By A.M. Larks
Edan Lepucki was gracious enough to chat with me over email—despite birthdays, illnesses, holidays, and other crazy scheduling during the month of November—about Time’s Mouth, her latest novel as well as her many other published works. What resulted was a far-reaching conversation about human nature, the craft of writing, and unintentional genius.
[KELP JOURNAL] In Time’s Mouth, place is a central feature, and it struck me that, like memory, places can be a portal; they can evoke specific times, eras, and events. For me, sleepy San Luis Obispo will always be the town I went to college in, and when I am there, I will always feel like the person I was. The places—settings in Time’s Mouth—are no different. Characters often are transported (figuratively) back to who they were when experiencing a familiar place. Did you intend from the start to meditate on the transportive nature of place when writing Time’s Mouth? And how did you approach such a broad subject?
[EDAN LEPUCKI] To be honest, and maybe this is giving me away as a sort of idiot when it comes to my own work, I didn't intend for place itself to feel like a portal to the past, or for the book to be a way to explore how strongly identity is tied to place. However, the more I write, and the more I have my stories and novels read by smart readers (i.e., not idiots like moi!), the more I realize how central setting is for me. I'm from and live in Los Angeles, and I'm basically obsessed with the mythologies of the state. I'm interested in how the daily experience of life in LA, and in California overall, interact with, confirm, and subvert these widely perceived notions and stories about it.
But on a more practical level, when I'm writing, I need specific, concrete, literal places for my characters to inhabit. In my writing class at Caltech, I'm fond of quoting Elizabeth Bowen's dictum, "Nothing can happen nowhere." That is, you can't place your characters in a vacuum and expect it to work. Setting allows for action to occur, and it also influences action, pushes it in intriguing, dramatic directions. Setting also gives you tools to play with as you move through a scene: trees to look at, birds to hear, walls to touch, and so on. That all takes on meaning, even as it also remains literal and practical. Like you, and like anyone, I suppose, places from my past do exert a kind of charge and hold a significance, allowing me to reflect on who I was, who I am. I guess I brought that feeling to the book.
[KJ] I think a lot of great writing is subconscious. And I was wondering if, like with your unintentional and brilliant use of setting as a portal, you have always meant to focus on other types of portals. In all of your novels, your characters are looking for a way to escape the present, whether that be the time-travel way of Time’s Mouth or turning to alcohol and social media as in Woman No. 17. Even in 2050 apocalyptic California, drugs and alcohol are still utilized to transport the characters away from the harsh realities in front of them. Is this just something that humans do, long for a way to escape?
[EL] I didn't intend to create these other portals of escapism for my characters, though I agree with you that they're present in all of my books. I'm interested in getting character consciousness on the page, and when you do that, when you get into a fictional person's interiority, you're able to show a character spinning off into a fantasy world, into a place of longing for comfort, solace, and forgiveness. There are the organic thoughts anyone might go to, to create these pleasant feelings, and then there are the other tools people use to cope. We don't have time travel (or, I don't), but there is alcohol, drugs, social media. In my fiction, I'm interested in those tools because they're short-lived. The character must return to reality and must contend with how their expectations and desires aren't met, how they're upended. The end of the fantasy, the closing of the portal as it were: that's where the drama lies.
[KJ] And drama there is! Your novels all capture and describe the high tension and wildly dramatic moments in the lives of your characters, a sign of good art. Which brings to mind Woman No. 17, which discusses the perils and benefits of being the subject of art, specifically of a famous artist. It literally hangs over (or in the closet of) Lady. And I wondered if being the subject of a famous work can haunt your life, if the inverse is true for the creator of art. Do you think artists are haunted by their most well-known or popular works?
[EL] It seems to me that most artists are only obsessed with what they're currently working on. That's the case for me. Once I publish a book, it leaves me. It's strange: I spend so much time immersed in a world and its characters, and then, poof, it's published, and it's gone from my consciousness. I still retain affection for my past work, but I feel dread at the thought of going back into any of them. Honestly, whenever anyone mentions an older work of mine, I feel vaguely embarrassed! Don't get me wrong: of course I'm grateful to talk about any of my work, ever! It's just that a process of alienation has to occur to allow my most private obsession into the world. I have to let it go. I don't feel haunted by my most popular book—California—but I do think it's funny, in an anthropological way, that readers gravitate toward that one precisely because it was a bestseller. It's fascinating that people want to read the one that most others have read, even if it's the one that received the most mixed reviews. I prefer people to read whatever book I finished most recently, because I feel I'm getting better at my craft with every novel, and because the most recent one is the best representation of me, as an artist, right now. Perhaps artists who have a MEGAHIT feel haunted by that success. I have never suffered by such star power!
