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Lydia Kiesling on her new novel 'Mobility'


Elizabeth "Bunny" Glenn came to adolescence in a place where the beach smelled like oil and the oil smelled like money - Azerbaijan, after the Soviet Union had come apart and global superpowers poured into old Soviet satellites along the Caspian Sea for oil rights and pipeline access. Bunny is the daughter of a diplomat, wry, skeptical, a teenager who often seems more interested in soap operas. How and why does she come to make a life in ways she once disdained in big oil? "Mobility" is the new novel from Lydia Kiesling, author of the acclaimed novel "The Golden State," and she joins us from Portland, Ore. Thanks so much for being with us.

LYDIA KIESLING: Thank you for having me, Scott. I'm thrilled.

SIMON: You're from a foreign service family, too, aren't you?

KIESLING: I am, yes. I grew up in the foreign service, much like Bunny Glenn did.

SIMON: Well, OK, you preempt my next half-question. Where are the resemblances between you and Bunny?

KIESLING: So, you know, I think Bunny and I share some of the same DNA. Our life stories are a little different, but definitely the experience of being a teenager in a place that is unfamiliar to you, surrounded by adult business and feeling a little blase about it.

SIMON: Bunny is much more interested in soap operas than the kind of drama unfolding around her, isn't she? Or is she posing in a sense? She doesn't want to - she's a teen after all. Does she not want to seem too interested?

KIESLING: Well, I think, you know, Bunny's smarter than she gives herself credit for. But yes, she spends a lot of time watching soap operas, reading magazines like Cosmopolitan, scheming about things that she wants to buy, but also watching the people around her and noticing the people around her. And I think teenage girls are much more observant than most people give them credit for. They're a little bit underappreciated. And so Bunny does have these observational powers that I tried to sort of exploit in the novel.

SIMON: Tell me a little bit about the father in this novel. And we should note that your father, John Brady Kiesling, was a diplomat who notably resigned over the invasion of Iraq.

KIESLING: Yes, that is true. So his career and experience was incredibly formative for me and certainly feeds into the material of the novel. I gave Bunny's father a slightly different professional track. And he is in a place at a time when the primary sort of U.S. goal in Azerbaijan was directing and ensuring pipeline access. So this was the time when sort of foreign powers were looking at the way that oil got to different markets from its sources and really doing a lot of horse-trading and scheming about how they could make sure the pipelines went through countries that were amenable to U.S. interests. And so that's a different experience than the experience of my father in the foreign service. But certainly, the writing is informed by what I kind of saw of those years in the '90s and early 2000s.

SIMON: So how does somebody who you think knows the seamy underside of the oil business as well as Bunny become Elizabeth, the young woman who goes into the oil industry?

KIESLING: You know, Bunny's family is from oil country. She's from Texas, the Golden Triangle area. So, you know, oil is part of her background in the novel, although in ways she doesn't really think about. And it is intentionally pretty accidental that she does end up working for a, quote-unquote, "small, family-owned oil company." But over time, you know, she looks around and says, well, this is the ladder I'm on, so I'm going to try and climb it. And she ends up using her own sort of powers of observation and ability to construct narratives, to do storytelling for the oil and gas industry.

SIMON: She tells herself she's making a breakthrough for women in the corridors of power, doesn't she?

KIESLING: Yes, absolutely. And I think that's something really important about the oil and gas industry, the energy industry, is that, you know, many industries are male dominated, but oil and gas really stands out as being especially male dominated. And, you know, women have worked very hard, you know, at all levels to make a space for themselves in that industry. So that is a way that Bunny sort of says, OK, well, there is a struggle here that I can be part of. But that also means for her, sort of willfully like putting on some blinkers about the broader struggle of how oil and gas should or should not fit into our current world.

SIMON: What was it like for you to spend time in Bunny's mind and heart?

KIESLING: It was interesting. So there were things that Bunny and I have in common. I'd say, you know, as she progressed into adulthood, she and I did deviate more and more. And there were times when, you know, I'd be writing her and saying, OK, well, now, Bunny, you don't have to do this. But, you know, as a novelist, the narrative challenge was, you know, having a character who sort of maintains this state of sort of willful obliviousness in a lot of ways because if Bunny was going to suddenly wake up and say, no, I'm going to now, you know, crusade for climate justice - that's what I hope people will do in real life, but this is a novel, and I was sort of interested in looking at complicity and sort of a longer scale. And so, yes, that was definitely a challenging experience.

SIMON: It struck me as I turned over the last page, this is a particularly appropriate time for your novel to come out, this summer with unprecedented heat.

KIESLING: Yes. You know, I live in Portland, Ore., and two years ago we had the Pacific Northwest heat wave. It was 116 degrees here in the foggy Northwest. And that was a very formative experience as I was in the writing process of this book, was just seeing what heat looks like in a place that is completely unprepared for it.

SIMON: Yeah. "Mobility," the title, suggests Bunny - Elizabeth's mobility, I guess, but also kind of underscores what's got us into trouble, doesn't it?

KIESLING: Absolutely. And, you know, I have to thank my wonderful agent, Claudia Ballard, for that title. So, you know, there's the obvious kind of echo of ExxonMobil. Then, you know, there is, as you say, Bunny's mobility, what her class and race and demographic allows her to do. And then mobility - yeah, I mean, it's a way to talk about how fossil fuels move through our world, whether on tankers, through pipelines. And then also, they enable a kind of mobility in the form of, obviously, cars, planes, so I think it's a really kind of suggestive word that works very well in thinking about the ways that fossil fuels are kind of intimately tied up in life.

SIMON: Lydia Kiesling - her new novel, "Mobility." Thank you so much for being with us.

KIESLING: It was truly a pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.