TCR Talks with Edan Lepucki, author of Time’s Mouth
By Jeni Eskridge
New York Times bestselling author Edan Lepucki returns with her third novel, Time’s Mouth, a moving exploration of generational trauma and the lengths we go to heal those wounds. Time’s Mouth spans fifty years and is set in iconic locations in California that anchor the reader in realism while Time, the omniscient narrator, takes readers on a journey through the lives of three generations searching for belonging.
Heroine Opal’s gift of being able to time travel back to the past becomes a portal to understanding her generational trauma. Why did her mother abandon her? What secret threatens to change the course of her familial history? What Opal doesn’t realize is that her journey to find and connect with her mother will unlock secrets from the past that will rock her foundation. With multidimensional relationships, charming settings and time travel that facilitates clarity, Time’s Mouth is enchanting. A little bit realism, a little bit magical, but mostly an interpersonal depiction of familial relationships. And did we mention time travel?
The Coachella Review sat down with Edan Lepucki to discuss her writing process and how this novel came to fruition.
The Coachella Review: Was there a specific inspiration for Time’s Mouth?
Edan Lepucki: There were a couple. The first one was my daughter, who is now seven; she’ll be eight in November. You know how every child is completely different from the moment they’re born? When she was born, she had this knowing gaze and these big blue eyes, and she kind of looked into my soul. And I thought, Oh wow, maybe she’s magic. And then I thought, Well, well, that would be cool story about a magical baby. I took it in a more foreboding turn in the book, but that was the first inspiration. But years before that, when I had my first child—my son, who is now twelve—the author Ben Fountain told me, “I don’t want to parent my kids all over again because it’s so hard. But if I could just go back in time for a little bit with them, when they were really young, I would,” and I got it. I got it because I have always wanted to go back and revisit places from my past. But as my kids age, it becomes more and more of a keen desire to get back this time that seems to be passing so fast.
TCR: Time does pass so quickly. How long did it take to write Time’s Mouth?
EL: It took me a long time. I mean, the actual time spent writing it was shorter, obviously, but from the moment I started the book—which I believe was January 2016—to the time it was published was over seven years. Probably it’s more like five if you don’t count the [revision of] my previous novel before that and the lockdown. I didn’t write for all of 2020, on this book at least. But in terms of writing and rewriting, I revised this book very heavily before I sold it. And even after that, I revised it a lot with my editor. So it was a long, long road.
TCR: What drove the huge revision, specifically in this case? Did it come from you? Your editor?
EL: You know, in this case, I revised it a couple times before I sold it, and I’m a very clean writer. I always call it the Barbie draft because they always look pretty, but they could never stand up on their own. On the sentence level, my work from the beginning is quite nice cause I actually really love to make sentences. And I don’t like writing out of order. I write in the order that I think the book is going to be told. Later in revision, I might rearrange it completely, which is what happened with this book. So I revised it, but it wasn’t until I sold the book to Dan Smetanka at Counterpoint that he said, “You know, I will buy this book, but I actually have a pretty strong editorial vision for it.” And I really liked what he thought.
At that point, I had a lot of editors who seemed to really like the characters but for some reason weren’t connecting with the book. And I had a similar issue with readers who liked the premise, liked the characters, but something wasn’t totally coming together. So I was really open to his editorial vision and with his guidance. I really undid the entire book, and I don’t think I would have had the guts to do that by myself. But knowing that he was such a good editor and a great reader and had terrific ideas, I was like, well, why don’t I try it? I don’t have anything to lose.
TCR: Time’s Mouth? Why is this the perfect title?
EL: You know, it took me a long time to come to that title. When I first thought of it, I thought, Oh, this is a terrible title. It’s hard to say. If someone [asks], What’s the name of your book, I always point to my watch, “Times’,” and then point to my mouth. But at the same time, I thought it had to be the title. It was sort of strange and otherworldly, a little bit magical, a little bit mysterious, which is what I want the book to be. And it is narrated by the mouth of Time. She can speak. I give her she/her pronouns, but she’s always genderless. She can speak for time, so she is literally a kind of mouth, and she sucks the time back. I have to admit, I like the idea of it sort of having a kind of vaginal connotation. I don’t think it screams that right away, but when you start to think about it and then you read some of the book, you’re like, Oh yeah, it’s like the portal from which we all typically come out.
TCR: Yes, absolutely. As I was reading, when Ursa or Opal transported back in time, I saw them slipping through a membrane, a uterine wall, a womb. How did you decide on this imagery for time travel?
EL: I have no idea. I mean, I think you make choices when you’re writing early on that just sort of come to you. You’re just kind of surfing along, and the kind of image you want is there. I know that I wanted something to feel more organic. I was interested in a kind of fantasy sci-fi, but I didn’t want anything that felt manmade. They’re going back in time, but they don’t have a time machine. Their body is the time machine, right? So I think it’s interesting to use bodily imagery to express that. And so much of the book is about parenting. We’re all parented in somebody’s body. I have had three kids, so I’m pretty familiar with the uterine imagery. I also liked playing with it because Ursa, in the beginning, is surrounded by these women in a female separatist colony, so I thought it was sort of fun to riff on those female body qualities.
