Emma Straub: The Rhapsody Interview
by Rob Trucks | December 5, 2012
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- an author, actor, athlete, political wonk, etc. -- about his or her relationship with music. Today, we've got acclaimed novelist and longtime Magnetic Fields cohort Emma Straub. Listen along to this post with her specially made Rhapsody playlist, Emma Straub's Imaginary Movie.
You might have to sit down for this one, because reading Emma Straub's bio notes can be a bit dizzying. From December 2009, when the 32-year-old daughter of acclaimed writer Peter Straub first imagined the life of a Wisconsin girl turned Hollywood movie star, until September 2012, when she saw that story, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, become her first published novel, Straub also worked as an independent bookseller, a creative writing instructor, a Rookie staff writer and the touring "merch girl" with The Magnetic Fields, among other gigs -- just a few of her "like 16 jobs" in total, on top of, you know, writing that novel. And yet somewhere along that circuitous path toward literary achievement, Emma Straub also gained a reputation as one of America's friendliest novelists. When she's not on the road, as she was last month with the Magnetic Fields (serving not only as T-shirt and poster pusher but also as opening act), Straub lives with her husband "right in the middle of Brooklyn."
What was the trigger behind what we now recognize as the novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures?
I think it was in December of 2009, and I was working on a novel that wasn't really going very well. And so instead of doing that, I was reading the New York Times on my computer, and I came across this obituary for the actress Jennifer Jones. And I didn't know who she was. I mean, I love the movies, but I'm not like a crazy film buff with the dates and résumés of every actress in the last century in my head. So I didn't really know who she was. But I loved her obituary. I mean, I just kept reading it. Just by itself, those few paragraphs were so much better than what I was working on. It had so many more highlights and lowlights, and it was just so much more exciting. And I just felt like, That is a novel. Like that's the kind of novel that I love to read, where so much happens, and it covers so much time, and you really get to see one person change, you know, over the course of their entire life.
So I just said, "OK. That is what I'm going to do." And then, you know, I stayed away from Jennifer Jones' actual biographical information, because I didn't want it to be a weird, creepy book all about an actual person. So I sort of sketched out an outline, sort of based on her life. But then I really stayed away. You know, people have been asking me a lot about Jennifer Jones, and I just have no idea [laughs]. People keep sort of fact-checking with me, like, "Oh, didn't she do this? And wasn't she ... " And I'm like, "I have no clue. Maybe. Maybe she did those things. All I can tell you is what Laura Lamont did."
For people who aren't familiar with publishing schedules, for a first-time novelist to have an idea in December 2009 and be on a book tour for that novel in September 2012 is pretty quick, right?
[Laughs] I'm fast. I'm a little fast, yeah. Which is hilarious to me, because, I mean, I wrote four novels before this one, over the course of about 10 years. And I published a short story collection [Other People We Married] in that time, so to me it doesn't feel fast [laughs]. But, yes, from the outside, for people who don't know my long, long, long love affair with rejection, I'm sure it seems pretty quick.
Will anyone outside your immediate circle of friends and family ever see any of the first four novels? Would you like to publish them, or are they in a drawer somewhere, only to be opened at the inquest?
A lot of people saw them. A lot of people saw them because I had agents, and they all got sent out, so a whole lot of people read them. My husband read them and thought they were just wonderful. My father, my mother read them and thought that they were just wonderful. Everyone else thought that they were pretty bad. But to answer your questions, the fourth novel that I wrote, I ended up sort of cannibalizing, and some sections of that novel appear as short stories in my collection. And the novel that I'm working on now involves the same characters. So in that way, that book to me doesn't feel like a dead book. It just feels like something I'm still working out.
Nos. 2 and 3, absolutely not. They were terrible [laughs]. Maybe when I'm an old lady I will find them so hilarious that I will want to go back to them. You know, the second one was sort of like a Nancy Drew mystery novel, set at Columbia University, and the third one was a fantasy. That was really bad. But the first one, the very first one I wrote when I was 22, I definitely still have a very soft spot for and someday I might go back. We'll see.
Does it get easier?
I think what gets easier is the confidence that you need. You know, like I know that I can do it. I know I can write a novel. And I know whether it's good or bad. I know that that's physically possible for me, and that if I sit down and concentrate, that I can do it. And I think that's the hardest part. I think that's the hardest part for people who want to write.
When you walk into, say, a university library with floors and floors of books, some days you can walk in and be really inspired and want to join the company of all the writers whose books reside there. On other days you might walk into that library and think, "There are more books here than anybody could possibly read in their lifetime. Who am I to think that I can make even a little nick in the concrete of this edifice?" Is having a successful novelist for a father inspiring or intimidating?
