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Air date: September 26, 2011
[00:01:22] All right, everybody. Here we go again. My name is Brad Listi. This is the show. It’s Otherppl. Thanks for being here. We got a good one lined up for you today. Before we get rolling, I wanna do some business stuff. I want to let you know that Otherppl is now available on Stitcher. If you’re a fan of the Stitcher app, you can listen to Otherppl right there on the Stitcher app. Subscribe for free. The app is free. It’s all free. We’re available on Stitcher: stitcher.com. Check it out.
[00:01:49] While I’m at it, I should mention that The Nervous Breakdown, my online culture magazine and literary community, it has its own podcast, its own audio content. All of that audio content now available on Stitcher too. So, check out The Nervous Breakdown on Stitcher, and subscribe to it. Subscribe to it all. It’s free. It’s fun. Go do it. What else? Well, I’ve managed to get some feedback on the podcast. I thought I would share it with you. It’s my earliest review, I guess you could say.
[00:02:18] It comes to me from a buddy of mine named Scott Potasnik. He felt compelled to text me about the show to let me know his feelings about it. He says quote, “It was good. You became more comfortable as it went on. I’m glad you didn’t shy away from the nasty-fruit-in-the-ass stuff, but you should have gone even deeper, no pun intended.” End quote. Scott is referring to my conversation with Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart, in episode two.
[00:02:47] I’ll let you listen to it to figure out what “fruit-in-the-ass” stuff means. Scott also had to say, “Your podcast ‘voice,’” and he puts the word “voice” in quotes. “Your podcast voice frightens me. You and Wolf Blitzer could have a monotone-off. Nevertheless, I’m entertained thus far, so that’s good.” End quote. So I guess I sound like Wolf Blitzer on this thing?
[00:03:12] I guess—am I restrained? I’m trying hard to be as natural as possible and to talk like I normally talk when I’m on the podcast. Like this is hopefully how I normally talk, but I think when you sit in front of a microphone, you naturally start getting into a little bit of broadcast-mode, and I don’t want to sound too much like a, you know—like some sort of radio DJ, but apparently what’s happening is that I sound something like Wolf Blitzer. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of this.
[00:03:38] And I’m assuming it’s because I’m on the mic, but maybe I sound like Wolf Blitzer normally? Is that what it is? Am I monotone? I don’t know. If you guys have thoughts, if you want to weigh in on this or other matters, remember you can email me at email@example.com. You can also tweet at me @otherpplpod, if that works better. Okay, so moving on with some thoughts about the whole podcast thing and all the technology. This has been on my mind, as I’ve been learning how to do this.
[00:04:10] You know, basically, this is radio, and because it’s radio, there are possibilities. There are sonic possibilities, and this is a show, and as I master the technology, perhaps there can be more showmanship, or should I just keep talking? I’m not really sure, but it does occur to me that like sound effects could be added.
[00:04:29] You know, disgusting sound effects; applicable sound effects. If I’m talking, for instance, and engaging in some narrative storytelling-type stuff with atmospherics, and I’m telling you a story about how I’m walking through a meadow, I could potentially include some sort of sound effect where, you know, there’s nature sounds, and you feel like you, too, are in a meadow with me, frollicking. That could be possible.
[00:04:56] It could also—if I’m telling some sort of story involving intense personal anguish, some sort of painful, humiliating scenario from my past, I could potentially set that story to some sort of touching music to heighten the emotional effect. Those sort of things are possible now that I’m doing a podcast, and I have this equipment in my office, and speaking of, you know, intense personal anguish, humiliating stories from the past, yesterday I woke up thinking about an event from my past.
[00:05:32] This was many years ago. It was 1997. I was on the Appalachian Trail. I was hiking. I was with my old dog Merlin, who is no longer with us. R.I.P. We were in Maine. We were in a motel room, taking a night off the trail, resupplying. We had just gotten out of the 100 Mile Wilderness, and I remember there was a driving rain, a cold rain in August. I was in this motel room, and I was writing a letter to Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.
[00:06:00] Why was I doing that? I was looking for work. I was thinking about the future. I was imagining what I was gonna do when I left the trail, and I had to go out into the world and try to enter the workforce, and I had a film degree. I didn’t really know what to do with it. I was directionless. That was kind of why I was out on the Appalachian Trail for three months by myself with a dog, and I decided that maybe I would write them a letter, and I would try to be a PA on one of their movies.
[00:06:28] I had seen Dead Man Walking. [brooding piano music plays] I think that was what was fueling this. I had seen Dead Man Walking. I thought it was good. It was powerful. I figured if I could like go PA on one of their films, carry some cables, run errands, what have you, that maybe this would be my way in, and that I could learn something. I also have an uncle who knows Sister Helen Prejean. He’s a priest. He lives down in Louisiana. He knows Sister Helen.
[00:06:57] Sister Helen wrote the book Dead Man Walking, so my strategy, I think, was I was gonna write this letter. I was gonna send it to my uncle. He was gonna pass it off to Sister Helen. Sister Helen was gonna pass it off to Tim and Susan. That was the idea. So, I’m hunched over this little desk in this shitty motel room in Maine, and I’m writing by hand a letter of some sort, some sort of job request letter, and I decide, since I don’t have very many qualifications, that I’m gonna tell them a story.
[00:07:27] And I’m trying to be charming, and I don’t know if you’ve ever done this before, where you’re trying to apply for something, and you can’t resist the impulse to try to be charming and funny, and you overdo it. Pretty much any of that in that kind of scenario amounts to overdoing it, but especially when you’re 21, and you’ve been in the woods for three months, you’re prone to this sort of mistake. I certainly was.
[00:07:49] And so I write this letter, and I tell them this story about when I was like seven or eight years old, and I’m in a park with three of my buddies—Ryan and Ryan and Nathan, my boyhood friends in Wisconsin—and we’re in this park, and we’re getting bullied by the neighborhood bully. His name was John, and he was older than us. He was…you know, it was light stuff. He was putting us in headlocks. He wouldn’t let us pass. It was that kind of thing.
[00:08:15] And so this went on for a while, until he got tired of it. He decides he’s done with us. He’s gonna walk away, so he starts walking away. He’s 15 yards away. I reach into my backpack. I pull out a pencil. A number two pencil. A sharpened, yellow number two pencil. And my idea is I’m gonna throw it at him. I’m gonna throw it at this bully. I’m gonna hit him in the head. We’re gonna run, and that’s gonna be our victory.
