If you’re looking for a darkly comic and compulsively readable novel to take with you on vacation this summer, look no further than Woman No. 17. Set in the Hollywood Hills, writer Lady Daniels separates from her husband, but in order to finish her book, she hires a babysitter off Craigslist to take care of her toddler son Devin. A young woman named S is hired—a recent art school student—and moves into Lady’s guest house, quickly becoming part of the fabric of the family. She befriends Lady’s teenage son Seth, as well as Lady herself, but as the summer wears on, things take a bizarre turn.
S’s art project threatens to take over, her friendship with Lady verges into a weird place and her relationship with Seth becomes even more complicated in this twisty and satisfying novel. Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with Edan Lepucki and discussed the artist’s gaze, mother-daughter relationships and dick pics.
Read it Forward: Where did the idea for Woman No. 17 come from?
Edan Lepucki: Well, every story of how a novel gets written is a myth because you have come up with all the different ways that it came together. But the very first element that I recall is when my son was little. As soon as he was a year old and he didn’t talk, I started to worry that he was delayed. Then I started to worry, what if he didn’t ever speak? He said “Dada” when he was 16 months old, which is actually pretty normal.
Everyone told me that it was normal, but I was paranoid waiting for the milestones. So I began to think about what it would be like to have a child who was mute. That’s where the idea of Lady and Seth came from. I also had read Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, a nonfiction book about parenting children of difference, which is amazing. Have you read it?
EL: It’s so good. One chapter is about hearing impaired children. One is about children with dwarfism and the parents of these children, how they are so heroic to advocate for them and reach across the chasm of their identity differences. I thought, “I want to write about a mom who is not like that.”
That was the first little seed, but I don’t tend to know a lot about what I’m writing until I start. Then I just let voice take over. I didn’t realize that S was going to be in the book. I didn’t know she was an artist. She kind of was there. I thought it was going to be a story about Seth running away. But then he was so interesting, I needed him to be in the story.
To be honest, though, I don’t remember having an idea like, “Oh, S is an artist and this is what she’s doing.” It’s like I was in a fugue state.
RIF: So you would say you had a better idea of Lady rather than S when you started?
EL: Yes, exactly.
RIF: Speaking of artists, there is a lot about the artist’s gaze, and how being observed can turn the subject into something different entirely. We have a few artists in this book and a few subjects. What do you think about the artist’s gaze? Or how the gazed upon feel, as their identity is captured, manipulated, and interpreted?
EL: That’s a good question. When I was about 19, I worked at Book Soup in Los Angeles. One of my favorite things to do there was to reorganize the art and photography section. Book Soup was a mess. It’s less so now, but at the time there were just so many books. Their inventory had never been done, and it was bursting at the seams. It was really fun to do pulls to return to publishers, and to make sure everything was in alphabetical order. I also liked to do it because I could stop and look at the photography and art books. It was around that time that I found out about Sally Mann and another woman named Elinor Carucci. She’s an Israeli photographer.
Elinor Carucci does self-portraits, and a lot of them are nudes. They’re very intimate. Her most recent book is about motherhood—I was going to write her a fan email when I saw the pictures online—they are images of her pregnant body and pictures of herself nursing. I also found the Sally Mann photos really captivating. There’s the famous one with her daughter, who has a candy cigarette. She looks almost sexy, but she’s, like, eight years old. I loved them and I loved all of the different feelings I had looking at these photos, like how much of this is real? What is staged? What is natural, are these people being exploited? They’re just children. Am I bringing a sexuality to these children that is not there?
I basically thought that that was the answer. I didn’t think that they were actually objectified in a way that would actually be disgusting. They were really beautiful to me. They felt really innocent.
RIF: But the viewer’s mind brings something to the image.
EL: Something else, exactly. All of that complicated stuff was always really fascinating to me. I think I put it in my back pocket. It’s also interesting that I got into those photos at the age that I did. I went through high school and nobody was ever interested in me, I never had a boyfriend. But when I got to college, suddenly I was one of the cute girls.
My mom was like, “I think this is a good school for you.” Before, people just thought I looked like a dude, and they didn’t like me. I felt like that was the first time I became a sexual object or realized that I had that power and also that vulnerability. I don’t know when that all mixed together, but I do think I began to realize the pleasure of being seen and also the burden of it, and mixing that up with photography.