It's inspiring. It's inspiring, absolutely. And I also work part-time at a bookstore, and so I have that feeling that you described all the time. And actually I find that feeling inspiring and humbling instead of intimidating. I mean, in a funny way, thinking about when I'm at the bookstore and surrounded by thousands of books, it makes me feel really nicely small [laughs]. Because I think that, you know, as a writer, you do have to believe that what you have to say is important, and that you're going to say something new. Or you're going to say it in a new way. And that your stories, the stories that you have to tell, are worth reading. Which is a certain kind of ego. But I think spending as much time as I do in my bookstore helps me balance out that ego portion. Where, you know, I say, "OK, yes. I have things to say. But so do all of these other people. And God, I love these books." It just makes me feel like a really small part of a really big and important ecosystem.
And as for my dad, I mean, I wish that every writer had parents as supportive as mine. My parents never doubted me. They always encouraged me. And I think the thing that I really learned from having a dad who's a successful writer that other people don't learn until they've already got bad habits [laughs] is that the most important thing of being a writer is not talent or inspiration, it's getting your a** in the chair. It's about discipline. It's about getting your work done. You know, I saw my dad do that every day, for my whole life. And at the time, I thought, "Oh, you know, my dad is kind of slow. He writes his books really slowly. It takes him two or three years." [Laughs] Because when you're six years old, that seems like a long time. But now I realize, you know, he's written more than 20 books. I think he's written 19 or 20 novels, and another five books on top of that probably, and he's 69 years old. And that is amazing to me, that he has spent his entire adult life doing this one thing. And that is an inspiration to me, that he, you know, never got another job [laughs]. I have like 16 jobs. And he has one.
Because your dad is such an inspirational force, and he's successful, loves what he does, when you're young and you're thinking about what you want to be when you grow up, did you feel like you were making a choice or was the answer already, "I'm a writer"?
At the time, I think I probably just thought that it was already the thing that I was the best at.
How old were you when you had the idea, "This is what I'm good at"?
You know, seven, eight. I mean, once I learned to write, like to actually form letters with a pencil, I started writing stories, and stapling them together and illustrating them, so it was always what I liked to do the most. And then when I was in about the seventh grade, I started writing poems, which really just lit me on fire. I mean, I wrote poems every single day. And I kept a journal always, starting when I was 10. I mean, I think it was just always the thing that I knew I wanted to do. Whether that was the case because of my father's influence? Yeah, probably. But it was also the thing that I knew I was best at.
You see the Jennifer Jones obit in December 2009, and the book is published in September 2012. Which of those 16 jobs you mentioned did you work while you were writing Laura Lamont?
All of them.
All of them?
I work at a bookstore approximately 17 hours a week. I teach writing workshops once a week on a sort of rotating basis, for like eight or nine weeks at a time. I went on tour with the Magnetic Fields for six weeks. My husband and I do some graphic design work together so, you know, we made a lot of people's wedding invitations and things like that. And then there are all the writing jobs. I write for Rookie. I write, usually, two to three things for them a month, and then I do a lot of other freelance writing.
Tell me what you do for the Magnetic Fields, because "I went on tour with the Magnetic Fields for six weeks" doesn't, in and of itself, really sound like a job.
[Laughs] I know. I sound like somebody in a van, like taking acid and following someone on the road. I started working for [frontman] Stephin Merritt in 2002, right around Christmas, like the very end of 2002, as his personal assistant. And then starting in 2003, when they were recording i, anytime they would go on tour I would go on tour with them and sell the merchandise. I went once by myself and was absolutely miserable, so then I convinced them to let me bring my boyfriend, too -- my then-boyfriend, now husband -- because he had toured with a bunch of bands as sort of a roadie. And he's much more organized than I am. So we've been touring with them since 2004, and it's lots of fun. I would say now we're at the point where Mike, my husband -- with Stephin's input, of course -- you know, we design all the merchandise and we silk-screen posters. Mike has worked on designing their last few records as well. And, you know, we order everything and make sure everything is in stock, and ship it to all the different places and carry it all around. It's really my job to remember everyone's face and to greet everyone and to do the tour blog. And we do their Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff.
There have been accusations on the Internet that you may be the country's friendliest novelist.
I'm not suggesting that you don't come by that naturally, but you almost have to be a friendly person if you're going to be the merch person representing the band.
I think the reason that I have this job is because I am outgoing and friendly. That's the only reason I'm good at it. Because I don't like to carry heavy things. I don't like to think about numbers.
