Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California disturbed the hell out of me, but it also wrecked many of my assumptions about humanity, apocalypse novels, and how to think about fear. California is a novel built on a couple, Frida and Cal, who flee Los Angeles to the countryside after Frida’s brother decides to suicide bomb a busy LA mall, helping push an already breaking world past the tipping point. It’s by far the most terrifyingly realistic apocalypse novel I’ve read. It’s also—and I hope this soon stops being true—one of the most prophetic.
I’m lucky enough to teach for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, the outfit Edan Lepucki runs, so a little while ago, we made plans to get together to talk about teaching and her forthcoming novel California. By the time we finally chatted, all hell had broken loose. Amazon had just begun a long dispute with Hachette Book Group over pricing, leaving first-time and midlist authors as collateral damage. Stephen Colbert, upset that Amazon was using its clout as a bookseller to make it harder to buy or preorder Hachette books (including his own, of course), decided to invite Sherman Alexie on The Colbert Report to help him declare war on Amazon by publicizing a book by a new author and encouraging readers to buy that book through independent online booksellers like Powell’s. That author was Edan, and the book was California.
Ahead of the book’s release, Edan has now been featured in the New York Times, mentioned by Colbert countless time (both on his show and on Twitter), and has increased her first printing from 12,000 to 60,000. We chatted about publishing, the craft of writing, teaching, and what to do about the end of the world.
The Rumpus: The Colbert Report. What happened?
Edan Lepucki: My publicists at Little, Brown (whose parent company is Hachette) called me and asked, “Are you sitting down?” Then they said Sherman Alexie was going on Colbert to talk about the Hachette-Amazon dispute and he wanted to talk about a debut novel. I guess he really wanted to plug a new writer, and Little, Brown put California in his hands.
Then a few hours later he called me, and we chatted about the book and my background. Later that day, they told me it might not happen. And then the next day they said it was indeed happening. Sherman called me once more from the green room.
So that’s how it happened. Amazing people called me.
Rumpus: Had you ever met Alexie before?
Lepucki: No. I’ve been reading his work since college, though, so when he called me, it was like George Clooney saying, “Hi, Edan?”
Rumpus: What did he tell you about your book?
Lepucki: He said to me, “I can see why people are taking about it.” And then he said, “It’s really, really sad.”
Rumpus: He’s such a motor mouth, that guy.
Lepucki: Ha! He is such a nice, generous, funny, humble guy. The issue is that my book, and so many others, are not available for pre-order from Amazon. I hadn’t realized how much that mattered for new authors. And how much Amazon is hurting us.
Rumpus: Well, it’s funny, because reading the book, I couldn’t help but notice Amazon was one of the entities that was building creepy Orwellian “communities” where rich people could go to be safe. The others were Bronxville, Walmart, and Scottsdale. What company!
Lepucki: Yes! I have been waiting for someone to see my Amazon mention in the book.
Rumpus: It got me thinking. California has one of the most terrifying apocalypses I’ve ever come across, and I think it’s because of these little, true-to-modern-life touches. How did you go about inventing your apocalypse?
Lepucki: Thank you? No. Thank you!
It wasn’t so much a matter of me sitting down and creating the apocalypse but more like: I know LA in this future is fucked up. I don’t know why, but here I have two characters who have fled LA. Why? And I extrapolated from there.
It was an exercise in if . . . then, if . . . then.
Rumpus: So rather than build a whole speculative world and inserting characters, you built a whole speculative world from these characters?
Lepucki: I couldn’t have done it any other way. It’s small details, sensual experience, and brief memories that make a story. Frida’s memory of The Grove, which is this huge mall here in LA made the whole apocalypse happen on the page. I ruined that mall, and from there I saw the whole city like that. But I could only see that through her eyes. For Frida, it’s the ruined mall she thinks of, and the stuff she no longer has, like coffee.
Rumpus: Well the terrifying part was its banality, really. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing. In many other books, apocalypses are really extreme or sudden, even if they’re subtle. McCarthy has his “A long shear of light and then a series of low percussions.” Atwood has her genetic engineering gone wrong.
Lepucki: I am glad it’s resonated with people because, for me, most apocalyptic novels aren’t scary, because they feel so very far off.
I love The Road and Oryx and Crake, but they feel like they’re distant from our own world. California takes place in the 2050s, so it’s not that far off.
Rumpus: Right, and I think doing it that way means it’s not as heavy-handed. It’s not zombies. Not volcanoes. It is slow and grinding, unstoppable, and partially human-caused. Everybody can see it happening, but no one knows what to do about it. It sounds a little too familiar.
Lepucki: Right? It’s a bit scary to see my book come true: the recent (if minor) LA earthquakes, Hurricane Sandy, the Boston bomber, and so on—much of it stoppable, I think, and yet I, too, am also guilty of passivity.
Rumpus: I saw your son on Facebook today talking about your fear of camping. And I was like, Uh oh, how would Edan do in the world of California?
Lepucki: Oh my goodness, I hate camping. I would not last a day in Frida and Cal’s world. I am like Frida times 1,000. I have always been attracted to wilderness stories, à la the movie Badlands, when Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen are in the woods on the lam—maybe because it scares me a little.
Right, fear. California seemed to me to be all about secrets and the need for safety. And this leads to this thematic messiness I’m still trying to figure out what to do with. I mean, when it comes to the themes, this is nothing like an Atwood novel.
The messiness is nothing like an Atwood novel. For me, the deeper subjects are secrets versus intimacy, and how both beget safety but also threaten it. And there is a lot for me about loss, too.
