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.

2/2 The Road to Jackson Hole

The roar of the V8 under my feet feels very American as we climb through the foothills of the Northern Rockies, yellow/green grass, red/pink rock plateaus like specialty cakes crafted by time and erosion, off to the left deeper foothills, browner, dotted with conifers, the path we drive through treeless, only scrubby brush and hearty grasses, a perfect cross between prairie and western plateaus.

The road is flat and mostly straight, speed limit 75, black cows munching on grass–content to chew and flap their tails–rarely will you see a lone cow stray from the group–sad in a way that I can see them now as something natural and beautiful, soon to be only cling wrapped, sliced pieces of flesh, dredged through terrible cutting machines, consumed by somebody with an appetite for meat but never able to appreciate the beauty of a lone cow chewing on the pale grasses of the plains.

Entering Wyoming, moving Northwest, tree cover here is thicker–low, dense conifers, stout and hearty. Trees say a lot about a place–tropical trees sway with long, loose branches and naked trunks, like a scantily clad, dreadlocked island native. The trees here are short and tacit–little mountain men.

We have sliced through the initial barrier of the foothills and are nestled in a flat line between them and bigger hills to the left. Passing large ranches, ‘real’ ranches, hundreds of acres in size. I imagine working the land here, waking up to bacon and coffee and pancakes and working all day, stopping only for lunch.

Train tracks dip in and out of the landscape, sinking off into the distance. Something about trains is fascinating–long, ugly steel beasts, and yet beautiful, mythic, invoking a sense of timelessness–sameness in a changing world–romantic–reminiscent of the great American work ethic–so large and yet stealthy–creeping through the land with a steady chugga chugga and at times a lonesome whistle that at night pierces, shrill, into your room, into your head like a Blues chord, as if to say, “Don’t be lonely, everything is OK, the train is still going–everything is still relevant.” While other machines are left discarded by the side of the tracks the train keeps on–same old cars and smoky engines–unflappable, as though my grandkids will someday see the same ones–they have an air of immortality, like the mountains forever a part of the landscape–but I know this to be untrue, they will someday crumble, mere wreckage, and then dust.

We crossed the continental divide some time ago and now too are flowing downhill towards the Pacific. But we won’t make it that far. I have trouble believing the Rockies resume close by as I stare out across the prairie but I know they remain hidden behind the clouds to the West, rise up like a fortress–beautiful but also sinister. A mountain ages like a man–slowly creasing and sagging and breaking down–worn away by time until finally gone–dust.

The snow and slope of the land gradually are getting steeper until the mountains that a while ago appeared painted on the horizon are all around. The rancher’s fence that lined the farmland is here, except now rolling up and down with the rise and fall of the land and almost buried in snow. The familiar pointy, tall, skinny conifers and thin, wispy Aspen of the Rockies have returned. We have entered the Teton National Forest, and two mighty moose trudge through deep snow, diplomats to this pristine land.

Driving provides a lesson for life: keep moving and things will change–no matter how far off what you’re going for appears–stay on the path and it will happen–all of a sudden you’re there and it’s surreal because for so long the road was somewhere else–passing through countless points until at last it’s the one you want.

2/3 Reflections on Jackson Hole

One of those times you see somebody else that looks like you–and momentarily they are you–and I see upon their face my own expression–eyes ablaze with joy looking up on steep slopes surrounded by rocky cliffs and trees and the outline of skiers and boarders descending dark against the white background. It snowed all morning but later the sun burst free and as it did felt like a privilege–which is what I see in the eyes of the stranger that is me–humbleness, wonder, thanks for the deep snow and vertical drop and sun–a religious experience, deeply spiritual–but somebody in line jokingly moos and I see the other side–we are cattle, each of us no more important than the other–perhaps some better stock but all doing the same thing–standing in line, gear in hand, telling stories that are just an attempt to stay relevant. It’s why I write this story, to tell that I was there, I skied Jackson Hole, I descended its steep rocky slopes, the sun was out the snow was deep and I’ll never forget it or the looks on my friends’ faces as they laid and rested in the snow, only their grins discernable behind thick clothing and bug eyed goggles–looking like spacemen on the moon, adventurers on their own strange, alien planet and as I remember their faces I also remember mine–my face on another–the face of joy we all wore but was no more important to the mountains than cows being herded through machines and packaged and sold. A mountain is indifferent to all.