[00:08:40] That’s gonna be our revenge and our adrenaline rush. So he’s 15 yards away. I throw the pencil. I throw it in a high arc up into the afternoon air. I watch it sail end over end. It’s heading straight towards him, and it lands, point down, in the back pocket of his blue jeans. I shit you not. This is what happened. I throw this pencil end over end in a high arc, and it lands in the back pocket of his jeans point down.
[00:09:10] He walks in stride. Never notices it. Walks away, my pencil in his back pocket. I tell this story to Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. I never heard back. I put the letter in an envelope. I sent it to my uncle, the priest, and funneled it to them through a nun, not something I’m entirely proud of, something that still causes me some embarrassment to this day, but you make mistakes in life, I guess.
[00:09:41] Anyway, moving on to bigger and better things. [piano music stops] Today’s show, our guest, my guest Emma Straub. Emma Straub: bookseller in Brooklyn at BookCourt, author of the novella Fly-over State, the story collection Other People We Married, and forthcoming from Riverhead Press, a novel, her debut novel, called Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. This is a very talented writer. I think she’s a rising star.
[00:10:09] I think a lot of people think that. She’s also just kind of a relentlessly positive force of nature. You just like her. She’s a likable person. She’s got that, and she’s talented, and I don’t know. I think there’s just a lot of people out there who are sort of cheering her on, and you get to listen to her talk to me.
* * *
[00:10:32] BL: So, so now, tell me a little bit…this is what I know about you. You’re an author—and tell me if I go wrong at any point.
Emma Straub: I will.
BL: You work at BookCourt. Is that correct?
BL: You’re a bookseller, in addition to being an author.
BL: You seem to me—like, my version of you in my mind is that you’re like incredibly well-adjusted. You seem very bright and sunny and cheerful and not like twisted mentally. Am I correct?
[00:10:59] ES: [laughs] I am well-adjusted, yes. I am sunny. I get scolded at BookCourt for laughing too loudly and for talking to people too much. So yeah, I mean, I am a well-adjusted chatterbox. I think that part of that comes from having a father who writes very dark and scary books.
[00:11:32] So, like I grew up in a house with like, you know, many copies of like zombie movies and obscure weapons and, you know, pictures of dead bodies and things like that.
BL: And your father…we should clarify. Your father is the author Peter Straub.
ES: Yes, Peter Straub.
[00:11:56] He has written 19 novels, I think, which is a lot. Yeah, I think that’s why I’m so sunny. You know, it has something to do with reacting to that. Although, my father himself is a fairly sunny individual, so…
BL: Well, that’s the thing. So, now, your work…is your work darker than you are? Would you categorize it as such? ‘Cause sometimes I feel like people who are super dark in person write maybe lighter stuff, or more comedic stuff, or people who are super light in person might deal with the darker stuff creatively.
[00:12:30] ES: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s true. One of my friends—another writer, whose name is Adam Wilson, who I work with at BookCourt—he told me after he read my book that he was really relieved to know that I sometimes had dark thoughts [laughs].
BL: That’s how I feel.
ES: And that I wasn’t always in a good mood and that I was, in fact, very sarcastic, which I am.
[00:12:56] But, I think that I do—I care very much about being friendly to people, and I always want people to like me, so I’m nice to people, even if I think they’re assholes, but in my fiction, I can be much more ruthless.
BL: Okay. This is good. This comforts me, Emma. I need to know this.
ES: [laughs] But I do, you know, I do like to bake. I often bake for people. So I do have…
BL: Well, see, this is the other thing. I see you online, and it’s like, you know, you’re cracking jokes; you’re super chatty; you’re baking cupcakes.
[00:13:32] I’m like, “I want this girl’s life. You know, I want to be friends with her.”
ES: [laughs] Yeah, I mean, like I was teaching a class for this local workshop here in New York called the Sackett Street Writing Workshop. I was teaching a class that just ended last night, and I baked them an apple rhubarb cobbler for the last class, and they all looked at me, I think, like I was a little bit insane.
[00:14:00] But they ate it anyway. They didn’t worry that I was poisoning them…
BL: Yeah, yeah.
ES: …which I didn’t.
BL: No, of course. I mean that’s…Who wouldn’t love that? Who could look down their nose at that, for God’s sake?
ES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I ate the leftovers for breakfast this morning, and it was even better, even better than last night.
BL: Okay, so tell me…like today—just to get like a snapshot of a day in the life—like what have you done today? How has your day gone?
ES: [laughs] Today I have done very, very little. Right now I’m waiting for notes on my novel from my editor at Riverhead.
[00:14:33] So, I am doing very little but twiddling my thumbs. My big plan for the day was to watch last night’s episode of True Blood, but I didn’t even get to that because I had lunch with one student from this class that I just mentioned, and then I had coffee with another student from that class.
[00:14:54] And then this evening I’m going to a book party for Rebecca Wolff, who’s the editor of Fence and the author of a new novel that’s coming out from Riverhead called The Beginners. So that’s my literary life today. It’s very low impact.
BL: And you live in Brooklyn? Is that correct?
ES: I live in Brooklyn, New York.
[00:15:23] I do.
BL: How’s that—and were you raised in New York, or did you move there?
ES: I was—yes. I grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and then I left. I went to college in Oberlin at Oberlin in Oberlin, OH, which was a terrifying place. There are like two stop lights, and everyone is depressed and miserable, and I spent four years…
BL: I’m from Indiana. I get it.
ES: [laughs] Yeah, I spent four years just drinking as much beer as physically possible, and eating as many tater tots as physically possible, which is a lot of tater tots.
[00:15:57] BL: Sure.
ES: So then I ran back to New York, where I happily stayed until I went to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a wonderful place. And then I moved back to New York, where I’ve been…
BL: So why Wisconsin?
ES: Because they accepted me.
BL: I should mention I was born in Milwaukee, so I have…
ES: Were you?
BL: Yeah, Midwestern roots.
BL: I spent like the first eight years of my childhood essentially in Cedarburg, which is just north of Milwaukee.
[00:16:31] ES: Yes! Yes, of course. Both—my entire family is from Wisconsin, and both of my parents grew up in Milwaukee, so I have only fond feelings for the place. [laughs] I don’t know if that’s true for them, having grown up there.
