An Interview with Emma Straub
Emma Straub is probably the nicest person on the Internet, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my friend. Follow her on Twitter and see for yourself. Vol. 1 Brooklyn chose Emma for The Twitterati of 2010, and listed her as “The Person Most Likely To Tweet Something Nice About Somebody Else.”
She’s nice and she’s talented. The two don’t always go hand in hand. Her brand new short story collection, Other People We Married, is one of the best debuts I’ve read in quite a long time. One of the most respected contemporary writers, Lorrie Moore, agrees, calling the book “a revelation. In these stories of grief, love, loss, and transplantation, Emma Straub demonstrates her brilliance, her humor, her sharp observational powers, as well as her lyrical gifts and affection for the world, She is a terrific new talent.”
My first question (and the most important question), m’dear, is how do you do it? How do you manage to be so charming and wonderful AND a talented writer?
That is clearly a trick question, and I'm not going near it with a ten-foot pole! The check is in the mail. Okay, the answer is coming to me: it's by using as many cliches as possible in one answer! What do I win?
You’ve been compared to Lorrie Moore, and she gave an amazing blurb for this book. I agree with the comparison. Would you say she has been a direct influence?
Lorrie was my professor and thesis advisor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison MFA program, and so yes, I'd say that's a pretty direct influence. I think that Lorrie is one of the greatest living American short story writers, and I feel phenomenally lucky to have spent so much time with her. She's hilarious and smart and fabulously good-looking, and if people compare me to her, well, I take that as quite a compliment.
Who would you say are your biggest influences?
Lately I've been on a Meg Wolitzer kick. She's so sharp, and her novels come together so well. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad made me weep with delight. Ann Patchett, Kate Christensen, Tom Perrotta, among many, many others. Sofia Coppola! Maira Kalman! Country Strong! I could do this all day long. I fall in love very easily.
Your dad is the famous writer Peter Straub. There are many examples of writers who are related. Case in point: Stephen King and his sons Owen and Joe. When more than one person in the same family is an accomplished writer, I can't help but wonder: is there a writing gene?
Yes, of course. I believe the writing gene is located just behind the gene for enjoying red wine and just in front of the gene for watching soap operas, both of which I also inherited from my father. What I do know for sure is that I watched my father write for a living my entire childhood, and I understood that it was a job like any other, that one had to do all day, every day. I think a lot of people have the fantasy that a writer sits around in coffee shops all day, waiting for the muse to appear, but I (along with Owen and Joe, to be sure) know that that's not how it works. It is also true, though, that there are people born totally without imagination. I'm glad I'm not one of them. That would make it really hard to be a writer. It could also be that this is only true for horror writers. Wouldn't that be a nice turn of events!
You work at Book Court in Brooklyn (yay!) and you’re a voracious reader. If you were able to handsell/recommend only ONE book for the rest of your life, what would you insist that people read?
Donna Tartt's The Secret History. That was easy.
Let’s talk about your writing process. How do you come up with the ideas for your short stories? Is it one little “aha” moment? Do you write the first sentence and see where it takes you? Where do you begin?
I usually know where I want something to go, and write towards that. Of course, it doesn't always work out that neatly, but sometimes it does. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. The obituary section is good, as are park benches, crowded restaurants, airports...
One of the things that strikes me about your stories is that they are filled with possibilities. Your characters are sometimes trapped in the moment, in their current situation, but some are resolved to get out of it, or sometimes accept or transform themselves. Why is that?
Isn't it that way for all of us, that we either accept our situations or change them? I'm an optimist in my actual life, so maybe my poor characters get the doom-and-gloom side of me. In fact, I'm sure that's true. My father always tells me to kill off more of my characters, which I don't do, but I do make bad things happen to them, even if on a small scale.
Do you ever find yourself putting autobiographical elements into your fiction?
Sometimes I do, directly or indirectly. I often use real places. And I did just ruthlessly steal all the details from my mother's birding class for one of the stories in my collection.
One of my favorite short stories in your collection is called "Abraham's Enchanted Forest." The dad is a Walt Whitman impersonator who runs a park, and he's such a vivid person on the page. In my own interpretation, the story is really about fathers and daughters. I love when you say: "If Abraham were Walt Whitman, not just for pretend but for real, he'd write poems about the Forest, and about her, and about Judy's pies and the view from the top of the Ferris wheel and the burl creatures from California. He'd say I sing the apple pie electric. He'd say But oh daughter! My daughter! He'd say I will live forever. He'd say Don't ever go." That's a beautiful way to talk about the undying love and affection a parent can have for their child. We're all tourists in this lifetime, wanting to catch as many attractions as we can. But sometimes it's better to pull over to the side of the road and examine the life we're currently living. And I think that's an underlying theme of many of your stories. Am I right?
I love you, Michele. To go back to your earlier question, while I don't tend to write stories that are autobiographically true, I do write stories that are emotionally true for myself, which is even more revealing. I wrote that story in Wisconsin, which felt very far away from my family, and yes, my father, who I am terribly attached to. He's not a Walt Whitman impersonator, but he does have a big personality. (For those of you on the crack-cocaine that we call Twitter, search the hashtag #shitbigpetesays to get a taste of what I mean.) In general, I do think that short stories are one of the best mediums we have for slowing down and examining small moments, the kind that pass in an instant.
I'm a big fan of the short story. I think more can be said in a few pages than a whole novel, and your collection proves this. I know you've been working on a novel. Have you found that more or as challenging as writing short stories?
I've written novels before, novels that are now sitting in a drawer, and so, yes, I think they are the more challenging genre. With a short story, you get to concentrate on one tiny thing, one tiny moment, but in a novel, it has to be bigger than that. I've tried the plot-driven approach, and the slow-and-languid approach, neither of which seemed to be the right fit for me. All I can do is keep trying. What's the other option, give up? I started writing fiction eight years ago, when I graduated from college, and if I've learned anything about myself in that time, it's that I'm sturdier than a cockroach, and completely impervious to rejection. I might be eighty when I publish my first novel, but it'll happen. People will forgive me if I keep my current author photo, won't they?