Will This Book Be The Next Big Read?

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Lepucki_CaliforniaPhoto: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group.
Debut novelists know where to put their expectations, and it's not anywhere near the best-seller list. That all changed for Edan Lepucki when Stephen Colbert challenged his audience to place her novel, California, on The New York Times' coveted list of best-selling books.

This would be a boon if all Colbert wanted to do was have his Oprah moment — to get out her shoes, try them on, walk around the block. But, he wanted to make a point, to show that Amazon can't control everything.

You see, the retailer stopped pre-selling books from Colbert and Lepucki's publisher, Hachette, after it — along with four other publishers — settled a lawsuit for colluding to raise e-book prices with Apple. While the publishers say Amazon is driving prices to an untenable nadir, a judge ordered them to renegotiate rates with retailers, and Hachette's up first. (Guess who'd like to lock in a low, low price?)

Other than Amazon, it seems that there are no winners, except for Edan Lepucki, who's become the dispute's unlikely beneficiary. And, when an author finds a sudden stroke of luck, we have to celebrate.

We talked to Edan about the impromptu publicity blitz, how her book became the book, and the actual content of the novel — a dystopia about a couple waiting out the end of the world in the woods. It's now available everywhere, including Amazon.

So, Stephen Colbert...
"Yes, my boyfriend."

Do you know why he picked your book?
"[Fellow Hachette author] Sherman Alexie was the one to choose it. He went on Colbert because he's been on before, and he's very telegenic. I know he wanted to talk about a first-time novelist because he knows it's so hard to get people to care about a book by someone they haven't heard of before. I was not involved in the process. They called me that day and said, 'This might happen.'"

You must have died when you found out.
"I thought it was amazing and great, but I had NO idea it was going to get so crazy. I mean I don't know what I thought, but I didn't know Stephen Colbert was going to continue to talk about it."
california colbertPhoto: Courtesy of Comedy Central.
When he wants to make a point, he doesn't shut up.
"Yeah, he's on his high horse now."

I doubt he'll stop until he gets it on The NYT best-seller list.
"I've thought about it, but I'm not going to believe it until I see it."

And, now Amazon has named it one of its Best Books of July, which is some kind of irony.
"I have to hand it to Amazon. It lets its editorial team, which does all the best book lists, run independently. I didn't expect to be on it — I don't expect to be on any list ever."

But, California is very right now. Why do you think dystopias are resonating?
"I think it's pretty human to imagine the end of the world. It's just so easy to see we're headed toward extinction if we don't change our ways. And, I think that's on everyone's mind, with climate change and things like that. I also think we get sort of a release from reading about it in fiction — to imagine a hypothetical. That sort of keeps it from happening in some way. It's like seeing a scary movie: You see it. You scream. And, then you feel safe coming out of the theater. There's a human need for that kind of thrill."

The fact that it's set in the not-too-distant future kind of makes it scarier, more viable.
"It does. I think the reader feels complicit because they recognize so much of the world. And, that's because it doesn't feel that far off — it's really only 40 years in the future. So, knock on wood, I think we'll all be alive at the time. It's scary to think that could be the landscape."

Is it what you think the 2050s will be like?
"Yes and no. I mean, I hope not. Depends on the day. I am pessimistic about how we're doing as a species, and then there are other days where I'm just sort of flummoxed by the compassion and the beauty of the world. I think both exist side by side, and it's a novel so I had to go on one trajectory. But, I don' t think that it's inevitable that's how things will end up."
edan lepuckiCourtesy of Hachette Book Group.
Despite the world ending all around, it's interesting you chose to go inward, to focus on a marriage in the woods. Was that intentional?
"It was intentional in that is the world I know. I write about interpersonal relationships; that's where I'm comfortable. I wanted to write about marriage in a specific time and place, so that's one of the reasons it's small in its interior rather than a large-scale look at the end of the world. At the same time, they live in the middle of nowhere. What does that isolation do to their world?"

One thing it does is bring back traditional gender roles. Is that part of the dystopian doom? Is that what you think would happen if society lost its infrastructure?
"Some of the book was written at a place called UCross, which is a residency in Wyoming. And, I went on this tour and there was an abandoned house and pioneer-style people there, and they were talking about how women would get hernias from having to carry things and do all this manual labor. Something about that idea really stuck with me. So, I was interested in how a back-to-the-land lifestyle would affect how people thought about gender. Would women go backward in terms of our progressive ideals?"

Speaking of ideals, if you could picture a utopia for the future of reading — a best case scenario — what would it look like?
"In some ways I think this already exists, but a thriving book world, where all different books are available [would be the ideal]. A world where everyone can read what they want, whether it's high literature or something totally trashy. And, a diverse book market is really important — different kinds of books available at different places. One of the reasons I have trouble with Amazon is that I don't want it to be the only bookseller. The best way to have a diversity of books is to have a diversity of booksellers. And, continuing to have all these wonderful people on the Internet being really excited about books."

How do you keep up with reading? As a staff writer at The Millions, you're a professional.
"There are booksellers I know that read hundreds and hundreds of books a year — I don't know how they do it — but I read maybe 50, one a week at my very best. So, in a sense, I don't keep up and I don't try, but I like to be in the mix. "