TCR: Well, it works. I immediately had a vivid vision of the portal.
EL: It’s silly, but I thought it was fun to write, and then it could be vivid.
TCR: It’s vivid, but it also furthers the idea of the connection of mothers and daughters in a physical way.
EL: Thank you. I always think the reader is smarter than the writer. And I’m always so amazed when people have these interpretations of my book that I think are great.
TCR: While omniscient Time is the narrator, each section progresses the story from different characters’ points of view. How does the story come together without confusing the reader, and how does Time enhance the storyline?
EL: So I have this omniscient narrator, Time’s Mouth. She/it/they start the book as a way to teach you how to read it, knowing there’s sort of this overall intelligence that’s organizing the story, right? And then that allows me to move it to different people’s perspective. I hope it doesn’t get confusing in part because they’re pretty siloed from one another. I don’t do the thing that seems very difficult, which is moving into different perspectives mid-paragraph. You’re with one for a while, and occasionally Time’s Mouth kind of slips in a little aside. There used to be far more editorializing from her, but everybody except me thought she was annoying. Everyone was just like, “I’m trying to enjoy the story! Why is this omniscient narrator asserting her opinion?” But a couple times, [Time’s opinion] is left in to be wisdom or just a little idea that the narrator knows what’s going to happen, which I think helps with the suspense.
But I do think keeping [character sections] separated helps to move it chronologically. So [the reader] is introduced to a character earlier, and then by the time you get their perspective, you know them, right? And when I was with that character, I really leaned on my perspective. It’s the craft lesson of really seeing the world from a character’s perspective and letting the language slightly bend to them shaping the language. I lock into each perspective, and I know that everyone’s going to like one character more than another or enjoy being with one more than another. That’s always, I think, the risk in a perspective shift. Everybody knows those books where you love one character and then you get to the next one, and you’re like, Oh, can we please get out of this? You just prefer one person. Hopefully, everybody likes or dislikes, cause some people are pretty unlikable in the book, but regardless, the reader is compelled by them.
TCR: Time’s Mouth takes place over three generations, nearly fifty years, yet it never feels like you miss any important milestones within each character’s life. How did you achieve this?
EL: A lot of trial and error? I think every book gives you its gifts. Some things just come kind of easily to a book, right? And I would say for Time’s Mouth, the pacing and the way that Time moves did not come easily, which maybe makes sense because it’s a hard element of the book, and that’s really what the book is about. The book was originally told out of order; it started with Opal as a baby. And one of my editor’s ideas was to tell it chronologically and start sooner so that you could connect with all the characters, and that was missing from the book: an emotional connection to them. Starting chronologically earlier, I had to figure out where to compress the time and where to slow down and dramatize. And this is kind of Creative Writing 101, which is a lesson I’m always teaching to my students and always relearning now, three novels in, so it’s interesting how those rudimentary lessons about how you stop when there’s a moment of crisis or you stop when something is interesting, how you put in scenes what you want the reader to remember—these things that I teach my students—I had to teach myself. But I have always loved books that compress time, and that’s why I wanted to write this one where you pass five years in a couple paragraphs. I think it’s such a juicy novelistic pleasure. But I don’t have a straight answer except going back to those craft lessons that I learned long ago and I’m still learning.
TCR: So, let’s talk about setting. Three iconic locations: a 1950s Santa Cruz women’s commune, 1980s Melrose Avenue, and 1990s filming mansions nestled in the oil rigs off La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles. Why these locations?
EL: I think as I get further along in my writing life, I realize how central setting is, and I don’t think, when I was younger, I really recognized that in my work. But I think maybe as I also age myself, I get more deeply rooted into the places that I love and have emotional connections to, and L.A. and California are those places for me. This is where I’m from—where I live now—so I’m interested in investigating all those spaces. A few of them I always knew I wanted to write about it—that’s my upbringing, so I always wanted to write about that time off Melrose. I grew up on that same street, so I knew that I was going to put that in the book.
The two other locations, I have either hardly any or zero familiarity with. My friend went to college [in Santa Cruz], so I visited a few times. I always thought it was a really mysterious, beautiful, shimmering, spooky place. A few years back, we went to Ben Lomond, where the house that the mamas are in is, and from the moment I was there—and I’ve only been there like thirty minutes to an hour my entire life—there was something about it. There was the texture of the place, the feeling of the place. I just wanted to set something there, and I have no other reason except I had an emotional feeling. I was listening to NPR one day, a few years ago, and I heard the story about this mansion on the oil fields in LA—a real place that’s used for film locations. My dad is a location manager, like Ray in the novel, and I asked him [about the house]. He said, ‘Oh, I’ve seen it. I’ve gone to look at it.” He said I could pretend to be a producer and go see it in person. But I never went to see it. I kind of like the idea of making it up myself because I could make it whatever I wanted. And I [wanted] to make it like the Santa Cruz location. Isolated. Magical strange.