So I am interested in the artist’s gaze, the male gaze, the female gaze upon another female. All of those things are rolled up together for me. I like to write fiction about them because I’m not exactly sure how I feel about them. I just want to put people in the room and see.
RIF: Have them work it out?
EL: Yeah, have them work it out. I don’t have to come up with any thesis about it.
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RIF: We all know that mother-daughter relationships are complicated, like the one that S has with her mom. Why is this so? Lady has a different relationship with her two sons. What is it about mothers and daughters that create friction and hero worship?
EL: Yeah, I don’t know. When I wrote this book, I was only the mother of a son. I’m now the mother of a daughter as well. I wrote the first draft, and then, like, a month later gave birth to my daughter. I think that the relationship that I have with my son is pretty uncomplicated. It just feels much easier than I think it can be with a mom and daughter. And I have a good relationship with my mom. It has become so much better since having children because if I have an issue and I don’t know how to solve it, she can help. Anything from, “I feel like there’s no time for myself,” to like “Oh, what is this weird thing going on with my body?” She has the answers to everything.
I have three sisters and a brother, and it seems like the relationship between my mom and my brother is pretty uncomplicated. But in the relationship that she has with my sisters and me, there are all these minefields. We look to our mothers to either be like them or be different from them, and different depending on the topic. I think we have this sense that they are an example for us. We’re either resisting it or trying to pull it closer to us.
With my daughter, I’m so conscious of not wanting to tell her that she’s pretty too often because I don’t want to make her think about that stuff at all. Whereas I have no problem telling my son, “You’re so beautiful,” because I don’t think it’s going to have the same kind of weight. It won’t matter. It’s not a currency that he is going to have to spend.
Then there is all of the stuff about how I consider myself as a woman. Passing that on to my daughter makes me nervous. I’m worried that whatever I have absorbed from the patriarchy, I’m like, “Here you go! Let me pass it on to you!” I don’t think we realize how politicized the mother-daughter relationship is. This very private, intimate relationship is filled with all of these landmines related to sexism and patriarchy and sexuality. It’s not the same with a boy.
RIF: But it’s inherent when dealing with daughters.
EL: I know. But my mom is really nice. She’s like, “Well if you go to therapy, you can just blame it all on me. That’s how it’s supposed to be.” And so I do. I’m trying to have that same attitude where I’m like, if my daughter needs to blame me for all of the shit in her life, I will take that. That’s my cloak. That’s my cloak.
RIF: Do you think that S takes on a daughter relationship to Lady or this weird, perverse friendship, or a little of both?
EL: I think both. What I find fun to write about relationships, and what I hope is intriguing to read, is that they enact all of these different roles for each other. I think that is true for a lot of relationships. With a friend of yours, there might be some maternal aspect or even paternal aspect. There might be a professional mentorship going on. There is also just a straight friendship.
For S and Lady, there is this friendship. They have this repartee and connection immediately that I don’t think you can deny, even if you decide that they’re not good for each other. They have fun together, and there are moments of closeness when they are truly seeing one another, even when S is not being herself, like, she’s literally being someone else. I think she does feel connected to Lady.
Lady is trying to escape her own mother, but she then does the same stuff to S that her mother did to her. She makes comments, like, “You should not wear that and you should do this,” and she can be condescending, but S is allowing herself to be mothered. I do think there is a real friendship there, and they are also employer and employee, so that’s a whole other thing. You are paying this person to be around. This person is taking care of your child for money.
My daughter’s babysitter thankfully is nothing like S, and I don’t think there are any real parallels. But it definitely is a relationship where you’re like, this is a really intimate relationship. You’re in my house. You can see all of my housekeeping flaws. You see how I parent. You see my marriage up close. You get very intimate access. You’re vulnerable as a parent, just like the caretaker is vulnerable because they are taking money from you, and you can fire them at any time. And they have to keep your child safe. That’s another intense aspect of S and Lady’s friendship.
RIF: What do S and Lady get from each other? What do they respect about one another and then what do they envy?
EL: That’s a good question. I think Lady sees in S a version of herself that she either misses or never was. She really admires how S is with Devin, and I don’t think that Lady could ever really be fully present with Devin because she’s resentful that Seth wasn’t like Devin. I think she just enjoys having somebody around, who will actually talk to her.
