Emily Testa chats with author Emma Straub about her new book Other People We Married, the awkwardness of teendom, and the benefits of working in a bookstore.
Emma Straub is very likeable. For instance, I like her collection of short stories, Other People We Married. I also like its cover, which she and her husband designed to striking perfection. I also like her blog. And, yes, I like her tweets.
Yet beneath this winsome veneer lurks the heart of the matter: a fiercely original talent and a resolute will to get the job done. Emma is that rare writer whose divergent interests (Alan Hollinghurst and Joey McIntyre among them) can peacefully, even rapturously, coexist. Just don’t call her womanly.
Emily Testa I wanted to start by talking about late bloomers, because your stories are full of them. Why are late bloomers such natural creatures of fiction?
Emma Straub Actually, I find that many writers and their characters are the opposite of late bloomers. Instead, they’re these 23 or whatever year-old people who are just finding their way in the world. Maybe my focus on late bloomers was reactionary. For whatever reason, I was really obsessed with people who didn’t know who they were or where they were going.
ET That emotional geography in so many of your stories has earned you comparisons to Lorrie Moore, who you know from graduate school.
ES She was my thesis adviser in the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I love her.
ET Who doesn’t? I remember the first time I heard about Lorrie. A professor recommended Self-Help to me just before spring break and promised me there would be moments when I wouldn’t even be able to tell it was written by a woman. Pretty gross now that I think about it. And of course, every sentence of the book felt like it was written by a woman exactly like the one I wanted to be. Your stories are womanly in that same covetable way.
ES You know, once, at summer camp, a friend called me curvaceous and I immediately burst into tears. I’m not sure why I thought of curvaceousness just now, but . . .
ET Well, figuratively speaking . . . ah, it was supposed to be a compliment.
ES I’ll take it.
ET It’s just, your stories impart a certain stoicism about the way all people in all situations are bound to behave, but at the same time there’s a very generous attention to detail. For instance, the particular richness of a particular Italian leather bag, which you describe to perfection in “Puttanesca.”
ES One of the things I like about short stories is that you can place such huge importance on tiny objects and moments. If they’re there, taking up space in a genre where space is precious, they have to mean more than their face value. And that meaning has to grow as the story progresses.
ET Your next book is a novel. Did the project present itself as something larger from the start?
ES Actually, I always thought of myself as a novelist. I wrote three novels between college and graduate school, all of them disastrous. And then I went to graduate school and started writing short stories. After I finished the stories that form this collection, I just returned to being a novelist.
ET As has oft been mentioned, you work in a bookstore by day. So many writers, myself included, have ventured down this path. Have you found that your bookstore life aids your writing life? It can be such an encouraging environment.
ES I’d go even further and say that every writer should work in a bookstore for some amount of time. I always thought I understood the publishing landscape. My father is a writer. I grew up around editors, agents, and publishers, and I hung out in bookstores all the time. But it wasn’t until I started working at BookCourt that I really got it. Good booksellers are the greatest readers in the world. They gobble up books and retain them. They offer smart, considered recommendations. It’s like they know the entire catalog of the universe. Of course they have different tastes, just as different bookstores have different personalities. So, yeah, my bookstore job is incredibly satisfying. I’m always promising people they’ll love my recommendations. I make a lot of promises, and no one’s ever come back to complain. I guess that means I have a 100% approval rating.
ET Another obvious advantage is that people who work with books probably read more, which probably makes them more careful readers, which probably makes them better writers. Not that good writing owes much to caution.
ES Reading makes you infinitely more aware of the possibilities. The best book I’ve read this year is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, which opens as an English country house book, and then the action jumps forward and people who were young children in chapter one are middle aged in chapter two. And it keeps doing that! I can’t overstate the influence of the kind of reading experience where you’re surprised and engaged and your expectations are continually subverted. You just think, If he can do this, what can I do?
ET Let’s revisit graduate school. You didn’t go straight from college.
ES No. First I had all sorts of jobs. I worked in publishing, then in a clothing store, then as a personal assistant.
ET I think not going straight through is the prudent choice for most people.
ES It was hugely important for me to do it like I did. I wasn’t ready to go straight from college. I was a total mess and so self-conscious. My problems weren’t weird ones, mostly just the problem of being 22. I teach a writing workshop now through Sackett Street in Brooklyn, and I always tell my students to take as much time as they can and accumulate other experiences, emotions, relationships . . . things to process, think about, be inspired by, run away from. At 22 I was already very serious and rigorous about writing. But I still wasn’t ready.
ET Speaking of the awkward years, I was happy to see that you’ve taken to writing about yours in Rookie.
ES You know, I published my first piece of nonfiction last year—an essay on Joey McIntyre in Tin House—and I realized how much I enjoy writing about subjects that really matter to me. Then I wrote an essay for The Paris Review Daily on My So-Called Life, recalling all the bad-girl friends of my youth. And when I saw that Tavi Gevinson was launching Rookie, I emailed her and now I’m writing for them. I will say that it’s awkward to write about growing up when you still live in the city you grew up in.
ET The graveyard of your bad decisions.
ES Just . . . everything. I work ten blocks from my high school, and I see people I knew on a daily basis—administrators, dear friends, people I had crushes on but never spoke to. I recently wrote a piece for Rookie on a clique of girls at my high school, and I’m pretty sure it got emailed to every person I graduated with. And then they all came into BookCourt to talk to me about it.
ET Those years beg to be written about.
ES Growing up is horrible and magical and excruciating. Every teenage girl I know is a complete freakazoid, and I was too.
ET Let’s talk about Twitter. You’re a pro at it. And after this conversation, I can say that your online presence seems authentic to your real personality. I’m curious to know how quick your uptake was. Have you always seen Twitter and blogging for their audience-building, community-forming potential?
ES I’m still figuring out blogs. Some of my friends are so good at it! Maud Newton’s blog is like the holy grail of writer blogs. And my friend Lauren Cerand writes Lux Lotus, which is amazing. I haven’t quite hit my stride there, but Twitter is a different story. I’m completely obsessed to the point that my husband has threatened to throw my phone out the window. And while my actual real-life personality is positive and upbeat and goofy and silly and all the things I am on Twitter, I have bad days too. I just don’t turn to the Internet to express them. I think it would be bad form. I view Twitter as part of my professional universe. I would never walk into the bookstore and be rude to customers or have a reading and be rude to the people who came.
ET I like that—Twitter as an extension of the writer-self. Which brings me to my last question: you’re a writer who works in a bookstore and Tweets prolifically and attends many bookish events and conferences. How do you balance the contemporary business of being a writer with the actual writing process?
ES I’m not sure how to answer that. The truth is that every couple of weeks I have a tiny little breakdown—I need to stay at home, I can’t go to this event, party, reading, whatever. So then, for a couple of days, you go into your little room, shut the door, and recharge the batteries. When I’m working on a project, I’m really ruthless about making time to work. And it helps that I find it physically impossible to write after the sun has gone down. My nights are always free.
ET It’s so important to have a door to close.
ES The door is key.