BL: No, I have really warm memories of it. I mean, it was like, you know, birth until I was 10. And I just…
BL: I loved it.
BL: You know, I had a great time there. I had great friends. I think the people up in—I call it the Great White North—are sort of underrated.
[00:17:01] ES: [laughs]
BL: They don’t get the credit they deserve.
ES: Yeah. I mean, now everybody’s crazy for—you know—Bon Iver, so people think that Wisconsin is cool again because he’s friends with Kanye West and Jay-Z.
BL: [laughs] Right.
ES: Yeah, I loved—I loved being in Wisconsin more than I can say. I thought that—I mean, for me having a break from New York was really healthy, both for me personally and as a writer, and I can’t say enough good things about Wisconsin.
[00:17:36] My…the novel starts in Door County, Wisconsin, and then it moves on—it moves actually west to Los Angeles.
BL: Where I am currently.
ES: Most of the action takes place in LA. Yes, I know. But, it does start in Wisconsin, and there are a couple of chapters that take place in Door County, which is Wisconsin’s thumb, the thumb to Wisconsin’s mitten.
[00:18:05] BL: Exactly. Now, when you were at Madison, were you studying with Lorrie Moore? Did you study with her?
ES: I was. I was. I went to Madison because I loved Lorrie so much. I just absolutely worshipped her. And then I was delighted to discover that she is as funny and smart and wicked in person as she is on the page.
BL: Well, I have a theory about her. I have a theory about her.
ES: Oh, what’s your theory?
BL: No, I’ve just been thinking about her ‘cause, you know, there’s some appeal that she has, like a specific, special appeal…
[00:18:40] ES: Yes.
BL: …and it’s across the spectrum, but like I’m gonna get gender-specific here and say that male writers, in unusual numbers, tend to gravitate towards her, and I think that she might be like the literary equivalent of like Helen Mirren or…
BL: …Meryl Streep…
BL: …where there’s something sort of maternal. There’s like a maternal feeling, but at the same time sort of an attraction. I don’t know what it is.
ES: Yeah, Lorrie is deeply sexy. She is deeply sexy.
[00:19:09] I…there were other…Dean Bakopoulos—this will embarrass him, but that’s okay—told me that—because he went to the MFA program in Madison also—that the boys in his class [laughs], when they got stories back from Lorrie, they would smell them…
BL: Oh god [laughs].
ES: …to see if they smelled like her.
BL: What does Lorrie—let’s set the record straight—what does Lorrie Moore smell like? We need to know.
ES: [laughs] Um, Lorrie—well, hmm—I can’t, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I can’t, I can’t adequately describe her perfume.
[00:19:44] BL: [laughs]
ES: But I will say that my husband, who moved out to Wisconsin with me for my MFA, had an experience once where he was standing in the bookstore in Madison, and someone—something behind him smelled so good that he turned around, and it was Lorrie [laughs].
BL: Ohh. See…
ES: So I think it’s some sort of pheromone thing.
[00:20:15] Yeah, I mean, she is—she’s a fox. She’s a stone-cold fox. There are really no two ways about it.
BL: And a nice person, like when you’re in her class?
ES: Yes. Oh, oh yeah. Oh, I love Lorrie. I love Lorrie very much, and I feel really lucky that I got to study with her and that I get to hang out with her still. She has been so supportive of me and just really encouraging and…hilarious. I mean, she is hilarious and brilliant.
[00:20:47] BL: And she smells terrific. This is awesome.
ES: And she smells good [laughs].
BL: This is the insight that I want to bring to my listeners.
BL: I want them to know these things. So, you’re at Madison. You’re working on fiction obviously. You’re workshopping it.
BL: And then you leave Madison. You return to New York.
BL: And you move to Brooklyn. Like what did you leave Madison with? Did you—is Fly-Over State stuff that you were workshopping there?
[00:21:13] ES: Yeah…I…about half a dozen—about half the stories in the collection were things that I workshopped, so I had a good, sort of sturdy base already for my collection, but I wasn’t planning on trying to send it out to publishers. I didn’t think…I don’t know. I just…I never—I always heard how hard it was to get story collections published, and I always thought of myself as a novelist, [laughs] even though I’d never published one.
[00:21:54] I wrote three novels before I went to my MFA program, and then another one when I was in Madison after my program was over, and so even though nobody was interested in the least in publishing these novels, I always thought of myself as a novelist because I believe in self-delusion.
ES: [laughs] So, I didn’t ever consider trying to publish the stories as a collection, but then this wonderful, wonderful creature, Dave Daley, who edits the website Five Chapters, which is a fabulous website, if people aren’t familiar with it.
[00:22:33] They publish one story every week in five installments Monday through Friday. Dave had published a story of mine called “Puttanesca” on the Five Chapters website, and he approached me about doing a collection because he wanted to move into print, and when someone approaches you and says, “I would like to publish your short story collection. Will you let me do that?” I think the answer is “yes.” [laughs]
[00:23:00] BL: Sure. Of course.
ES: My answer was “yes,” and it’s been so much fun. I mean, I had—you know, I always—again, I always assumed that I would enjoy this sort of thing, like doing readings and traveling around and talking to people, just the way I always thought of myself as a novelist. I always like felt quite sure that this would be one of my strengths as an author: that I would be tireless and irritating to all.
[00:23:32] BL: [laughs]
ES: But, you know, I have. I’ve just been—I’ve done, I think, about 30 readings since the book came out in February, and it’s been so much fun. I’ve been—I’ve met so many nice people, and I’ve baked so many batches of brownies with sea salt. [laughs] I baked so many batches of brownies for my various readings that my husband now refuses to eat them because he’s given up [laughs] .
[00:24:02] BL: So you like—like a reading is an environment you feel comfortable in. You like standing up in front of people and reading? Like that’s something that comes easy?
ES: Yeah, I do. I do. You know, I’ve always been a ham, and I’ve always—you know, I’m like a classic little sister, where like I just want people’s attention all the time, and I will do like a stupid little dance or like make a funny face in order to get people to look at me, and I’ve had so much fun doing the readings.
[00:24:33] One of the really nice things about working at BookCourt is that, first of all, you know, I feel so comfortable there because, you know, I’m there all the time anyway, but when I had my big party when the book came out there, I just, I felt like I was in my living room, so I was really relaxed and at ease. And that has sort of carried over, that feeling, where I don’t get nervous anymore when I’m doing readings or other events.
[00:25:07] I just enjoy them.
BL: It doesn’t feel like masturbatory or anything to read from your own book? I might just—I think I have a neurotic thing about it, but I always feel like…you know, I’m standing up there, reading from a book and…
ES: Well, it is—it does—I mean, I will say it does get a bit boring if you read the same thing. Like there are a couple of stories that I’ve read a number of times, and I am just sick to death of them, and you know I try to move on. It’s nice that there are—short story collections, I think, are actually really easy to read from, you know, where there are 12 stories in the collection, so there’s a lot for me to pick from.
[00:25:46] With the novel, I don’t know how that’s gonna work because I sort of hate when people read, and they have to explain everything beforehand, and they stop in the middle to explain everything you need to know. I really don’t like when people do that at readings, and I fear that that’s what will happen to me when I—when my novel comes out, and I do readings, where I say, “Oh, god, I forgot you need to know x y or z.”
ES: Yeah. Context? Boo hiss. Who needs context?
[00:26:19] BL: [laughs] Right. And now, also working at BookCourt, you’re obviously seeing a lot of readings by other authors. Correct?
ES: Yes, yes, yes. I attend a shocking number of readings at BookCourt and at other independent bookstores around New York City. I mean I am at WORD, which is in Greenpoint, on an extremely regular basis. And McNally Jackson and Greenlight. All the indies in Brooklyn. The Community Bookstore.
[00:26:51] There are a great number, and I, you know, I know people who work at all of them. Yeah, I think you have to. I think you have to be supportive of other people. You know, if I expect people to come to my readings, I sure as hell better show up to theirs. I actually love readings. I know some people find them totally tedious, but I love it, and I love hearing people answer questions, and, you know, I like clapping for writers [laughs].
[00:27:22] BL: [laughs].
ES: Writers, you know, spend so much time alone in their rooms that I think it’s really nice to show up when they are actually forced out of their little mole holes. It’s nice to show up and clap for your friends.
BL: Well, sure, and you’ve gotta learn. You’ve gotta learn a lot about what works in a reading. I mean, have you seen people who are really good at it? I mean, who’s somebody who comes to mind who’s just like a badass reader?
[00:27:49] ES: Colson Whitehead is incredible. He came to BookCourt for the paperback release of Sag Harbor soon…fairly soon after I started working there, and he had—like there was like an audiovisual [laughs] element. Like he made us all listen to some disco song. I think it was Earth, Wind and Fire. I can’t remember. But he is really, really funny.
[00:28:18] I tend to enjoy anything that’s funny. I saw Jhumpa Lahiri read this year at AWP in DC, and I love her. I love her books so much. I think she writes the most beautiful sentences on earth, and yet there was not an ounce of humor in what she read, and she read for about 45 minutes, or at least it felt like that, and I almost fell asleep.
[00:28:53] You know, I mean, so, I think that having a sense of humor is really key to having a good reading. You know and that, that’s even true like—Meghan O’Rourke read at BookCourt from her book The Long Goodbye, which is, you know, all about her mother dying of cancer, and it’s all about grief and how, you know, sort of we as a culture sort of don’t know how to deal with other people’s mourning or our own.
[00:29:25] Even her reading was funny because, you know, she knew that it was hard material, and so she made some jokes, and the atmosphere in the bookstore lightened quite a bit. You know, I think people…people need that. You know, it’s entertainment.
BL: Especially with a cancer memoir.
BL: I mean, with a book of that subject matter, you’ve gotta lighten the load a little bit.
ES: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
[00:29:53] BL: Well, so now I’m curious to know more about the fact that you’re a bookseller…
BL: …the fact that you’re, you know, coming up as a writer at this particular time in this particular publishing environment, which I think we can agree is in flux. Is “in flux” a good way to put it?
ES: Healthy? Robust?
BL: Yeah, robust, but I mean it’s also going through a lot of changes, and the landscape is different than it was even like 10 years ago, in a lot of ways at least, and so I’m curious.
[00:30:21] It seems to me like what you’re doing—getting out there, being a bookseller, meeting all these writers, interacting with readers, and hand-selling books, and doing all that kind of stuff—it’s actually, you know, quite a good thing to be doing. Maybe—I’m sure you’re not the first author who’s worked in a bookstore, but…
BL: …I just feel like—especially doing it in Brooklyn in a community that really still reads and in a community with such great proximity to publishing…
[00:30:49] BL: …you know, publishing’s epicenter—it’s probably placed you pretty well in terms of being able to build a network and get to know people and to get a sense of what it takes. Is that accurate?
ES: Absolutely. I mean, I, you know I…at BookCourt, not only do I meet other writers and readers, but I also, you know, have met scores of agents and editors and publishers and people like that.
[00:31:19] You know, they…a lot of people who work in publishing live in the neighborhood and come in and shop or come in and go to events, so yeah, I mean I have absolutely met a lot of people in publishing that way. One of my friends who worked at BookCourt met his editor there. [laughs] You know, I can’t—I don’t have a story that’s quite that much like a romantic comedy, but, you know, it is absolutely true that being at BookCourt—or, you know, at any of the independent bookstores in Brooklyn—I think gives me a unique and privileged outlook in terms of the publishing landscape.
[00:32:05] BL: Well, yeah, and it’s like there’s always…you know, you hear these stories about…or you hear advice, you know, “Go to writers’ workshops, go to writers’ conferences, go to AWP, do things like that…”
ES: Mhm. Mhm.
BL: …but it seems like, you know, with the indie bookstores in Brooklyn in particular, that they come to you.
ES: Yeah, they do [laughs].
BL: You know, you don’t even have to leave your place of business. You just kind of sit there, and they come in and start talking to you.
[00:32:30] ES: It’s true. It’s true. I mean and I…you know, even though I grew up with what I thought was a fairly well-rounded understanding of the publishing universe because my dad was a writer, and he had a lot of friends who were editors or agents or whatever, there was a lot that I didn’t understand about publishing until I started working at BookCourt, and I think…
BL: Like what?
ES: I guess the way books are actually sold.
[00:32:59] Like the way…I had always envisioned, you know, the writer’s job up to the point of sale…you know, like sale to the publisher. I had never really thought about the other half of the equation…
ES: …where the book is printed and bound and then shows up in a box, you know, on the floor of a bookstore. I never really thought about that, and it has made me aware of a lot.
[00:33:32] You know, like you can really tell what books a publisher is pushing by, you know, the number of copies that come into a bookstore. You can really tell what…you know, just by like the production value. You can tell, you know, when someone has sprung for the nicer paper. You can tell, you know, if somebody’s got French flaps on their paperback original.
[00:34:03] You know that there’s sort of money and thought going into that. And then, from a bookselling perspective, you can…you know, it’s been really fun for me to sell people books that I really love. Like I have sold so many copies of like Kate Christensen’s novel The Great Man, just because I love it.
[00:34:31] I think it’s a great book. I think that it’s…you know, any reader of contemporary fiction should read it because it’s funny and warm and surprising. The same goes for, you know, some of my all-time faves, like, you know, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Where I…if anyone just comes in and says, “Okay, I’m going on vacation. I don’t know what to read. What should I read?” I ask them if they’ve read The Secret History, and if they say, “No,” then I sell them that book, and they read it, and they come back, and they tell me that they loved it.
[00:35:05] BL: That’s a good one.
ES: Yeah, god, isn’t it? And then, like, you know, more recently I’ve been selling people John Williams’ Stoner, which is, you know, one of The New York Review of Books’, you know, reprinted classics. That is a novel that I never would have picked up, except that one of my colleagues at BookCourt told me I had to read it, and I did, and it blew my mind, and now I sell it to people every single day [laughs].
[00:35:40] BL: Okay, so stop there ‘cause you’re the second person who’s brought this book up to me in the last couple of weeks…
BL: …and I wasn’t even aware of it.
BL: I mean, I hate to say it, but I wasn’t…
BL: And so is this about, is it about a stoner?
ES: No, it’s not about a stoner!
BL: Okay. Damn.
ES: It’s about a guy whose last name—I know. I’m sorry.
ES: There are other books that are about stoners. You can find those easily on your own.
BL: I know. I’ll find those.
ES: [laughs] No, this…Stoner. John Williams’ Stoner is about a man whose last name is Stoner. It’s an extremely sad book.
[00:36:11] I won’t tell you too much about the plot for fear that you will not read it because you think it sounds boring, but basically it’s the story of a man’s life, and it’s not…it’s got a lot more low notes than high ones.
BL: [laughs] It’s about a sick man who can’t get medical marijuana. Is that right?
ES: [laughs] That’s the CliffsNotes version. Yes.
[00:36:38] But I mean, really the book is so—the sentences are so gorgeous that you don’t care how depressing it is because you love him so much. You know, by the end of the first page, you’re so sold on this guy’s life that you just have to stay with it no matter how sad it is.
BL: Okay. Well, that’s a good rec, you know. And so, you get to see these people come in and out of the store. You hand-sell books. You get to see how the publishers are pushing a book based on how the books look from a production-value standpoint…
[00:37:11] ES: Mhm.
BL: …and also from a number of copies shipped standpoint.
BL: So, you get that, and then you have, you know, all these people coming in that work in the business that you’re getting to know…
BL: …whether they’re high-profile-to-low-profile writers to agents to editors, so this is—like I can see how this is working well.
BL: And I guess the question that’s popping up in my mind is that I think of you, and I think of, you know, your particular gifts and your particular personality and how nicely it fits there because you’re so good socially,
[00:37:46] and not all writers are, and so I’m trying to kind of imagine myself sitting in the shoes of a writer who’s out there, who might not be as good socially, who might not be as comfortable at a reading or who might not be as good…
ES: Uh huh.
BL: You know, just talking to people…
ES: Yeah. Yeah.
BL: …you know, getting to know folks and networking and stuff. Like how do you—or what kind of advice would you have for somebody who is trying to publish or might be publishing, on a small press or something, their first story collection or their first novel?
[00:38:16] Like, what should they be doing?
ES: Well, I would say—I think you and I have a friend in common: Lauren Cerand, who is a phenom at this sort of stuff. You know, she’s an independent PR person who does a lot of work on books, and she just wrote a column for Poets & Writers that I think is absolutely required reading for anyone in this position.
[00:38:45] ‘Cause I think you’re right that yeah, I am chatty, and I could talk to a brick wall for three hours about all the books that I like [laughs].
ES: And sometimes I do. But, you know, I recognize that that’s not true for everyone. I have a lot of friends who are writers who are extremely shy, and who don’t feel comfortable being on Twitter or Facebook or whatever because they find that it’s just, you know, too extroverted for them—that they don’t like putting themselves out there in that way, and I think that the answer…
[00:39:18] BL: …is to be friends with you.
ES: [laughs] Well, well yes, and I mean, that will work for some people, but, you know, I think that there is a way for everyone to use sort of the new social media tools to suit their own personality, you know, whether it’s being on Twitter or Facebook or whether it’s just, you know, having a blog of your own or, you know, whether it’s making a podcast or whether it’s contributing to, you know, a place like The Nervous Breakdown, where there are a lot of sort of voices gathered in one place.
[00:40:06] I think that there’s a way for everyone—no matter how shy you are—to be involved in this way, and you know, Twitter—I love Twitter. [laughs] But it is not for everyone.
BL: Why do you love it? What is the appeal? I mean do you just like the…
ES: Oh god. I guess I just—I’ve always…[laughs] I’ve always been an oversharer, I guess.
[00:40:36] BL: [laughs]
ES: And so, the form really appeals to me, that you sort of can talk about whatever you want all the time, and whatever hour of the day you’re awake, there are other people on Twitter chattering away. I like that it really is a community of people. I’ve met a number of writers in the last couple of years that I’ve been on Twitter…
[00:41:02] You know, I meet them on Twitter and then have met and made friends with them in real life. Informed, truly solid friendships that way. Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s funny. I think it’s funny to live tweet, you know, your cousin’s bar mitzvah, or…
ES: I think it’s a really good way to entertain yourself.
[00:41:29] My husband likes—sort of, not heavy metal. I wouldn’t say heavy metal, but he likes a kind of music that I don’t like, so I find that if he drags me to a concert with him, that if I just have Twitter to keep me company, and I can describe all of the like enormous, sweaty dudes in beards, on Twitter, then I’m having a good time too.
