Edan Lepucki says the idea of ‘magical babies’ inspired her novel ‘Time’s Mouth’

Edan Lepucki has California in her blood.

She comes by it naturally. The novelist was born in Los Angeles to two “blue-collar people turned hippies” who moved west in 1980. She grew up in the city, and after earning degrees at Oberlin College and the University of Iowa, moved back; she currently teaches one class a year at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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After publishing short fiction and nonfiction in a variety of publications, Lepucki burst onto the national literary scene in 2014 with her debut novel, “California,” about a couple who flee Los Angeles for the northern part of the state after the collapse of civilization. The novel was a hit — with an assist from talk-show host Stephen Colbert — debuting at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Lepucki’s second novel, “Woman No. 17,” was set in California, as is her latest one, “Time’s Mouth.” The book follows Ursa, a young woman who leaves her Connecticut home after discovering that she has the uncanny ability to revisit her past self. She moves to the woods outside Santa Cruz, and finds herself at the center of a cult-like commune of “Mamas,” who are entranced by Ursa’s special gift.

Ursa’s toxicity causes her son, Ray, and his girlfriend, Cherry, to move to Los Angeles, where the young woman gives birth to their daughter. But Cherry soon leaves Ray to raise their child alone, and it becomes clear that Ursa isn’t the only one in her family with her time-traveling gift. 

Lepucki talked about “Time’s Mouth” via telephone from her home in Los Angeles. This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

The first inspiration was my daughter Ginger, who’s now 7. When she was born, she had a mood about her that was just magical. She just would look at me with such discernment and knowingness. I don’t use the phrase “old soul” because I think it’s really cheesy, but you definitely got the sense of, “This person has been here before, and somehow she knows me and she’s reading me.” And I didn’t know that I could be read by a newborn. So I just had this idea: “What if you had a magical baby?” Around that time I saw a painting at the de Young [Museum], of a crowd of people around a woman holding this glowing baby. And I was just like, “There’s magical babies everywhere.”

I’ve always been a person who goes back in my mind to the past. Thinking back to college is a really big one for me. I loved college and I’ve been back there, but it’s just not accessible in that same way. I think many people have had that feeling of, “What if I could just go back to that time?” followed by the pain of not being able to. And then my friend Ben Fountain, the writer from Texas, said to me when my first child was born, “ I don’t want to parent all over again, but if I could just sit with my son when he was a little boy on the couch with him for even a minute, that would be so powerful.” At the time I didn’t really get it, but I feel that all the time now. Your child just grows so fast, and they’re different every day. So those were the things that webbed together to make the beginning of the book.

Q. Can you talk about the narrator of the novel? It’s told from a unique point of view.

When I started it, I thought, “I’ll just narrate it from the mouth of time. How hard could that be?” There were so many things that were really hard about this book. I think of the narrator as this imperious woman; she is not time itself, but she keeps time. She somehow has to gather it, but she’s a bodiless character. She’s this omniscient guide; she can go into different people’s perspectives. For the most part, she gets out of the story’s way and just lets the story be told. Every book teaches you how to read it, so I wanted to let the reader know that this wasn’t just going to be a typical close third person. But after this, I don’t know if I could ever write anything that’s even remotely omniscient again. [Laughs.]

Q. Parenthood was a theme in your first two novels. Was your approach to writing about the subject different in this one? 

Every time I write a book, I’m further along in my life as a parent. With “California,” some of it I started before I even was pregnant. I wrote most of it while I was pregnant and then finished it in the first six months of my first child’s life. So that book is definitely more about like, “What happens to a family when a child comes into the world, and what is this world we’re bringing our kids into?” And then “Woman No. 17,” a lot of that was about trying to come to terms with my child’s [neurodivergence]. That book has a character who can’t speak. My child speaks, and he has a diagnosis that is like an umbrella term. When he was 1 or 2, he just was not like a typical child, quote-unquote. So that was me trying to figure out what that meant. In both books, I take my questions to the extreme. And I think with this third book — I was going to say “last book,” but I want to be optimistic [Laughs] — there’s a lot there about coming to terms with the idea that as a parent, obsolescence is built into the job description. If you do it well, you are needed less and less. It still remains a central relationship, but it’s probably more central for the parent; you’re central to your child and that affects how they have relationships in the future.

Q. The novel deals with generational trauma. Was it emotionally difficult to write about that?

My editor told me at the end of the process, “You did it. You wrote a beautiful book about intergenerational trauma.” And then I was like, “Ugh, I did.” Because that would be such a turnoff for me if I was looking for a book to read. It’s not that the idea’s not interesting to me, because it is, obviously, it’s more that we just toss around this term. It’s like a catchphrase of the 2020s, which I guess makes sense. It’s fitting. 

But there’s so much pain in the book, so many bad things that happen. The hardest thing to write was when I had one of the children, Hawk, die, with the Mamas. Even though I fear that this would be bad juju for the universe, I purposely made Hawk a lot like my oldest child. I thought, “In order to make this feel real, let me make him like my son so that when he dies, I experience a thorough loss.” And I did. It was kind of masochistic of me, but I feel like that was the only way for me to really access the enormity of that. So that one was definitely very hard.

Q. All of your books have been set in California. Is there something about this state that you think lends itself well to the bizarre and the surreal and the mysterious?

I do. Sometimes when I look at the light in L.A., or I go to Marin County, or Eureka, where it truly looks like a magical fairytale land, I think, “There’s something objectively about this place that is special and different.” I was born here, but the longer I’m here and the few years that I’ve spent away, I just feel like I’ve tapped into how it feels. And now I don’t think I could really write about anywhere else. Right now, I’m looking out my window and I think I see a parrot. [Laughs.] I live in the canyon, and there’s so many wild animals that are outside my window, these weirdos everywhere that I just love. And I can’t get enough writing about them.

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