Edan Lepucki on Dick Pics, California, and Motherhood
The Author of Woman No. 17, in Conversation with Bethanne Patrick
Edan Lepucki comes to the telephone out of breath and laughing. “I’m escaping from my children!” she cries, and I can hear said offspring giggling in the background (her son is six years old, her daughter 18 months).
Don’t worry. Unlike the protagonists of her new novel Woman No. 17, a mother and nanny who have elastic ideas about how to raise kids, Lepucki is the very model of a modern wife and mother. She married at 25 and now, at 36, lives happily near her family of origin in her state of origin, whose name was the title of her first novel, California. That book rose to unprecedented sales after Stephen Colbert told his viewers to buy it directly from their shared publisher, Hachette, instead of ordering it from Amazon—one report said that Lepucki signed 10,000 copies in three days to keep up with the demand.
These days, Edan Lepucki is a contributing editor to The Millions, and the founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She’s a graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Oh, and did I mention Lepucki has two really adorable and energetic offspring? We talked about parenting, “dick pics,” California as a brand, and much more.
Bethanne Patrick: Did you set out to write about motherhood?
Edan Lepucki: When I’m writing a book I don’t try to think too hard about the larger themes. I really just had these two women who came on the page. I wrote Lady Daniels (editor’s note: “Lady” is a childhood nickname) and I gave her a babysitter, and they had such an instant connection that I knew I needed to write about their relationship. I don’t want to make it supernatural or something, but they had a life of their own. Still, they also had their origin in several books, including Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin—all of those complicated woman/mom books, I call them “messy moms.”
BP: They had a life of their own? Is that more about the creative subconscious, or about your own subconscious?
EL: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s definitely the latter! I don’t want to make it sound like I have no POV and that I don’t read books like the English major that I was, but when I write books I try to let the mystery take hold. The meaning accumulates and moves through the story. I really do believe the subsconscious does all of this work. Connections are being made while you’re sleeping. It does have a kind of magical quality and believe me, I’m not that person.
BP: The more I consider it, Woman No. 17, with its title taken from an artwork and its various female characters—it’s about variations on how to be a woman.
EL: That’s a really good way of looking at the book. Two women, 20 years apart, are different generationally and in so many other ways, yet each of them sees aspects of herself in the other, right? The nanny S.’s millennial qualities have a kind of nimble identity, she can become her own mother for a project in part because she has a flexibility about sense of self, but also doesn’t see herself. Lady, meanwhile, is in a state of constant denial. Lady’s sister-in-law Kit is a famous photographer, an “art monster” if you will, and she has taken photographs of Lady. I was really interested in this notion of Lady’s being “Woman No. 17” and being alienated from that image of herelf, an image that suggests she lived a certain way, in “interesting” poverty. It’s a thorny idea, because Lady’s not really comfortable with who she is now, let alone with who she was in the past. All of the characters have different ways of living in identity. Who’s the real Lady? Who’s the real Woman No. 17?
BP: I find it fascinating that you also gave a woman with so many identity issues a son who is mute.
EL: My inspiration for Lady’s son, Seth, was my own son, who wasn’t talking at 15 months (most kids aren’t—but still I worried.) He does speak now, but it was a very trying time to go through, wondering if there was something different about my little boy, wondering if we would ever be able to communicate using the words that are my currency.
However, pretty soon after I started writing Seth—who is 18 when the novel takes place—I was like why did I do this? Why did I choose a character who cannot speak? Think about it: That’s a challenge. I worried that he might start to feel like a symbol, instead of having a disability that was real and part of him. I focused on what it would feel like for Lady. What would it feel like for a single mother to have a child who could not talk to her? I wanted Seth to be complex, to be more than a sort of sensibility on the page in a novel that is about all the ways people communicate or don’t communicate.
BP: Without giving anything away, there’s a section in the book involving “dick pics” that get sent to a character.
EL: The dick pics: No one’s asked me about those! This is my first interview with a question about the dick pics. I wanted to talk about seeing women and I wanted it to be both empowering in some ways, toxic in other ways, and I wanted there to be a point of discomfort in the way that these characters see a particular man. Lady is always asserting her own story, even though it’s his. I wanted that to feel really uncomfortable. And then, wanted to turn it on its head even further. I wanted every woman, especially younger women, to see these photos as just sort of the mundane violence that they are. It’s sad to think this is a part of our contemporary ways of being female. Receiving a picture of genitalia—what a sadly everyday horror… I wanted to have that in the narrative, but put in on its head. No pun intended!
