in conversation with Alex Shephard
If Edan Lepucki wrote an essay about the phone book, I would probably read it. Her work for The Millions is warm, engaging, and incredibly sharp, and her essays have helped make that site one of the best places to find quality long-form literary criticism on the web.
Lepucki is also the author of the hilarious and heart-wrenching novella, If You’re Not Yet Like Me, which was published last year by Flatmancrooked. If You’re Not Yet Like Me is a monologue from its narrator, Joellyn, to her unborn child; self-loathing and unrelentingly honest to the point of being insufferable to everyone but the reader, Joellyn narrates failed romances and hours wasted in coffee shops and bathtubs with equal vigor. Driven by Joellyn’s caustic voice, the novella was one of the most original and poignant pieces of short fiction released last year. I spoke with Lepucki over a grainy Skype connection in December about If You’re Not Yet Like Me, her work for The Millions, and the MFA/NYC debate.
Can you describe working with Flatmancrooked?
Flatmancrooked has been really fun to work with. I don’t have very much experience working with other publishers beyond literary journals and The Millions, and I obviously don’t have any experience working with Knopf or anything. But it’s been lovely. I had a lot of hands-on time with Deena Drewis. She had seen my novella in its early stages and we worked on it for months. She was so useful for larger questions to very small things – sentences, phrases, those things.
The launch was so much fun and so much more successful than I thought it would be. I think there’s something about giving people the pressure to buy it before a certain date and to have only a certain number of copies really made it seem like something that people wanted to buy – like some kind of special Birkin bag or something. [laughs] I felt like they did a good job of making it something that had a social status cool to it, which I don’t think books often have these days. They just think outside the box. …. It’s been really fun to see who ended up launching me. Obviously my mom and dad did, but then some random people that I had barely known got involved and it was really fun to see their names on the list. It was pretty crazy that week. I got eye-strain from constantly going online to pimp myself out. …. I became totally obsessed. I was glad when the launch was over because I could finally relax. Now, though, we’re past that stage and on the second edition … I kind of miss it. It was fun to get that attention and to feel that people really cared about the publishing of such a tiny book. They’re a great publishing house.
Authors typically have agents and publicists to do much of the “pimping” for them. You can say what you want about Tao Lin, but I’m pretty sure he represents a new paradigm: the writer as agent and publicist.
Right now I have actually started my annual detox of social networking sites. I’m not going to be on tumblr, or twitter, or Facebook. I’m just trying to retreat a little bit. I feel like retreat is such a vital part of the writer’s life. [It's necessary] in order to get work done, and to not fall into the noise and the muck of the internet. I do also really enjoy the social interaction of those websites and those online communities, and I think I’m pretty good at presenting myself that way: I feel totally comfortable doing it. I think you’re right: nowadays if you want to be a successful writer you have to be able to speak about yourself and to present yourself well and to not feel like you have to live in a garret and never talk to anyone ever again. I think it’s probably a more painful shift for writers who have been published … [they might think] “now my publisher wants me to do this? They should do it for me.” Whereas, I’m a new writer and I expect that I have to do it for myself. It feels sort of like second nature.
At the same time, while I really respect writers who are able sell themselves and do it all the time, I don’t think I could do it quite as constantly as people like Tao Lin do it. Sometimes I think that overshadows the work itself. As much as I loved the launch, Deena and I spent so much more time on the writing itself and thinking about how we could market it so people could really get a sense of the aesthetic and what the story was. At the end of the day, I really want people to connect with the story and the characters. I don’t want some wacky book tour to overshadow the art.
It’s funny because I have this tumblr blog which I had started purely for entertainment and just to relax. I already wrote about books for The Millions and almost all of my friends talk about books all the time, and on twitter I made friends with all these editing, publishing, bookselling types. I didn’t want tumblr to become that. I wanted to be able to talk about books and my writing if I wanted to, but I also wanted to talk about my dog or whatever. And it turned out that tumblr was one of the best things that happened in terms of If You’re Not Yet Like Me. I sold so many copies to people on tumblr simply by the fact that I was just myself and had made friends on that community and those people are really supportive of each other. I felt like because I was myself and I wasn’t thinking about my brand that that just came across naturally. And that ultimately helped my career, quote unquote. That was a good lesson: just do what you do, and be passionate about it, and be true and that will come across and people will like that.
