Edan Lepucki’s ‘Time’s Mouth’ is a supernatural labyrinth of past and present

The author and LA native speaks on her latest novel, wrestling with California-specific ideals of place, tempo, and doctrine

Edan Lepucki has done it again. Since her New York Times best-selling novel California made pre-order history in 2014, she has become a pivotal West Coast voice. Her latest novel Time’s Mouth is a story spanning decades of a dysfunctional family, a Santa Cruz cult, 1980s Los Angeles at large, and the inherited gift of time travel. Lepucki expertly toggles between historical research and the surreal, leading readers through a trippy, character-driven labyrinth.

Time’s Mouth is a whopping 400-page behemoth, speaking to intergenerational trauma, the pain and pleasure of mothering, and the human desire to connect with family, sometimes to our detriment. Most of all, Time’s Mouth is about how little time we have, and how many of us live in the past instead of the present.

For this interview, I FaceTimed with Edan Lepucki. We quickly realized that we’re fellow West LA natives, now living on the East Side, only a few miles apart. We talked about magical babies, California’s obsession with the woo-woo, and Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy accumulator—all of which make appearances in Time’s Mouth.

Diana Ruzova: What sparked the idea for this novel?

Edan Lepuki: The first idea [came about] when my second child was born. She had these big blue eyes, and she was just really present. A cheesier person would say that she had an old soul or something. I just thought, Oh, wow. She seems like magic. I felt like she was reading my mind or something. I thought, Wouldn’t it be interesting if you had a magical baby? There’s no magic baby in my book, but there is a character, Cherry, who has a baby who seems to have something [supernaturally] wrong with her.

The second [idea] was sparked by a friend, the writer Ben Fountain. When I had my first child, he said to me, ‘I wouldn’t want to be a parent all over again. But if I could, for just a minute, be back in those early moments of parenthood, I would just die of happiness.’ And I didn’t really know what he meant at the time. But not long after my first child was born, I started longing for the past versions.

Diana: You write such complex intergenerational characters, without knocking the reader over the head with their backstories and inner monologues. How do you go about developing them?

“I really want people to feel like the book is a hole-punch on a giant tapestry—that these characters might exist beyond the confines of the narrative, that they’re real.”

Edan: For the most part, they kind of spring into my head—not fully-formed, but I have an intuitive sense of who they are. The way that I come to understand them is by writing their consciousness. But I’m not a writer who can exist fully in consciousness, like James Baldwin—where you’re deeply inside his mind the whole time. I need the vessel of scene and perspective, but it’s an elevated perspective, because I have an omniscient narrator redirecting your gaze. It’s a combination of consciousness, history, and description. They all kind of braid together to make a person come alive.

I understand [my characters are] fictional—I made them up. But I really want people to feel like the book is a hole-punch on a giant tapestry—that these characters might exist beyond the confines of the narrative, that they’re real. Sometimes, I read books where it feels like—as soon as the scene is over—these characters just dissolve. I want there to be more life and thorniness.

Diana: Towards the end of the novel, one of the main characters, Ursa, has an important realization about how her ability to time travel stunted her motherly instincts. Has your relationship with motherhood changed since writing Time’s Mouth?

Edan: I think so. I don’t know if it’s necessarily from writing the book, but the longer I’m a parent, the more I don’t get any better at it—everything is always changing. But the more I understand the job, I understand that obsolescence is built into the model. If I’m doing it correctly, hopefully my children need me less and less. Obviously, I will have a role in their lives forever, for as long as I live and beyond that—it’s an essential relationship that will always matter.

What’s interesting about Ursa is that I understood her issue before she did, but it was really fun for me to write about her revelation. After all these years, she gets it—but at the same time, she rejects it. I think that’s her fatal flaw: She can’t change. And she doesn’t learn from her mistakes in a way that I find really intriguing.

Diana: Not all of us have the luxury of learning from our mistakes.

Edan: Exactly. A couple of people have called Ursa a psychopath. She’s the villain of the book, she does bad things, and she is terrible in so many ways—but I feel for her. I tried to give her complicated qualities. She’s not a psychopath. She recognizes other people’s emotions, and she has emotions.

Diana: I’m sure you’ll get this question a lot, but I have to ask: If you had the ability to tunnel through time, would you? What would you revisit?

Edan: I think I’m supposed to have learned the lesson from my book, to be like, You should just live in the present. But of course, if given the [chance], I would hold each of my children again, as newborns. That is such a fleeting time, and you’re so deranged by birth and hormones; it’s kind of hard to really cherish every moment. Although, I wonder: If I could do that, would that make me value my kids less? In the book, Ursa has this privilege, and it makes her unavailable to her child in the present.

“If you’re from a place that does have a lot of stories written about it, like Los Angeles, you have to grapple with all these mythologies. I love to both lean into them and tear them to shreds.”

Diana: Time’s Mouth is expansive. The novel spans half a century, from the 1950s to the dawn of the new millennium. What decade were you most excited to write?

Edan: Probably the ’80s. Any decade that I was alive was really fun [to write]. My dad gave me this old magazine called WET for inspiration; it’s super new-wave and weird. I was looking at old photos of Melrose. Some of Opal’s life is just pure autobiography. I gave her my same birthday.