2/4 The Return Voyage

Each portion of mountains has a distinct look even among a large chain–the Rockies of Wyoming have a different look than those of Colorado–but they do appear similar, as though cousins. The fairly blunt tops indicate the toil of millions of years of erosion–these are old mountains, some of the oldest in the world–but once they were never here at all–and so it will be in the future–mountains to dust–dust back into mountains–someday a great sea may cover this land, with the top of Jackson Hole an island jutting up through the blue depths–the descendants of cowboys and ski bums making a living, diving to explore the decaying remains of a chairlift.

But for now we are above sea level and it is a glorious sight–rolling along through a valley, the sun breaking over a peak and flooding the land with a blast of light–everything covered with a film of frost– and when the sun hits the land it sparkles and the branches of trees stretch outward like hands straining for the warmth of the sun. All living things reach for the sun, the only certain God.

A fog rolls over the valley, clinging to a river that winds through the trees like a serpent of mist. I imagine myself as a great adventurer starting a day of travel on foot–seeing this same view–taking a moment from his quest to enjoy the vista–I am alive–this is real–no mission is so great as not to take time to enjoy the moments of beauty, such as the epic landscape laid out before me–this is the adventure–everything in between.

Towns proudly display population signs of one and two hundred–horses outside in stables–steam coming from their nostrils, matching the smoke rising from the chimneys of houses that are all warm and snug inside. Few things are more satisfying than a roaring fire on a cold day, the feeling of triumphing over the elements. Men here have beards and cowboy hats and denim and drive trucks–tough and silent and grizzled and yet possessing a simple kindness–a traditional way that keeps them human. Here they are sheltered from the terrible world not too far away–this is a sanctuary–wildlife and mountains and rivers and pure white snow–hidden from the world of man–cold, dirty, greedy, loud, crowded. Living here is a firm stand against the society that cheapens it–fouls it–destroys it. Staying here is a decision to stay human and as I drive through Wyoming I briefly regain the innocence the world has taken away.

Writing should speak for itself. Good writing does. But with this piece, I feel a brief primer is in order.

I recently undertook the Sisyphean task of typing up a collection of journal entries that encompasses the nearly ten months I lived and traveled in southern Africa. This is a task made difficult not only by the sheer volume of words (close to 200,000, I suspect), but by the at-times illegible, roughly-hewn writing, which as often as not was written on the road, in a chemically-altered state, or some combination of the two.

Jack Kerouac wrote by the principle “first thought, best thought,” although even the master of the road manuscript learned that he was not above editing. In putting together this piece, I sought to retain the raw, visceral reflections that poured out of me while encountering such a spectacular and challenging part of the world.At the same time, I was fully cognizant of the fact that in its original form, much of what I wrote made sense only to me (and sometimes, not even to me). In order to form a more cohesive narrative, I moved individual passages around, inserted punctuation, and changed the odd word for the sake of clarity. But otherwise, what you read is straight from the heart, the gut, the ass, or whatever part of me it is that demands the words be written.

February 13, 2009

All of life is a waiting game—a preparation for the grand tomorrow on which day all demons shall be banished…

…There are many tomorrows on a trans-continental flight, but scarcely any todays.This pilgrimage at 32,000 feet is indicative of the human condition: the cramped and bored masses, wishing the moment away.And what awaits but uncertainty, unknown joys and terrors…every man yearns for a prophet, a taste of the supernatural, because it relieves the angst of making choices…

…At 32,000 feet all conversations feel a bit forced.Why am I going to South Africa?Where to begin…

…Every man at some point looks upon his life with the eyes of a distant stranger.What could be: the twisted half life of what is, always shimmering on the horizon, briefly igniting a spark to throw it all away and embark on some damn fool’s errand.It is a rebuke of the sensibilities we harness each day, those bricks out of which we’ve built our personal empires, the bedrock of those things that fill our lives…

