Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 7.37.52 AMEdan 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.

It seems everyone I encounter in literary circles has had a Cheryl Strayed moment, a moment in which something Strayed has written, as the author of Wild or as The Rumpus’ dispenser of hard truths – “Dear Sugar,” has deeply resonated. For me, it would have to be this “Dear Sugar” response:

“Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

It’s a quote I’d passed along to my creative nonfiction students one semester with my demure modification, “write like a mother fudgsicle.” But that’s what poises Strayed’s work for maximum impact. She doesn’t modify or shy away. She tells it like it is.  And Strayed’s circle of influence is rapidly widening as a result.

This week, Girls’ writer/director/actress Lena Dunham went on NPR’s Fresh Air to address criticisms that the show is a particularly whitewashed view of entitled twenty-something women emotionally adrift in New York City.  Even before the show aired on HBO, Girls had garnered a tremendous amount of buzz as a series helmed, for a change, by a woman.  Just a few episodes in, the buzz erupted in debate on Girls’ representations of gender, class, and race as well as its worthiness of being the focus of so much debate to begin with.

 

Please explain what just happened.

There was a Big Bang, Elvis died, and then Obama tripled the deficit.

What is your earliest memory?

My ears scraping across a birth canal.

If you weren’t an actor/writer/director/producer, what other profession would you choose?

One that pays.

I was just about to hit the spam button when I took a closer look at the e-mail subject line: “Location Scout for HBO.”

I opened the e-mail and saw that it was for real. Someone named Susan said HBO was looking for a farmhouse for a new pilot starring Tea Leoni and Hope Davis. Having read my Burb Appeal column, she said, she thought my 150-year-old farmhouse might be a good fit.

Remember the movie “Indecent Proposal” when Demi Moore sleeps with Robert Redford for $1 million? That’s how I felt. An HBO shoot for a week can net $20,000, plus relocation fees. I could pay down debt, plump up my daughter’s college fund, build a little writing studio on my property. Oh, the euphoria of such unexpected treasure!

Then my husband reminded me that I am the most territorial human on the planet.

“How in the world will you be all right with a film crew taking over the place?” he asked.

I took a deep breath and tried to imagine my husband, daughter and I, plus our five cats, relocating to an apartment for a week. It’s been nearly six years since we’ve lived in a confined space together. But, hey, for that amount of money, I figured we could cope.

“Who will take care of the chickens?” my husband continued.

Another good point.

“We’d have to make a provision to have access to the property during the shoot,” I replied.

There was actually something appealing about having our house used for a television series. After all, the house has been an inspiring character in my own drama these last several years — and the muse for this column. My house has always been more than a house. It has defined and shaped me, just as I rescued and redefined it from ending up in a construction heap. I constantly feel swept up in its long history and excited about being the author of its new chapter.

I e-mailed the scout to come the next day.

I had a restless night, tossing and turning over the thought of an army of camera people, lighting, actors and caterers commandeering my lair. Would they use our refrigerator, our bathrooms, our furniture? What if a klieg light caught fire and burned down the house? What if they wanted to paint the walls? (Come to think of it, the walls could use a paint job.)

The following morning dawned, a beautiful spring day. I puttered around the house fluffing pillows, straightening pictures and opening the windows to let the light stream through.

Around 11 a.m., the house looked picture-perfect, thanks especially to the 200 newly opened tulips lining our driveway. But in a Dorothy-We’re-Not-In-Kansas-Anymore moment, the sky turned black, trees bowed, torrential rains turned the soil to mud. Even the tulips closed and hung their heads like pallbearers at a funeral procession. Susan the scout texted me to say she’d pulled over on Route 59 because of a tornado warning.

This must be an omen, I thought.

