Edan Lepucki Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Edan Lepucki. Edan is the author of the bestselling novel California, an apocalyptic thriller that has received rave reviews. She’s a graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her short fiction has been published in Narrative Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Meridian, Five Chapters, and McSweeney’s, among others. She is a staff writer for the online literary magazine The Millions, and teaches creative writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, which she founded. Hachette Book Group published the audiobook of California, read by Emma Galvin, in July 2014. It is available now on Downpour.com.
MH: Welcome Edan. Thanks for being with us today.
EDAN LEPUCKI: Thank you for having me.
MH: Your novel, California, has become the book of the summer, thanks in part to a callout from author Sherman Alexie on the Colbert Report, during a discussion on the show about how the ongoing dispute between your publisher, Hachette Book Group USA, and Amazon.com has affected new authors. How has your life changed since the Colbert bump?
EL: In some ways it’s changed a lot, and in most ways it hasn’t changed at all. It’s changed in that I got a big book tour, I got to go on national television, which was really exciting. I suddenly have a lot more professional opportunities, and a lot more readers, which is really thrilling. I got to meet a lot of them at various bookstores across the country, which was just the coolest. Apart from that, which is obviously huge and important, my day-to-day life is exactly the same. I have a three-year-old son who really doesn’t care how many books I sell. I’m writing a new book and the writing process doesn’t really care how many books you’ve sold of a previous manuscript. I’m relieved that my everyday life and my artistic process has remained the same in that it’s just me, facing a blank page again, and turning it into a new fictive world. That’s exhilarating and challenging, as it always was.
MH: Might take a few weeks for your signature hand to recover. I seem to recall reading somewhere that you signed something like ten thousand copies of books at Powell’s in Portland, which is almost as much as your initial print run. Is that right?
EL: Yes. My initial print run was twelve thousand and I signed ten, or just under ten thousand in about two days. It surprisingly wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I signed standing up and the people at Powell’s were really efficient, capable booksellers. I had a whole book signing factory going on. I walked around in a circle and they added more and more books to the piles, and the height of the pile never diminished. I just busted it out. It was actually really fun.
MH: During your appearance on the Colbert Report, you were able to call attention to another debut author, Stephan Eirik Clark, author of Sweetness #9. Did it feel good to be able to pay it forward in a way?
EL: Yes. It felt so good. I was so happy to have Sherman Alexie recommend my book and, of course, I was so grateful that my book got that kind of attention, but I also felt guilty because I didn’t want to be the sole beneficiary of this dispute. I know a lot of authors are suffering and I’ve read a ton of great books by Hachette, my publisher, so it was really exciting to take the attention away from me and my book and give it to another author. I was a bookseller for a long time before I published. It felt like a return to my roots, being able to have a staff pick, as it were, and hold up another book. Sweetness #9 is a really terrific, funny, fascinating novel. It’s really different from mine too, so I liked that as well—showcasing a book that is great and also just a departure from what you might think I would recommend. I was happy to do it.
MH: Back to California, though. The publicity around that book has certainly brought out, I’m sure, a lot of welcome attention. The bottom line is that it is a terrific book. Tell us a little bit about the story and what motivated you to write it.
EL: When I first started writing it, I decided I wanted to write a post-apocalyptic domestic drama—that was the phrase that kind of popped into my mind. So that’s the way that I usually pitch it to people when they ask me what it’s about. It’s speculative fiction that takes place about forty years in the future in California. It’s about a husband and wife who flee a devastated LA to live by themselves in the wilderness. The backdrop is the world is ending, or it’s just getting worse, and worse, and worse. But the focus of the novel is really on their relationship. When the novel opens, Frida, the wife, finds out she’s pregnant. It’s about how they decide to leave their isolated existence to go find the nearest settlers, the secrets that they keep from one another, and the things they find in this community of settlers that is surprising and upsetting. It’s a book about who to trust, what intimacy is, human connection, and all that kind of stuff.
MH: Was there something that you discovered about these survivalist groups that are out there—I know they exist in Oregon and other parts of the Northwest—that led you to maybe set this? Or was this something that you created out of whole cloth?
EL: I have no idea what possessed me to write this book. Beyond the post-apocalyptic-domestic-drama sentence that popped into my mind and I really liked, I, for one, don’t even go camping. I’m not outdoorsy in the least, and I didn’t really do any research. Most of my work is very realist and this was the first narrative that I’ve ever tried to write that was set in the future. It was really outside of my wheelhouse, but I think that’s why I was attracted to it. I really was excited by doing something so different. I’m not much of a researcher as a writer. I tend to play pretend and make everything up. In revision, that’s when a lot of the more logical, research-oriented, fact-checking stuff has to come in for me.
