Photo credit: Adam Karsten
Describe your latest book.
Woman No. 17
is a novel about women, motherhood, art, sex, drinking, the Internet, and all the identities we embrace — and the many we are keen to reject. Lady is a recently separated mother of two; her son Devin is a toddler and her older son Seth, who is 18 years old, cannot speak. Lady hires Esther, a recent college graduate who goes by S, to watch Devin so that she can finish her memoir. Lady’s book is supposed to be about raising a child with a disability, but she’s having trouble coming to terms with her own life story. S moves into the Hollywood Hills backyard cottage and quickly becomes enmeshed in the family. Unbeknownst to Lady, S is an artist at work on a secret project of her own, and she isn’t at all what she seems. The thing is, no one really is. Woman No. 17
has a little Mulholland Drive
, LA-soaked noir to it, but it’s also inspired by books like Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal
and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin
When did you know you were a writer?
This is such an interesting question because it assumes there was one moment where I became a writer and was secure in that knowledge. It felt more gradual than that. It also, weirdly, was an identity I embraced early on, long before I published anything (and even before I wrote much!). I’ve wanted to be a writer since falling in love with reading as a kid. I think because my parents were always so supportive of this aspiration, I took it on as truth, or even fate: I wanted to be a writer, so I would be, so I was.
Practically speaking, though, I felt more and more like a writer the more I wrote and shared my work: when I published a story in my high school literary journal, for instance, or when I workshopped pieces as an undergraduate. Getting the phone call that I’d been accepted to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop was definitely a landmark stop on my Becoming a Writer path, as were the two years spent in that program, receiving feedback from my teachers and peers (and giving it too).
The rejections along the way also made me a writer: all the “thanks but no thanks” from literary magazines, and the day my first agent told me she didn’t want to represent me, and the months when my first, unpublished novel failed to garner any interest. By the time I finally published my first novel, California
, I felt like I had many battle scars to prove I was an actual writer.
But even now, with two published novels under my belt, I sometimes think: “Am I really here? Do I get to say I’m a writer yet?” Sigh. Maybe that insecurity is the mark of a true author!
What does your writing workspace look like?
I am lucky enough to have a room of my own. I rent a downstairs space from a woman who lives about a mile away from me. It has its own entrance, so I must walk through her beautiful garden to get to my door, and the space is sufficiently dingy — linoleum floors, low ceilings, an ongoing ant problem — that I’m not cowed by the privilege, and can actual get work done.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I am practically immune to embarrassment. It’s sometimes a problem, because I don’t have as strong a “filter” as other people do and can end up saying some pretty inappropriate things. I’m blunt; I was raised in a pretty permissive environment, and I’m from LA, land of “just speak your truth, girl.” Then again, I think my willingness to say what I mean is useful in fiction writing because I’m not scared to go to dark, unseemly places and explore the messy inner lives of my characters.
Though, okay, I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read David Foster Wallace
. Also, until recently, I thought the reference of a man screaming the name “Stelllllaaa!” was from the movie Moonstruck
with Cher. (Which I haven’t seen.) Don’t ask me to explain.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
My husband and I play this game all the time — take random phrases and make it our memoir or biography title. For instance, I Hate This Kitchen: The Edan Lepucki
story. Or: I Feel Bad About my 401(k): Edan Lepucki and Her Unmet Needs
. So far my favorite of these, which I shared on Brad Listi
’s wonderful podcast Other People
, is a memoir (sorry, not a bio) about a summer called My Swampy Vagina
. I’d have to live a particularly momentous (and yes, heat-wave addled) summer to make the title work.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
This question reminds me of the power I once enjoyed as a bookseller. It was always a thrill when strangers took your recommendations! Right now I’m reading Chloe Caldwell’s irreverent and playful essay collection I’ll Tell You in Person
, which is published by Coffee House Press under the Emily Books imprint. Emily Books also recently published Problems
by Jade Sharma, a novel about a young woman addicted to heroin. Both books feel fearless and also totally readable. As for a single author, I recommend Dana Spiotta, who presides as queen of my library. Her books, from Eat the Document
to her latest, Innocents and Others
, are often about art and culture, and the intense ways we consume and respond to these texts. They’re cerebral books, but they’re also emotionally sensitive and poignant.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
I currently have two favorite descriptions from Woman No. 17
. The first is Lady assessing S after a long night of drinking: “She looked like hell, which is rare for a woman so young, what with all that metastasizing collagen.” The second is S’s description of Seth’s body as he sits by the pool in a swimsuit: “He had the stomach rolls of the very skinny: like wide-wale corduroy.” Both please me.
Top five contemporary novels about motherhood:
For such a central element in so many readers’ lives, it feels like we are only now seeing a lot of rich and nuanced novels about this very beautiful and tricky topic. Here are five of my favorites.
by Shanthi Sekaran
by Elisa Albert
We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver
by Toni Morrison
The Ten-Year Nap
by Meg Wolitzer
÷ ÷ ÷
is the New York Times
bestselling author of the novel California
as well as the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me
. A contributing editor and staff writer at the Millions
, she has also published fiction and nonfiction in McSweeney’s
, the Los Angeles Times
, the New York Times
, the Cut
, and elsewhere. She is the founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Woman No. 17
is her most recent book.