The Big Jewcy: Emma Straub – Novelist, Bookseller, Baker

There are nearly a million reasons to like Emma Straub. We will focus on her writing. Read More

By / June 1, 2011
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The nuanced stories and memorable settings in Emma Straub’s debut collection Other People We Married are only part of her fiction’s appeal. She also has a skill at creating contradictory yet inherently sympathetic characters. Her stories are fueled by conflicts that are dramatically compelling yet never feel contrived. Whether focusing on a family-run amusement park (“Abraham’s Enchanted Forest”) or the shifting life of a young woman named Franny Gold (who appears in several stories in the collection), these are lives that feel genuinely lived — with all that that implies.

Whether a roadside amusement park, a hotel near the desert, or a Midwestern college town, each of the settings of the stories in Other People We Married is incredibly vivid. Do you tend to begin writing stories around the characters, or does the setting usually come first?

Some of the stories in the collection–“Abraham’s Enchanted Forest,” “Hot Springs Eternal,” and “A Map of Modern Palm Springs”– were absolutely inspired by their settings. Perhaps it’s awful to admit this, and it will make you feel sorry for my husband, but I am always working when I go on vacation. I would like to blame this (good) habit on my father, who worked on every family vacation we ever went on, including to ridiculous places like Disneyworld and ClubMed. The other stories in the collection, though, began with the characters. It’s a mix, in the end. Like ChexMix. Only with stories and not over-salted snackfood.

Your upcoming novel, and several of the stories in Other People… are set during specific times in the past. How much do you need to know about a specific point in time before you feel comfortable writing in it?

There’s only one story on OPWM (“Pearls”) that takes place in what I solipsistically consider to be “The Past,” in that it takes place before I was born, and therefore required research outside my own memory banks. The other stories take place in the recent past, the wonderfully fuzzy zone that could be five years or five minutes ago. That’s my favorite, always. I feel totally intimidated by writing in past eras, which is, ahem, why my novel begins in the 1920s and ends in the 1970s. Please don’t tell me that I’m writing a historical novel, because then I’ll be so terrified and unsure that I’ll be unable to finish it.

Do you see the trajectory that Franny follows across some of the stories in Other People We Married as a complete one, or are there more aspects of her life that you plan to cover in future work?

Oh, poor Franny. My darling Franny Gold has an entire novel devoted to her, one now sitting in my drawer. The book was terribly boring, if I do say so myself, and had to be chopped to pieces. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to the complete novel. One never knows. I do love Franny, and I know her so well that it seems a shame not to introduce her to my friends.

What initially drew you to the period in which the novel is set?

The novel (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures) is about a movie star, and the Hollywood studio system was an integral part of my idea. I’ve always loved movies, and the idea of going that far outside the realm of my own experience was really exciting. And just imagine the dresses! Don’t all writers plan their novels around the dresses? Not just the characters’ dresses, mind you, I’m talking about the vintage 1940s dress I’m going to wear to my book party.

Something that struck me about your work is the way that certain moods and assumptions can change with the right sentence. In particular, I’m thinking of “Rosemary,” where the last sentence sets on its head most the ways in which class and perception have been used over the course of the story. Did you have that in mind from the outset, or did that particular ending become clear as the story evolved over time?

Thank you, Toby. That is a very nice thing to say. I didn’t know that was going to be the ending, no, but it just felt right. I knew the cat was going to be dead, but I didn’t know the perspective was going to shift. To me, that story is about the relationship between these two women, though that only comes into focus late in the story. And I am a serious cat-lover, so it pained me to do it, but sometimes you have to kill the cat, you know?