Can politics, fiction and podcasting mesh? Lydia Kiesling and Crooked Media give it a try

Lydia Kiesling teamed up with Crooked Media's publishing division for her politically infused second novel, "Mobility."
(Erica J Mitchell Photographer)

On the Shelf


By Lydia Kiesling
Crooked Media: 368 pages, $28

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“No one knows how to sell books,” says Lydia Kiesling. “It’s all a complete mystery, and everyone’s trying all of these new things all the time.”

Kiesling, speaking via video chat from Greece, where her father lives, is an accomplished novelist. Her debut, 2018’s “The Golden State,” earned her a “5 Under 35” honor from the National Book Foundation. Her second novel, “Mobility,” out next week, is an emotionally and geopolitically savvy coming-of-age story about Elizabeth (a.k.a. Bunny), who personifies America’s evolving reliance on oil. Bunny is the well-off daughter of a diplomat; she and her peers “were not accustomed to thinking of themselves as people who had responsibilities to be bad or good.” “Mobility” is in large part an object lesson about the cost of that self-delusion, which makes it a fresh experiment in political fiction.

It’s also a fresh experiment in book publishing. “Mobility” is the first book out from Crooked Media Reads, a partnership between Crooked Media, the L.A.-based producer of a host of investigative and left-leaning commentary podcasts, and Zando, a 3-year-old publisher built around book imprints branded by celebrities (Sarah Jessica Parker’s SJP Lit, John Legend’s Get Lifted Books, Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Books and more).


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Which is to say that “Mobility” arrives pre-branded as a work of literary fiction with a political message — two things that don’t always comfortably mesh. But one of the novel’s key inspirations, Kiesling notes, was a product of that commingling. During road trips from her former home in San Francisco to L.A., Kiesling (who now lives in Portland, Ore.) would listen to an audiobook of “Oil!,” a 1927 novel by Upton Sinclair about the scion of a California oil tycoon nicknamed Bunny. (The book loosely inspired Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film, “There Will Be Blood.”)

"Mobility," by Lydia Kiesling
(Crooked Media Reads/Zando Books)

Through Sinclair, a socialist firebrand best known for his polemical 1906 novel, “The Jungle,” Kiesling found a way into writing an individual story through a global lens. As a teen in Azerbaijan, Kiesling’s Bunny eavesdrops on chatter about oil companies scrambling for position in the post-Soviet state; later, in Texas, she becomes enmeshed in a small energy firm’s dubious involvement with renewables. Bunny thrives there, but her success mainly turns her into a cog in a machine that relegates women to PR duties on greenwashing campaigns.

“Bunny is used as a vehicle for all of this information about the broader world Sinclair was trying to explore,” Kiesling says. “I was interested in what that looks like in the late ‘90s or early 2000s when someone like Bunny, from a particular class and demographic — there are many things conspiring to keep her ignorant, and it becomes very easy for her to stay that way.”

“Mobility” reflects a wealth of research into oil-based geopolitics — the acknowledgments section includes a hefty reading list — but much of Kiesling’s process involved stripping back the poli-sci elements and keeping Bunny at the story’s center. The process was sparked when she picked up Steve LeVine’s “The Oil and the Glory,” a 2007 account of power plays in post-Soviet oil fields. “This is such an amazing backdrop for any novelist,” she recalls thinking. ‘Why aren’t there 50 novels about this? I have to write the Great Oil Novel!”

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Originally, “I had in my mind the idea that I wanted to write a book that was like the [Hilary Mantel] “Wolf Hall” trilogy, but about oil people. And I do think someone should do that. But not me.”


In conversation, Kiesling is constantly referencing literary fiction in which characters are jostled by politics, subtly or overtly — not just Sinclair and Mantel but Shirley Hazzard and Jonathan Franzen. When the editor of “The Golden State,” Emily Bell, moved to Zando, Kiesling realized it was a natural place for a novel in that tradition. Zando CEO Molly Stern, who shepherded books like Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” while at Crown Books, has long been committed to serious nonfiction about social issues.

Three young men stand in front of a wall decorated with newspapers.
“Pod Save America” co-hosts and Crooked Media co-founders Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor and Jon Favreau. Lydia Kiesling’s new novel represents Crooked Media’s first foray into book publishing.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Stern said during an interview that she saw “Mobility” as a high-literary way to get at serious topics: “I finished this book — as a longtime publisher of fiction as well as nonfiction — thinking, I have looked into a mirror in a way I have never quite done before. We feel as you’re reading that Bunny, with all of her strengths and weaknesses, is absolutely one of the most recognizably complicit young women of the modern era.”

Crooked Media CEO Lucinda Treat says that even though the imprint was conceived as a nonfiction outlet, the book fits well with its larger mission. “We’re focused on trying to figure out how to get the political and the personal connected into action,” she says. “‘Mobility,’ in that context, makes a lot of sense, even though it’s a fiction narrative.”

Of course, synergies abound as a result of the partnership. Her July 27 event at Dynasty Typewriter will be a recorded conversation with Crooked Media co-founder Tommy Vietor; other podcast appearances are on tap; and the book is promoted heavily on the company’s newsletters and other outlets.


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Stern says the partnership simply helps with promotion. “If we weren’t publishing this with Crooked, we would be at pains to communicate the deeper layers and intentions of the novel,” she explains. “What makes it an easy sell is because Crooked’s hunger and clarity around exactly the issues she takes up as a novelist is the red meat of their business.”

Kiesling acknowledges some early skittishness about the risk of “Mobility” being promoted solely as an advocacy novel. “The way I’ve reconciled it with myself is that whatever they call the book doesn’t change what the book is,” she says. “It does affect who might pick up the book and who will choose to read it, but I trust that they’re not going to try to turn me into a hashtag. It will be allowed to exist as a piece of literary fiction, not something to be read for, ‘Here’s the takeaway.’”

“Mobility’s” chief virtue is the slipperiness and occasional unlikability of Bunny: A shallow and aimless adolescent, she matures into a professional closer to the center of the industry’s inner circles. Only so mature, though; one theme of the novel is that some industries are determined to sustain a level of blissful ignorance and powerlessness.

“Some readers will not like her at all, and others will perhaps like her too much, but that was something I wanted to play with,” Kiesling says. “I’m very interested to see how it takes on its own life outside of my hands.”


Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”