Edan Lepucki was an unknown first-time author when she received a call most writers only dream about: a producer from the Colbert Report wanted to feature Lepucki’s debut novel, California, on the show. It was 2014, and Stephen Colbert’s publisher, Hachette, had been waging war with Amazon over the retailer’s e-book pricing policy. Colbert wanted a Hachette title to promote—one he could encourage viewers to buy from independent booksellers.
“My husband and I watched the show, and he said, ‘This is gonna sell like 400 copies, it’s gonna be great,’ ” Lepucki, 42, recalls, speaking from her Los Angeles home office, where she’s seated in front of shelves overflowing with books.
The book did a little better than that. California became one of the most preordered titles in the publisher’s history and was an instant bestseller.
Following up on a successful first novel is challenging for any author. Attempting to match this kind of accomplishment is near impossible. “I was getting so much free press that I was like, wow, it really takes being hit by lightning to get attention for a book,” she says. “That was clear to me. I have had books after that that nobody was talking about. And so that was also kind of sobering to be like, okay, this is how the book business works, this kind of sucks.”
While Lepucki’s next novel didn’t have the same launch buzz, it performed well by any standard. Woman No. 17 was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Though she remains grateful for the “Colbert bump,” Lepucki prefers to look to the future. “Whatever happened to me happened,” she says. “It was fun. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
In the midst of that whirlwind, Lepucki began to write her latest novel, Time’s Mouth (Counterpoint, Aug). The story follows three generations of a family, two of which can travel into their own memories and watch their past experiences while remaining largely powerless to make any changes. Ursa first learns of her ability as a teenager and uses it to revisit happier moments in a childhood that was rife with abuse. After escaping her mother and fleeing to California, she becomes the focal point of a community of women, many pregnant or toting newborns.
The women are drawn to Ursa in large part because, when she time travels, those around her get intense full-body highs. But Ursa secretly knows her otherworldly gift comes with a dark side: if she travels too far, the high that the women around her experience can become overwhelming and crushing.
While Time’s Mouth is partially about what can happen when we live in the past at the cost of the present, it’s also about the way we navigate relationships with our parents, the secrets we keep, and how we pass our trauma down to our children. Ursa, having fled her abusive home, goes on to neglect her own son, Ray (the product of a one-night stand), who then leaves her. Ray’s lover, Cherry, was abandoned by her mother when she was an infant; Cherry then abandons her daughter, Opal, leaving Ray to raise her. Opal, who can also time travel, uses her ability to be near the mother she never knew.
The complexity of parent-child relationships, particularly the ones between mothers and daughters, is familiar to Lepucki, who is a mother of three. It’s something she explored in her two previous novels. She also wrote a polarizing 2021 essay for the New York Times titled “Don’t Play with Your Kids. Seriously” that made the case for letting children play on their own. The piece racked up more than 800 comments. In an article she wrote for Romper, she declared, “I am not an ideal mother. I don’t want to be. I want to be human.” She created the @mothers-
before Instagram account, and edited a book inspired by its posts about women before they became mothers.
“I really bristle at this idea of new styles of parenting that will undo trauma,” Lepucki says. “Life is so much messier than a script of what I should say to my kid when they’re not putting on their socks. My kids have so many crazy things happening to them all the time, and I’m like, ‘Welcome to life, it’s so messy.’ ”
Lepucki’s raw honesty in both her fiction and journalism is part of what draws readers to her work. Within her fiction, Lepucki’s characters, imbued with a depth that allows the reader to love them on one page and loathe them on the next, make her work compelling.
“I knew Edan had the ability to construct really great characters and inventive plots, but I was surprised at the depths we uncovered in Time’s Mouth,” says her editor, Dan Smetanka. “From certain seeds of ideas grew a wild and compelling garden, a page-turning narrative, and characters that burst off the page.”
In Time’s Mouth, when Ursa and Opal transport, they are able to not only view the past but sense all the same feelings they had in that moment. Watching their past selves, they view the joy or grief or confusion they experienced. Though the temptation is there for Lepucki, especially given the wild highs she’s lived through in her career, after finishing Time’s Mouth, she believes it’s best to stay grounded in the present.
“There are certain moments in my life that I would just love to be in again,” Lepucki says. “I would love to stand in my husband’s first, shitty studio apartment one more time. I would love to pick up my children again for the first time, hold them, and feel what that was like. But then again, isn’t that what living is? To not have that anymore? I feel like I’m supposed to learn a lesson from my book, which is that is you shouldn’t—you can’t—go backwards.”
Alyssa Ages is the author of Secrets of Giants, A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength