A Conversation with Edan Lepucki

By Cynthia Romanowski


Edan Lepucki is the author of the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me, published by Flatmancrooked Press. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her short fiction has been published in Narrative Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Meridian, and FiveChapters, among others. She is a staff writer for The Millions. In 2009, she won the James D. Phelan Award for her recently-completed novel, The Book of Deeds. She lives in Los Angeles–where she was born and raised–with her husband Patrick and their dog Omar Little. She likes books, dancing, and filling out forms.

Your novella, If Your Not Yet Like Me, is about a pregnant women and the short story you’ve included at the end is also about a pregnant women. Have you ever been pregnant?

I have. I’m actually pregnant right now. I’m four months pregnant this week. It’s actually funny, the story I’m A Lion Now I wrote probably over two years ago and that was before I had any thoughts about that, it was sort of like something I may do in the future. Then when I wrote the novella about a year ago as it was something that was starting to come up in my mind, but it was still very much in my subconscious, but I purposely paired them because I thought content-wise they were similar but they’re really different formally. I thought it would be funny to have two stories about pregnant women.

Isn’t there a bathtub in each of the stories too?

There are two bathtubs. Which is actually like really embarrassing because there are bathtubs in everything I write.

Bukowski took baths a lot too, I think.

You know, it’s the work of genius… There was another story that I was going pair with the novella called Salt Lick that was on Flatmancrooked’s website. That’s also in the first person and I felt like there was too much similarity in the voice. Since they were both in first person there was something formally alike about them, so I just tried to go like totally different but in the process somehow it seemed like I was obsessed with making babies.

And now you’re having a baby.

And now I’m having a baby which is really awkward because when I tell people their like, “oh I read your novella I know all about that” and I’m like, “I swear it’s fictional!”

When you come up with an idea do you start with a character or an image or a theme? How did your main character, Joellyn, come to be?

Joellyn came all from her voice. Usually, in general, I write for character. Character is everything to me – that’s what gets me interested both as a reader and a writer. But I really love language and prose writing and Joellyn specifically--and for a lot of my first person stories-- came through the voice. I didn’t know what I was going to write about and I just started writing her and she was really mesmerizing and strange and shocking. In my mind I had wanted to write like a screwed-up romantic comedy (I love that genre even though I wanted to write a more realistic version) so I always wanted to write that and then as soon as her voice came in I was like, whoa, there’s something there and I realized this is a single women who fucks up her relationships. I knew that like a mile away, that she wasn’t going to be able to handle intimacy or honesty or any those things.

So when you first started writing short stories you wrote primarily in the first person, right?

Yeah, even now first person feels the most natural to me. I had a teacher in graduate school who thought that third person was easier, but I disagree. It’s really your choice and depends on what you gravitate toward. There’s something about inhabiting a character; it really feels like acting--not that I’ve ever taken an acting class-- but by learning how they use sentences and how they describe things, I come to understand who they are. And I’m really obsessed--especially in the last two years while working on The Book of Deeds where I have a first person narrator. I’m very much obsessed about how people tell stories about their own lives. People are a little bit manipulative about the ways that they order their lives. They’re also really private but they’re also really showy. All of those things working against each other and in combination is really fascinating to me. Voice has always been the easiest way for me to enter prose.

Do you ever worry about the voices in your first person stories sounding too similar? Do you notice some overlap?

There’s a certain kind of first person female voice that I like to use which is a little bit more elevated. They kind of talk a little bit above so I can get away with away with writing some imagery and things. There are some similarities between my story Salt Lick and Joellyns voice in If You’re Not Yet Like Me, then in The Book of Deeds I see some similarities. That story is about a women in her 30’s looking back on the summer when she’s 16 and her voice sounds very similar to the women in my story called Animals, which I wrote in graduate school, but I feel almost like Animals was sort of preparing me to write The Book of Deeds, cause I was able to see what that voice felt like.

Somebody told me once that writers never finish stories it’s more like at a certain point they have to abandon them. Do you feel like that’s true?

