Edan Lepucki’s characters in her debut novel California are living during a time of duress. When I met the author, so was I. Cal and Frida coexist alone in the woods after the collapse of civilization. When Frida gets pregnant they go in search of others, but the community they encounter is full of secrets and peril. My catastrophe occurred when my writing mentor committed suicide. Personally, I was devastated, and professionally, I was lost, until a friend led me to Edan. She gave me a safe place to write again. I signed up for classes with Writing Workshops LA, the company Edan founded and runs from her home in Berkeley. A staff writer at The Millions, she previously published the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me and her stories have appeared in magazines like Narrative and McSweeney’s. While being smart, witty and outgoing, she is kind and generous to emerging writers. I promised Brad Listi this interview would entail “two blonds talking about death and destruction,” since California takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. He was all for it. Don’t tell him, but when Edan came over to my place for Brown Butter Peach Bars (like Frida, I like to impress people with my baking skills), the conversation never grew dark. In fact, we hardly quit laughing. This is that interview.
Elizabeth Gilbert joked that it took her twenty years to become an overnight sensation. You’ve been around for a while. You’ve published a novella and several short stories. When did you first feel like you were a professional writer?
Do I feel like one yet? There were some incremental things that made me feel like I was on my way to being a professional writer. Getting into grad school felt like somebody official was saying to me, “Hey, you should keep writing.” I started sending out stories when I was a senior in college but it took me two years to get my first story accepted to a little magazine. When it came out, I thought, “I’ve got it made now,” and then it took two more years get the second story published! There was a long period when I was writing but mostly teaching. My first novel didn’t sell, and that felt like a setback, but I never thought I’d stop writing. Right now I have a book coming out and people I don’t know are reading it! All that still feels very new to me.
College was at Oberlin. You got your MFA at Iowa. Do you feel like Lena Dunham stole your life story for her character in Girls?
I do! I was very pleased when that plot turn happened. I’m a big fan of Oberlin, I really like the show, and to see that Hannah Horvath got into Iowa thrilled me to no end. My whole life seemed more special because it was suddenly on HBO!
How did your parents feel about you becoming a writer?
They were always supportive. I had friends even at Iowa, which is quote unquote the number one program, who said their parents wished they’d become a doctor or a lawyer. But my parents were always really into my dream of being a writer. My mom is a big reader. My dad is not, but be likes vocabulary books and crossword puzzles, and he loves the idea of one of his kids being a writer. He still asks, “When are you going on David Letterman to talk about your novel?” Do they ever have novelists on Letterman? I don’t think so! I feel very lucky to have parents like mine.
In California you write about a college called Plank. Was Oberlin or Iowa the backdrop for Plank?
Plank was originally inspired by Deep Springs College, which is an all-male two-year college in the valley east of the Sierra Nevadas. I read about it in a New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear, and the school took up a place in my mind. I thought it was amazing and so strange. It’s a super competitive school to get in to. It’s heady and intellectual, but the men who go there also work the farm so they learn about the land and how to raise animals. There’s an ongoing controversy about whether they’ll let women in; I’ve heard they are going to now but I haven’t kept up with the news on that. Plank is based very loosely on Deep Springs, but most of the scenes are pure imagination, with some specifics inspired by my experiences at Oberlin. For instance, there’s a part in the novel where the Plankers knock, as if on an invisible door, to show agreement. At Oberlin, some students eat (and occasionally also live) in co-ops where they cook and serve meals. Co-ops have meetings and such, where they do that very same door-knocking gesture. So that’s a little gem for Oberlin students to find when they’re reading the book.
Was there one teacher at Oberlin who influenced you as writer?
Dan Chaon. He was just terrific. He has inspired me as a teacher as well. He is so committed to his students. When I was his student he was about to publish a second collection, Among The Missing, which went on to become a National Book Award finalist. He showed us proofs of his manuscript and gave us a peek into the publishing life. He’d ask, “When are you going to start submitting? You’re going to graduate school. Where do you want to go?” He just assumed I was going to do all these things, and then I did them. I remember he also once said something like, “Your family is really weird and that’s good.” I’m teary-eyed talking about it because it was so meaningful. He was saying you have a unique point of view. That mattered.
Was there somebody at Iowa you emulated?
I worked with both Margot Livesey and Sam Chang one-on-one for my thesis. They were very supportive, and I learned structure and revision from them. I remember Sam would ask about the order of scenes in a story, or point out a question that was persisting in my character’s mind that I hadn’t quite seen myself or grappled with in the manuscript. She had more abstract ways of approaching a text that I found really useful.
How did you come to the story of California?
There’s always a myth of how books get made after you write them. There are a few different things that informed this novel. The first was a writing exercise that I gave my students: You have a character. There is a surprising secret object he has hidden from other people for some reason. Write a scene where they’re interacting with that object. Randomly, mine was a turkey baster. This woman had it and it wasn’t in the kitchen, so then I had to find out why she had it and what was going on. Another time, I was driving from the UCLA Extension location in downtown LA–going west on Sunset–and the streetlights somewhere between Echo Park and Silver Lake were burnt out. It was really dark on that stretch of Sunset and it was in a place where there weren’t a lot of businesses. It felt really creepy. That got me thinking: What if the streetlights didn’t work anymore ever? How dark would those streets feel? I started to extrapolate from there. Finally, I started the novel—that is, I moved beyond general day dreaming and writing that turkey baster exercise—when I was at Ucross, an artists’ residency in Wyoming. I was recently back at Ucross, for a second time, and I saw just how much I was inspired by that landscape: the wilderness and this feeling of being in the elements. Ucross is on a working cattle ranch, and the artists are always invited to get a tour of the ranch. On this tour, you pass an old stone house that was built by railroad workers long, long ago, as shelter during cold weather. It looks abandoned and scary and it’s got a real ghost town vibe. As soon as I saw it again I knew it had inspired California.
Is there a particular place outside of Los Angeles where Cal and Frida live?
This is a very popular question. I have no idea where they are, which isn’t surprising since I have a horrible sense of direction! When maps were physical, paper objects I had a really hard time reading them—pathetic, I know! Where they settled is not known to me. People want an answer, but I like the idea that they never say where they are and yet the title is a declaration of place.
How did you come up with the title?
I had no title for a long time. I don’t know about you, but if a piece I’m working on doesn’t have a title early on I cannot find one. It was called The Land or just Land, which I liked as a noun and a verb, but I knew that it was boring and nondescript. My agent suggested California. I liked its boldness and as an idea, because California in our imaginations has so many different connotations. People have certain ideas about California, as a place for innovation, or freedom, or worse (I’m thinking of the Dead Kennedys’ song “California Uber Alles” for instance). Also, one of the characters is named Cal, and in college people called him California as a joke. Little, Brown had wanted to change it after they bought the book, but then nobody could come up with a better title, and now people seem to like it.
The book is written through two different points of view, Cal’s, who you mentioned, and Frida’s. How did you decide to do it this way?
Everything else I’d written was in the first person at that point, and I wanted to try to write something in third person. I can’t believe nobody told me not to switch perspectives! The point of view stayed exactly as it was from the very first draft. For some reason, I always knew I wanted both perspectives. With every manuscript some elements are assumed from the get-go, whether it’s length of time or perspectives shifting or tense. Those don’t get changed, ever, and they come easily. POV was one of the only things that seemed to come easily.
How do you decide what pieces of advice to take from your readers?
That’s a good question. With this book I didn’t have very many readers before I sold it. The other book I had that did not sell had many people reading the complete draft. That was too many. Trying to synthesize those notes into one set of revision options was challenging. This time it was only my agent and my husband; a couple of friends read the first hundred pages early on to give me advice when I needed it more. Some of the main suggestions had come from multiple editors before I sold the book and they all said the same things, so I knew those notes were clearly worth listening to. I think you have to decide what you immediately agree with, what you immediately don’t agree with and what you have to mull over for twenty-four hours. Listen to the text and listen to yourself. When I got my editorial letter the main revision note was about cutting or trimming a lot of the flashbacks and adding more world building. I might have cried because I felt like I can’t do this and I don’t have the skills to do this and people were shocked to hear I was going to cut about a hundred pages, but it was so liberating. The flashbacks were my darlings, but I knew they didn’t fit. Suddenly there was all this room in this book to fill. I think one of the joys of revisions, if you allow it to happen, is too reenter the text and realize what questions you yourself have about the characters that you can answer.
TV shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead and the Hunger Games and Divergent films are very popular now. What is the deal with our common desire to imagine journeying a futuristic place without modern conveniences?
Part of me wants to write the sequel to California and part of me finds the future world building and entering that psychic space so difficult. At the same time there is this human longing to investigate the most terrifying of fictive spaces. I’m always interested in this. We need drama; we need to enact it and experience it in safe places: TV, movies, books—in narrative. People ask me, “Do you write from life?” My life is so boring! It’s a great life, but it doesn’t make good fiction. And the things that are good in fiction are not necessarily what you want in your life.
