Fans of the Colbert Report should be quite familiar with the name Edan Lepucki, whose debut novel, “California,” has been mentioned on air three times in regard to the talk show host’s war against Amazon. Feud aside, Colbert could not have chosen a better book to champion. Lepucki’s contribution to the highly saturated post-apocalyptic genre is blood chilling in its believability — both in its depiction of relationships and the collapse of society. LA native and current Bay Area resident Lepucki joined John McMurtie of the San Francisco Chronicle in conversation at Litquake’s Epicenter at the Hotel Rex in San Francisco on Tuesday night. The Daily Californian caught up with the author after the event to discuss her apocalyptic-world building.
Daily Californian: The apocalyptic events in the book look a lot like things we’re seeing on the news. Was there anything that made you think, “I have to blame the apocalypse on this?”
Edan Lepucki: I just took everything that I was anxious about and put it into this future. It wasn’t even like the apocalypse for me; it was just things getting worse and worse. I didn’t want it be just one thing, so I took all the environmental things that I was anxious about, like climate change or freak weather. Then I took things like how the rich get richer — it happens now, where the rich go to private schools and they take their money elsewhere and poorer parts of the city are left in disrepair.
DC: That’s what makes the book so terrifying; nothing you wrote seems like much of a stretch.
EL: Actually, things have gotten worse since I wrote the book. The Boston Bomber, for instance. The book was already written when that happened. And Hurricane Sandy, the book was already written when that happened. It almost felt like the book was coming true as time went forward, which was really scary.
I wanted it to feel close because I think that’s scarier than something like a nuclear blast, which is out of our hands.
DC: As a reader, it was distressing when you killed off UC Berkeley. Is there anything in the book that you had a particularly hard time taking out of the world?
EL: There are a lot of places in LA that I wrecked, particularly this restaurant deli that Frida works at, Canter’s, around the corner from the house I grew up in … the moment that went out of business, I felt really horrible and sad.
I decimated all of Cleveland, which I would assume would include areas around Cleveland, like Oberlin, which is the college I went to. But I felt like I could tap into a lot of the loss in the book because I’m from LA. Everything that I ruined there is a place that I’ve been to.
DC: Feminism doesn’t survive the apocalypse, does it? Frida needs Cal or else she’s not going to survive.
EL: That’s true; feminism doesn’t survive the apocalypse … This book has a lot of gender and sex in it. It’s definitely a topic that’s important to me as a person, so it’s in my writing. But I was interested in the problem of gender. It’s not like all differences would collapse, and we would become our best selves — they would get worse. So I was thinking about that very topic and how, in a situation where it’s just brute survival, women would be dependent on men in a way that we aren’t right now and that would be really terrifying.
I really wanted to push out those topics, but they actually became a lot more central than I had ever intended. Cal and Frida seem to be a very equal couple, but Cal keeps a lot from her in the name of protecting her, which some readers have said is really sexist. Even so, they still seem like equals, but at the end of the book, they have to play these roles of husband and wife. And I think there is something lost between them that used to be there, and I think it is in part because they’re enacting gender roles in a way that’s kind of … horrible.
DC: You joked during the discussion that, since your parents are from New Jersey, they see California as “the Promised Land.” Going off that, since the apocalypse is so often spoken of or predicted in connection to religion, why did you decide to avoid that aspect of it?
EL: I was not raised religious at all, so I tend to write characters where religion isn’t central to their existence … but yeah, it’s sort of a godless state. When you think about (John Steinbeck’s) “East of Eden,” (I love Kathy, she’s the best monster), that book is very much biblical and plays off the idea of the Edenic California. So I guess I was just doing a 180 and rejecting any sort of biblical background. Some people have suggested to me that Cal and Frida are like Adam and Eve. But if that’s the case, then there’s no God at all.
DC: Can you share a piece of advice with young college writers?
EL: I loved college. I studied English and writing in college, and I never worried about getting a job afterwards or if my degree was going to be worth anything. I just tried to immerse myself in my classes and learn as much as possible and follow my passion … If you want to read 18th-century novels, that’s what you should do because this is the one opportunity in your life where you can do that, freely. If you are writing a novel, I would say “go, go, go.” Just do it.