Emma Straub Majored in Tater Tots, and Other Fun Facts about the Author

A couple of days ago I got to talk to Emma Straub, whose debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures I picked up in Shakespeare & Co. and read on the plane ride back from Paris (yeah, that’s right, I got the UK cover, uh-huh). Straub is coming to the Texas Book Festival this afternoon, so I asked my editor if I could interview her. She was super nice, and had some awesome things to say about her own experiences of becoming a (paid) writer. Here is the looooong version of the interview–you can find the original article here. Enjoy!


The Oeditrix: How did you get the idea for Laura Lamont?

Emma Straub: I was working on something else at the time, another novel idea that wasn’t really going anywhere, and I came across the obituary for the actress Jennifer Jones. I was so moved by her life story as presented in this four or five paragraph obituary. And I just thought, that is a novel! There was so much drama, and so much happens. . . . Laura Lamont’s life has certain things in common with Jennifer Jones’s, but I really wanted her to be her own person, and not some fictionalized version of Jennifer Jones. So I stayed far way from her after that.

OED: When I was reading it I was playing “guess the character,” and I did not guess Jennifer Jones. Actually, i initially guessed Norma Shearer because . . .

ES: . . . because of Irving. [Irving Thalberg, MGM producer extraordinaire]

OED: Yes, because of Irving! Tell me how that worked its way in.

ES: I plotted the whole book out and it had a sort of similar shape as it does now, but that was before I did any research. So then I went out to Los Angeles a few times—I took three trips, the biggest of which was an entire month long. I spent a lot of time at the special collections library run by the Academy of Motion Pictures, and I kept finding out about people, you know, characters I was just too in love with not to include. I don’t think I’m the first person to fall in love with Irving Thalberg. So I had to just tuck him in there. I mean, I literally could not resist. And then Laura’s best friend Ginger is based loosely on Lucille Ball, who I also just absolutely fell in love with. I love the idea of giving Laura such a strong best friend, because Laura is trying her hardest, and doing everything she can, but she doesn’t necessarily have the power to make her own decisions, to make big decisions about her career. Certain things really stand in her way. And I wanted her to have a friend who said, Screw that, i’m gonna own my own studio! So I gave her Ginger.

OED: Your earlier collection of short stories is realistic and contemporary, closer to your every day life.

ES: The stories are all about people finding their way. Some are young people sorting out romantic relationships, some are about siblings, some are about parents and their children. There are two widows. It’s people at different points in their life, and everyone is trying to sort out who they are. I loved writing the short stories, and I’m very, very proud of the collection, but when I was done, I thought, okay. I need to write something very different. I need to write something that has nothing to do with my own life, where there’s no autobiographical overlap. Which is why I was so happy when I stumbled on Laura.

OED: Where does she fit into that pantheon of characters that you’ve written about?

ES: Hmmm, I don’t know. I mean there are certain things that we have in common. I think the biggest thing is that the way she feels about acting is the way that I feel about writing. I think what’s really exciting to me about writing fiction is the opportunity to experience a million different lives, and that you get to be so many different people. And that’s how she feels about playing characters. I mean we have other things in common too, my parents are from Wisconsin, her parents are from Wisconsin, we’re blondes at heart, and we love our dads, you know . . .

OED: I was actually asking about Laura Lamont compared to your other characters that you had written about, but I feel like you answered the more interesting question! So your parents are from Wisconsin, but you grew up in New York. Is that how you got the inspiration for Laura Lamont’s childhood in Wisconsin?

ES: I knew I wanted her to be from Wisconsin, because I wanted her to be midwestern, and all that that entails to me. Which is sturdiness and trustworthiness and a certain goodness, a real pat-of-butter goodness. . . . I wanted something idyllic. I wanted something as perfect as possible while still being real. I have some friends who grew up in Los Angeles and they still don’t own a proper winter coat, and to me that’s not real. [Laughs] I don’t know, maybe it’s like that in Texas too! But at least in Texas people own cowboy boots, which you can wear in the winter.

OED: The importance of her sisters in the story, and of women in general—was that an important part of the story for you?

ES: It was. Seen one way, you know, Laura could be sort of anti-feminist in some way, where she does what men tell her and she isn’t in charge of her own life. But the way I see it is really the opposite. She exists in a world full of women, and women are the most important to her. She is trying as hard as she can given her circumstances, when she leaves Wisconsin in 1938 and you know she doesn’t have any money. . . and of course family planning wasn’t as good then as it is now, and the fact that she has these children who sort of anchor her in her home life isn’t really her fault. It was important to me that the story have a really strong, female-centric molten center.

OED: Have communities of women been important in your life?