Rumpus: Cal says, shortly after losing his mom, “The only reason to bring a kid into this godforsaken world is to give it a mother.”
Lepucki: Oh Cal.
Rumpus: I can’t shake that line, and I wanted to ask an unconventional question about it: How would Edan respond to him if she met him and he said that?
Lepucki: Well, first, I would totally want to make out with Cal. He is so tender and earnest. But, I think, honestly, I would squint at him and ask, “What happened to you?” Because there is something so sad to me about that line. I don’t know why.
Rumpus: It’s so sad—hopeless, even—and the question I’ve been dancing around just hit me. What got you interested in the types of questions that come out of writing an apocalyptic novel?
Lepucki: For me, even when I was pregnant, I wondered, Should we even have children if we’re bringing them into this horrible, scary world? But I did have a child, despite these fears—or because of them—and these fears are both contemporary and as old as time.
It’s funny, though, because I am not sure I knew what I was doing, writing an “apocalypse” novel, when I started this book. Now that the book is done, I can own that I have in fact written an apocalypse novel, one that speculates on a dark, dark future. Why I did it, I really don’t know—every time people read my work they comment on its darkness, its sadness. I suppose that it’s my impulse to mine, as a writer, these scary parts of ourselves and the world.
That said, a novel is a book about people—messy, flawed, inept, beautiful people.
Rumpus: Do you hope the novel helps readers see the world differently? Or changes things for the better?
Lepucki: I am not sure how a novel changes the world. I think it alters a reader’s perspective by asking him or her to see the world through another consciousness. That can perhaps cause people to see their own lives differently. Or just give a single day, a single moment, a slightly different sheen.
Rumpus: I can’t speak for the world, but for me, it raised a lot of questions about my perspective. I’ll start with feminism. There is a constant battle there between Frida’s desire for her own empowerment, the fact that she has to rely on men for safety, and the increasingly patriarchal society she’s living in. There was one line where the narrator says, “If she was honest with herself, she could admit that Cal’s gesture of protection turned her on a little.”
Lepucki: Yes, yes, yes.
Rumpus: And I live in an angry left-wing Internet bubble a little bit, so I kind of did a double-take.
Lepucki: Ha! I was interested in writing about gender in this future world where progress has not only halted but turned backward. On another note, sometimes the personal is not so politically correct, and what we are turned on by can’t be made to behave.
Rumpus: This is very true. But there seems to be a consistent theme that goes against my view of human nature, shaped in college, where I was taught that there was no such thing as a brutal state of nature. For example, in Calfornia, there are these mythical, brutal, sadistic, evil, feral pirates mentioned at the very beginning of the book. And even though it is totally obvious they were, I thought the pirates weren’t going to be real.
Lepucki: Oh, me too.
Lepucki: Ha! What a surprise when they were! You know, I tossed off a mention of the pirates early on. And they became integral to the backstory. Sometimes now I imagine them in the woods. They scare me. All men. Dirty and wearing red.
It’s not that I don’t support the idea of equality, and the liberal fight for justice. Of course I do. But I was also interested in a more complicated vision of society where there isn’t just one rich bad guy.
Rumpus: In California, the “do-gooders” who try to change things are called “the Group.” I don’t want to create any spoilers, but man, I think I can safely say that they do not come off looking very good.
Lepucki: Oh, but they start off so well intentioned! They are trying to change stuff, in their way. I think I struggle with the question of how to make a difference. Voting? Sending fifteen dollars to Planned Parenthood? Occupy Wall Street? Protests? Violence? Campaign contributions? Eating food you grow in a community garden?
Rumpus: What fascinates me most about this as a writing teacher is how you created this whole world, the Group, pirates, these fictional entities that bring up all these questions. And I imagine this is a new thing for someone who has written mainly from a more realist perspective.
Lepucki: Well, the book is realistic, even if it’s speculative, so that didn’t actually feel that different.
Rumpus: That’s a really important distinction. But you still needed to do more speculation, building backstory, no?
Lepucki: I did a lot of this through writing flashbacks. Many of the flashbacks took place at Cal’s school and I eventually cut them because they didn’t seem essential and they slowed the pace of the story in the first third of the book. They were essential to me, though, in that I learned about my characters.
Rumpus: It’s funny you mention the pace because I was in awe of how much tension there was in this book and how the pace flowed because of that. I’m always wondering how people keep tension going throughout a whole book. I get short stories, but books are so damn long.
Lepucki: For one, I have a much harder time writing stories than novels. I need the expansiveness of a novel and the propulsive energy it provides. When I think about scene—and when I teach scene writing—I’m thinking about questions. What questions are raised by a scene? What questions are answered? What questions persist from scene to scene to scene?
I think that sharpens the intention of a scene and clarifies a story’s arc. Of course, I don’t seek the questions until after I’ve written a scene—or maybe after I’ve daydreamed it.
With my students, I don’t offer any simple tips like that, maybe because my own process is pretty messy, but when we workshop we talk a lot about the deeper subject, which is what the story or novel is about. I think defining a narrative’s themes can lay bare a narrative’s tensions.
With California, their fear and the secrets they’re keeping were always immediate, which gave the book a certain energy and dramatic tension. It was there right away and I was not about to let it go!
Rumpus: Given all this talk of the end of the world, I wanted to end on a happy note. Has your publisher told you how well this book is doing since it appeared on The Colbert Report?
Lepucki: Yes. As of this interview, it’s sold 6,400 copies from Powell’s alone, and it’s gone into its third printing. It’s insane, a miracle!
Featured image by Bader Hower.