I do, because I feel like you stop when you make them as good as you can make them, which implies that someone else can probably help you make them better, but it’s your story, so your stuck with whatever your left with. I feel like I made If You’re Not Yet Like Me as good as I could make it, but then I had trouble because I would get really corny towards the end, where I would sort of feel bad for her and I really wanted her to open up. But my editor kept telling me even though she’s gonna open up a little bit and reveal some of her vulnerability she’s going to continue to close up in relationships and be the same person. I really wanted to honor that.

So when you were getting your MFA in Iowa, did you decide that you were going to work on only short stories to get started? Because it seems like you’ve been building up to your first novel by getting a bunch of short stories published and then doing the novella before jumping into a full-on novel.

I had decided to do stories. I mean, you could do whatever you wanted and there were a couple people working on novels, but the program was really designed better for story writers. I felt like I had an idea for a book that was very vague and I was just sort of afraid to jump into it. I didn’t really want to start showing the first hundred pages of my novel to these twelve or fifteen people, ‘cause I think I would have just put it away if I did that, so I kind of wanted to just keep it to myself until I had enough sense of direction and structure on my own to help me do it right. It’s like I had to go in my cave to do the novel. I really loved writing stories and reading them and I had written stories in college. My professor, Dan Chaon, was a short story writer at the time and was working on his first novel and was in hell, so I wanted to wait. Now I actually think I’m better at working on longer things, with a novel I think I’m better at pulling the thread and keeping the narrative tension.

In Steve Almond’s book on writing “This Won’t Take But A Minute Honey” he talks about not really enjoying writing as much as he enjoys having written, and he also talks about how people tend to be over-writers or under-writers. What do you consider yourself?

I would say I’m probably an under-writer. I write a page and then I look it over, so I tend to write less then other people. A lot of times after I’ve gotten through a scene I need to flesh it out with more details, whereas I know I have a lot of students who will sometimes need to do major cutting. And I definitely feel like having written is really a far better experience then being just about to write.

Are you one of those writers who procrastinates and cleans the whole house before sitting down, or do you have pretty good habits?

Lately, I’m very regimented where I write from nine to noon. Annie Dillard in her book “The Writing Life”--which is one of my favorite books on writing—talks about what happens when you leave your writing for too long and says it’s like leaving an animal in a room, like a beast in a room and how you become afraid to go in and have to deal with it. So while I’m not a necessarily a proponent of writing every day, I have found that working on my book every day really helps. I took a couple days off recently and when it was time to go back I was like, “Oh god! Oh god where am I at!” Whereas today it was a lot easier because I was like, ok, I went there yesterday, I know where I’m at, ect.

So what’s it like going to the number one MFA program in the country? Do you get reactions when you tell people and how has it affected your career?

When I’m talking to people who know about writing who ask me where I went, it sometimes feels awkward, ‘cause I don’t want it to seem like I’m showing off and I’m not, so I feel that just a tinge, but in general it’s opened so many doors and offered me so many opportunities because it means something to people. It probably means more to people in their minds, like it’s a lot shinier in peoples minds than it is in real life. But if it helps people think that I’m going to be a good writer, that’s great, but I have a feeling that a lot of people probably hate me more than anything. A lot of people think the Iowa people get all the stuff (like grants and things) but I don’t think that’s really true – although it did help me get a job at UCLA Extension.

It seems like nowadays when it comes to being a writer there’s a lot more thought that has to go into self-promotion or branding and there are all these social networks and things like Twitter that writers need to utilize, which almost goes against what might seem natural since writing is usually a pretty solitary, personal activity. How do you deal with all these sorts of things? Is it something you dread or embrace?

I definitely don’t dread it mainly because I’m a pretty outgoing person. I think some writers are so introspective that they don’t have any interest or want to talk to anyone, whereas I think I live a pretty rich, imaginative life in my mind that is perfect for writing. I value the time I have alone, but I also feel relieved to be able to do other aspects of the writing life that are not writing. I think if I were only writing all day long, I would go absolutely bonkers, so I don’t feel like I’m doing any of that stuff as publicity or branding--

You just do it naturally…

… yeah and I think that people from our generation are better off in some ways in that I haven’t had four books come out and now I’m like, “oh shit, I have to start a twitter feed!” Actually right now though I’m taking a little break from all that.

Why?