Diana: We both grew up in Los Angeles, a city often perceived as disjointed and filled to the brim with transplants. Is there something creatively grounding about being from a place that’s so misrepresented?

Edan: I was just on a panel about setting. Something that came up for a lot of us was that, when you’re from a place that’s not written about a lot, that’s freeing—because you could just write about anything you want, essentially: But it also could feel isolating. If you’re from a place that does have a lot of stories written about it, like Los Angeles, you have to grapple with all these mythologies. I love to both lean into them and tear them to shreds, because anyone who’s from LA is like, Yes, a lot of the things that people say are true.

There are so many secret, beautiful, weird elements of Los Angeles that are really fun to pry open and dig into for fiction—I feel like there’s a lot of creative energy here. It’s not the mecca for all fiction writers, so it doesn’t feel like everybody’s doing the same thing. I can dip into that collective energy, and also have something private to myself. I just can’t imagine writing about a different city, I obviously don’t have the authority. The longer I’m here, the more interested I am in this place.

Diana: Los Angeles is so vast!

There is so much place and setting in Time’s Mouth. I particularly loved the film location in Inglewood on an oilfield, which Ray and Opal end up living on. Does this house really exist?

Edan: It’s inspired by a real house. I heard about it on a local NPR show once, and then found it online. That website is now defunct, so it has a little bit of a weird Time’s Mouth energy, where I went back to try to find some information and it had disappeared. My dad is a location manager, [and] a lot of Ray’s autobiography is my own father’s autobiography—not the cult stuff, but his job and other things. My dad had gone to scout the house before, and it sort of got caught in my imagination. It’s such a vivid image: an old house built on a hill above LA, surrounded by oil.

There’s something about LA and houses—so many exciting, interesting things happen in their privacy. I think it’s because there’s a little bit more space here than in other cities, and there’s the weather. You might go into your backyard; you might go out less and have more people over. Houses are charged spaces for me. I’m attracted to the drama and the mystery that can unfold behind the walls of domestic spaces.

Diana: You mention your father’s vanity license plate, ORGONE, in Time’s Mouth’s acknowledgements, and his research assistance with all things microfiche, Wilhelm Reich, and ’80s LA. I’m curious to learn more about him.

Edan: He’s a real character. My parents came to [California] when my mom was pregnant with me. They had this narrative of coming to the Promised Land. It was sort of like an immigrant dream—but they just came from working-class New Jersey. I always wanted to write about the things that my dad was obsessed with. I’m not a particularly spiritual, woo-woo kind of person. But he had his own personal astrologer, and went to Bodhi Tree, which was this new-age bookstore near our house.

He got into Reichian therapy. Wilhelm Reich had some totally insane ideas—like that when you’re upset, the energy gets locked in the body. A lot of the therapy is about getting you in touch with your body, whether it’s screaming into a pillow, or making your eyes really wide and looking all over the room—you can understand why it might make you feel better in the end. Reich also made the orgone energy accumulator, which is a box you sit in to feel energy biomes. My dad does not have an accumulator or anything, but he has many of his books, all over his house.

“We carry these bodies everywhere, and we don’t see them a lot on the page—I don’t know why. Maybe because we live in a kind of disembodied world now? Or because writers are very cerebral?”

Diana: I do want to talk about some of the woo-woo aspects of the book. There’s the female-only weed farm cult Ursa inadvertently heads in Santa Cruz; the energy accumulator Ray purchases in Los Angeles; the psychic medicine woman Cherry visits. Each of these elements seems like an attempt to save the characters from their traumas, and bring them closer to their bodies.

Edan: I wish there was another word for it besides woo-woo. But all of these things are ways that people try to find answers for their trauma. My best friend is a therapist, she gives stones to people to hold if they’re really having a hard time. When you’re spiraling, [you’re not] in your body, and you need something to help you feel grounded. It’s not that the obsidian itself has power—just that it’s in your hand, and you’re like, Oh, I have a hand.

We carry these bodies everywhere, and we don’t see them a lot on the page—I don’t know why. Maybe because we live in a kind of disembodied world now? Or because writers are very cerebral? I am always trying to assert the body in fiction, and I hadn’t thought about that in relation to the spiritual levels of the book, or the woo-woo stuff, but I think there must be a connection—because both are ways to fight pain.

Diana: In Time’s Mouth, Ursa’s cult has a morning ritual where they drink mint tea together. Do you have any rituals you turn to when writing? Is mint tea involved?

Edan: Mint tea is not involved. My husband and I make mint tea at night, while we’re watching TV. It’s a ritual, but I don’t think it’s spiritual. As for writing, I always listen to music. I almost cannot write without music now, I’ve become so dependent on it. And when I go to a writing retreat—this is really cheesy—I bring a writing ring. My mom travels the world, and she often brings me back rings.

Diana: What does the ring do?

Edan: I tell my students, if you’re having a really hard time revising, go get your nails done—I don’t care what your gender is. When I have my nails done, suddenly, everything is kind of imbued with style. And so when I have these rings on, it’s almost like a superpower, like I put the cape on. I don’t do it all the time, but I like to bring them on retreats. Suddenly, my hand feels kind of glamorous, so I have to write. I’ve given the ring the power of creativity. You got to trick yourself, you know?