ES: So, you know, it’s marriage counseling, basically.
[00:42:01] BL: I get it. I get it, and I do enjoy live tweeting. My question then becomes like how do you—I mean, I guess working at the bookstore, you have time to be on your phone. You’re tweeting from your phone. Is that correct?
ES: At the bookstore—when I’m at BookCourt, I tweet from BookCourt’s Twitter.
BL: Oh, right.
ES: So, I do that on the computers at work. I don’t tweet from my own personal account when I’m at work.
BL: Sure, you don’t.
[00:42:29] ES: I actually don’t [laughs].
BL: You’re like, “If my boss is listening to this, I only tweet @BookCourt.”
ES: [laughs] No, it’s true. I actually love tweeting from BookCourt because it’s a whole different group of people than my own personal sort of followers.
BL: How many followers do you have? What’s your handle at Twitter, so we can blow this up?
ES: I am found on Twitter @emmastraub, just as I am found in real life. I think I have a little over 5,000 now. I think?
[00:43:02] BL: Holy cow. That’s a lot. That’s a lot.
ES: I mean, it’s kind of a lot.
BL: For an author, you know.
ES: It’s kind of a lot.
BL: I guess there are authors out there who have like big followings—big, huge 100,000 followings, but I mean…
ES: Yeah, I mean, you know, Maud Newton, who has an amazing blog and is a wonderful writer, she has about 100,000. I don’t know how that happened. Like 5,000 seems like a lot to me, but it also seems like…you know, a number of people that I encounter, you know, in various—like it’s not a mind-blowing number.
[00:43:39] Like 100,000—that is really a lot.
BL: Wait, so Maud Newton has 100,000 Twitter followers?
ES: Doesn’t that make you believe in like good in the world though?
BL: Well, yeah. I mean it’s just like, it’s amazing, but I’m trying to think about why that is. I mean, I guess she’s got the blog, and she’s been doing this forever.
BL: I mean, she’s sort of like—she’s one of the original book bloggers. One of the original…
ES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think she’s had that blog for about 10 years? Maybe more.
[00:44:07] BL: Yeah, that’s an eternity.
ES: Yeah. Yeah.
BL: And…but she’s also, you know, like an information aggregator. I mean, I don’t want to…
BL: …sound reductive, but you know what I mean. Like she’s like a source.
BL: People go to her to find out what’s going on.
ES: Yeah. Yeah.
BL: And I think like for me like…
ES: That’s true. People come to me just to find out like how much butter to put in their chocolate chip cookies.
BL: [laughs] Or they want to know what Maud’s doing. What’s Maud doing? Will you tell me?
ES: [laughs] Yeah.
[00:44:34] BL: But no, you know, I think that when somebody is a source of information—and is consistent with it—like this is my problem is that, A, you know, with all the various things I have going on, you know, at The Nervous Breakdown, and I have a 10-month-old and blah blah blah, like it’s just, it’s hard for me to tweet consistently enough to make it happen.
BL: Though I am like, you know, I constantly tell myself I should do it more, but then the other thing is that, you know, then it comes down to actually tweeting, and I freeze up.
BL: I don’t know if this is like an outgrowth of like a bigger writer’s block.
ES: You have performance anxiety?
BL: I might!
[00:45:04] I don’t know. Or like it’s like, “Do people really want to know what I had for breakfast, or do I really…”
ES: People want to know, Brad.
BL: They do.
ES: People want to know. Yes.
BL: Well maybe I’ll start—I’m going to start tweeting more when this podcast…
BL: I’m obviously going to be trying to communicate with people. This is the whole point of the podcast, I think, and me doing this…
BL: …and calling it Otherppl is to get authors talking to each other and to get me talking to other people…
BL: …as opposed to myself.
ES: I think a podcast where you just talk to yourself would be a little sad.
[00:45:35] BL: [laughs]
ES: You know, if you’re like, “Hey, Brad.” “Hey.”
BL: [laughs] Don’t tempt me.
ES: “Did you think breakfast was good today?” “I did.” “Thanks.”
ES: I mean, you could try it. I think you should try it at least once.
BL: No, there’s you know, the intros at the beginning of the show—I’m gonna do a little bit of a spiel, and then it’ll be into the interview. I think people…
ES: Yeah [laughs].
BL: A little bit of that goes a long way.
ES: [laughs] Yeah.
BL: So now, tell me about how you balance all this stuff. You know, you’re married. You work at the bookstore. You’re writing books. You’re baking cupcakes.
[00:46:05] Like how does it—I mean are you, it seems like you work fast. Do you work fast?
ES: Yeah, and that’s only a small fraction. I mean, also volunteer for an organization called Girls Write Now, which pairs up teenage girl writers with professional women writers. I also—my husband and I have a design business together, where we do screen printing and, you know, design wedding invitations and things like that.
[00:46:33] What else do I do? I have lots of—oh, and I’ve been teaching this class for Sackett Street. I have lots of jobs, but I’ve always had lots of jobs, and I think that, you know, it’s sort of…in some ways, it’s easier to get more done the busier you are.
BL: I found that in college.
ES: I couldn’t…yeah…like when I was in graduate school, some friends of mine would have a really hard time finishing their stories in time for the workshop,
[00:47:07] …as if we had nine-to-five jobs and were like…you know, really doing other things, whereas I thought like that’s what we’re there to do, so I was writing constantly, and I feel like that now. Like I have enough time. Like I don’t have a full-time job, which gives me the time to do all these other things. You know, I mean, yeah, I’m a busy girl. I’m a busy girl.
[00:47:36] BL: And t sounds like you’re happy—it sounds like you’re happy. You like all the different things that you’re doing. It’s not like you’re busy doing stuff you don’t like to do.
ES: Yeah, yeah exactly. Like I, I mean I love all these funny little jobs that I have. So, yeah. I mean I, you know, I think there are a lot of hours in the day. I also require a lot of sleep. Like I’m like a 90-year-old woman basically, and I go to bed at like 10:30 every night, and I sleep for 10 hours [laughs].
[00:48:06] BL: Do you really?
ES: I do.
BL: Do you know who you’re talking to? You’re talking to a guy who’s 10 months into his first kid, and you’re telling me you sleep 10 hours a night?
