote, I felt that I had to make a strong argument for how California found itself in this position. The reader needs to buy into the vote in order to be fully invested in the story. But I also wanted it to be clear from the beginning that there was a very human center to this story--Julie, who is repairing her estranged relationship with her sister at the same time that her marriage is breaking apart.

The hostage crisis taking place in the hospital where Julie works is also a way of marrying the personal and the political. Dennis, the man who is holding people hostage at the Veterans Administration hospital, is a war veteran and a former friend of Julie. We learn that he came back from the war deeply changed, as so many of our veterans do. He has fought for his country, and now his country seems to be falling apart. He is a snapshot of the human consequence of the choices we make as a nation. Why do we send our people into these conflicts, and how do we care for them when they return? How seriously do we take the act of sending individuals to war?

Was it always important for you in writing the book to have Julie, with her deep South background, facing the her challenges in the 'new-world' San Francisco?

Yes, it was.

San Francisco is a place where people go to reinvent themselves. What has always been very appealing to me about the city is its openness and acceptance. Julie grew up in poverty in Mississippi, and California represents to her what it represents to so many Americans--a golden ideal, a possibility of change, a chance for reinvention. In San Francisco, no one knows her. She can make it on her own merit.

The deep South vs. California is a recurring theme in my books. The narrator of The Year of Fog, Abby, grew up, like I did, on Alabama's Gulf Coast. Rural Mississippi is a step into the far deeper South, where my parents were born and raised and where my extended family still lives. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher who performed baptisms in the river. As a child, we frequently visited Mississippi.

To the outside world, Alabama and Mississippi may seem very similar, but as a child of suburban Alabama, rural Mississippi was like a different world. Alabama plays a big part in three of my previous books. This time, I wanted to go deeper into the South, to highlight the change that Julie undertakes when she sets out to become a new person.

Is Julie's journey a mirror of your own?

No, Julie's journey doesn't really mirror my own. Although Julie, like me, leaves the South for San Francisco, Julie lost her father at a young age and grew up in poverty; she felt that reinvention was necessary to break out of the circumstances of her childhood. I had a pretty normal middle-class upbringing in a home with two hard-working, loving parents. When we visited San Francisco on a family vacation when I was 13, I fell in love with the city and vowed to live there one day. Eleven years later, in graduate school, I man a fellow from San Francisco, and, as luck would have it, fell in love with him. After a detour to New York City, we ended up together (and married) in San Francisco.

I also have sisters, but my sisters are nothing like Heather, the difficult sister from whom Julie is estranged.

The aspect of the novel for which I drew most from my own experience is Julie's relationship with Ethan. When I began writing the novel almost six years ago, my son was three years old. In the book, I tried to capture the sweetness of that time together, the intensity and wonder and love of being mother to a small child.

Taking the events of the book into consideration, how important do you think forgiveness is?

I think forgiveness is important, and certainly, it can lift a heavy burden for both sides. But there's no hard and fast rule; whether or not forgiveness can be achieved is such a deeply personal decision. In the news, one sees stories of parents who have forgiven their children's murderers, which to me is the ultimate test of forgiveness. I admire those parents, but it would be unfair to say that it is somehow their duty to forgive.

Julie is faced with the choice of whether or not to forgive her sister for the thoughtless act that turned Julie's life, and the lives of her husband and child, upside down. I was interested in the act of forgiveness within a family, when a very close bond between two people is shattered. How long does it take to get to the point of forgiveness? Does the sisters' shared history make forgiveness more difficult or more inevitable?

What are the next steps on your writing journey?

I have completed a draft of my next novel, which is a literary thriller that draws from my experience as the spouse of an FBI agent. My first story collection in 13 years, Hum, will be released later this year. And I'm eagerly anticipating a film adaptation of The Year of Fog, which is currently in the works. I feel very fortunate to be living my dream of being a writer--a dream that I had as a child--and I just hope to keep writing for a very long time!

A labor of literary love I have on the side is called Fiction Attic Press, a very small press through which I publish fiction and memoir by new and emerging writers.Through Fiction Attic, I hope to return some of that good will to writers who are just starting out.

Golden State by Michelle Richmond is published by Random House USA on February 6th

http://michellerichmond.com/