BP: One of the toughest forms of miscommunication that you deal with is a woman lying to herself, as S. does through her deceit of almost everyone.
EL: You’re pointing to S.’s idea of taking on her own mother’s pre-maternal identity as “Katherine Mary.” She tries to enter her mother’s young existence to the point of it becoming a Cindy Sherman photo in real life. I think the question of the story there is, is S.’s project a reclamation point? Is it really her true path? What’s her deal? In the beginning of the book she’s a landscape painter. All of her “projects” start with these suggestions from other people. S. doesn’t really know why she’s doing the project at first. Her mother is kind of brazen, but pulled that off because she knows herself better. Because her mother is drinking she’s never been able to really truly be there for S. (Esther, as a child) like her father has been. S. is trying to figure out in this really crazy way who her mother is, and trying to understand her.
BP: All of your characters drink—a lot. What’s up with that?
EL: There have been some reader reviews concerned about how much S. drinks when she’s working as a nanny. I think of S. as a good nanny, someone who loves and connects to her little charge, Devin. But here’s the point: If she’s dressing as her mother and taking care of a child, then that child becomes her. S.’s project is about healing the wounds of her own childhood. There’s also a maternal element to Lady’s relationship with S., and that creates new wounds. I’m very close to my parents, and they’re terrific parents, but nobody’s immune to being human. My own parents divorced when I was five, and while you might say it was a “good” divorce, I don’t think my five-year-old self would agree. That’s one of the straight autobiographical parts of the book, my parents divorced when I was five, and there was a sense of a difference between my two lives. Dad was a single dad, ate in front of the TV, was very permissive; Mom was remarried with two kids, and I changed back and forth every week. It helped me to toggle back and forth between worlds, an excellent skill for a novelist.
I’m kind of fascinated by how these things get passed down. I really don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have a model to follow. Parenting is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. How we enact parenthood can be based on how we were raised. My best friend is a therapist and we talk about it a lot. How do you get past trauma? The answers are you need so much effort and so much support to be able change those histories.
BP: Your first novel is titled California. Do you think of yourself as a Californian writer? A West Coast writer? Do these distinctions matter?
EL: Being a West Coast or California writer is an important distinction for me. I want to represent as faithfully as I can the communities that I come from. The nice thing about LA and the Bay Area is that they are great communities but everybody’s not a writer, not every other person’s a writer! I talk to my California friends about if there is a drawback to not being in NYC, not being close to publishing… Yes and no. We don’t get some opportunities others get, we definitely feel that and we have a kind of chip on our shoulders about it, but our project is to write about where we live. California: Such a brand! Our job as California writers is to go and encourage certain elements of that idea, and also to break the myth. In my book, S. says she realizes Lady was in her second act, she lives in the Hollywood Hills, one of the most anonymous places in LA to me, no sidewalks, all these curvy roads and lots of new money and construction, not a lot of neighborliness. Lots of people living this new myth of themselves. It’s the perfect place for someone to be isolated in their new identity. LA is kind of known for that, your house becomes a kind of public/private space and even if you don’t live in an enclosed far-off mansion, it’s that kind of city.
BP: I can definitely see that, especially with all the time that Lady, S., and Devin spend in and around the pool—they don’t need to get out into the world, but can spend entire days lazing in water.
EL: The water/pool has a sort of enveloping quality, amniotic fluid is the safest place at least in our minds, right? I was recently talking with some women friends who are in their 60s and they introduced me to the idea of “the rabbit died,” which I hadn’t known about before for some reason—and they told me about this after I’d written the whole Peter Rabbit business in the book. So there’s a real dichotomy between the sinister and the comforting. That also describes the friendship between Lady and S.—sinister, and comforting. And maybe it describes LA just a little bit, too. My interest is really in domestic drama and what I mean by that is drama in enclosed spaces. Homes have a hum and can promote intimacy or deny it or destroy it.
BP: How does that tie back in to the “messy mom” paradigm?
EL: It’s that bifurcated “mom” existence—if Lady wrote the real memoir she’s supposed to be writing about her elder son and his muteness, it would be way more interesting: Wow, this is really painful. Wow, you didn’t do the right thing. But she can’t do that, she’s living a lie and she really can’t do what’s best for the memoir. She is really trying to put up a façade for herself, and that’s keeping her from enjoying Devin. He’s very verbal and precocious and she resents that because it’s the second time around. See? California, land of second acts.