It’s not every day your first novel gets promoted on national television.
On June 4th, Stephen Colbert welcomed Sherman Alexie on The Colbert Report to discuss the dispute between Hachette Book Group and Amazon. Colbert and Alexie are both Hachette authors affected by the ongoing negotiations, and toward the end of the segment, the two urged viewers to consider their book-buying habits before defaulting to Amazon. In doing so, they did two things: sang the praises of independent bookstores (with a specific nod toward the Portland, Oregon-based Powell’s), and singled out the next title readers should get their hands on—California, a post-apocalyptic drama published by Hachette imprint Little, Brown and the debut of Edan Lepucki.
Before Colbert and Alexie announced to a live audience (and millions of viewers) that California is well worth reading, Lepucki was attempting to do what she does best: write. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles, an ongoing program for emerging writers, Lepucki is also a staff writer for The Millions, and has had work published in esteemed literary venues like Narrative and McSweeney’s. Additionally, she is the author of a novella titled If You’re Not Yet Like Me, which, while not apocalyptic, traffics in the same interests that preoccupy Lepucki, particularly the messy, complicated relationships between people.
While the less you learn about California before reading, the better, it helps to know the wholly absorbing story concerns a married couple—Cal and Frida—and follows their journey after American civilization has gone into decline due to the severe effects of global warming. Lepucki’s grim vision of the future features an unchecked, corrupt government and communities named after corporations (Amazon is actually one), where those with money can live in peace. Class warfare is more literal than abstract, and urban centers like Los Angeles (where Lepucki grew up) have become so dangerous, our introduction to Cal and Frida is through their escape from the city. They’re survivalists, not because they were built for such roles, but because few other options exist. As the novel grows in scope, and more of the deteriorating world is revealed, Cal and Frida not only find themselves at odds with the nightmarish present—which includes mercenaries, rampant terrorism, and cult-like idolatry—but also with each other.
“The tension in the book is something I’m really thankful for as a writer,” Lepucki says. Because so much of the novel investigates the unknowable distance between two people, Lepucki notes, “What I wanted to write was a domestic drama…I love social interaction and writing about that. Intimacy and the way people speak to each other and don’t speak to each other.” She is also interested in secrets, and in her fiction—and specifically in California—likes to “toss them out, left and right, like bombs everywhere.” For Lepucki, closeness is a weapon, and with her book she asks: In a world where you can hardly trust anyone, how do you live with the fact that the one person you’re supposed to trust is still keeping things from you?
California also posits an existence where American society has regressed to the point where roles are, once more, deeply engendered. Quite literally, Lepucki’s men are the protectors and foragers of food and her women keep the house. While writing parts of the novel at Ucross, a residency program in Wyoming, Lepucki toured a ghost town and began thinking about the roles of pioneers in a stripped-down society. “If we were to return to a root existence, the differences between us would be magnified in some way,” she says. “[They] would be used against us. Suddenly it would matter that I can’t carry certain things, and if I had my period, it would matter.”
The novel began as an exercise from one of Lepucki’s Writing Workshops Los Angeles classes—where a character possesses a secret object (in this case, a turkey baster)—and was further influenced by her time spent at Ucross, films like Badlands and The Baader Meinhof Complex, and writers like Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Egan. Oberlin, where Lepucki attended as an undergraduate, served as the basis for Plank, Cal’s alma mater and a fictional college that forsakes technology and fosters back-to-the-land skills. And Lepucki’s own desire to disconnect—she often goes on Internet cleanses, which she wrote about in a 2010 Millions essay titled “Ceasing To Exist: Three Months in the Social Media Detox Ward”—clearly propel elements of the book.
While extremely flattered and enthusiastic about the Colbert shout-out, Lepucki’s main hope with the novel is to create an environment for her reader that is fun and fast-paced but also intelligent and emotional. “I love the idea of the book taking over your life to the point where your world is tinged by that,” she says emphatically. “I want to give readers that experience.”