Though far from boring, I felt like If You’re Not Yet Like Me was remarkable in creating a palpable sense of boredom and isolation.
That’s interesting. It didn’t occur to me when I was writing it, though Joellyn is a very stagnant character. She’s obviously unhappy with her life — she’s going to this shitty coffee shop and she goes there all the time, but she doesn’t like to go there. She’s taking a bath in the middle of the afternoon. I mean, I work from home, so I’m pretty sure that seeped into it — that feeling of how do you measure out the hours? Another thought is that I’m also working on a novel where there’s a lot of action. So I was wondering if I was working …. in reaction to that. I wanted to write about people in their everyday lives and that quotidian nature of going to the coffee shop or thinking about how you have to clean your house. She’s definitely stuck. People keep talking about how [the characters] are in their 20s – and I don’t correct them – but they’re actually in their early 30s. I think that’s telling that people think that both Joellyn and Zachary are younger because they are like children: arrested development.
Perhaps that’s because arrested development is characteristic of characters in a number of novels about 20somethings?
That’s funny to me because I don’t think I usually write about that class of people or that era in one’s life. I don’t see myself as part of that era, necessarily. I didn’t feel afloat or adrift like that and I was married when I was 25. …. But maybe I’m interested in that because I wasn’t part of that – not that I was immune to those issues. …. But I’m definitely fascinated by the people who live in the neighborhood that I just moved from who are in their early 30s and it was sort of unclear what their purpose in life was or what their intentions were. I find them really intriguing.
What is it about those characters that you think makes people think they’re in their 20s?
Even though Joellyn and Zachary are older – not so much Zachary, as we’re not privy to his thoughts – but I do feel that Joellyn is stuck in part because she can’t really get beyond the [question] of if she’s attractive or not, or if she’s lovable. And that to me seems like something that you would fixate on when you’re a little bit younger. [Joellyn] is obsessed with her own beauty or lack there of or her own desire – It seems to me that she can’t experience her own desire until someone desires her. And that, I hope for most women, ends early. [laughs] But it hasn’t for her and I think that makes her really intriguing to me.
In many ways, she’s like a teenager.
And the book that I’m writing now is narrated by a woman who’s looking back on her teenage self. So maybe they’re overlapping and I don’t even realize it!
I wanted to ask you about Joellyn’s voice in the novel, which is astonishingly neurotic and really quite original. How did you develop that voice?
The voice was actually the first thing that came through. I didn’t really know what I was going to write and something came out – it was Joellyn’s voice – and I was really interested. I was compelled by that voice. [I wanted to know] what was going on with this woman. I loved that she was barbed and really biting, but there was something else going on for why she was that way. She really is obsessive and analytical.
There are two things. One is that I just went with whatever she was going to say. I let myself be shocked. There’s obviously a part of myself that’s in the book that just was like, “oh you can go there because this is a fictional voice and you can just say whatever you want.” I gave myself permission to do that [and that] was useful.
I’d always wanted to write a character …. where you feel them presenting their tale and shaping it as they tell it. So I think that that’s where all of the self-consciousness and doubling-back comes from. …. And I think telling it in the first-person has an interesting effect, because she’s telling it in such a way because she’s perceiving a listener. …. The only thing that was a real challenge was the ending. In a couple drafts I got super sappy at the end …. Deena, my editor, [said] “I don’t think she would ever lapse totally away from her original voice. I think she’ll always have a layer of sarcasm or humor.” And even though there are peaks of her vulnerability and sensitivity, I don’t think that she’d ever be that open of a person. So trying to hold on to that voice until the very end – even while allowing the reader to be moved by what has happened in the story and to recognize that Joellyn is in pain and that she also recognizes it – that was a hard dance to do.
Did you always know that the audience Joellyn was addressing would be her unborn child?
At first, I wrote a couple pages and she was talking to someone and I was like, “Oh shit, who is she talking to? Here we go. This is going to be so annoying. I have to figure out who she’s talking to or I’ll have to cut it.” Then I got to the line where she says something like, “When a man dresses like a boy, turn and run.” And then I wrote “That sounds like something a mother would say.” That’s when I realized who she was talking to. That’s in an early scene, but that was probably a week or so in – I’m a really slow writer. …. At first I thought I might withhold that she was talking to her child until the very end of the story and that [would be] the reveal of the story. …. On an early second draft, when the ending still wasn’t really done, I went back and included [the knowledge that Joellyn is pregnant] into the beginning. ….
