The career of New York writer Emma Straub sounds to us like a work of fiction. Hardly into her thirties and she's published both a collection of stories and a novel to great acclaim. Her writing has graced the pages of everything from the Paris Review Daily to Rookie Magazine, Vogue, and the New York Times. She's toured the country openingówith readings and a pink ukelele no lessófor indie music darlings, The Magnetic Fields. And as if to stake her residence in the dreamworld, Emma's first novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures
, caught the eye of Molly Ringwald, who now narrates the book's audio version.
To crack the spine on Emma's novel is to enter a perfectly imagined world, one as melancholy and beautiful, as it is immediately engaging (read: addicting). Sweeping in its scope, Laura Lamont
follows its title character from a sleepy Midwestern town in the 1920s, to Hollywood in its golden age and far beyond. Childhood tragedy, love, and fame propel the novel forward, as its heroine struggles to hold onto the life she's created while never losing the one she's left behind.
Next week, Emma will make her way to Chicago to join in Columbia College's annual Story Week Festival of Writers. She'll participate in a reading and panel discussion, Wildly Imaginative Voices & Visions
, that's free and open to the public. This means, of course, that you have exactly one week to scoop up her book and devour it before lobbing your best questions at her in person.
We caught up with this jet-setting author to talk writing, reading, and taco-eating.
Q: Laura Lamontís Life in Pictures was published shortly after your collection of short stories, Other People We Married. How did the novel-writing process differ from that of short stories? How did the arc of the story take shape for you?
YesóThe Riverhead edition of the story collection was published only six months before the novel came out, but a small press published it about a year before that, so it wasnít quite
as fast as it seems. Novel-writing and story-writing are very different processes indeedówith a story, itís all about a moment of change, finding that tiny little spark, and with a novel, itís about going the distance. A sprint vs a marathon, per se.
Q: We first meet Laura Lamont, then called Elsa Emerson, when sheís just a kid living in the Midwest. As the title implies, we follow her through each decade of her life until she hits senior citizen status. What appealed to you about this structure?
I knew I wanted to write a giant story, a story that followed one woman through most of her life. It seemed like the furthest thing from writing stories, trying to tackle that much time. I was trying to push myself, really.
Q: Letís talk research! Laura Lamont begins in 1920s America and heads straight into the golden age of old, glamorous Hollywood. How much research was involved to make sure you had Lauraís world painted just right?
I did tons of research, mostly in Hollywood, at this fantastic library run by the Academy of Motion Pictures. I read and read and readóbiographies, old fan magazines, the works. It was great fun.
ďNovel-writing and story-writing are very different processes indeedówith a story, itís all about a moment of change, finding that tiny little spark, and with a novel, itís about going the distance.Ē
Q: The stories in Other People We Married are all grounded in modern time, whereas Laura Lamont is set decades earlier. What drove you to jump backward in time for your novel?
Like I said, I was trying to push myself. Iíve always loved the movies, and I just thought, you know, Iím going to try. I had no idea whether or not I would succeed. I was delighted and surprised to learn that doing research was pleasurable, and included lots of old movies.
Q: What inspired the character of Laura Lamont? Do you remember the moment the idea of her came to you?
The idea came to me in the form of an obituary in the New York Times, for the actress Jennifer Jones. I wasnít familiar with her work, but I found her story irresistible. So dramatic, and lovely, and sad. Thatís when I knew.
Q: To you, whatís the secret for fleshing out a character thatís not only real and believable, but novel-worthy?
Giving them problems, and challenges, and loves, and heartache, I suppose. Just like in life, thatís what makes characters compelling.
Q: Can you tell us about your writing process?
I like to set weekly goals for myselfówriting is truly my only form of self-discipline.
Q: Letís talk criticism. Obviously youíre in a very public business. How do you handle the book reviews when theyíre not wholeheartedly positive?
I donít mind. Writing the book is my job, promoting it is my job. Critics have their job. I donít take it personally.
Q: We always read about eccentric tics and tricks writers lean on to get the job done. Do you have any writing eccentricities youíd care to share?
Oh, one must acquire a cat.
Q: How do you balance your professional life with your personal one? Were there times during your novel-writing that all you wanted to talk about was Laura Lamont?
Luckily for me, I have a wonderful husband who is as obsessed with all of this stuff as I am. Without him, Iíd be lost. He came on my entire three month long book tour with me, the love.
ďWriting the book is my job, promoting it is my job. Critics have their job. I donít take it personally.Ē
Q: On the front cover of your novel, the great writer Lorrie Moore lauds you as a magician of words. Let us live vicariously through you for a second: What was that like the moment that line from Moore came in? And are you still beaming?
If I told you that I had built a statue of Lorrie, I would only be lying in so much as the statue exists only in my imagination. I adore her more than words can say.
Q: Similarly, Molly Ringwald narrates the audio version of Laura Lamontís Life in Pictures. Can you tell us how that came about? Was that a real pinch-me moment for you?
Ha! Yes! That was a pinch-me moment. Molly and I have some friends in common, and had met a couple of times. We tweet at each other, and both had books coming out, and she wrote and asked me who was reading the audiobook. I would have moved heaven and earth to make it happen, but of course I didnít have to, because everyone at my publisher was as giddy as I was.
Q: From what we can see, youíve done quite a job of turning a famously solitary profession into something collaborative. Why is it important to you as a writer to step out from behind your desk and engage with audiences?
I think all of that is more important to me as a person than as a writeróIím very social and chatty, and itís fun to do things with your friends, and with people you find inspiring. Writing can be lonely, so why not make it less so?
Q: Any advice to share with readers of The Urbaness who dream of one day publishing a book?
Write and read every single day. Donít get discouraged. These things sometimes take decades. I wrote my first novel when I was 22, and didnít published a novel until I was 31.
Q: Whatís next for Emma Straub?
Iím hard at work on my new novel!
Q: What do you know now that you wish youíd known when you were younger?
That early failure is good for you.
Q: What are you currently reading?
Right now Iím rereading Elizabeth Von Arnimís Enchanted April
, which I absolutely recommend. Like the novel Iím writing, itís a book that takes place over the course of a vacation. Terrific.
Q: What appeals to you about Chicago? Are there any must-stop places you visit when you pass through?
I like to eat, and Chicago is a wonderful town for that. Iím taking recommendations. You tell me!
Q: As a reader, who has been the most difficult fictional character to shut the book on and say goodbye to?
Oh, I like it when characters die, and I like it even more when I am loathe to stop spending time with them. Thatís one of the great pleasures of reading. I canít choose just one.
Q: If you could switch lives with any fictional character for just one day, who would it be?
Hmm. One of the irritating nosy women in a Jane Austen novel, the ones the heroine just canít stand, with too-tight bonnets and bony fingers. That would be fun.
ďWrite and read every single day. Donít get discouraged.Ē
Q: In a dream world, who would write the front cover blurb for your next book?
Ann Patchett. Swoon.
Q: What tops your bucket list of things you must do before you die?
That is entirely too hard. Something to do with Taylor Kitsch, maybe. A taco-eating contest with Taylor Kitsch.