MH: I understand that California is your first published novel. I think it’s your second novel that you’ve written, but you’ve mostly published short fiction before, right? What was it like making that transition to the longer form?
EL: I have another novel that never got published. I call it my practice novel, or my dress rehearsal novel. When I started writing that novel previously and writing California, I realized that the novel, as a form, I’m much more suited to. I enjoy reading short stories, but I can’t say I really enjoy writing them. I didn’t realize I didn’t enjoy writing them until I began working on longer stories, like working on novels. I just really love the expansiveness of the form, the freedom of the form, the ability to do flashbacks, and to really consider pacing in a larger way—in a more expansive way. In many ways, novel writing was a lot easier for me than the short stories that I wrote. Although, I will say, novels take a lot longer commitment. They take a lot more time to write, so you have to find the right material and the right characters that you actually want to hang out with for years at a time. Stories you can write in a day, or a month, or a couple months, so there’s not as much commitment. On a pleasure level, I just think that novels are so much more fun to write.
MH: When did you first start writing?
EL: I’ve always written, or at least I wanted to be a writer even before I actually wrote. I guess I’ve always wanted to be a writer as soon as I started reading, I think. I just loved to read and I wanted to do what those writers had done. I started writing in elementary school, obviously not seriously. I started to take it seriously in high school; I wrote poetry. Then, in college I majored in English and creative writing and at Oberlin they have a dedicated creative writing major in its own department, with a lot of really terrific teachers. This author, Dan Chaon, who wrote the story collection Among the Missing and the novel Await Your Reply, among other books, became my mentor and really encouraged me to pursue it more seriously. From then on, from college on, I was writing fiction and really into it. The only goal I’ve ever had was to be a writer and I’ve been working toward that, I guess, since, you could say, I was five or, you can say, since I was seventeen. I don’t know, but for a long time.
MH: It seems like every writer has to have that mentor that says, “You can do this. You could be really good at that,” and it sounds like he was that person. Are you still in contact with him? Do you still run your stuff by him?
MH: I don’t send him my work, only because I recognize that he has many students who attend college and are paying to attend college, and he’s getting paid to read their work, so I don’t try to bother him with my work. Although, I sometimes email him for advice. He did read my novel and he gave it a very lovely blurb. I’m going with him to do a reading at Oberlin and I’m really excited to see him. I respect him so much as an artist and as a teacher. Since I’m a teacher now, I agree with you that those mentorships are so important to new and young writers. To believe that somebody cares, that someone is reading your work, giving you strong advice and useful, thoughtful criticism I think is really important.
MH: In addition to writing, you do teach. As you said, you teach writing workshops at UCLA, and then you established Writing Workshops Los Angeles. What made you decide to go into teaching?
EL: I love to teach. I think it’s partly because I’m a really big extrovert. I’m quite a showboat in person. I think it satisfies that part of my personality—to be among people and conversation—that writing doesn’t. Writing is such a practice in introversion in some ways. You have to go inside yourself and be focusing really deeply. You have to be alone in a room for hours and be okay with that. I like that, but there’s another side of me that loves to be among other people, among other readers. I knew I always wanted to teach. When I graduated from Iowa, there weren’t very many opportunities for me to teach because I hadn’t published a book. I thought, “Oh, I’ll just teach a class at my apartment.” I think there’s pure hubris in the idea that I could have my own workshop from my home. But that’s what I did. I started this company, Writing Workshops LA, which enabled me to get eight writers in my living room with some wine, some sparkling water, maybe some cookies. That was so helpful to me in learning to write novels—just talking about fiction and craft with them. It helped me to understand what I was trying to do artistically, and also teaching at UCLA, of course, really strong students there as well. I’m happy that teaching is an outlet for me, for my big personality.
MH: I suspect, as a teacher, you’re often trying to develop in your students or encourage them to find their own voice as a writer. When did your own voice, your unique voice, emerge?
EL: I don’t know. It’s a really hard question. I have a student, Melissa Chadburn. If you’re listening, Melissa, “Hello.” She always talks about something a teacher said to her, that when a true, strong voice emerges on a page, it has the sound of castanets in the reader’s ear. I think that’s true. When you’re reading, especially as a teacher, you’re reading a student’s work and something really pure and exciting bounds off the page. It’s this click-click-click of energy as if there are castanets in your ear. I try, with my students, to point that out when I recognize that on the page because I’ve had it done for me from other teachers. At the same time, I’m not really sure where my voice came from or when it emerged. I also think voice continually emerges, that our voice isn’t really a static thing. It can change depending on what we’re reading, or what is going on in our lives, or, in particular, what book we’re writing. My voice might sound one way working on California and differently working on my novella, for instance. I’m kind of interested in the voice being a living organism. And that makes following writers over the course of their career thrilling, I think.
MH: What are the books on your night table right now that you’re reading?
