For the past three years, students at Caltech have taken classes in creative writing from critically acclaimed author Edan Lepucki. Like John Irving's fixation on Vienna and bizarre fatal accidents, Lepucki returns to familiar themes across multiple novels—in her case, California and motherhood. But if this calls to mind images of children playing in the surf on a brilliantly sunny day while mom sits in her bikini on a towel, applying sunscreen and smiling indulgently, then think again. By her own admission, Lepucki's novels "have so much darkness." Not quite horror, not quite fantasy, not quite science fiction, they bend and twist comfortable realities to reveal uncomfortable ones.
Lepucki's first novel takes place in the future, her second in the present, and her third in the past. California, the first, is set in the woods of a post-apocalyptic California where her characters attempt to live off the land after Los Angeles disintegrates under the pressures of climate change and financial collapse. Woman No. 17, Lepucki's second novel, introduces us to a mother and her children's caregiver living in the Hollywood Hills, as they bond with one another until complex secrets about them are revealed. As The Washington Post puts it, "Woman No. 17 tastes like a juice box of urban satire laced with Alfred Hitchcock." Time's Mouth, Lepucki's newest novel, begins with a character born in 1938 who travels to San Francisco in the 1950s to escape her abusive family, and then through circumstance and strange natural abilities finds herself at the head of a women's commune in the woods outside Santa Cruz. Her son escapes to Los Angeles, where he raises his daughter alone. As Y2K approaches, memory ensnares them all in time's mouth, where the past can be experienced as though it were present, and the past is changed by the future.
Lepucki began teaching creative writing at Caltech in 2021, and she has returned every year since to help students write their own stories and understand the craft of fiction writing. "I started during the pandemic, fully on Zoom," Lepucki says. "The students were engaged, and they participated a lot, but there's really no replacement for an in-person group: you can make jokes, see who wants to talk next, read each other's faces." The course is capped at 14 students so students can really engage with each other's work. "I'm actually very honored when students tell me mine was one of their hardest classes, but they liked it the most. It's a different kind of writing—maybe it's a little more freeing and fun." Lepucki says she loves to gradually step back in the classroom and be "more of a participant in this wonderful group of brainiacs."
Caltech students "run the gamut," Lepucki says. "Some students wrote novels when they were in high school or are currently working on a book or stories," she adds, "and some have never written anything, or maybe only a single assignment in high school." All her students, she says, love to read, "so it's nice for them to enjoy that pleasure and that hobby."
What is new to almost all of them is the process of workshopping—having their classmates read and critique their work—which can be a jarring experience for some. "It's definitely like ‘welcome to creative writing in college!'" Lepucki says. "But they all seem to enjoy it. I think they all have fun."
Lepucki lets her students write whatever they want based on the theory that "the same questions can be brought to bear whether you're writing domestic realism or romance or a space opera; questions of setting and character and motivation and scene." Caltech students, she says, are a bit more likely than others to have "a character who's working in a lab or living on the moon," but their writings range from "fantasy to super-intellectual heady stuff like autofiction." (Autofiction is a narrative form that mixes autobiographical and fictional elements.)
"I don't want to teach full time all the time, but getting that little burst of energy from teaching for those 10 weeks is wonderful," Lepucki says. "The students are so smart, engaged, funny, and just interesting." She is also enamored of the Caltech campus, especially as she has become intimately acquainted with it through the "sense images" her students write at the beginning of their course: "They have to collect 24 images from their everyday life utilizing all the senses. It's my favorite assignment because I get these rich, textured descriptions of Caltech life: details about the labs, some smell in a dorm room, or the mannerisms of a professor in a lecture. Some of it is so specific to the Caltech experience, and I love it. I encourage them to bring that texture into all their fiction."
Don't look for Lepucki to be setting her characters in a fictionalized Caltech in the near future though. "Maybe someday," she says, acknowledging that she's "still a little intimidated by scientists," even though she finds it funny that people she meets ask her about Caltech as though "scientists are another species." To be fair, Lepucki says she had the same initial impression. "I came in thinking that people interested in science were just so different from people interested in stories. But I had a student early on, Sophia Charan (PhD '21); I'll never forget her. Sophia told me ‘scientists and writers are really no different because a scientist has an idea and tells a story about something and tries to see if that story is true.' I thought that was so profound." Lepucki says she hopes to be at Caltech for many years to come because students at the Institute "love to collaborate, they're curious about the world—maybe different aspects of the world than me—but that curiosity is a place where we really connect."