In June, Sherman Alexie and Stephen Colbert plugged Edan Lepucki’s California on The Colbert Report—and completely changed the publishing life of her first book. California is now the most preordered debut title in Hachette Book Group’s history and a number one bestseller at Powell’s. And, lucky for us, Lepucki is in New York this week for two fantastic events: She’ll read from and sign the book tonight at WORD Bookstore, and tomorrow, Emma Straub and David Gutowski join her in conversation at McNally Jackson.
I caught up with the author in the middle of her book tour to chat about how California came to be, how to raise children in a post-apocalyptic world and just how much she loves Stephen Colbert.
Let’s actually go back to before California was published. A few years ago, you wrote a beautiful essay about the difficulty of selling your first book and facing its abandonment. So, what happened after you wrote that?
I went back into my writing cave and finished California. One of the main reasons my agent and I agreed to stop submitting my first novel was that we both believed that California was a stronger book; I needed to stop putting mental energy into the publishing process and just finish this new manuscript. Honestly, writing California rescued me from the pain of rejection. A year later, the novel was ready to be submitted to editors. The process the second time around was totally different. With the first book, it took a while for editors to respond—if they bothered at all. With California, editors were reading it, and fast, and others were emailing my agent to request it. Ultimately, there were a few editors interested in the book, and it sold at auction about two weeks after the submission process started. I couldn't believe it!
When I’ve praised your book to others (which I’ve been doing for months!), I’ve categorized it as dystopian literary fiction—because it’s an obviously dystopian world but without the action-packed focus on the collapse of civilization, which often accompanies that setting. Can you talk about how you landed on this backdrop for your story?
First of all, thank you for praising my book to other people! It's funny, when I set out to create the world of California, I didn't give the type of apocalypse much thought...I simply set my two characters, Cal and Frida, in a depleted world, and moved through it intuitively. (I realize that sounds pretty touchy-feely. Sorry, I am from LA after all!) Intuitions aside, however, I did have two intentions with the novel: I wanted to write about characters and their interpersonal relationships—primarily, a marriage, but also, a sibling relationship and a friendship—and let these relationships be the focus of the narrative, despite the fact that the book is set in the future. I also wanted the world to feel uncomfortably similar and close to our own: I didn't want the apocalyptic elements to feel far-off, or sudden, because that to me isn't as scary. I want the reader to feel a bit complicit, for what we do in the present will affect what the future looks like.
The novel really focuses on the relationship between Frida and Cal, and I admire how intimately you portrayed that—the love, the friction, those little hints that we can never truly know another person. What was it like writing their dynamic?
Writing about the relationship between Frida and Cal was one of the (very few) elements of the book that came somewhat easily to me. I am used to writing about people in a room; I am not used to writing about the end of the world, living off the land, and suicide bombers! Frida and Cal pretty much arrived with all their flaws and hang-ups and affection. By exploring their histories and venturing in each of their consciousnesses, I got to know them better. Their dynamic just kind of fell into place after that—or in tandem with that exploration. The shifting perspective helped me immensely in sorting out who felt what and when, and in differentiating their reactions. It was also a lot of fun to move between the two like that. Maybe in another life I was a couples' counselor.
So Frida is actually pregnant throughout the novel, and I was reminded of the famous Philip Larkin poem "This Be the Verse," in which he warns his readers not to bring kids into the world's misery. The pregnancy adds a lot of tension, makes the plot’s stakes higher. How did you decide to include that?
I'm a mother of a three-year-old, but when I started California, my son wasn't even a twinkle in my eye. Because the book took as long as it did, I wrote it before I was pregnant, while I was pregnant, and as a new mother—so I enjoyed a diversity of experiences while creating this world. Frida was pregnant from the moment I started the book—I don't know why, she just was—and I found it added to the story such a delicious narrative drive that I never questioned it. Even though I don't live in Frida's world, I have wrestled over the question of whether or not it's a good idea to have a child in the world we live in. (Still do, and I have a kid! A wonderful one!) When we're in a Larkin-ish mood, my husband and I have worried aloud about the world my son will be living in as an adult. I think all parents do, and have, for generations. In California, both the choice to have a child, and to not have one, are completely valid. Just as they are today.
And of course, what everyone wants to know: how much do you love Stephen Colbert right now? Did you know that huge plug was coming your way?
Oh my goodness, I love Stephen Colbert! And Sherman Alexie! I feel immensely grateful and flabbergasted and totally amazed that this has happened to me and my weird book. I knew that Sherman Alexie was going to talk about my book on The Colbert Report shortly before it happened. He called me on the phone! And then again from the green room! It was strange and terrific and I will never forget it.
Lastly, any recommendations for our readers? Anything you would you like to see more of in contemporary fiction?
I have read so many wonderful books this year, from Motor City Burning by Bill Morris to The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour to The Vacationers by Emma Straub to Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I'm about to crack open The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I'm a fool for not having read it sooner. I'm always looking for complicated characters in fiction, about whom I can feel a dozen feelings at once, in the space of a single paragraph, even. More of that, please!