…For all of the wisdom of our fathers they never once said to us, “You will build a life and afterwards always wonder what could have been.”…

…How can I hope to explain to a stranger in business casual what I have trouble myself understanding?What words will I string together to describe all the passion that’s been put aside, the yearnings that have been marginalized, a mental tickle that says things should be different?Instead I use language he can understand: I tell him I fell in love, which is true, only not the whole truth.In loving her I have merely recaptured the ability to love—and a man in love believes all things are possible—he is a glutton, eating everything before him but never full—he belches; defecates and rolls in it.To be in love is to have boundless energy.I love her madly, but not only her—I want to make love to the world, lay back with a sigh, satisfied, but thinking always of more, more, more…

…What awaits as I step off this plane and walk into her arms?Is it love I feel or love I seek?Infidelity already lurks in my heart, for it is Africa that I truly lust for… a place where beasts and chaos reign supreme…

… Oh Africa!How I long for you!Oh Africa!I lust for thee!Oh Africa!Give me a reprieve! …

…Let me hear the sounds of lions at night and roam among the sun-bleached bones of those fate did not favor in the morning…

…..I want to be surrounded by the possibility of death, because living in a cage of logic is already dying…

…I seek mayhem…upheaval…bring on earthquakes and hurricanes…sweep my old life away into the sea…leave me naked on the ruins of what I’ve built…

…It’s not often that one can see a new chapter of their life unfolding, but that is precisely the view before me as the plane makes its descent into Johannesburg. The African continent comes into view, conjuring up a wealth of imagery as varied and twisted as the mind that tries to make sense of it.Of all the places to start over, Africa seems to be the best …

… The Africa of my mind is a picture of an old, faded map with an unfolding line marking my travels.I will make it to Kilimanjaro, stand atop the roof of Africa, stare out across the continent and have a view similar to what God must have had when his work was at last done and he could rest…

…Starting over…what is it like?At 10,000 feet and descending, I know not, but I know the pure adrenaline in my gut is enough. If this ecstatic doubt is an indicator, then I’ve been living my whole life asleep.To start over, in Africa, in love…

…Love and Africa.Now, this is all I know.The plane touches down.I pass through the required checkpoints and collect my bags.I step into a lobby, baggage in tow.She rises to greet me.I am in her arms again.Love and Africa.Now, this is all I need…

…I am better than fate.I am stronger than the universe.I am a man.

February 14, 2009

I have scarcely a night to dream big African dreams before we are on the road. Up by 4:00, casting a shadow on the still-cool tarmac by 6:00…

…nothing is set or decided, but for now we set a rough course down to Cape Town and from there up to Namibia, where we shall be swept up and away into The Heart of Africa…

…She holds my hand as she drives and I love her. We are together, our lives condensed down to a small white Toyota…

…driving through the Cradle of Humankind we pass a lone hitchhiker, his dark features reflecting under the bright sun—in his single, outstretched thumb I see the history of humanity laid bare—starting here, wending its way northward to new lands—the growth of many races from one—he still in the birthplace of man and I, returning in an automobile—here, in the plains of Southern Africa, history has formed a strange circle…

…We stop to refuel in the kinds of small towns that make ghosts out of men. A worker finishes pumping dinosaur bones into the tank and I tell him to have a nice day, but what I really mean is, “I’m sorry.I don’t know how things came to be like this either.”…

…We drive all day and make the town of Nieu Bethesda just as dusk is beginning to break.To get there we follow a long, winding dirt road that picks its way through the rocky, crumbling remains of mountains…

…The first day of the journey calls for a bottle of wine and we share it in the common room of the hostel with a Canadian woman who says she has come to Africa to save the lions, but who I suspect has really come to save herself.No 35 year old insurance salesman from Calgary sits up in the dead of night knowing her mission in life is to protect a creature 10,000 miles away.Lions are a symbol of her discontent, of a longing for something more out of life than cold-calling strangers and trying to get them to buy a new policy…

February 16, 2009

The sun is nearly down when we reach the town of Uniondale.We find the name of a youth hostel and head there.She is scorched and exhausted, wants to go to bed.I, in a similar state, oblige.But as I lay there, the desert night calls to me.Restless, I rise to sit alone outside….