And then San Francisco in the 1950s—that came at the end of the whole process of writing the book because it was during revision. I was actually really afraid to write that because I don’t write historical fiction. I have spent some time in San Francisco because I lived in the East Bay, [but] modern day San Francisco is different. But that was actually really fun because I could write about an outsider, Ursa, and she didn’t know a lot about the city. So I could kind of mimic that myself, right? Looking at old photographs and seeing the building and trying to describe them enough to make it evocative for the reader. But I also just love this idea of having a book that had all these different California locations, all in one book. They’re all quite different, but something about the intense feelings I have for them connects them and hopefully imbues the whole book with a sense of a strong sense of place.
TCR: So your settings are grounded in the history of the geography and decade. How did you build the magical world around that?
EL: I think it helps, actually. You’re not working in a vacuum, right? You have all of this physical stuff at your disposal to use. And as a writer, I think one of the reasons I have plot in my books, even though plot is really hard for me, is that I actually need kind of the armature of it to hold the emotional consciousness. I really admire writers who can kind of write about nothing. Like nothing happens, and yet you’re deep into a character’s mind. I can’t do that. I don’t know how it happens without being boring or floating off in space. I actually need the setting and action to hold the larger ideas. And having those interesting settings was like a vessel for the magic because I don’t, to be honest, read a ton of supernatural magical writing. I do occasionally, but I love realism. And so, for instance, having Ursa and the mamas in this funny-shaped room in what they call the Eastern Wing, an addition to this old mansion in the woods, that’s where they do their time traveling. I had stuff to work with there. I had the skylights. I had the pillows—the mystical environment. And then when Opal is time traveling, she’s sitting in this little box that her dad has built in this old garage. And that’s another thing I can use to put the character somewhere so they can do this thing that is kind of wacko. I think that realness helps you believe the wacko qualities.
TCR: The warning that comes as a result of the misuse of traveling into the past serves as a metaphor for living in the past at the expense of living in the future. How is this life lesson important or reflective of your own life story?
EL: I think writing this book was a little cathartic in that I’ve always been a person that’s forward-thinking, that’s excited about the future, but I also just so badly want to go back in time to these lost moments. But with writing this book, I exorcise that a little bit just by getting to do it. All of Opal’s memories are mine. And because I know how badly it turned out for Ursa, I feel like the loss that is built into motherhood and parenthood in general is why it’s so beautiful. That if you didn’t have the loss, you wouldn’t understand parenthood and [Ursa] never understood the loss. And that’s why she’s not a great mom, right? So I’m always like, I understand the loss. I’m tapping into it, and I’m trying to be present because I know this is never going to happen again. I’m usually better at it, but sometimes I’ll fall asleep and think, Why wasn’t I more fully present? Why was I looking at my email when my four-year old was trying to talk to me. He’s not going to be four for very much longer. He’s such a little baby, but not for long. Then I cut myself some slack, and I’m like, Yeah, it’s life. But I do try to bring that sense of being present and knowing that it’s all going away into my parenting, as a celebratory thing.
TCR: What inspires you to write about such deep interpersonal family relationships?
EL: You know, it’s funny. People keep saying this is a mother-daughter book, but is it? It’s a mother-daughter book. It’s a mother-son book. It’s a dad-daughter book. There are all these different parent-child relationships in the book. I think because I am a daughter and I have one daughter, it continues to be a strong subject for me. It’s interesting. Woman Number 17 [Lepucki’s previous novel] has kind of a toxic mother-daughter relationship, but it also has a mother-son relationship. I think just mothering in general is interesting to me. I do think it’s typically about the mother because I feel like the mother is so central to our understanding of ourselves, and that connection can make or break you, sadly. I had a really great mom who was so present in my life, and that’s kind of her vocation as a mother. She had five children and she stopped working [outside the home] when my little sister was born. I was ten. But she’s always been present, and she’s so into being a grandma! She’s still present in my life, and I feel like she and my dad are why I feel very secure in the world. I mean, I’m not perfect, obviously, and they didn’t do everything well, but for the most part they tried their best, and they did a great job. I feel like I can live in the world because I was so cared for, and I know other people who struggle so much because they were not cared for in the way that I was.
And I think that it’s endlessly interesting and tragic. Because I’m raising people, I’m always like, OK, this is such an existentially fraught assignment I’ve been given, and I’m fucking it up all the time. But I think I’m doing okay. There’s only been a couple of times where I think, Oh, I nailed this parenting! A lot of the time, I’m like, Oh, my God, this is so hard and lonely. It’s an endless cycle of the anxieties about it, right? But I love parenting, and I think it’s just so challenging, and I’ve got to write about it. It’s so fictively rich.
Jeni Eskridge is a playwright, an educator, a classically trained vocalist, and an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside’s Low Residency Creative Writing program in Nonfiction. Jeni lives and writes in Rancho Mirage, CA.