Edan Lepucki, Emma Straub and Literary Friendship

By on Thursday, July 24th, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Edan Lepucki and Emma Straub talk about friendship and writing; both released novels this year. California hit no 3 on the NYTimes bestseller list and The Vacationers has sold more than 100,000 copies

Edan Lepucki and Emma Straub have been friends since they attended Oberlin College together. Both women released novels this year, and McNally Jackson hosted them to talk about their books and friendship in the literary world. David Gutowksi introduced the writers.

Lepucki’s debut novel, California, published by the Hachette Book Group, started out a victim of the conflict between the publisher and online retailer, Amazon. Then Sherman Alexie plugged California on The Colbert Report. Colbert demanded viewers give Lepucki the ‘Colbert Bump,’ a phrase the host coined initially in reference to political candidates who appeared on his show. His fans followed through, vaunting the novel to the New York Time’s bestseller list. California follows a couple on their journey leaving Los Angeles in a post-apocalyptic future.

Emma Straub is the author of three books and she writes regularly for teen magazine Rookie. Her latest novel, The Vacationers, is a family drama set on the island of Mallorca. Jim lost his job at a high end magazine over an affair with an intern. He and Franny are hiding the fact from their adult children Sylvia and Bobby, and Bobby’s older girlfriend. Franny’s brother Charles and his husband are on the brink of adopting a child. They then endure two weeks sharing a massive house.

Lepucki and Straub begin by trying to describe the first time they met. Neither can remember. They met sometime in college, both in the English and Creative Writing departments at Oberlin. Straub regrets never taking a fiction workshop while she was there: “I was a poet!” The two women did have non-fiction workshops together, and Lepucki recalls Straub as a superhero of essays regularly churning out narratives. Straub says never really wrote essays and even her college essay was a poem.

They partied together in college too. They describe the themed parties they would attend, like a Russian Nightclub Party, which mostly meant dressing up like Russians headed to a Brighton Beach nightclub circa 1992. Lepucki describes one karaoke party where she earnestly sang the Indigo Girls.

After college, Straub began building up a coterie of other internet writers becoming part of an online literary community. “I can’t imagine my literary universe without these people,” she says. Many came to the launch of her first novella, published through what has since become Nouvella Books. She launched it at BookCourt, in Brooklyn, and then the next day started working at the bookstore as a bookseller.

Lepucki also worked as a bookseller and in many respects, their lives have paralleled each other. They both attended MFA programs. When Straub published a novella, Lepucki followed shortly after at the same press. They both founded “adorable husbands,” as Lepucki says, and both recently had children. Now both have massively successful novels. Lepucki’s Colbert Bump has landed her at number three on the New York Times bestseller list, and Straub’s novel has sold a hundred and five thousand copies.

Lepucki appeared on The Colbert Report on Monday to talk about the success of the book, and Straub cannot resist asking about the experience. Lepucki blushes. She describes how every guest is given a private green room–though on Colbert’s show, they are red, white, and blue. Nancy Pelosi, another guest later that afternoon, asked if Lepucki was willing to meet her. Lepucki signed the former House Speaker’s book.

Lepucki then went in for makeup. Eventually Stephen Colbert came in to talk to her about the show. “He’s a sweet, genuine human being,” she says. Then the microphone guy showed up and wired her for taping. She spent about six minutes actually chatting with Colbert, but later that is edited down to two. “I hope they can edit this when we’re done,” she jokes about the evening’s discussion.

Lepucki’s appearance on The Colbert Report also meant she had the opportunity to pass the Colbert Bump onto another author. She chose Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark, available next month. The novel is about an artificial sweetener and food culture. The premise intrigued Lepucki. She’s friends with a food scientist in California, and once she started reading the book (Hachette sent her a few debut novels to read), she found it a funny and captivating commentary on American culture, something she appreciates but thinks is often difficult to do. Currently, she says, she’s been reading Celeste Ng‘s Everything I Never Told You.

In one respect, the two women are remarkably different: Straub is originally from New York, Lepucki from California. Straub describes it as like Biggie and Tupac. “I was always a little bit jealous, you were from California.”

Lepucki says the fact that Straub came from New York felt intimidating. When Lepucki arrived at Oberlin, and all the New York City girls had come from “schools with ‘school’ in the name,” she felt out of place. She says she always thought Straub so much more stylish, and felt like a country bumpkin coming from Los Angeles.

The California of California is not the state that exists today. Its part of a world crumbling apart, more bumpkin than cosmopolitan. Lepucki says when she began writing the novel, she only really knew she wanted to write about a marriage and a ruined world. She hadn’t thought out how the world was ruined. “I didn’t plan anything out ahead of time.” A lot of the world building came during revision she explains. She didn’t do much research, preferring to start with objects. “I just kind of imagined.” She did eventually outline the book, but only once it was mostly written, as part of the revision process.

At first she titled the book Land. It was a vowel and a noun, she said, defending the title to her editor, but the people involved in the production of the book said it was too boring. They floated California. “I always loved that word,” she says, but spent months trying to find an alternate. Finally the title committee had a meeting. They loved California too.

Straub spent even more time struggling to find a title. The first thing she came up with was The Good Face, a title she loved and thought perfectly represented the way people present themselves. Everyone else hated it. She started polling her friends asking for suggestions. Renaming a book is hard she says, because its like renaming a child. Suggestions kept coming in, and all the ideas kept becoming more complicated and further from the central idea of the book. The Vacationers was eventually floated, but at first Straub thought it felt incorrect. She ended up speaking with Meg Wolitzer (The Interestings, The Wife, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, The Uncoupling), who suggested a good title should always have “the” in it. It was enough to convince Straub The Vacationers would work.

These days, Straub spends a lot of time writing for Rookie. She says its something she enjoys, in part because it keeps her in touch with teenage girls. Sylvia, the daughter in The Vacationers, is a recent high school graduate and one of the stronger voices in the novel. “I really loved being a teenager,” Straub says, and writing Sylvia came effortlessly. “I tried to hold myself back,” she adds, saying Sylvia could have taken over the whole narrative.

Emma Straub and Eden Lepucki
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
McNally Jackson Books

English Kills Review is an online magazine covering books, authors, and writing with an emphasis on New York City. Founded in 2012, English Kills Review engages the literary community while highlighting noteworthy books and authors