Would you say that’s also why we read?
Zadie Smith said, “Reading is about entering a hypothetical ethical arena.” I like the idea that entering another person’s consciousness allows you to make decisions: if…then. I think that’s a human exercise.
The roles of men and women in California seem to revert backwards. How do you see gender roles playing out in a post-apocalypse?
I was interested in how the end of the world would not erase gender divisions but might magnify them. Just like I don’t think racism would be over. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood is one of my favorite books. Women and women’s bodies and how women conceive of themselves in the world is at the core of a lot of Atwood’s work. That’s interesting to me and part of what I write about. August is the only black character in the text, and I wanted to poke fun at end of the world narratives where there is only one black guy and he always dies. This is also the joke, but it’s a real trope. Race, gender and sexuality would persist in a ruined world. We wouldn’t move beyond these issues.
Yet Cal is always described as a “pussy.” How did you come up with his character?
Another reader told me how angry it made her that Cal protected Frida by not telling her information. She said she found that incredibly sexist. I agree with her on one hand, but I also think Cal was doing that from a purely emotional place, that his reasoning wasn’t because women can’t know dangerous information but more like Frida can’t know dangerous information because she’s his one and only. I think you can read it both ways. His fatal flaw is that he is cowardly in a lot of ways. He has a father who is a farmer, but he was raised by a single mother, who was an artist, and he attended an all-male school. When there are only men around he is not the alpha male. I found his sensitivity lovely but also frustrating at times, because I wanted him to act more. His narrative of trying to overcome that sensitivity and trying to be manly or powerful was a bit of tragedy to me.
It’s funny but I read Cal as the modern male. Guys today don’t want to dominate women but still want to be masculine. I think a lot of them struggle to find a balance.
And how do they do that? I’m raising a son now, and it’s a question I’m interested in. My husband and I both wanted a girl. Then we were having a boy. I didn’t know how to raise a boy. I didn’t know what it would be. For all the messed up gender stereotypes and horrible stuff women have to face, I feel there are multiple ways to enact womanhood. For men it seems trickier. It’s easy if a girl wants to play with trucks, but in some households if a boy wants to wear ballet slippers it’s not okay.
How did you come up with Frida’s character?
People always think Frida is me. She isn’t! Firstly, she is tall! (Though we both have wide hips. Ha.) A lot of people don’t like her and say that she’s annoying. People seem to have different standards about female characters.
I don’t think she is you.
She definitely isn’t like me when she says, “Fuck it. I’m just going to do whatever I want.” She’s a bit selfish. She is kind of spoiled.
Secrets play a role in Cal and Frida’s marriage. I think we have this instinct to maintain an independence from our partners or our family yet we crave intimacy. How did you realize their relationship?
Well, I’m married and my husband and I are very close. I cannot keep a secret, which is funny because a lot of my fiction is about secret keeping. I’m fascinated by secrets, but I will tell you every single thing that I’m thinking at all moments whether you like it or not. That’s how people communicate, right? (Joking.) But I’m interested in how you can talk and talk to someone and still not close the distance between you. When I set out to write the book I just wanted to write about marriage. I wanted to depict a good marriage that is intimate, where the husband and wife are connected, and yet they’re human. There is a messiness that happens when you don’t tell someone something, but does it mean you don’t love them as much? Are they not a good couple? Part of me is insecure that people will read it and think this is a horrible marriage. But in the end, I think the secrets generate the drama.
Frida ponders, “Maybe the one thing that every parent wants is to be a child again, to be taken care of.” I’m not a parent. Is that true?
That was a quote that was maybe going to be revised out of the book, but for me it was important that it remained, because it felt like something extremely true. I wrote that sentence after I had a baby. I thought, if only someone would make dinner and tuck me in tonight. I had very good parents who raised me well, and I want to give that to my child so he doesn’t realize my sacrifices until he is older. I don’t want him to know of my own desire to be taken care of while he is two-years old. I do think there is an American desire for things to be easy, to feel comforted and safe. When Micah comes to the Land, I can understand them accepting anything on his terms because he was going to be the parent. Especially, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you might want to have some person come along and tell you how to take care of yourself and that he’ll keep you safe. That, to me, is very understandable.
Are rules made to be broken, or more specifically, were The Group’s rules made to be broken?
