A FEW MONTHS AGO, Edan Lepucki was largely unknown outside literary circles, so she wasn’t expecting to do many interviews about her debut novel, California. That all changed when, as The New York Times put it, she “won the literary Lotto.” Lepucki was at home watching The Colbert Report when she saw a copy of her book in the hands of the brilliant and well-read host Stephen Colbert, whose books had also been published by the Hachette Book Group.
At issue for Colbert (and his million-plus viewers) was the recent dispute between Amazon and Hachette, which claimed that Amazon was preventing customers from pre-ordering books by their authors and, according to The New York Times, delaying shipments or marking certain books as “out of stock.” These tactics were not unfamiliar to other publishers negotiating with Amazon. The prominent writer Sherman Alexie, Colbert’s guest that evening and another Hachette author, mentioned California as a book by a new writer, part of a group that ultimately suffered the most in the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Colbert then held up a copy of the novel like a weapon. The message to his viewers? Pre-order the book from Colbert’s own website and show Amazon where you stand in this fight.
Suddenly, Lepucki was a beneficiary of the famous “Colbert Bump” and a poster-author for the row between the two giants. Shortly thereafter, she’d add another honorific to her newfound status — best-selling author, which, of course, came with all the trappings. There was unexpected scrutiny, the weight of new publicity responsibilities, and a lot of big questions about the fate of humanity and the planet. (Her book, if you haven’t heard yet, tells the story of a couple’s fight for survival in a mysterious and dangerous post-apocalyptic world.)
Lepucki, a staff writer for the online magazine The Millions, was more accustomed to asking questions than fielding them herself, and the change took some getting used to. Even recently, when asked about the series of events that led to our phone conversation (among other things), she still retained something of the gee-whizz, dazed bearing of the Lotto winner. Given California’s reception, however, she may have to get used to the spotlight.
Jordan G. Teicher: You’ve said that you felt “icky” about profiting from the dispute between Amazon and Hachette. Why?
Edan Lepucki: Before the attention from Stephen Colbert, I was one of many authors who was looking at Amazon and seeing no pre-order button for my book. I thought, “Will the book just die?” That feeling still exists for a bunch of other Hachette authors, so it feels icky to think I’m benefiting from this problem other authors are still having. I feel lucky and grateful for all the attention that’s resulted, but I wish this would end so everyone can just sell books.
You told The New York Times, “If you don’t ponder the end of the world on a regular basis, I don’t think you’re really human.” What did you mean by that?
People have been attracted to end-of-the-world narratives forever —since the beginning of the world, it seems to me. It was sort of a joke when I said that but I do think there’s something distinctly human about imagining suffering in order to move forward. To ponder that seems to me completely normal — not on a regular basis, necessarily. I’m not pondering the end of the world most of the time. I have a pretty cheery outlook otherwise.
In an interview you conducted with your agent, Erin Hosier, she said, “There’s still this notion that women have to deliver a happy ending/redemption in order to have the opportunity to sell.” Do you think that’s the case?
She would probably know better than I would what is more commercial. Most writers just write and then find out later they’re getting interest from the marketplace for whatever reason. Some see my ending as life-affirming; I see it as extremely dark. I will also add, it seems to me, that for a work to be commercial a character must be likable or relatable, and it often seems that the bar is higher for female characters. People find some behavior in female characters to be distasteful that they might not in a male character.
You became pregnant while writing California. You’ve written about the “perils of reading pregnant.” What are the perils of writing pregnant?
While I was pregnant, I read all kinds of books other pregnant women might shy away from, like We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is about a woman who has a son who’s a psychopath and kills a bunch of kids at his school. It turned out to be one of my favorite novels. Writing when I was pregnant didn’t feel any different than when I wasn’t pregnant, except that I was motivated to get as much of the story done as possible before the baby came. It was a useful deadline. I knew my life was about to change dramatically, so I wanted to make sure I had enough pages so that the book would continue to matter after I became a mother. It’s easy for your book not to matter once you have a human being to take care of.
Your first novel failed to sell to a publisher. Why do you think that happened?
I don’t think it sold because it was a very dark novel about a teenage girl, but it wasn’t a young adult novel. It posed a marketing problem. I also don’t think it was a good enough novel. If it had been better written it might have overridden those marketing questions.
What did it feel like to be rejected?
On the one hand, it was purely horrible to be rejected for something I’d worked on for four years. But at the same time, it was during all that that I started California. By the time I had given up on submitting that book with my agent I had already been writing California for a year. Writing was a solace, the only comfort I had in all of that. That said, I always pledged if I didn’t sell California I was going to become a nurse, turn my back on writing, and give up. Now, I feel the experience helps me with my students because [being rejected] was the worst thing I’d imagined — that I’d slave over a novel for years and not sell it. That was my biggest fear and it happened — and I am fine. That’s a meaningful story I can share with my students who are working on their first novels. That said, I think their novels are a lot better than my first novel.
Have people read the central relationship in California as autobiographical in some way?
What’s kind of great about writing a post-apocalyptic book is you get those questions a lot less. If I’d written a book about a husband and wife in LA, everyone would assume it was autobiographical. It’s fine if people want to assume I’m Frieda and my hubby is Cal. We’re not, but whatever people need to do to read the book is fine with me. I’m married and I’ve used my experience to inform the book in some ways. There are other little things that are more from my life and larger abstract things, but the characters are not literally me or people I know.
Can you talk about the editing process? How did it change your earlier notions about publishing?
Before I got my notes from my editor I had been teaching for six or seven years, but I hadn’t been in a workshop since 2006, when I graduated from Iowa. I had been in workshop atmospheres after that, but as the teacher giving the critique. To be on the other end was a shock to me because I hadn’t had that in so long. Allie’s notes were so sharp, so incredibly thorough and well-argued, which was sometimes hard. It annoyed me that she was so right. It’s humbling to feel that someone else can help you, that this person is correct in her critique and is making the book better. It’s a vulnerable situation to get criticism but as a teacher it was useful to me to be reminded of that — just to continually be reminded to return to the text, open it and just enter it again and again. I feel now the book is how it was always intended to be. It just took me a few revisions to find it.
How do you feel all this attention will affect your process going forward?
I recently went back to Ucross [writers’ residency program] in Wyoming, where I started California. I spent 12 days busting out my new book because I knew that when the publicity started on California, I wouldn’t have as much time as I wanted. I feel I have enough of the new book to know what I’m doing; it’s asserted its identity. So I feel I’m not influenced by the reception of California because I’ve already started this new project. You’d think I’d be worried to go back to writing after being exposed in this intense way, but weirdly it’s made me want to write so badly. It’s made me want to close the door and go back to a fictional world that’s mine. It’s hard to shut out the noise whether or not you have a book out or whether you are getting a lot of press. But I just turn off my internet and go.
Your agent said, “Writing can either save you or ruin your life.” What has it done for you?
When I’m not writing, the world is actually pretty boring to me. As much as I complain and cry about writing, I feel it adds this other magical dimension to my life. It lets me explore fictional worlds and all these different consciousnesses. I feel like I’m possessed or eavesdropping. It just makes me see the world deeply. It makes my inner life very rich. Even on a day when I’m not doing anything exciting, if I’m working on something I can still daydream. I’m saying this now because I’m not writing, but when I’m doing it I’m always complaining. In theory, though, I love it.