…The proprietor, a man of about 60, sits on the stoop, smoking slowly, each long inhale seeming to encompass a universe of silent rumination. He at first seems aloof and rude but turns out to be the type of man who finds no value in senseless chatter.He offers me a cigarette.I don’t smoke but I accept.We puff away in silence; the sound of the paper burning is clearly audible among the cricket chirps and nighttime rustling of unseen creatures….

…He is a counterpoint to my youthful restlessness; where I flounder he is fixed; where nothing ahead is known for me he lives in this familiar world…

…He rises wordlessly and enters the house, reappearing with a fiddle.The case opens with a click that resounds in the darkness.The instrument is old but the strings look fresh and strong.He raises it to his shoulder and draws back the bow.I lay back, smoking, propped up on one elbow in the cool grass.I imagine he plays for me, but this is not the truth.He plays for himself.I am merely a witness to his strange blues. He stops occasionally to take a drag off of the cigarette that lies smoldering at his side.Several of them burn down to the filter…

… He finishes, packs the fiddle away, rises and enters the house.I remain, in silence, but I can still hear the music, telling me everything I need to know, filing the spaces between my thoughts with a wordless chorus…

…He has killed me softly with his strange blues.His song speaks to the road ahead.

February 17, 2009

We drive downtown to the main church.The Boer Farmers who migrated north from the Cape to escape the rule of the English built their newly-founded towns around these places of worship, the detailed craftsmanship of this building reflecting their ambitions for a good life, a beautiful life, a peaceful life…

…I walk around it, snapping pictures.I’ve not had any use for God since I refused to return to Sunday school at the age of nine, but churches always instill in me the sense that without myth, the world would be a very ugly place…

…I look at the small white car, the steed that carries me and Emily through the wasteland—we are together against the world, but also separate; horribly alone in our own quests…

… Everybody needs their own church, squat, solid and beautiful, built in the center of the vast, perilous wilderness of their own mind….

…I gaze through the fence at the well-kept grass and handsome stone work.A woman approaches from behind and says something in Afrikaans. She is the cleaning lady, old and toothless, her hair in a handkerchief.I beg her pardon that I only speak English.

“Would you like to have a look inside?” she translates.

“Yes, very much so,” I say….

…She unlocks a back door and I climb a set of stairs up past the bell to the very height of the church.From there it is a tentative walk up a ladder that is leaned against a shuddered window.I push it open and step down onto a circular terrace that surrounds the tower…

… A church is built to make people feel humble.The towering roof, the detailed craftwork, the stern-faced biblical figures, all are bent towards reminding people of a higher power in whose presence we are hopelessly small. To that end, I say let the people of Uniondale congregate up here on Sundays, rather than suffer under the heaviness of stone and wood…

… Let them be accompanied up the rickety staircase by the cleaning lady who has spent decades inside this hallowed building and has nothing to show for it but stubborn pride and arthritic fingers…

… Let them climb the wobbling stairs past the cobwebbed gears and levers of a massive bell, the booming metallic voice of god, which summons them to worship each Sunday….

…Let them stand on this terrace where with one glance they can size up their entire sleepy town, where they live and will die, where the great expanse of the Karoo is overtaken by mountains to the south and where beyond that, mountains fall into the sea.The view from here can make one feel smaller than any preacher’s words…

…Let the people see pigeons perched on stone crosses, roosting in the eaves of the highest point of the holiest building, defecating wherever they please, years of shit accumulated upon the House of God.Then, they will be humbled, truly.

Two-dozen little shoe soles squeaked and squelched across the linoleum of the hallway.The teacher at our church school, leading the way, walked backwards for a few steps, winding the cord of her whistle around her finger.The whistle clacked against her rings.She pivoted to lead us into the library, and the squeaks turned to shuffling on the carpet in the dark.We could see the shapes of things we moved between – tables and shelves.We could see the projector and the screen, and with a click of sound the screen held a square of light and the square of light held our moving shadows.When we lowered to sit on a cleared space on the floor, there was a tingle at my fingertips that traveled all the way up my arm, across my chest, buzzing in my rib cage.A movie.