And I don’t know what S gets from Lady. I think S actually wants to take care of Lady in some ways, like a child who is “parentified.” Almost like if you are the child of an alcoholic and you have to take care of them, you can end up repeating that. I have friends who have alcoholic parents, and you see them taking on that role in other relationships. They have tried to do it to me. They tried to do it to their other friends, or they become the caregiver of their partner. S doesn’t quite realize that that’s what’s happening. She does feel protective of Lady, even if she is sleeping with her son.
RIF: Exactly. To talk about alcohol for a second, alcohol and addiction have a grasp on a lot of different characters. We see a few of these women repeating the same actions, even though they have already seen the consequences. There is almost this waterfall effect of parenting that comes out of this alcohol abuse. Why was that important for you to put in?
EL: For both this book and California—I’m realizing I probably just write the same story over and over again—but I’m really interested in trauma. Even if it is some kind of minor trauma, I’m interested in how that gets passed on, like the telephone game.
Parenting is really hard. Most of the things in my life have been, if not easy, then just incredibly enjoyable. I revel in the challenge. Parenting is the one thing where I don’t think I’m naturally good at this in some ways, and it just gets harder. There is transcendent joy there, but it’s really difficult. I wonder how much harder would this be if I couldn’t call my mom and say, “Hey, what is this thing on my body, and why is my daughter getting up from 3:00 to 4:30 every morning?” What does this mean?
Or if I didn’t have a dad who I’m closely connected to and who taught me all of these things. How much harder would it be to not have that example? I’m always interested in reenacting what you’ve learned, whether that’s good or bad. So I think that’s present in both books. Can you be healthy if you didn’t have healthy examples?
RIF: That learned behavior and learned trauma are so strong.
EL: My best friend is a therapist, and it’s something that we talk about a lot. How can you overcome things like that? And you can, but it takes a lot of effort and support. When I was in graduate school, at the last workshop everyone had to write emulations of everybody else’s writing. There were four people who wrote a story in my style that was like, “And then I took acid with my dad.”
I would always write about transgressions and a lot of drug use, not usually drinking. But I am certainly interested in the ways that we use substances to overcome whatever we’re uncomfortable about. We can use alcohol, we can get stoned, and then we can say what we always wanted to say. We can go beyond the employer/employee relationship if we’re both drunk. And then we can blame the alcohol.
RIF: Or you can kiss someone.
EL: Yeah, exactly.
RIF: I’m fascinated with S’s project of looking at these women before they were mothers. Do we lose something of ourselves when we become mothers? What is S’s fascination with this time period of not only her own mother but all mothers?
EL: I think S is looking for the moment when something happened with her mother because she really believed the raw ingredients were great. It’s the things that happened to her mom that messed her up. I think by going back, she’s trying to figure out if she could find a path where she went wrong.
RIF: Pinpointing it.
EL: Implicit in that is the notion that becoming a mother was worse for her mother. Even her mother tells her. She calls S and she’s like, “You are the worst thing that ever happened to me,” kind of stuff. So I think there is a sense, a belief that she probably can’t articulate that she messed up her mother more than other things. I don’t know about all mothers. I think it’s my obsession.
RIF: OK, a little spoiler alert. S finally finds the success that she is craving at the very end of the book, but it’s with dick pics. I had such a sense of satisfaction that this was turning around and showcasing a symbol that men send to women that is unwanted, usually.
EL: I don’t speak for all women.
RIF: Right. Not all women. But was that your intention, to flip it on its head?
EL: You know, I am not a visual artist, but I like to think of the art that I would do if I were an artist. That was an idea that I had a long time ago. I wanted to use it for something. I’m married, so I am not on Tinder receiving the dick pics, but I hear about them from other people. Mostly what I liked was that it wasn’t her idea. I think the reader can be left thinking, is this a true art project or is she mimicking somebody else again?
RIF: Yeah, it’s another half-truth.
EL: In the future, what is her real art? Is it landscapes? We don’t really know, and I like that the book doesn’t say. But I also did like that it was turning it around to show what women are getting, unasked for. Now you have to look at it. I’m taking this and making it into art. I’m making it into these beautiful portraits. So I like that it was doing more than one thing in the book.