EL: I just finished the new Tana French, The Secret Place. I’m really excited to read another apocalyptic novel by a fellow Millions staff writer, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I want to read Marlon James’ book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which starts in 1970s Jamaica, if I’m correct. But I loved his other book, his previous novel, The Book of Night Women. Those are the books that I’m most excited about. Right now, I’m reading a lot of books to blurb them, to kind of pay it forward in that regard. I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about those because I haven’t started reading them and their not out, so I don’t want to tease the readers listening. I have to say Margaret Atwood, for sure. I love The Handmaid’s Tale; it’s probably my favorite novel. I also love her realist, droll novels as well. Jennifer Egan I’m an enormous fan of. I really love Look at Me. Of course, I love A Visit from the Goon Squad, but Look at Me was the first novel of hers that I read and I just found it so ambitious, utterly readable and addictive. I recently got on an Edith Wharton kick. I read The Age of Innocence a while back, but I read The House of Mirth and it totally blew my mind. I just finished Custom of the Country and I fell in love. I love her unlikable, complicated female heroines. I think they’re terrific. John Williams, I believe he has three novels, but I’ve only read one—it’s one of my favorite novels. It’s called Stoner and that’s a history of one man, normal guy, college professor’s life. It’s just an utterly heartbreaking novel. Edward P. Jones, who wrote The Known World about black slave owners in Antebellum, Virginia. I love his prose style. He writes in this beautiful omniscient, almost biblical voice that I would never try myself, so I love to kind of dive into it as a reader. I think it’s magnificent.
MH: Tell us something more about yourself. Your website says you like books, as we can tell, dancing, and filling out forms. Okay, I’m guessing only two of those three are true, but correct me if I’m wrong.
EL: They’re all true. I actually love to fill out forms. Nowadays, we don’t get to fill out that many forms. I think it’s really relaxing. When I was a child I used to collect little magazine subscription forms that are always falling out of your copy of the New Yorker. I used to keep them in a shoe box and sometimes I would go sit in my closet and fill them out. I don’t know why, but there’s something pleasing. You know all the answers, I guess, and you just continue copying down your address in the little brackets. That is a true pastime of mine. Dancing is a love of mine. I studied ballet and modern dance for a long time, and I was in a hip-hop dance group in college. I love to dance. I just met someone who doesn’t like to dance and I kept asking her questions because I couldn’t believe it. I felt like she was an alien from another planet. I can’t imagine somebody not hearing a song and being moved to move. I find it mysterious that one wouldn’t love dancing, at least privately.
MH: Have you had a chance to hear Emma Galvin’s narration of California, the audiobook narration?
EL: My husband and I put it on in the car. It’s so funny because it’s dedicated to my husband. It says, “For Patrick,” and we’re listening to it and it says, “For Patrick.” Even my son, who’s only three, we all gasped. It was too funny. We listened to it for about two minutes and then I had to turn it off because it was a little bit too weird to have somebody else reading my book. I’ve heard this from so many authors, so I know I’m not alone. It was almost like an out-of-body experience to hear my book being read aloud by somebody who’s not me. I’m not saying it was a bad read or anything. It just was too strange. I guess it was also exciting. To have an audiobook felt very special, but I had to turn it off.
MH: Like hearing a pop song on the radio that you wrote. Do you listen to audiobooks?
EL: I have before. I don’t drive now really much at all and I have a son, so if I’m cooking, he’s here and he wants to talk to me or he has something else going on. I do have a very strong memory of listening to the audio of Truth and Beauty, the memoir by Anne Patchett, which is about her friend, Lucy, when they went to Iowa. I listened to it the first weekend I was in Iowa. My husband wasn’t there yet, there was no phone or Internet hooked up, no TV, and I didn’t know anyone in Iowa City. I remember lying on the living room floor, listening to this audiotape for hours. I have such a visceral memory of that book. I think because I listened to it that way, or I consumed it that way. It was a special memory for me.
MH: Well, I hope you find your way back to listen to the entire audiobook soon because it’s really good.
EL: Thank you. I have heard from readers and they’re the ones that matter, not the weird author hang-up listen. Mine doesn’t matter at all.
MH: This has been delightful talking with you today, Edan. Thanks so much. Best of luck in the future with California and whatever comes next.
EL: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Edan Lepucki. You can find the audiobook of Edan’s novel, California, for download or on CD at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in October 2014.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable despite the isolation and hardships they face. Consumed by fear of the future and mourning for a past they can’t reclaim, they seek comfort and solace in one another. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant.
Terrified of the unknown but unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses its own dangers. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.
A gripping and provocative debut novel by a stunning new talent, California imagines a frighteningly realistic near future, in which clashes between mankind’s dark nature and irrepressible resilience force us to question how far we will go to protect the ones we love.