Novelist Edan Lepucki follows ‘California’ with ‘Woman No. 17’
By Lou Fancher
As is true in real life, people in Edan Lepucki’s novels don’t always tell the truth or follow social protocols. In fact, the Albany-based writer finds, some characters don’t even follow their creator’s instructions.
“I thought the story was about Seth running away, going missing,” says Lepucki,
about the mute teenage boy in her new novel, “Woman No. 17” (Hogarth, $26, 320 pages). “Then Seth was on the page, and I kept saying, ‘OK, time to run away,’ and he wouldn’t. The women’s interactions with him were just too interesting.”
Lepucki’s third work of fiction features alternating narrators: Lady Daniels, mother of Seth and, by a second marriage, Devin, a toddler; and Esther, who calls herself “S” and is the family’s live-in nanny, hired so that Lady may write a memoir about her older son. The women’s first-person perspectives tangle, and they have in common dysfunctional mothers, artistic and sexual enthusiasms, conflicted relationships with Seth, deep secrets and a propensity for telling — and living — lies.
Lepucki, 36, a Los Angeles native — she and her husband, Patrick Brown, and their two young children will move back to L.A. this fall — says she knew she would be a writer before writing anything. In fifth grade, she issued her first book, “Euphorbia Milii,” about a plant that comes to life. “I thought the title was genius. It’s the plant’s scientific name. I don’t remember if it was a horror book or a fairy tale.”
Her life followed the usual pathways, but with some quirky detours: As editor of her high school’s “really bad, ’90s-era riot girl literary zine,” she wrote rants about her sister’s boyfriend, who had ripped out images of previous boyfriends from all of her sister’s photos.
Earning undergraduate and graduate degrees at Oberlin College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, respectively, Lepucki met professional writers for the first time. “I didn’t romanticize being a fiction writer to the point of thinking I’d have private jets and villas and write with a quill pen, but I knew I couldn’t be a journalist,” she says. “I was a fact-checker once and got in trouble skipping over a sentence that obviously needed corroboration.”
As you would expect, reading played a primary role in her education. Among contemporary authors, she admires Margaret Atwood’s droll humor and science-to-speculative switchback style. Jennifer Egan’s mastery of story and fluid prose also impress her. “Every book is different — crashing cerebral, gothic retelling — you don’t know where she’s going. I love that.” Reaching back into the 20th century, she adds John Williams’ “Stoner,” a novel with straightforward prose Lepucki insists “will make you sob.”
Her own writing is more likely to generate surprise or laughter — followed by deep contemplation of human relationships, truth, self-identity and contemporary culture. Her first novel, “California,” became a New York Times best-seller in 2014, largely due to a dustup between TV talk show host Stephen Colbert and Amazon. Protesting the online giant retailer’s decision to remove publisher Hachette’s titles from its preorder sales during a contract dispute, Colbert (also published by Hachette) displayed a copy of her book on “The Colbert Report” and encouraged viewers to order it. “A late night talk show host holding up your book is not in your equation of book dreams. It was fabulous, crazy. I’m forever grateful,” says Lepucki.
As a mother, her writing schedule depends on childcare. “Three times a week, I write in an office or in cafés. I’m not precious about atmosphere.” If possible, there’s music in the background, selected to warm up a connection to emotion and instinct. When the text is no longer just something on a computer screen and she is immersed, Lepucki is like a method actor. “I feel free, like I’m the characters, experiencing them.”
But not completely: “At the same time, I’m thinking about sentence structure, rhythm. I used to do more rewriting as I went along. Now it feels more organic to write faster. I hear it more clearly in my head.”
Even so, she injects structure into process. With “California,” she wrote outline summaries after completing each section, followed by projections of what might happen next. Now adhering to a “never outline ahead of time” policy, she is working on a new book with an Excel spreadsheet designed by a friend that tracks her daily progress.
Lepucki avoids writing both nonfiction, which requires compressed exposition, and short stories, with their pressure for impactful endings. “In fiction, there’s nothing I don’t like,” she says.
Which doesn’t mean she aims for what’s easy. Most difficult in the new book was Seth, not only because he never ran away but because his disability tested her. “Where did I get off writing about a child with a disability who cannot speak? How could he be in scenes, interact and keep it dynamic? He was complex. He had so much more humanity than people gave him” (credit for.)
And Seth, like the central protagonists, had secrets that Lepucki found ripe for exposure.