A Conversation with Céline Keating


Q: You’ve described your novel by saying that “Layla is the story of a young woman whose journey forward is through the past.” What drew you to telling a story about this period through the perspective of someone too young to have experienced it?

A: I wanted to write a book set in the political milieu of the 1960s for many years but hesitated because writing fiction with political themes can be so tricky. I feared I wouldn’t be able to capture the times in an authentic way, but I still read avidly about the period. I was fascinated by a profile in The New Yorker magazine about Katherine Ann Powers, an antiwar radical who became a fugitive and lived a secret life, and the deep psychological toll it took on her. In 2003, when Kathy Boudin, a member of the radical group the Weatherman, was released from prison and there was a firestorm of reaction, I realized that the events and repercussions of the antiwar period were still potent for many people.

Then, one day in a conversation about disagreements I had with my mother over politics, a friend asked how I thought I would feel if I had a daughter who had ultraconservative political views. The question stopped me in my tracks. I’m not a parent, but I realized how painful it would be for me to understand a child with different values from my own.

Somehow, as I reflected on this, the story of Layla emerged. But I chose not to tell the story from the point of view of the mother I might have been. It was Layla’s voice I heard, and it felt challenging and exciting to tell the story from the point of view of an imaginary child. Meanwhile, it was really fun to invent a holier-than-thou mother (me) and poke a little fun at her.

My hope is that the themes of Layla will resonate not only with the idealists of the ’60s and ’70s but also with those who are discovering their own forms of activism in light of that legacy. 

Q: How would characterize that legacy?

A: For the millions of baby boomers, the period called “the Sixties” (the decade running roughly from the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 to the mid-1970s and the end of the Vietnam War) was the defining period in their lives, the time when their identities were forged. Did they march against the war? Burn their draft cards? Did they join SDS or SNCC or the Black Panthers, start a woman’s consciousness-raising group, dance naked at Woodstock?

In an essay for the New York Times Sunday magazine, David Oshinsky wrote that those involved in the struggles of the ’60s found their identities marked for the rest of their lives by the stands they took on poverty, war, free speech, and human rights, as well as the lifestyle choices they made. “The greatest sin,” he said, “was to have passed through the decade with an empty slate. . . . It is not surprising that so many of us, even the spectators, look back longingly to these years. To stay connected to the ’60s is to bear witness . . . to an era of turbulent action and unfulfilled dreams.”

Writing Layla gave me a chance to look back on the ’60s with some perspective.

Q: Layla, though, is far from a polemic. Instead, it’s a very intimate look at growing up, falling in love, and learning who to trust and what to value. The relationships you explore—particularly as Layla comes to terms with her father’s past—are very moving. Your father died when you were very young. Did that experience influence this book?

A: Layla is searching on a conscious level for her father, but on an unconscious level she is looking for her own values and sense of self. I didn’t realize something parallel was going on in me on an unconscious level as well. I probably heard Layla’s voice because like her, I, too, was searching for a “missing” father. In my case, my father truly was dead, but he’d died too young for me to know him. So I created in Layla’s situation a reverse of my own. As it turned out, I did revisit more than just my political past in writing Layla, but I wasn’t in the least conscious of it as I was writing. 

Q: You’ve also mentioned that shortly after your father died, you discovered a novel about the American Revolution that not only helped you through that tough period, but inspired a life devoted to fiction and politics as well.

A: That’s true. And many years later, after I told my husband that anecdote, I came home to discover a hardcover copy of the book—one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received. 

I do believe, as Barbara Kingsolver has written, that fiction is an extraordinary tool for creating empathy and compassion, and hence for changing the world.