Edan Lepucki. Photo: Adam Karsten
Edan Lepucki. Photo: Adam Karsten

Edan Lepucki had the debut every novelist dreams about. In the height of a battle between Amazon and Hachette in July 2014, when Amazon disabled the ability to ‘pre-order’ the publisher’s new releases, Stephen Colbert told his viewers that everyone should buy Lepucki’s new book, California. His recommendation helped catapult Lepucki’s dystopian novel onto the #3 position on the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out. It also pushed her into the ranks of the immediately identifiable writers.

Now Lepucki is about to publish another novel and the question hanging over her career is how strong is the book? Was her success due to Colbert’s endorsement or the strength of her writing? Would she be affected by “sophomore slump”?

Berkeleyside got an advance copy of Woman No. 17 and is happy to report Lepucki’s success was no fluke. Her new novel is both fun to read and asks serious questions about identity, art and motherhood. Lepucki will be speaking about the book Tuesday, May 9 at 7 p.m. at Diesel Books on College Avenue in Oakland. She will also be speaking Sunday, June 4 at 1:30 p.m. at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley.

Woman No. 17 revolves around Lady Daniels, a former bohemian woman who is married to Karl, a very rich man. They live in a gorgeous house in the Hollywood hills with their son Devin, a toddler, and Lady’s son from an earlier relationship, 19-year-old Seth, who does not talk. After Lady kicks Karl out of the house, she hires S, short for Esther, to babysit, so she can finish her overdue book about Seth’s refusal to speak. Over the course of the novel, which is alternately narrated by Lady and Esther, relationships are forged and fall apart, the characters’ secrets are revealed or not, and deception mingles with honesty. All of this is set in a wealthy part of Los Angeles, which is a character in its own right.

What was the inspiration for Woman No. 17?

When my first child was 15 months (he’s almost 6 now), he wasn’t yet talking. That’s totally normal, developmentally, but he was my first kid and so I was eager for him to hit every milestone. I began to wonder what it would be like to have a child who was non-verbal, and I was curious how that disability would shape his life and the life of the mother, and the relationship between them. I wanted to write about a mother who was troubled, who didn’t always do the right thing for her mute son. My own son does talk now (he won’t stop talking, in fact…!), but the themes in Woman No. 17 of acceptance/tolerance/patience between parent and child are still relevant to my own life as a mother.

Motherhood is at the center of this book. You deal with not only what it is like to be a mother, but the expectations we have of our mothers and our reactions when the ideal falls short. How much did becoming the mother of two play into your desire to write about motherhood?

This was the first project I’d embarked on after being a mother; everything else, like my novella, If You’re Not Yet Like Me and my first novel, California, were conceived (pun intended?) before I had ever experienced the day-to-day reality of parenting a small child. Those challenges, and joys, have influenced me greatly. My own mother has five children and considers parenting her vocation; it’s not the same for me. I love my kids (they’re so cute and smart and weird and wonderful!)… but I find parenting to be really difficult and sometimes I feel like I’m not “right for the job.” But what does that even mean? I’m not sure. I have always wanted to be a writer, but becoming a mother was a desire that didn’t come to me until I was in my late 20s. So it’s been hard to negotiate these two roles in my life: the writer and the mother. How do they relate? When are they in opposition? I think mothers today have such high expectations of themselves — they want to be everything to everyone, and look good while they’re at it! I feel frustrated by the lack of nuance in how we discuss parenting and how mothers are represented in the popular imagination. I wanted to write a novel that was in the tradition of books like Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer, and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver… these are books that show parenting in all its messiness.

Art is also front and center in Woman No. 17 — how it reveals and how it obscures the truth. In fact, the title of the book comes from a photo Lady’s famous photographer sister-in-law, Kit, took of her, part of a series of photographs of women. Esther has her own art project going on. What did using art as a theme allow you to do in the book?

I never write with a larger theme in mind — I always fear that, if I do, the work will feel too heavy-handed, driven by ideas rather than by the characters and their complex emotions. However, I love visual art and hanging around artists. I could talk to a photographer or painter all day about how they come up with their ideas, how they do what they do, and so on. I realize now, though, that the art in the book is another way for characters to represent themselves, or misrepresent themselves.

For instance, one of the book’s main characters, S, is an artist who decides to become a version of her mother at 22, which is how old S is when the book opens. She begins to dress like her, drink like her, and she takes the nanny position (with Lady and her family), to mimic her mother’s career at that age. This crazy art project totally captivated me, and I had a great time exploring it with (and as) S; through it, I was able to work with larger issues regarding identity, performance, and truth. Who are we, really? Kit, who photographs Lady, is all about capturing the private lives of everyday people–but is she capturing the truth or just her version of it? Lady feels like Kit exploited her — but did she? Or is Lady merely upset because Kit caught an image of Lady that reveals a life Lady would rather not share with others? In the book, characters use art to hide from themselves and others, and they also use it to reveal themselves.

Inspired by some of the fictional art in the book, I started an Instagram that collects photos of women’s mothers before they were mothers. It’s satisfying to see how in real life these same questions about identity and representation, especially as it pertains to photography, are still front and center!

Both of your novels are set in Los Angeles and the landscape plays a huge role in creating the atmosphere for the novels. In California, the world is an ecological wreck. In Woman No. 17 you linger on southern California’s good life, its weather, swimming pools and restaurants. What propels you to center your fiction in LA. And now that you live in the Bay Area, do you think you will write a book centered here? (You do make S attend UC Berkeley, and boy does she hate it.)

I was born and raised in LA, and I’m pretty sure the landscape is imprinted on my soul. I think I will always write about my hometown because it’s such a dynamic and compelling place, making it a great stage for drama. I wonder if, after all the wreckage of my first book, I wanted to conjure up some luxury for my characters — I went from derelict ghost town shacks to a Hollywood Hills mansion! I am definitely inspired by landscape in fiction and the ways that space, in particular, interior, confined spaces like homes, affect people’s behavior and promote or discourage intimacy. I wrote the early Berkeley section of Woman No. 17 soon after moving here… thankfully, I like the area more than S does. (What can I say? It’s grown on me…even the Baby Boomer fashion!) I am sure I’ll write about the East Bay more in the future. My only hesitation is that it’s so beautiful here — the flowers alone make me weak in the knees. I think I need a touch more ugliness for my fiction.

Are you moving back to LA? I saw that you told the LA Daily News that you bought a house there.

Yes! We bought a house in a Northeast neighborhood of LA called Glassell Park, and we will move later this summer. My entire family lives down there, so with two kids, we need their help more than ever. Now that I’m moving I realize all that I will miss: my friends, of course, and my writing group, but also the amazing food, the Bar Method Berkeley, the coffee spots,(Philz, especially the Jacob’s Wonderbar coffee, Hal’s Office Coffee Bar on Solano), the views from Tilden, and living right across the street from Terrace Park.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...