Kaira Rouda’s eyes twinkle when she talks about the domestic-suspense novels for which she’s quickly gaining a reputation. The Laguna Beach author lights up on the topic of her latest, “The Favorite Daughter,” about a manipulative Orange County wife and mother. It has received early praise in a trade magazine as an “exceptional psychological thriller.” “Suspense fans will be amply rewarded,” the critic concluded.
“This is my first starred review in Publishers Weekly, and it came out of the blue, which is even better because I wasn’t worried about it ahead of time,” she says. “That was awesome.”
Rouda’s enthusiasm extends to a lot in life. Over lunch at a favorite bistro in Newport Beach, she’s ebullient and discursive whether the subject is the restaurant’s delicious lentil soup, her two spoiled rescue dogs, or the game she played when her kids were little called “I Spy Sexism” to teach them about the importance of feminism. Her default mode is sunny and constructive.
So it’s jarring that her tone shifts suddenly when talk turns to politics. “The bad part is watching people say bad things about your spouse all through the campaign. Because Harley is not shady. Let’s just put it out there. He’s clumsy. He can break things sometimes. He’s not shady. That’s the hard part.”
Her husband, Rep. Harley Rouda, defeated 30-year incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in November to represent Orange County’s 48th District. He won despite the attack ads accusing him of being “shady” and untruthful. He thought they were funny; she, obviously, did not.
The campaign is long over, but the author is still adjusting to her new role in the public spotlight. It’s an honor to be a congressional spouse, and it opens up a new world in Washington, D.C., she says, sounding upbeat again. Still, you can’t help but wonder whether the politician’s wife can stay fearless and uncensored as a thriller writer who revels in exposing our darkest impulses.
She jokes that her work unnerves her daughter. “She says, ‘Mom, you’ve got to stop writing about these dark characters. Mom, can you write something light again?’ But to me, it’s almost cathartic. These people exist. They’re all around us.”
Kaira always dreamed of becoming a writer. She wrote her first book in fifth grade, a tale “with the riveting title, ‘Scooter and Skipper.’ ” The school librarian had it laminated and put it in the library, sealing the deal.
Her father was a marketing professor, her mother was a stay-at-home mom, and Kaira (it’s CARE-ah) grew up in college towns around the country. “I was born while he was at Northwestern and then my sister was born at USC. My brother was born at UT Austin, we got our first dog at Harvard and then settled in Columbus, Ohio, when he got his teaching gig at Ohio State.”
She quips that she earned her MBA at the family dinner table, but she actually studied English literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. When she moved back to Columbus after college, she went to work at a business publication as a reporter covering advertising.
She met her future husband when she was sent to write about an event sponsored by the law firm he worked for. “I go to this event as a cub reporter, and I see this guy across the room. And I think, he’s kinda cute, and my friend says, ‘Let’s go talk to him.’ ”
When the pair got serious, she made it clear to him that she intended to make her home in California, where her parents were born and reared. “He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, just give me a couple of years to get my law business going.’ Twenty years later, we were still in Columbus.”
During those decades, they raised their children: daughter Avery, now 26, a screenwriter, and sons Trace, 27, and Shea, 24, both in commercial real estate, and Dylan, 22, a singer-songwriter. Kaira continued to work as a writer and in marketing, including a stint as a vice president of Stanley Steemer, the Ohio-based carpet-cleaning company. In the late ’90s, the couple started their own company, Real Living, a residential real estate brand that expanded into 22 states before its sale to Berkshire Hathaway.
In a neat act of personal rebranding, she published her first book, “Real You Incorporated: 8 Essentials for Women Entrepreneurs,” an inspirational and motivational guidebook for women that took her on a national tour in 2008.
She also made time for volunteer work, founding Central Ohio’s first emergency walk-in shelter for homeless families.
“The saddest part is if you’re a homeless family, your family is the only thing you have left intact. (But) the father and the boys over 16 will be sent to the men’s shelter, and the mom and the younger kids will be sent to the women’s shelter, and you’re separating the family. That was unacceptable,” she says.
So how did she get it all done?
“I guess you just have one life, and you have to make the most of it. The through-line is if I get touched by something, and I have the capacity to help change it, I want to. There’s so much to be done; you have to carve out your place.”
Rouda followed the success of her nonfiction book with a string of novels aimed at a female readership, including “Here, Home, Hope” in 2011 and “The Goodbye Year” in 2016. She was rewriting one of her “sweet women’s” novels a couple of years ago when a male character invaded her imagination.
Arrogant, conniving Paul Strom is an advertising executive who appears to have it all—great career, beautiful wife, two thriving sons, suburban home in a wealthy enclave, and plans for the perfect getaway with his wife at their lake cottage. But as Strom narrates the events of a weekend, the reader begins to wonder what he really has in mind. Rouda raced through the first draft in about two months; she called it “Best Day Ever.”
The twisted, unreliable narrator resonated with editors at Graydon House, who signed the author to a two-book contract and positioned her as the breakout star of its new line of edgy page-turners.
Her agent, Meg Ruley, says her voice stands out: “She actually manages to walk the very fine line between suspense and comedy. It’s amazing to me. It’s a domestic drama, but she definitely has the gift of being able to inject a level of humor into it. I can’t think of another suspense writer I could say that’s true of.”
The Roudas moved to Southern California, settling first in Malibu and then in Laguna Beach in 2011. She set her second thriller in her new hometown. Again, it features an unreliable narrator with a seemingly perfect life, only this time, she’s a wife, mother, and former actress named Jane Harris who has spent a year grieving for her daughter, the victim of a tragic accident.
Jane believes she’s ready to reenter daily life in her gated beachfront community: “I look almost normal for a mom around here: Mindful. Meditative. Wholesome. I’m a poster child for healthy living.”
If that sounds slightly snarky, so be it. “I do write about privileged places, whether it’s Orange County or the suburbs of Columbus. Wherever there are insular communities—you don’t have to worry about a roof over your head—it does become easier to be careless and only care about the social side of life. I call it caring about the curtains. Caring about the curtains and not caring about the world outside.”
She plans to divide her time between Laguna Beach and Washington, D.C., where the couple leased an apartment. It’s within walking distance of the congressional office building and has a view of the Capitol dome from a window “if you stand on your tippy toes.” At least five other freshman lawmakers have taken apartments in that complex.
“My kids joke that it’s like they sent their parents off to college. They’re like, ‘OK, you guys got your new dorm room, you got your new friends, don’t forget to write!’ ”
The kids are right in the sense that their mom is facing new experiences. She seems to be making the most of it.
She loves to visit the Library of Congress. “It’s spectacular. When I go there next, I’m going to get trained to be able to lead a tour of the whole place. It’s magnificent.” She’s involved with the Library of Congress’ Surplus Books Program, which distributes books to nonprofit groups throughout the country. On her last visit, she loaded up children’s books for Orange County’s Human Options, the shelter and domestic violence-prevention organization.
She’s also excited about bringing the Congressional Art Competition to high school students in the 48th District for the first time. Three top student artists competing in a local contest will receive prize money, and the winner will be invited to a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in June. The winner’s artwork will be displayed in the U.S. Capitol for a year.
“It’s interesting being a political spouse. I’ve never been one before. There aren’t very many rules,” she says.
“As far as threading my career with his career, I love that he really has stepped into what I think he was meant to do all of his life, and I’m really proud of him and happy that he’s accomplishing everything he is. But that said, as probably any of my characters would say, it’s really important for a woman to keep her identity as well. So I plan to keep doing my thing.”