Time travel usually comes with the dilemma of whether messing with the past is worth it. It assumes you’ll have the power to change what’s already happened. But what if all you could do is witness the life you used to have? This is the time-construct Edan Lepucki built for her latest novel Time’s Mouth—where the most relatable consequence is at stake: the life you miss out on when you ignore the present.
When I asked Lepucki about the process of weaving time travel into her book, she couldn’t help but recall her editor’s “say more about the purpose of time here” notes, and how she would fret “I don’t know! Oh god, I have to be profound?!” This might tempt some writers toward pretentiousness, but not Lepucki. After publishing three novels, she still has a playful and curious approach to her writing, letting her characters drive the story. “I could just enter a scene and braid in what they would be feeling and thinking, so that those bigger ideas could come across,” she told me.
One of those big ideas being that even time travel can’t make someone a perfect parent. It might actually make things worse. The novel starts with the matriarch, Ursa, who discovers she has this gift and builds a women-and-children-only commune to harness her power. Her son, Ray eventually leaves the community and starts his own family, but no matter where (or when) he is, Ursa has her ways of haunting him.
Time’s Mouth takes a fresh look at time travel, the complexity of parenthood, cults, and the family secrets that burden generations. To find out more about how it was written and how she balances her time as a writer, I spoke with Lepucki.
What inspired you to write a novel linking motherhood and time travel?
When my second child was a baby, she had this very arresting, powerful, knowing gaze almost from birth that immediately made me wonder: who is this person? It was like she was looking into my soul. She basically had my number from day one. So, that sparked the first idea for the book—What if this baby actually was magical? Obviously, I took it in a sort of … ominous direction. But then, also there was the idea that most parents have, that time passes by so quickly and your kid really is different every day.
I think we all do it—that longing to go back. And so, I imagined: Well, what if you could do it? What would it be like? Would it be a good idea? And I love the idea of having one person be able to do it in an evil way. That was a really fun and delicious idea for me. And then I had to dig into why she would do it.
Did you ever have a moment while writing this novel where you thought how many people would be terrified if their mother had the ability to go back in time?
Or your kid? Yeah. There are so many times when parents have to remind themselves: It’s fine that I’m messing up. They won’t remember this! … Just imagine if they could go back in time. [Laughs.] Ursa can go back in time, and she can go back in time to her child’s babyhood, his youth, and it’s really what makes her not a great mother. She doesn’t accept the very idea of motherhood, which is that it’s always changing and that loss is built into the program. So she chooses to time travel over everything else, including being present with her kid.
One of my friends read the book and told me: Oh, so time travel is a metaphor for your writing. And I said: Well, maybe? I have to do it in a room, and I don’t want any kids around because they kind of mess up my writing day … but hopefully it’s not as consequential as all that.
Yes! Can we talk more about that? There’s this moment at the beginning that says: “Taking care of children requires being tethered to the present, to an endless parade of daily tasks, to the now. That wouldn’t work for someone with this gift.” It felt like a statement about mothers as artists or inventors, who still want to create something for themselves in the world.
I will say that motherhood and writing are the most central facets of my life. I’m pretty sure those two things will mean the most in terms of what I dedicated my life to—making books and raising people. They’re so different, but they also inform each other in beautiful ways.
Having kids didn’t change me or change my personality, it only emphasized all the aspects of it. As soon as my first kid was born, I decided to finish the book that I started before I was pregnant. And then, during the first six months of his life, I finished that book and I was very clear about still having that dream and not giving it up. I also have child care, and a husband who does half of all the domestic labor, which is not nothing. I also think the tension of wanting to be by myself to work is part of how I mother. It’s a valuable thing for my kids to learn that something important to me exists outside of them. When I’m with my kids, I really am trying to be with them fully, and when I’m writing, I’m asserting that that’s also valuable. Those things can coexist. I have less time because I’m a parent, but I’ve written more than I did before having kids because now time is precious in a way that is really emphasized.
I think it’s interesting—what you mentioned about how motherhood can emphasize parts of yourself. Because for Ursa, it seems to emphasize everything she hasn’t been able to come to terms with, including the abuse she went through with her father.
Yeah, I didn’t want to make it simplistic. As in, this thing happened to her, and so, she’s like this.
No trauma math.
Yeah. Especially in writing workshops, there’s often a notion of: Well, it’s very clear she’s acting like this because this happened. We tend to simplify things. So I wanted the abuse my character Ursa went through to be a part of her story, but I didn’t want it to be the only thing. But I do think somebody who has something horrible happen to them and has not had the opportunity or the tools to deal with it—they do have a really fascinating relationship to the past.
Ursa has so intensely siloed what her father did that she has mastered time, and that’s part of why she has the gift. I wanted that lack of closure to drive her. It’s like the saying goes: “hurt people hurt people,” because she never really faced it. But I didn’t want to blow it up. One, because she doesn’t want to look at it, so she just represses it so much that it wouldn’t be part of her consciousness. And two: I didn’t want it to be the “trauma math” you mentioned, like x equals y.
Or neatly fitting into a box in that way—
Yes, but I still wanted to be this black dot in the story that you kind of can’t let go of.