You could never be the bass player.
No, no. I would be, like, a flautist, if anything. But I think the reason that the Magnetic Fields like having me around is because I am pretty upbeat. And I think -- I know -- the reason their fans like having me around is because I will do things for them. Like, I will get Stephin to sign their ukuleles.
But in that way you're kind of like the antithesis of Mr. Merritt.
Yeah. I think that's one of the reasons that Stephin and I get along so well, is that we balance each other nicely. I know he can be a difficult interview and all that, and he's certainly not outgoing and friendly to strangers. But Stephin is one of the most generous, loyal friends I have ever had. Not just to me, but to anyone he cares about. I mean, I would lie down in the railroad tracks for Stephin, in part because I know he would do it for me, too. I mean, he is an extremely good, sweet soul.
But can you write fiction while you're on the road?
No. I can't do anything. I'm really a creature of habit. I mean, I need total silence. I need solitude. I need a whole lot of things that I can't have when I'm traveling. And, you know, in part it's because there's just no time in the day. And it's also because when you're at an airport with six other people, it's hard to concentrate.
Then I've got to believe that between the touring and the 15 other jobs there have been days when you were packing up a suitcase thinking, "Damn. I was right in the middle of that chapter, and the confidence is there, and I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and now I have to leave and put this on hold for two, three weeks, a month." Have you had those moments?
Yeah. Over and over and over again [laughs]. I mean, this past weekend I went to Austin, Tex., for the Texas Book Festival, and I was working on something before I left, and I just couldn't … You know, I was like, "Ugh! I can't. I just can't. I have to go." Yeah, it happens to me all the time, where I have to say, "Okay, novel, be good. Don't burn down the house. I'll be back."
Has that ever affected the writing negatively? I know that personally it's got to be just annoying as hell, but do you ever feel like you walked away from one of those divinely inspired moments, whether because you had to open up the bookstore or teach a workshop or be a cheery person and sell merch for three weeks, when maybe having that time to yourself might've been the best thing for the writing?
Sure. I mean, there are always things, ideas I have, and I'll think, "Oh god, I just need to remember to write that down." And then I don't. That happens all the time. But I think because I am good at getting to work once I have the time and the space, and I'm good at creating that space for myself, I can usually get those things back.
Is it ever hard to create that space for yourself when you're supposed to be upbeat and outgoing?
Yes. Especially right now. When the novel came out I knew I was going to need to, you know, travel around and do the book tour, which I was so excited about. Finally, like a real, giant book tour that I wasn't paying for. And doing lots of press and photo shoots and stuff like that, I was so excited about all of that. And then I realized, "Oh my God, it's my whole life now" [laughs]. But now there's an end in sight. I get back from tour a couple of days before Thanksgiving, and then I can really get back to work on my new novel.
Is there going to be a point down the road where you have to stay home from a Magnetic Fields tour because you can't leave the writing for that long anymore?
Yeah. I mean, the last tour that I went on with them was six weeks. It was the longest that we'd ever gone, and at the end of that I said, "OK. I really can't. I can't do this anymore. I can't take this much time away from my writing life." It's just, it's not good for me. It's stupid. Like, it doesn't make sense anymore. And then, this little tour came up, and they wanted me to open it, so I couldn't say no to that. But yeah, I mean, I think this might be the last one. But I've said it before, so who knows.
I know you've done lots of readings, but the concert environment has to be quite different. Are you nervous at all about reading as the Magnetic Fields' opening act?
We'll see. I was talking to Sam Davol, the cellist for the Magnetic Fields, the other day, and he said that he and the tour manager were going to stand on either side of the stage with flashlights and flash people in the eyes if they were talking while I was reading. We'll see.
Earlier you mentioned needing total silence when you write. Has that always been the case?
It's always been quiet time. When I was writing poems in high school I was maybe listening to jazz. And when I was writing poems in college, I might've been listening to a lot of Elliott Smith and, like, Jeff Buckley, but because I was depressed.
Sure. When you're writing poetry as a teenager that kind of comes with the territory.
Yeah, but it's always been true that I can't listen to music while I write. It makes me really sad, because I wish I could. I mean, I miss it. I miss having music on [laughs].
We talked about the influence of your father earlier. Does he listen to music when he writes?
Yes. Constantly. At top volume.
Isn't that odd?
[Laughs] Yeah. I mean, still if you walk into my parents' house, you can tell if my dad is working because you can hear the music. Usually it's jazz. Sometimes it's opera. Sometimes it's classical music, but most of the time it's jazz. If he's playing, like, Paul Desmond turned up to 11, that means he's having a pretty good time.