RIF: So Seth doesn’t speak, but he still participates in nonverbal communication. How did you make the character choice to make him a teenager? Do you think Lady, especially as a writer, is distressed by this?
EL: It really was one of the hardest elements of the book, that and trying to figure out what S’s art was going to be as it moved through the book. Those were the two things that gave me the most stress because he didn’t speak, but I wanted him to be in scenes where he could pick up on the smallest of cues. I knew he couldn’t be autistic because then he wouldn’t be able to be an agent in the drama. That was really important to me. But I didn’t want him to be just this poetic mute either because I felt like that was offensive and not realistic.
His disability is right on the edge of being unbelievable because he doesn’t have any social anxiety. So I needed to make the muteness something that feels real and is causing a lot of stress and frustration for everybody involved. Because imagine how hard it would be!
I was pretty clear with Lady, her feelings were really complicated. She was resentful. She was protective, all these things at once. But for S, it also has to be something that is bothersome at times and gives her a little bit of social anxiety because she doesn’t know how he’s going to react or what he’s thinking because he can’t say anything. So I had to work through those feelings.
I took a speech therapist out to coffee, and asked her, “Okay, so what kind of tests would he have? What do you think his issue was?” The fact that she said, “Well this would probably be his diagnosis, but it wouldn’t capture it fully,” was useful to me because I thought, “That is actually really scary, as a parent.”
It’s almost a relief to have a diagnosis that fits. If it doesn’t, you’re always wondering, well what is really the matter with him? So I used that to my advantage, in terms of trying to figure out how Lady would feel about Seth, and then just making sure that Seth himself felt like a real person. I want the reader to feel like if Seth wrote this book, it would be a different story. There was a point when I flirted with giving Seth his own section. But then I felt that it was really about these women, how they’re telling the story, and how they’re trying to control the narrative. It remains important that Seth is at the mercy of them.
RIF: Do you have a favorite scene in the book?
EL: I think my favorite scene is when Lady meets Kit for lunch. Kit is a really fun character. She’s a major bitch. I think actually if Kit had her own section, you would like her better because she really is just a wounded famous artist. She wants to remain on top and that’s not going to be the case for her. There’s a threat of these younger artists coming up, and all these things. But she’s so fun to write. She has these crazy outfits, like the one that looks like a giant napkin. That’s my favorite. I could write a whole separate, companion book about Kit’s closet.
I spent a lot of time on that lunch scene, it was really fun to write. The dynamic between Kit and Lady is weird. Their tensions and snippiness are great. In that scene I had Lady go to the bathroom, where she thinks about how she met Kit in a parking lot. Before that moment, I didn’t know how they met. And I suddenly felt very sad because Lady is like, “I thought this woman was going to be my friend,” but in fact, she feels exploited by Kit—whether that’s true or not. I felt like there was this other wound here. That’s part of why she hates Kit, but you don’t really get it until that later moment. I was very happy with that.
RIF: There is a sense of propulsion to this novel, without it being scary. It’s suspenseful in a way. It keeps the reader turning the pages. Was that pacing intentional, or what you were looking for in the writing?
EL: I’m so happy you say that. My goal in life as a writer is to write books that are smart. Not like eating a bucket of cotton candy, but like you cannot put it down. That’s the sweet spot for me as a reader. I don’t necessarily need a ton of plot, but I like that feeling of needing to know what happens. I like feeling as though I’m really immersed in the story.
I learned a lot about pacing from writing California. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at it, and I hope that it’s a skill that readers can depend on. That’s my life goal, just putting it out there.
I definitely wanted this feeling of movement. I made it so that especially near the end, the chapters are really short and you switch between characters. I knew we were going to have between 30 and 60 pages for each character, but then by the end, they were going to go back and forth really fast. I felt like that was going to put the wind in my sails and push the reader into the story even more.
But I also didn’t know if I was doing it until my husband, who had read five versions, read the galley and said, “This is so readable.” I figured if somebody who had read it that many times felt like that, it had worked.
What’s funny is that a couple of friends have been like, “Oh my God. Please tell me that Devin doesn’t drown.” Another said it’s like Big Little Lies, but without the murder. I think it really is much more ominous than I realized.
Author Photo: © Adam Karsten