By: Isabel Anreus
Recently, I had the opportunity of interviewing novelist and short story writer, Edan Lepucki, author of New York Times Best-selling novel, California. After reading the novel late last year, I knew I had to reach out to her and ask her a few questions regarding its themes and writing style. Below is the interview I conducted via email, both my questions and her thoughtful and insightful responses, that have been edited slightly to avoid major spoilers. Also, if you haven’t yet read California I humbly suggest you do so:
Isabel Anreus: Domestic terrorism plays an important role throughout the novel. First, with Micah and the unraveling of Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities– emphasizing the idea of feeling unsafe. Even towards the end of the novel with the ultimate plan of Micah bringing terrorism into the Communities as an end goal. Can you discuss how this plays into the themes of safe/unsafe throughout the novel, and how you used the world/this country of today as perhaps a starting point?
Edan Lepucki: When I’m writing I try my best not to think too deeply about the work’s theme; that way, the material can lead me to its “deeper subject” (to borrow a term I use in my workshops), rather than the other way around–that feels more organic, and ends up, I think, creating a more realistic and complicated fictional world, without easy answers or messages. That said, I wanted to write about violence and about how two young people, this married couple, might try to maintain a sort of idealism despite the dangers and death they’ve fled (and come to face). I was struck by this image of a shopping mall suicide bomber, and what it might be like to be related to that person, to be that person’s sister, and went from there. The themes of safety/danger emerged without me knowing that was what I was doing, but it kept coming up. I think I’m interested in how families shield themselves (or try to shield themselves) from such violence and terrorism, and also how families can be selfish in that fight to protect themselves: for instance, a couple might protect their own child at the cost of a larger community or group. I began writing CALIFORNIA long before the near-constant onslaught of gun violence, and it was chilling and scary to see such events occur in real life. For instance, the Boston bombing occurred while my editor was reading a revision, and we both talked about how it echoed the events in my book. Speculative fiction isn’t really about the future, but about a part of the present that we fear or want to understand better.
IA: For me, this novel is about a marriage and I think you do a beautiful job with perspective. You move so seamlessly between Frida and Cal. They both seem to play the role of the protagonist. You capture, wonderfully, the way they even view each other so poignantly. Could you explain that writing process? How was it writing these two perspectives? Was it challenging balancing the two?
EL: Thank you! The shifting perspectives, actually, was one of the (only) easiest parts of the writing process. From the beginning I heard this book in third person and I knew I wanted to get both Frida and Cal’s perspectives. Before CALIFORNIA I wrote a novel (that was never published) that was written in first person, as well as a first-person novella. I was done with that POV, which had begun to feel so limited in its understanding of events. It was nice to have the flexibility of a third person. Since the perspective in CALIFORNIA is close but not particularly voice-driven, the shifts between Frida and Cal weren’t drastic. Rather, it felt more emotional moving from one’s viewpoint to the next. Of course I did think about word choice and such, but it was more about just trying to inhabit the scene as each would. I always say, What would the room look like to this character? That one question lets me really get into the character’s mindset and to pick up on details that would be relevant and meaningful to them. It was fun to inhabit Frida, who is far more impetuous and emotional than I am, and then to get a break from her, to be with Cal, who is more timid and sensitive than I am. Switching from each character chapter by chapter also gave me some useful narrative drive, as it let me jump forward in time, exploit secret keeping, and so on.
IA: When writing this novel, I was curious what was the goal of this story was it to show a new kind of (semi-realistic) dystopia world, or was it about showcasing a marriage, regardless of the outside world’s circumstances? Or was it always about blending the two?
EL: I always had both in mind. The goal was to tell a domestic drama against this larger stakes backdrop, but since I had never before tried my hand at speculative fiction, the world-building was pretty intimidating to me, and so I focused on Cal and Frida’s relationship. I first wrote about the little stuff in this future world–how badly you might smell, and the intense grief you might feel, and so on–and let that lead me to shaping the dystopia in general. A lot of the world building came in revision, though, and since I knew my characters well, that made it somewhat easier. I feel like plot is easily changeable if you understand deeply your characters and their needs, desires, flaws.
Edan Lepucki received her MFA in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She is the founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Her debut novel California came out in 2014. Her fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Narrative Magazine, Meridian and elsewhere.