[KJ] I have heard many writers express the same sentiment, that they grow in their craft with each novel or book. But one bit of craft that was so impressive (and necessary) in the world of California was your descriptions. I was amazed at how you were able to describe the settings so in-depth without resorting to using the names of things. I could picture every detail; it all felt so familiar, and yet completely different. How did you approach this feat, the writing of a setting in a world that did not yet exist?
[EL] Thank you! I am so glad to hear it because, well, I love to describe stuff. It's probably my favorite part of the writing process: imagining deeply and trying to translate what I imagine onto the page. That's really all it is—imagining deeply, and from the perspective of the character whose POV I'm favoring. California takes place in the future, but it's not an unrecognizable one. It contains so many relics of our own present, and so it wasn't hard to propel myself there. For me, scene and plot can't emerge without concrete details, and so I spend time figuring out the specific and literal objects surrounding characters and imagine them interacting in these specific places to make the story unfold. My friend Darcy once gave me the incredible advice to "imagine even more" when I am in a writing rut. Sometimes our block is that we haven't gone more fully into the scene, into the particularities of the dramatic moment. If I lean in closer, look deeply, it gets clearer, has intention. That really helps.
[KJ] What fabulous advice. I am definitely going to lean into “the peculiarities of the dramatic moment” moving forward. Thinking of this type of intense focus, I was wondering if you could talk about the drafting of your novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me. How was that similar or different from drafting your longer works?
[EL] I don't remember too much about writing If You're Not Yet Like Me except that the editor Deena Drewis asked me to write a novella and assured me it didn't have to be a “real” novella (whatever that is), simply a long story, as long as it has to be. That felt very freeing and took the pressure off. I also felt confident because, for the first time ever, I knew the manuscript would have a home, and I wouldn't have to face rejection upon rejection before it was (hopefully) published. That made me feel bold, and I wrote what I wanted, leaning into a fun, but sort of naughty voice. In the end, it was a novella in name only. It's only about thirty-five pages...a story! For me, stories and novels are themselves, formally speaking, before they're even drafted; I've never had one become the other. I enjoy short fiction for the brief investigations into a character or premise. The novels are entire worlds that I want to be immersed in for years.
[KJ] One of the things I love about If You’re Not Yet Like Me is that the narrator tells the reader how to read her story. Passages like “Be careful, then. You will spend your life assuming things, Baby. About me, about the world. And you will often be wrong.” Or “I can feel you getting excited about Zachary, and that excitement is dangerous, for this doesn’t end how you want it to. This isn’t a story of a woman who sheds her superficiality, who learns to love someone as they truly are, and in the process learns to love herself. It might have been that kind of story, had things gone the way of happily-ever-after, but they didn’t. The ending changes everything that came before it.” The premise of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, of a mother writing to her unborn daughter about who her father is, allows for the breaking of the fourth wall, which is really fun. Do you think this is the kind of story that has to be in short form rather than a longer novel-length narrative?
[EL] The breaking of the fourth wall, the direct address, in the novella happened by accident. That is, in an early first draft, I had this incredibly forward, declarative narrator, and she was talking to the reader—to someone. I had to stop (after page two or so, very early) and decide, Well, who is she speaking to? That dictated what happened in the story, because when I had the idea of her voice, I didn't realize she was pregnant. Once I realized she was pregnant, it changed the entire story: what happens in it, what matters to her, how the narrator's perspective evolves. I had a similar situation with Time's Mouth, where I had this imperious narrator who was omniscient, and I wondered: Who is this? It ended up being the keeper of time itself! But, you're right, with a novel, such conceits feel like just that, a conceit if it interferes with the story and characters too much. So I had to pull back the narrator in Time's Mouth so that it began the story and was an organizing principle, a global intelligence, but not a central component. I am in awe of novelists who can pull off a major conceit, like the second person, for instance, which is easy in a story but very difficult in a novel, which, to me, has to be more immersive and deeper than any formal flourish.
Edan Lepucki was recently nominated for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize in literature for her most recent novel, Time’s Mouth. She is also the author of the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me and the novels California and Woman No. 17. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The Cut, Romper, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. The Los Angeles Times named her a Face to Watch for 2014. She was the guest editor of Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019, and her story “People in Hell Want Ice Water” is available as an Audible Original.
A.M. Larks’s writing has appeared in NiftyLit, Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the ZYZZYVA and Ploughshares blogs. She has served as a judge for the Loud Karma Productions’ Emerging Female and Nonbinary Playwriting Award and has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, CA. She is the managing editor and blog editor at Kelp Journal. She is the former fiction editor at Please See Me, the former blog editor at The Coachella Review, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal. A.M. Larks earned an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside at Palm Desert, a JD, and a BA in English literature.