ES: I’m sorry.
ES: I’m sorry, Brad. You know, I’m sure it won’t always be this way.
BL: Not if you have children, it won’t. I guarantee you.
BL: That is over [laughs].
ES: All right, well then just let me enjoy this while I can.
BL: Yeah, enjoy your dreams. Your 10 hours a night.
[00:48:34] ES: [laughs]
BL: No wonder you’re baking cupcakes. Just wait. You’ll have that kid, and all of a sudden it will be no more cupcakes, no more sunshine.
BL: I’m kidding.
ES: No. Gloom and microwaveable dinners.
BL: That’s when you’ll go through your cutting phase.
BL: It’ll happen then. You’ll goth out.
ES: I’ve been waiting. I’ve been waiting…
BL: Oh yeah, no.
ES: …for my cutting.
BL: That novel’s gonna be something, you know.
ES: [laughs] Well, you know, a lot of…when I met Geoff Kloske,
[00:49:06] who’s the publisher at Riverhead to talk about my novel for the first time, he thought it was hilarious that I had my agent compare my novel to Stoner because it is the story of this woman’s life, and a lot of really bad things happen to her, and he thought that was so absurd that I would…you know, as part of my pitch, I was comparing it to this totally obscure book that had gone out of print [laughs].
[00:49:43] BL: But, but—which is beloved and is making a comeback, so you’re prescient.
BL: You know, you had inside knowledge.
ES: I’m working on it.
BL: So, how’s Riverhead. You likin’ ‘em? I mean, I guess what are you gonna say? But, I mean, everything’s good so far?
ES: Um, I like them. I mean, so far…I’ve had…you know, they bought me….they bought me some cocktails.
ES: Um…that’s sort of it so far because I’m still waiting on my notes, but they’re very nice.
[00:50:14] They’re very nice to me. The other day at BookCourt, Geoff Kloske and his five-year-old son were walking by, and they popped in the bookstore before it was open, which Geoff said was very exciting for his son because it was sort of like, you know, behind the scenes at the museum.
BL: It’s like you gave him like a private, private shopping tour essentially?
ES: Exactly [laughs].
BL: It’s like Michael Jackson used to get when he went to like the Disney store, you know?
ES: Right, and BookCourt is a lot like the Disney store.
[00:50:45] BL: [laughs] It really…so much in common.
ES: Well, like Disney World, you know. Yeah.
BL: So much in common.
ES: All the people in those plushy costumes…
ES: That’s basically BookCourt in a nutshell. It’s just a whole bunch of plushies…
ES: …reading Stoner. Sitting around reading Stoner.
BL: Weeping. Weeping in their plushies.
BL: So, I got questions about…you know, ’cause I come from Milwaukee, and then I grew up in—I went through my formative puberty years in Indiana.
[00:51:13] ES: Mhm.
BL: Like a far cry from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And so, as a person with a literary bent and somebody who really loves visiting New York, I have this idealized—I mean, growing up on the Upper West Side. My god. Like you know, you’re just riding the subway by yourself when you’re like four, and…
BL: …you have this sort of like amazing world right outside your door. I mean, what was it like growing up there?
ES: Well, so…[laughs] yesterday I was at my parents’ house.
[00:51:41] They still live in the house that I grew up in on the Upper West Side, and they were telling me that one of my cousins who is just graduating from high school—she lives in the Bay Area, was going to come to visit—and my mom said, “Yeah, and, you know, as a graduation present, I’m gonna take her to dinner and a Broadway show,” and I said, “Mom, why don’t you just buy her a bottle of champagne and some whip-its and show her a bench in Central Park?”
ES: Because that’s what I would have wanted when I graduated from high school.
[00:52:11] BL: Yeah, consider who you’re giving the gift to for goodness’ sake.
ES: Right. Come on! You know? So, yeah, I think growing up in New York City is a wild and wonderful experience. I had a fabulous time. You know, I did, yeah, I took the subway to school every day and…
BL: Where did you go to school? Like when you grow up there, I mean do you just, how does that work?
[00:52:38] You know, like I used to walk to my little elementary school. And I guess you can do that, but I mean how does that…
ES: Yeah, there are some people who do that. I went to school—through the eighth grade I went to school on the Upper West Side, fairly near my parents’ house, at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is the second largest gothic cathedral in the world. I am not an Episcopalian. I am a non-practicing half-Jew, half-Lutheran.
[00:53:09] BL: There’s the Wisconsin: the Lutheran.
ES: Yeah. [laughs] How can you tell?
BL: Oh yeah.
ES: Yeah, it’s also the tall, blond part. The Lutheran part. But I went there and, you know, heard some Bible stories and things like that, which was very pleasant.
ES: And then for high school I went to a school called Saint Ann’s, which is not what it sounds like.
[00:53:35] You know, it sounds sort of like pleated miniskirts and all girls and things like that, and in reality it’s this very sort of Marxist, wonderful place where there are no grades. Everybody’s, you know, smoking outside with their teachers that they call by their first names.
BL: [laughs] See, this is what I wanted. This is exactly what I wanted and I was in Indiana.
ES: Yes. [laughs] Yeah, it was really glamorous. You know, I smoked a pack of cigarettes every day, starting when I was 14.
[00:54:06] BL: [sighs]
ES: And I just thought I was so cool, which I was.
BL: Yeah, you were. You were glorious. That’s amazing. I used to smoke when I was, you know—Indiana people smoke. I mean, I think we could take—the state of Indiana could take just about any state, like save maybe North Carolina and Kentucky, when it comes to tobacco intake.
ES: [laughs] Yes. Yeah, no, that’s one of the great unifiers, I think, for teenagers.
BL: So, how’d you quit? You quit smoking. I mean, you can’t be still smoking. I can’t imagine you smoking. Maybe you do. Every once in a while?
[00:54:36] ES: No, no I don’t. No, I quit. I quit.
BL: You don’t sneak one? I sneak one every once in a while. But you know…
ES: I sneak one every once in a while, but, you know, they’re now fewer and fewer and farther apart because now it seems actually totally disgusting to me when I…
ES: I mean, that first drag is a really beautiful experience always, and I’m like, “Oh, right, this!” And I can’t believe that anyone ever quits smoking, but then afterwards, I feel disgusting, and I’m quite glad that I am no longer a smoker.