If You’re Not Yet Like Me is incredibly funny, but in an entirely natural way — the humor never feels tacked on. Similarly, for such a short piece of fiction the flashbacks are integrated in a really clever, natural way.
I’m comfortable with it being funny, but I’m always afraid that if something’s funny I’m copping out in some way or that I’m not really getting at my character. So I wanted to make sure that I was building the story so that, at the end, you would feel bereft. I didn’t think I could do that without these kind of asides. And I just love – this is just writerly – but I love to write little stories about people’s childhood. I don’t know why. But when I was writing I felt that I was liking Joellyn more after I had these flashbacks. Even though she’s so unlikable [I really wanted the reader] to like her.
Because I knew that the novella could be …. the length of one of [my normal] stories to sixty or seventy pages I knew I had so much territory that I could conquer if I wanted to. So I was less clenched in how I approached the narrative. I knew that if I wanted to write something random, I could go there. [One of the flashbacks in the novella] was kind of a thing that happened to me when I was a kid. So I was having fun trying to make it different from my own memory and trying to figure out why I [was] putting it there: if it’s my memory, maybe it’s not useful at all; maybe it’s me just wanting to write about myself. So it was an interesting discovery to figure out why she would tell [that detail] to her unborn child.
What are you working on right now?
I am revising my first book, which is [about an] adult narrator who’s telling about a summer when she was 16. I’m revising it probably for the tenth time. …. So hopefully that will be out in the world someday soon because I’ve been working on it for about four years – not continuously, but long swathes of time. And I have a new book I’m working on that I’m about 100 pages into that I’m really excited to get back to because it’s new and different.
What’s that about?
The new new book? The new new book is so new that it sounds so stupid when I talk about it. Right now I’m calling it post-apocalyptic domestic drama, but I don’t know if that’s what it is. [laughs] I’m having a lot of fun writing it, partially because it’s very, very different from my first book …. [which is] in the first-person and is very compressed. [The post-apocalyptic domestic drama] has two narrators and the third-person and there’s a lot of back story. With a book that takes place in the future – I think of a great Margaret Atwood novel like Oryx and Crake – you need to get the backstory to understand the present. So that’s the technical challenge, but I’m really loving the idea of backstory. It’s so fun. So one book’s about teenagers and the other is about the end of the world. Which is basically the same thing. [laughs]
Can you talk about your annual hibernation from social networking and “Ceasing to Exist,” the piece you wrote about it for The Millions?
I think that was my most popular article of the whole year, which is pretty cool, but also kind of sad – no one wants to talk about books, they just want to talk about the internet! [laughs] I think this is a very common problem: I check my email so many times a day that it’s pathetic. …. It makes me sick how quickly I can become obsessed with something on the internet. I’m not a news junkie – I don’t go around and read a ton of articles everywhere – I just check a few sites over and over and over and over again. And it feels really at odds with the life that I want to lead, which is having a true connection with people I’m really interested in – reading and writing and seeing people face-to-face.
[Spending so much time online] starts to feel really superficial and it starts to weigh on me and creatively it’s just not that useful. So there are times when I need to retreat. …. [Sometimes] it seems like everyone is singing at their own karaoke bar, that everyone is reading the song catalog and nobody cares about who’s up there singing. It makes me feel really depressed about people. At the same time, I really love people on the internet that I’ve come to know, and I find it entertaining. So the best way I’ve been able to deal with it is to let myself enjoy it and then go away completely. And usually after I’ve gone away completely I can keep control of myself. Then it reaches a fever pitch and I have to go away again. So I think that that’s just going to be how it has to be for the rest of my life because it’s not something that I can [go away from] forever. …. It’s part of my profession and my social life too. But I highly recommend it for everyone. It really is very fulfilling. [laughs]
The reaction to that piece was really fascinating. You did something a lot of people talk about doing but rarely follow through with.
That was one of the coolest things about the detox: people wanted to talk to me about it. It was the best conversation starter ever. It became clear to me that so many people were chained to their Facebook accounts and they hated it. It was like when people run a marathon, [other people always say] “Oh my God, I want to run a marathon.” And the person [who ran the marathon] always says, “Well, you can do it.” I kind of feel the same way.