About 90 minutes later, the storm subsided and a perky, reed-thin woman rang the doorbell. She shook off the rain and came inside. I told her about the house. She told me about the pilot: Tea Leoni and Hope Davis play high-octane New York City fashion divas. One drops out for a stab at the hippie life in an old farmhouse. I was secretly hoping it was Hope because I could see her “living” in my house. Then, Susan explained, something tempts her back to the city and she struggles with the conflict.

“Interesting plot,” I said. “A little like my own story except nothing could lure me back to the city.”

Susan and I continued to chat as she walked around the house snapping pictures. She especially liked the vaulted ceilings in our bedroom and the antique claw-footed bathtub.

Before she left, she gave me a few things to think about. The shoot would take about a week. They would want the house in two weeks. A film crew could be as large as 100 people. We would not have access to the property during the shoot. If they wanted to paint the walls a different color they would, but they’d repaint them back to the original color afterward.

She must have seen my Linda Blair moment because I’m sure my head spun a full 360 degrees.

“This is not for everyone,” Susan said. “The money’s great, but you really need to be able to relinquish control. When these crews come to your house, they don’t think of it as your house, they think of it as their set.”

With that, we wrapped up the meeting. She told me we’d get a call within a week if HBO was interested in our house. I closed the door and bolted it. Paying down debt was a nice fantasy, but I wasn’t game for an indecent proposal.

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Mark

My brother Mark had moved into a small house with a friend shortly after the house fire. He had just graduated high school and was cooking at a hotel restaurant. People thought the hotel was kind of fancy because it was on a piece of land that jutted out into the Columbia River. It was called Clover Island.

Some people still believed he had something to do with the house fire but nothing was ever proven.

Every time I went to the new house that he lived in, it smelled of thick pot smoke and thin beer. Mark was also becoming more interested in motorcycles at this time. I thought this combination of things added up to being a Hells Angel or something. Dad didn’t like me going over there because he probably knew what was going on.

One night though, I made up some kind of story and went over there to watch a KISS concert on HBO. There were other people there, most of them sitting on the floor as Mark and his roommate tried to figure out how to hook up the stereo speakers to the TV. About halfway through the concert, Gene Simmons began an ominous bass refrain between songs and then started spitting fake blood out of his mouth. But he wasn’t really spitting. It was more like he was just letting it gurgle out of his lips and down his chin. When he was done, he stuck his long tongue out and gave a devious look as the band started into “God of Thunder.” Everyone watching the concert totally loved this, except me. I thought it went too far and I was afraid I might have nightmares about the bloody face. Someone said it was a trick, that Gene kept a packet of goat’s blood in the back of his mouth until it was time to bite down on it. The person who explained this said it was easy to hide stuff in your mouth. He pulled at the corner of his mouth with a finger and showed us a wad of gum stuck to one of his stained wisdom teeth.

I always liked Paul Stanley, the star-eyed guitar player and singer, better than Gene. I liked the pucker of his lips, the androgynous superhero quality that he had. Plus he owned a certain cool quality the rest of the band lacked. He would never stoop to spewing blood.

Later on, when Peter Criss stepped out from behind the mammoth cluster of drums and sat at the edge of the stage to sweetly serenade the fans with their unlikely hit “Beth,” one of the floor sitters nodded at me and said something to Mark. “He’s cool,” Mark said. Then suddenly there was a joint being passed around.

Being “cool,” I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. I was maybe eleven or twelve and I hadn’t even puffed a cigarette yet. When the joint was offered to me I simply passed it on to the next person. By the end of the ballad, it was so small that someone had put a tiny clamp on the thing. I started to think that the whole getting stoned thing was looking pretty desperate.

Dad never found out that I went over there to watch the concert but he did give me a disappointed shake of the head a few months later when I got a t-shirt with a KISS picture ironed on it. We were out at Skipper’s for our Friday night fish dinner and he said, “Do you know what that means? It means Kids in Satan’s Service.”

Fried fish was the only food I liked with ketchup. I squirted the thick red goo into the little paper cups and thought about the bloody face as we waited for our dinner.