The sticky, insufferable sensation that art is a status reserved for a select few is the raw emotional material that Edan Lepucki’s second novel, Woman No. 17 (Hogarth), draws on. The book is concerned with the lives of a woman, her new nanny, and the relationships, or lack thereof, that these women share with their mothers.
S., a painter turned photographer and nanny, is often criticized for a lack of depth in her work. Lady is too readily encouraged to pursue writing. The women toss and turn over their creations, and this only escalates as they butt heads with an artist whose work is validated by the outside world. While S. opts to slap impostor syndrome in the face, Lady fumbles. As she has in her earlier works, Lepucki’s latest magnifies the interior worlds of these women and their struggles.
Rachel Davies: How did your writing process for Woman No. 17 compare to that of your first novel?
Edan Lepucki: I had about 100 pages—I actually just went to check to see how much I had—I had a little over 100 pages of Woman No. 17 written before California came out. My friend, the young adult and comic book writer Cecil Castellucci, gave me some advice, that Aimee Bender gave her, which was to try to finish your next book before your first book comes out. So I didn’t quite reach that goal, but I tried to get as much down as I possibly could so that I would have a manuscript waiting for me before I finished with whatever happened with California.
I was really happy I did that, because I didn’t have to come back to a blank page, which is really my worst nightmare. So my writing process, honestly, was not very different, and I’m writing a third book now that’s the same. I don’t do very much research, I always write in order, I write in the order that I perceive the book to be read in, so I don’t write random scenes. So pretty much, my process is not very different despite the fact that my stories are quite different.
The interior spaces characters occupy, or have occupied, seem to play a crucial role in your writing, be it the second childhood home of Joellyn in If You’re Not Yet Like Me, living in the woods in California, or Lady’s mother’s house in Woman No. 17.
Confined spaces, and domestic spaces are really interesting to me. In my spare time, I read design blogs religiously, even though I don’t really have anywhere to decorate at this moment. I love to go to open houses, even if I’m not looking for real estate, I just love to be in spaces, and see how people do them. I’m kind of obsessed with staging as a thing that people do to sell a home, and what kind of fantasies are projected onto those spaces, and how they raise the property rates even though it’s just a performance.
I think homes have always been the number one place that I write about, so, I mean, that’s obvious if anyone’s not writing something super adventurous, but I feel like all of my work deals with domestic space, a confined space, and what happens there. Also, just how we identify with certain homes, and interiors, and who they make us think we are, even if we’re not that. So Joellyn thinks about this empty space she had as a child, and she’s ashamed of the apartment that she has, and Zachary’s going to go see. Then in Woman No. 17, Lady lives in this mansion now, and not that long ago she lived in a one-bedroom apartment as a single mom with her son. Now she’s the owner of this glorious Hollywood Hills mansion, and she has impostor syndrome there, I think. It just keeps coming back in my work, I never thought about that.
Lady has this distinct sense of wealth that’s amplified by her memories of living in that one-bedroom apartment with her child.
I wanted one of Lady’s crisis-points to be class, even though I don’t ever say that outright. She was by no means poor growing up, she had a nice house, but I think she has kind of fallen from that, and when she started dating Karl he rescued her from that, and she has all of these privileges to deal with, and I don’t think she knows what to do with it. I think she doesn’t feel that it’s a part of her identity and who she is, yet at the same time she’s very comfortable. I think S. also is straddling these two worlds, her father lives in this very nice house in Berkeley, and her stepmother pays for that house, but it’s still the lifestyle that her father enjoys. Her mother is at the whim of the landlord, and she could be kicked out, and she has to fire her housekeeper if she’s off the job, and if she stays off the job for too long then that will be a financial disaster for her, there’s no safety net for her. She’s really aware of those differences. It’s interesting because in early drafts, people referred to S. as “rich,” and I wasn’t sure where they were getting that from. So I tried to add signifiers later on to signify that that’s not the situation—not that she’s by any means in danger, but that she has college loans, and she needs money to buy art supplies. I thought, maybe it’s the artmaking that makes people think she’s privileged, that she’s privileged to become this artist as she sees fit.
You edit for The Millions, and occasionally write non-fiction. What do these other projects and outlets offer you alongside your longer work?
The Millions, for a long time, has been a lifeline for me. I have been working for The Millions since 2006 or 2007, and I didn’t publish my first book for seven years after that. So I felt like I was labouring in obscurity for a long time, all the stuff I was writing really wasn’t seeing the light of day, and I wrote a first novel that never sold. Even if I published a story here and there, to get it published would take nine months, and then it would come out in this small magazine. It was kind of before the time where everyone was publishing fiction online. The Millions really allowed me to interact with the literary community online, to share my voice, and hone my opinions about a lot of fiction that I was reading. It released something for me that—I mean, I was already frustrated, but I felt like I would have been more frustrated without that community. Now I feel similar, that the novel takes so long, it takes years to do, but the nonfiction pieces I spend between a few days, or a few weeks, which is a short amount of time, comparatively. So that’s a nice difference, in terms of reaching out to people, getting feedback, and feeling like I’m engaging with the literary community.