ES: I think they have. But I think that it’s only really as an adult that I have sought out those communities. I always had female friends and such, but I have an older brother and a very small family, so I didn’t have that sort of life at home. But when I moved back from Wisconsin, one of the first thing I did was start volunteering for an organization called Girls Write Now, which is a mentoring program that pairs up teenage girl writers with grown-up lady writers. You meet once a week on your own to talk and write and do whatever you want, and then you meet up once a month with everybody for a gigantic genre-specific workshop. So one month you’re all writing poems, the next month you’re all writing short stories, the next month you’re all writing songs or writing graphic novels or whatever. It is the most fabulous organization. And then last year I started writing for Rookie Magazine, the online brainchild of Tavi Gevinson, who is a girl genius. The women who I’ve met through Rookie are just phenomenal. I really feel like I’m a stronger woman now than I ever have been. And maybe that’s just because I’m getting older, I’m 32, you know, I’m not scared of that anymore.

OED: Did you have mentors in your writing life when you were that age?

ES: I had my father [successful horror author Peter Straub]. My father is a writer, and both of my parents always encouraged me. When I was a teenager I really wanted to be a poet. I wrote poems every single day—I mean multiple poems. I was like a girl on fire, you couldn’t have stopped me if you tried. And my parents just loved it. They supported me completely, and were always giving me books of other things to read. Their friends were other writers and poets and painters and creative people. I always did feel like I was part of a really amazing, cool community. No matter what I wanted to do, I would have felt like I had gotten my start at my parents’ house, at their dinner parties.

OED: When did you start writing fiction?

ES: I didn’t write any fiction at all until I graduated from college, for extremely misguided and silly reasons. I was a poetry major at Oberlin, and the reason I didn’t write fiction was because I took it too seriously. I put fiction on so high a pedestal that I really didn’t think I was ready for it yet. I knew that it was what I wanted to do eventually with my entire life, so I just didn’t think that it was something to, like, practice with a bunch of college kids! Which is of course completely asinine, and I wish I had. But at the time I thought, Oh god, no, no! But the moment I came home from college, I wrote a novel, which was not very good. It had some problems. But it also showed me that I could do it.

OED: Why do you think you had such an elevated idea of fiction?

ES: I guess because it was my father’s profession, and so I thought of it as a professional endeavor. I didn’t think it was something that you could do—it wasn’t like a finger-painting class. I saw it as too serious, like it mattered too much. . . . This maybe also tells you how well I did in college, which was not that well, because I didn’t take things as seriously as I should have.

OED: Wait, you took the fiction really seriously, but you didn’t take anything else seriously?

ES: Yeah. I thought, Oh, college, it’s where you take classes, whatever. I saw it as sort of play time. It wasn’t where you really learned how you were going to do what you wanted to do with your life. It’s still sort of shocking to me that I had some friends in college who were smart enough to realize, I want to be a scientist, or I want to be a marine biologist, and that’s what they’re doing now ten years later. Whereas me, I was like, I’m going to major in eating Tator Tots and drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

OED: So you came out and wrote the first novel, and this novel did not get published.

ES: No, it didn’t. But I did get an agent, and it did get sent out. And it did get about a hundred rejection letters. So did the second book, and so did the third. One of the things that I really learned about myself from all that was that I am completely impervious to rejection. You cannot hurt my feelings. You can’t. I mean, personally you can. If you were like, Emma you look terrible in that dress, I would be upset. But if you said, I’m not interested in this book, I would say, okay, that’s fine, it’s not for you! I don’t feel the need to please everyone in that way. I recognize that no piece of art, literature, music is for every reader, listener, or viewer. It’s just not. Nothing’s for everyone. I always trusted that my time would come, that I would find the right audience and the right reader eventually, and my work would be out in the world. And it did. It took about ten years, but it happened. And I’m actually grateful that it took as long as it did, because now I am really really really grateful, every day.

OED: What was the moment when you were like, oh this is happening, this is really happening?

ES: My agent sent out the book, and she called me in my office. My husband came up when she called, because we were waiting to hear something, and she said that there had been an offer. And both of us just burst into tears, just sobbed uncontrollably for, I don’t know, ten or fifteen minutes? Well, really weeks. For weeks. But without stopping for several minutes. And then after that—I mean the fact that there were several publishers interested, the fact that they were offering me actual money, you know? It was my actual dream, coming true. And I just couldn’t believe it. It was like someone came into my house and said, Emma, you have just been crowned Miss America. It was so unfathomably good.

OED: Are you working on something else right now?

ES: I’m working on a new novel that follows a family of characters that are in a few of the stories in Other People We Married. It follows the family over a two-week vacation in Majorca, Spain. Which means . . . I get to go Majorca! Which i’m very grateful.

OED: Good call!

ES: I don’t know why this is not everyone’s method, but it is mine. So don’t be surprised if after Majorca the next one takes place in Hawaii.

OED: Do you consider Laura Lamont’s story to be a tragedy?

ES: There were two books that I read while I was sort of thinking about Laura Lamont. And one of them was John William’s Stoner, which is on the surface a bleak, depressing tragedy. But really, it’s just beautiful. It’s the most beautiful book in the world. And that’s what I wanted Laura to be. I wanted it to be beautiful, with moments of humor and moments of tragedy, but ultimately uplifting. Because you knew she’d made it through. I tried to give her, not a happy ending, but a hopeful one.

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