That was the most fascinating thing – to realize how many people had been affected by this. I tend to think of myself as an inferior human being for having an obsession with Facebook. I think it’s so lame. I have a problem with looking at people’s wedding photos – I love it. I love it so much. And I’m like, “You’re so pathetic, Edan. No one important in the world ever does this.” But it’s not true because I’ve talked to a lot of people and they’re the exact same way. So I think that it’s just something about being human. ….
Actually, today is the first day off from all my twitter, Facebook, tumblr-ness. And I do feel like I’m in a little bit of a mourning period where I’m like, “Oh, I’d like to talk about that.” I went to the mall today and I was like, “Oh there’s so many things here I could synthesize into some pithy post for tumblr. And now I can’t.” But I can talk about [the mall] at a party.
It’s interesting that even though I had been off the internet, I wrote that essay. And as soon as it went up I was hungry to see what people were going to say about it. There’s a part of me — I’m one in a big family and we’re all huge attention whores – so maybe it’s that: I’m like, “Everybody look at me! Dad you’re not watching!” So, it wasn’t like I was cured of my self-consciousness or my desire to be watched.
There are pieces [I write that] are straight-up serious, mostly profiles and book reviews, but there are other essays that I like to write purely to entertain, to talk about what communities of readers are like. People talk about how important the discourse is, but when you talk about a book with a friend in a casual environment it devolves into all kinds of things. And I like to capture that. …. I do find I like to approach some things in the literary community with a grain of salt, tongue-in-cheek. ….
We had such a fascinating discussion about the Franzen novel. It was interesting: there were a lot of non-writers in the group, people who didn’t read very much. So they weren’t very clued in on what they were supposed to think about Freedom or Jonathan Franzen. Everybody knew who he was, but they didn’t come at like, “Oh, I’m supposed to love this book, it’s going to be a masterpiece,” or “He’s an asshole. I don’t like him.” So I felt like we got a pretty unadulterated set of reactions to the novel.
I was interested in how we immediately talked more about the characters as if they were real people and less about the noise surrounding Franzen or the formal elements. I just don’t talk about books in that way. I think that the way book clubs function – to talk about characters as if they’re real people – is really fun and it’s often discounted. You never do that in English class and if you do, it’s a bad English class. [laughs] I like to read about form and structure and I do that in my creative writing classes when I teach. …. It’s a totally different conversation than I’m used to surrounding a book. But the most fun part of the book club was when we didn’t talk about the book at all. [laughs]
As someone who holds an MFA what do you think about the MFA/NYC debate that briefly took hold this winter?
I’m pretty diplomatic about this debate. I have an MFA, so I get a little peeved when people without MFAs start to talk shit about people with MFAs or start to make certain generalizations about what MFA programs are like because they all seem very different to me. I went to Iowa [and I think] people have a lot of perceptions about that program which don’t match what my experience was like. I don’t think one has to go to an MFA program or doesn’t have to. I feel like whatever floats your boat you should do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting the time to write. I think that’s such a beautiful privilege and that should be valued – or at least should be recognized as a value.
I don’t teach at an MFA program. I teach at UCLA extension and I teach private classes at my house. I teach a lot of people who have yet to do the MFA thing, either because of their career or because they’re opposed to it for whatever reason or they’re thinking about going to an MFA program in the future. I find my classes ask of my students what my MFA program asked of me: a serious commitment to your own writing, to turning in your writing on a regular basis, and discourse with fellow writers. So I feel like you can get that experience outside of an MFA community, but my experience was positive and I wrote a lot and I learned a lot and I didn’t think that everyone wrote the same way or that we were taught certain quote unquote rules that made us into automatons.
My one piece of advice to students who ask about getting an MFA is only go for free. Or only go for a small amount of money because it’s not a lucrative career and it’s really hard to even find a teaching job and it’s really hard to publish books and even if you do publish a book you might not – probably not – make any money off it. So it’s not worth going into debt for. That usually stuns them. They think that they can’t go to an MFA program unless they shell out $40,000 or whatever it is. Usually the top-rated program have great financial aid, and that’s not to be discounted. I also think that often that’s why the argument bothers me: people say that MFAs are for rich people and blah blah blah blah blah. I went for free to my MFA program and I got great teaching experience. I also feel like why do people have an opinion and it’s so strict. To each writer their own is what I say. [laughs]