Right now, it’s kind of fun. I just wrote this piece that I published—it seems like forever ago, but I think it was yesterday [laughs]—about when I modeled nude in college. I knew I could write about it related to my novel, and there’s this idea that you should be publishing a lot around when your novel comes out to just spray your name everywhere. From a mercenary aspect, I was thinking I should write about it, and connect it to my novel, but of course when you’re actually writing these pieces you don’t want them to be promotional because that’s dumb, they don’t need to exist then. But writing that piece sort of helped me understand why I wrote the novel in the first place because I got to write about how much I liked modeling, and photography, and stuff about the body. All of this stuff does relate to my fiction, and allows me to understand what the hell I was doing in my fiction, which I don’t think about too much when I’m writing so that I don’t overdo anything.
Woman No. 17 manages this tussle of identity that the characters experience, especially S., with such nuance, and a big part of that is reflecting on the characters’ creative projects. What was it like figuring out who these people are while also figuring out how they want to be seen through their art?
It’s going to sound crazy, but I didn’t do it on purpose. Not to say that I have no intentions when I’m writing, but I think if I had sat down, and said, Okay, I’m going to try to present these characters in one way in this regard, and another way in this regard, then you’re not really sure who they are. I think I would have been paralyzed, and I wouldn’t have been able to go forward. So with both characters I just started with voice, especially with first person narrative, I tend to think of them as entirely performance anyway. So I think most of my first person narrators, the deeper subject is always about how they present themselves, and how they see themselves in the world. I’m especially interested in how people think of themselves in the world, and how that might not be totally accurate, or they’re willfully not seeing what you want them to see. So I think that’s already built into the first person narrator, so thematically it already came with the package. But as soon as I started writing both characters, they were doing all of this strange dodging from the truth, or saying one thing, but doing another thing. The novel has this kind of hysterical house of mirrors quality that I did not do on purpose, but when I noticed it I leaned into it, where Lady would do something, and I would switch to [S.’s perspective], and there would be some sort of echo of Lady’s behaviour. Lady had a former boss who was an actress, and S.’s story with Lady is kind of like Lady’s story with the actress, she worked with this rich lady in this big house. But I didn’t intend for that to happen, there would just be echoes like this that would happen, and the representation, the mixed representation, the art—all of that stuff thematically serves the work together, but I didn’t do it on purpose.
How did you determine what S.’s art projects would look like?
That part, and Seth’s disability, were the two biggest challenges for me as I worked on the draft. I spent a lot of time thinking about every project she would do before she did it, as she’s in the midst of the project—I have her detailing how much she’s had to drink, she has the breathalyzer. At a certain point I needed for her to do more, and I thought of her painting herself but not figuratively, and I didn’t know where to take it, so I had to think of a different direction. I tried to work into her narrative some of that processing, and brainstorming. I honestly thought the Tevas part, where she describes the Tevas art project, would be cut. There’s so many parts of everything I publish that I think, Oh, this’ll be cut later, and then it isn’t. I think it’s a way for me to write without worrying—I tell myself it’ll be edited out. I was writing this thing, having the time of my life writing it, and nobody told me to take it out, and some people really liked it, but I had to figure out how to make it relevant to the whole story without just being a comic interlude about bad fashion in Berkeley. I did see connections between the project she was doing in the current part, and that part of the book, and also her reaching out to her old boyfriend, but trying to draw it all together without boring the reader was really hard.
Texting and tweeting play a large part in how the characters communicate with each other in the novel. Sometimes I feel like tech-speak can come off too stiff in literature, but I think you pulled it off in Woman No. 17. What was the experience like getting used to talking in your character’s online voices, and seamlessly integrating it into your prose?
I’ll say ahead of time, after writing California, I knew I wanted to write a book that had technology because I’m tired of having so many books that don’t have technology in them, or that assiduously avoid technology even though it’s such an integral part of our lives. I have a lot of angst about my own technology use, and what it’s doing to my brain, and how it makes me interact with the world online, and how we present ourselves online, like you said. I really wanted it to be a part of my book, and I also wanted to make sure that it locked into the plot. Not only be like background, I wanted it to have some way to tell the story. I had my sister who’s ten years younger than me just read the book specifically to help me, to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. She would tell me little colloquialisms that I was being too formal with. [laughs] I wanted to make sure, obviously, that her dad would be very formal in texts. When Kit writes her email, and random stuff is capitalized, I was inspired by Miranda July’s project [We Think Alone] where she had people’s emails. Every day you would get this email, that was a series of [a random person’s] emails–I loved this project. I wish it would go on and on forever. I loved how Kirsten Dunst would randomly capitalize stuff, it was so bizarre. You see that sometimes with people, they randomly capitalize things, other times people add apostrophes because they don’t know what they are used for so they just add them like a little piece of jewelry. I love that stuff, I love how much it signifies.