I like to take a break from all the social networking stuff. Last year I took a four month break which I wrote about for The Millions, (which ended up being the most popular article I had ever written) because I tend to get really addicted to things like Facebook, and I wish I had a personality like one of those people who don’t like television and are just like, “oh I never go on the Internet,” but I don’t have that personality. So when I write in the morning, I unplug my modem because I need to detach. There are certain times when I feel like it’s gotten oppressive, my interest in the Internet, so even though most times I need and value having that community and that support, there are other times when I need to finish this revision, and I don’t have anything to really publicize right now, and I don’t need to be looking at these pictures of these dogs from my uncle’s co-worker’s mother or something, so I just sort of unplug for a while and just stay in my head for a little bit. I think every writer nowadays that has the same interests that I do struggles with that and has to remember that the writing is more important than all that other stuff that comes after it. I can’t do the stuff that comes after until I actually do the writing. I found that in the fall when I was doing the novella launch and stuff with my agent for my novel, there was a lot of brain space being crowded with all the extra stuff that wasn’t creative about writing.

What about working on the blog and non-fiction vs. fiction? I’ve heard that some writers even have separate desks when they’re working on each kind. You don’t strike me as that type of person.

I have one desk, from Target…It’s funny because I started writing for The Millions because Max and I worked at Book Soup together before I went to Iowa. So he was the person that told me what a blog was, this was 2002 or 2003, so I feel really blessed that I got into it early before it became this huge thing that it is. I feel like wow, I could never get that gig now! But I really like writing for The Millions. I have to write two posts a month to be a regular contributor, and sometimes it’s the twentieth of the month and oh god, I have to come up with another post, but because I write a lot about writing and reading and from doing interviews and stuff it really requires me to be a better reader, so instead of just reading a book for fun I really have to think about a certain passage or how I can express myself. So it’s definitely easier for me than fiction writing. I can write a post in a day and I actually write it directly into the blog program, Wordpress, putting the links in as I write. It’s definitely less studying, less painstaking than fiction and a nice break from it. I use a totally different part of my mind when doing it. It’s less emotional and I really like being in the literary world and feeling like I have a voice, that I can write about the books I like and get a reaction. The fact that people might actually care is crazy to me.

How do you decide what to read?

I don’t decide to review anything for the site before I read it. Instead, I’m usually reading something and I really like it and then decide to write about it; or in the case with Lorrie Moore’s book A Gate at the Stairs, which I was so excited to read but ended up hating, I was like, oh my god I have to write about this experience of when one of my favorite writers disappoints me and how that feels. I’ve never thought of myself as a critic; instead I write about my experiences reading. I get sent free books sometimes from publishers or they’ll ask to send me something, but I won’t accept a book unless it’s a writer that I like and even then, I never guarantee that I’ll write about something, so that I can have a pure experience with it.

Generally, I don’t have an intense system for deciding what I read. I usually read a lot of contemporary fiction and I keep a list of everything I read and keep track of male vs. female authors and try to read them evenly, and also short stories to novels. I basically read more of what I’m working on, so this year there were more novels. I also try to throw in a couple nonfiction, and I always try to read some classics during the year. This summer I read a bunch of E.M. Forrester novels. But in general, since I write for The Millions, I tend to get swept up in all the new books. But I’ve found that a lot of the classics were very trashy – well not trashy, but they were best sellers for a reason, because they’re super juicy! And I have enjoyed going back on some of those books that I kind of shunned in college, like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and then found that I really liked them, which I didn’t expect.

Yeah you wrote about that a little bit for The Millions, about how we tend to remember whatthe classics are about, but then forget about how they’re written.

And I really do like reading books like Middlemarch and things like that because one of the things I’m most interested in is women’s sexuality at that time. How it was something that was kind of taught to people, like the idea of a contemporary marriage based on love is a pretty recent phenomenon. It’s cool to me to read those books from the 1800’s because it’s like the novels themselves are kind of working out those issues, like Jane Eyre is all about marrying for love, which was not something that people always opted to do then. But in general, I read contemporary fiction. I was really pleased that I just finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I had read Room and A Visit From The Goon Squad. Those were all books of the year and I was like YES! I got them all! So there’s definitely a little conquistador in me that likes to have read all of the big recent books.

 

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