People have said Micah is a monster. I don’t see him that way. I think he has vulnerabilities. He does some monstrous things, but in some ways his arguments make practical sense to me. Why would you want to have children on the Land? There are arguments against having children, even in today’s world, and more so in the world of the book. In some ways that law makes some sense.
Did you set out to write about social consciousness and climate change?
I love The Road. I think it’s a beautiful novel, but I think those books are less scary in some ways because they are so extreme. It’s scarier to think that if we continue on this trajectory…a world like California will become real. Hurricane Sandy hit soon after I sold my book. We’ve just had these terrible fires in San Diego. A number of big natural disasters happened after I sold California that seemed to be a product of climate change. It really scares me. At the same time, I’m not a Margaret Atwood who has a science-oriented mind. I don’t have that expertise, so the story I wrote was more personal: a story of a couple struggling in a worse-off world.
Did you do any research?
I did no research. I’ve been camping twice in my life. My brother read the first finished draft and gave me advice on plants and trees. And I made sure the food they were eating was seasonal based on the timeline. There are not that many details that would require research. I grew up in LA so that was just real. There are some references to the Group’s philosophy, but it’s not a book about the Group, so I didn’t read about terrorist organizations or Occupy Wall Street or 1968 France. I thought about what would make young people revolt. The current conflicts about student loan debt was certainly on my mind, but I made everything up and played pretend.
What is a fiction writer’s job when it comes to consciousness raising?
I think the writer’s allegiance is to the characters. I have my own politics and you can probably guess them from the book, but I tried to make it so nobody came off well. In the beginning, you think only the rich are bad in these Communities, but if you had a child in a dystopian world you might be more willing to set aside your morals to stay alive. When I started the book I wasn’t pregnant, but then I was, and then I became a parent. As the story grew, the Group’s ideals made sense to me. Everyone deserves healthcare and paved roads and all that. But where the Group recruits from is not where you’d expect. I think every side has good and bad strains. When I was in Wyoming, we were talking about fracking. A woman who lives there said she was against it and that the dangers of it seemed stupid, but that eighty percent of her students are able to afford food and a home because of fracking and the energy business. You have to understand you only have one perspective. I can understand how people might do something that’s bad in the long run, but it’s human that they would do it. It’s not because people are horrible—or not always. That’s where those issues get complicated.
How did you decide to become a writing teacher?
I love teaching. I was inspired by so many teachers and I wouldn’t be here today without them. I really like people. I’m very extroverted, but a part of me needs hours of solitude to write. Teaching is the outlet for my extroversion. And I find talking about books really engaging. I like to teach new writers because it’s easy for them to improve. It’s like learning a language; when you don’t know anything about a language just learning something basic, like conversing in the present tense, can rock your world. As for my advanced students, I don’t have any rules or taglines or gems, but we read texts very deeply. We talk about character and language and structure and how it all works together. I was planning a characterization seminar, so I went online to see how other people talk about character and found it so alienating in how formulaic it was. For me, I use textual examples and read my way into understanding craft issues. For me, for instance, character is not only what occurs in the text, but also what is assumed beyond the text, what precedes the story and what follows the story.
Do you have a teaching philosophy?
I tend to like teachers who are with their students rather than above their students. We are all in this together. And I really believe in rigorous workshopping. In my classes we always talk about the deeper subject first, which is something I learned from teachers at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. We talk not about what happens in a story or a novel but about it on a deeper level. It’s respectful to hear that your work has grand themes, and knowing the deeper subject can actually help you make certain decisions. We go into what we liked and enjoyed, but spend the majority of the time discussing what’s not working, what’s confusing and why and how can it be made better. There is a lot of attention paid to revision and rethinking and restructuring. It’s so compelling to have those conversations. I just spent all weekend with my novel students and I learned so much about novel writing from them.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a new book. I have about 150 pages. It’s a first draft of a novel. It’s about women and set in present day. My stories are getting longer and longer. I have a novelistic urge to write bigger.
Where can people learn more about your workshops?
People can sign up for classes at www.writingworkshopsla.com. All the teachers are very different. I let them each do their own syllabus, but I want all the classes to be fun and rigorous at the same time. And we serve snacks!
[Editor’s note: California has been featured on The Colbert Report as a “Colbert Bump” pick, A Barnes & Noble Fall ’14 Discover Pick, Named one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2014 by Huffington Post and The Millions and one of the Summer’s Hottest Reads by the Chicago Tribune, New York Post, New Republic, DeJour, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Time Out Chicago.]