And she can’t let go of it, right? She’s someone who almost can’t be present because of her ability and her trauma.
Yeah, for her—and I’ve even done this myself—if you’re upset with somebody, every single little thing they do is further proof of their insensitivity or whatever the case may be. With her, each relationship is a part of a pattern that she’s decided about her life and about herself. As in: “He left me, he didn’t make me feel safe because I’m this wronged person,” and then the same thing happens over again with different people. So it’s all this … proof that she’s working on. I didn’t know that about her when I started writing. I discovered all this as I went along and that’s why I think that she was difficult to write but also endlessly interesting to me.
With a lot of cults, it seems like the people joining are drawn to the promise of something that they don’t have—or that’s been missing all of their lives. So what’s the promise of Ursa’s cult for the mamas? What do they get out of it?
I always say that when you watch a documentary, like the NXIVM one, the people who were in cults always have a “black-hole-of-need” that you can just read on their face. There’s some abyss that can’t be filled within them. It was something that happened to them. Somebody told them something about themselves and they can’t shake it. And so, for the first time, they’re accepted for the person they want to be. And I think that’s really intriguing. I think that’s why so many people find cults intriguing.
So, in the book, I thought about it as a place for people who have a lot of pain that they don’t know what to do with—where they would be comforted. They don’t have the complications of the outside world, the clear rules of the community make them feel safe, and they have an authority figure who’s not going to hurt them (or so they think). And I think they need that for whatever reason.
The novel talks a lot about energy in the world around us—whether it’s the energy around time travel, or even the way Ursa’s son seeks it out through Orgone therapy. Where were you trying to go with that?
I am not a spiritual person. I don’t believe in god. But my dad, who the book is dedicated to, is into Reichian therapy, and he’s a very … “woo-woo” person. So I had always wanted to write about that. Even though I’m not a believer, I definitely think that certain moments are charged with particular energies. You just walk into a place and feel it. When my husband and I were looking to buy a house in the hills of Oakland, I remember telling him that so many of the houses had a serial killer energy. And he was like: What are you talking about? I didn’t know how to describe it. It’s similar to when you were a kid and would sleep over at someone’s house one time and decide: I’m never going to sleep over that person’s house again. The vibes are just off in that house. And I don’t know what it is, but I know that it’s somehow both real and not real.
So, it’s funny when people say this book is fantasy or sci-fi. I know it’s because people are traveling in time and that doesn’t really happen. But it also feels important that all of that is grounded in how we all move through the world picking up on things that we can’t see. Which—I guess—is it called energy? I don’t know. It’s just turned up a notch.
You know that’s what writing fiction is all about, right?
Yeah, and my editor was really helpful with that. He told me: When they time travel, you should consider the real world implications. He kept saying it. It was plot related, but also atmosphere related. It was really fun to think about. When Ursa was time traveling, I had to think: Well, what does that feel like for those around her? Suddenly, I had all of this fictive … stuff to deal with that really animated the scenes.
And that also becomes part of the reason why the mamas follow her.
Yeah, because there’s no reason for them to stay unless—obviously there’s safety—but there also has to be something addictive there to keep them willing to follow Ursa. And follow her rules. There has to be a really compelling reason.
Until they hit a breaking point. For Ray, he only recognizes his own childhood neglect after seeing it reflected in the way the other kids are treated. And for the mamas, it takes seeing someone die to understand the danger they are putting themselves and their children into. Each felt like a moment where they could finally see the harm being done to them clearly. Is that what it takes for them to leave?
I didn’t intentionally have it ripple out that way, but I think you’re right. I knew there had to be something really dangerous and horrible to happen to make two people in the cult escape in the way they did—especially Cherry. Even pregnant, she had to be able to have the notion: This is a bad place even though I’m from here. I think it’s hard—you have to see it from the outside to understand how something really, truly is.
Many of the characters seem to be moving through or trying to cycle-break generational trauma. How did you decide to explore that?
For me, if someone was like: You’re about to write a book about intergenerational trauma, I’d tell them: Oh god, no. I don’t want to write about that! That sounds like a bummer and also just impossible to write about.
I always like to say that fiction writers should be pretty stupid for a long time about their own work—that if you just exist in the images, the characters, and the setting, and see what’s happening between them, the work itself will create its own meaning. Flannery O’Connor in her Mystery and Manners book talks about meaning being accumulated in a text and how you have to move through a story to understand what it means. You can’t just have someone describe a story to you. You have to actually read it. I think that case is true for writing, too. You have to write through everything that happens in order to really understand what you meant to say.
So, I remained in the dark for a long time about what it all added up to in the novel, and then it was only in the rewriting process when I had to come to terms with: Okay, time travel is really cool, but what does it mean? Why are they doing it? What are they trying to understand?
Peter Ho Davies in his book The Art of Revision quotes Jane Smiley saying something like: It’s not your job to judge your work as good or bad. It’s your job to understand your work. And I think that’s really true. The more you revise your work, the more you understand what it’s trying to tell the world. So the readers are going to get on the first time, but I had to get it on the 300th time. Again, it’s like getting outside of yourself to understand your own story.
Photo: Ralph Palumbo