[00:55:11] BL: Yeah, no, me too, and the thing is that I’m disgusted by other people smoking, but yet when it’s me, I’m not nearly as disgusted in that moment.
ES: Yeah [laughs].
BL: And then the other thing that I find, though, is that—especially now that I get older, and I’m in my 30s, and I’m not as resilient as I once—is that if I go out, you know, if I sneak a cigarette, it’s because I’ve had like more than two drinks.
ES: Yeah. Yeah.
BL: You know, I’m out like doing something. What I find is that, if I have…you know, five drinks, and I wake up…
ES: Oh. Oh my god.
BL: …I’m hungover…I’m hungover, but whatever.
[00:55:41] If I have five drinks, and I smoke one cigarette, I feel like complete ass.
BL: Do you know what I’m talking about?
ES: I do. I do.
BL: It’s like the cigarette is terrible.
ES: I mean, for me it’s like three drinks, but yeah, absolutely. Absolutely…it’s [sighs]. We’re getting old, Brad. Is that what this means?
BL: I guess so, but it’s also like a situation where—you know, back in the day, old publishing, people smoked. They had drinks with lunch. Like I feel like everyone’s getting healthier, people…
ES: I know.
BL: Like I’m really, really prone to health trends and like…
[00:56:13] ES: Yeah.
BL: You know, someone tells you that like red wine is good for you, like that’s what I drink now.
BL: I will drink red wine exclusively because it has this stuff in it that makes you live longer.
ES: Sure. Sure.
BL: Yeah, and I fall for all of that.
BL: But back in the day, I just feel like people were a little bit more relaxed about everything, and they weren’t nearly so analytical about their consumptions.
BL: And there’s goods and bads to that, I guess.
ES: Indeed. Indeed. I know. Now I’m so pathetic that when I get off the phone with you, I’m gonna go pick up my CSA farm share…like buckets of kale and lettuce and sugar snap peas.
[00:56:49] BL: So, you have—it’s like a farmers’ market-type situation.
ES: It’s a…CSA is community supported agriculture, where basically you pay in advance, and then every week you go and you pick up your share of vegetables and fruit and fresh eggs.
BL: All organic and everything?
ES: Oh yeah.
BL: No pesticides.
ES: No pesticides. Ugh.
BL: That’s so, yeah, that’s so like 1980, the pesticides.
ES: Yeah [laughs].
BL: It’s amazing, but I mean that’s great though. You know, like I think people being more conscious of what they eat, you know, that’s a good thing. I can’t say…
[00:57:22] ES: I know. But like, yeah, I agree, but it’s sort of depressing to think that like writers are like that. You know, like writers, in my mind, are like…you know, tough. Like, does Joan Didion do that? She’s tough. I don’t know.
BL: She weighs like 55 pounds…
ES: [laughs] Right.
BL: …and she still smokes a carton of cigarettes a week, I bet. You know, who knows…
ES: Yeah. Yeah, she probably just eats like Saltines and drinks vodka.
BL: And it’s just robust. Yeah, I don’t have that kind of constitution, or at least I don’t think that I do.
[00:57:52] The other thing is that—and this is maybe why writers are often prone to this kind of stuff—is that, have you read any books about food science? Have you read any books like Fast Food Nation, or anything like that? Did you ever…
ES: Oh yeah.
BL: Yeah, so I mean, you read a couple of those books, and if you’re a reader, that really stuck with me.
BL: Those books really, you know, they had a big impact on my brain.
ES: I know. Stupid Michael Pollan.
ES: He just ruined everything. [laughs] He ruined everything.
[00:58:16] BL: He did.
ES: [sighs] I’m never gonna be able to have my Burger King fish fillet sandwich ever again. You know?
BL: [laughs] The chicken sandwich—I grew up eating those chicken sandwiches at Burger King.
BL: That was really great. Those were the days.
ES: Yeah. Although, you know, I will say my father-in-law is a Burger King franchisee, so I won’t say anything bad about Burger King. Burger King is fantastic. It’s all McDonald’s.
ES: McDonald’s is really the problem here [laughs].
[00:58:42] BL: It is. The evil demon. So, what else? What’s coming up soon for you? What’s the rest of the summer hold?
ES: The rest of the summer is actually—I’m doing a house swap with a woman in your fair city, so I will be kicking around Los Angeles for the month of July, which I’m extremely excited about. The sort of goal is that I finish the next draft of my book and that I have, you know, all the available resources there for further research because the book starts in 1920 and ends in the ‘70s, so it covers a whole lot of ground, and there’s this amazing library.
[00:59:22] I don’t know if you’ve been to the Margaret Herrick Library that’s owned and operated by the Academy of Motion Pictures?
ES: It’s incredible! Oh my god, it’s incredible.
BL: Where is it?
ES: If you like the movies. You have to go. You know, it’s…it’s in a building [laughs].
BL: It’s in a building. Okay, it’s in a building in Los Angeles.
ES: [laughs] It’s in a building in Los Angeles. It’s sort of surrounded by green stuff. It’s maybe on…I don’t know.
[00:59:51] I’m not good with Los Angeles geography.
BL: Well, you’re gonna learn.
ES: I know. It’s in a kind of a weird. It’s in a kind of a weird—like it’s not near any of the places I would be otherwise.
BL: Is it near the Academy? Like the Academy headquarters or whatever down on La Cienega?
ES: I don’t know. Maybe. Sure [laughs].
BL: It’s a beautiful building. Is it a beautiful building?
ES: It’s a beautiful building.
BL: Yeah, maybe that’s where it is.
ES: It’s in the beautiful building.
ES: Surely you know it.
[01:00:19] And it’s this really wonderfully strict library, where they only let you bring in a certain, you know, list of things, and you have to show them your driver’s license and get a day pass, and you can bring in your computer but not any pens. You can’t bring in a jacket. You can only write in pencil.
BL: What the hell?
ES: Oh, it’s amazing though. They have every book on the movies. They have every newspaper—you know, every issue of Variety and, you know…every industry newspaper/magazine from the beginning.
[01:00:59] BL: So, now are you a big movie buff? I mean, you consider yourself a big movie buff, in addition to being a book person?
ES: I don’t know. I mean, yeah, I love movies. I love movies. I do. I wouldn’t consider myself a “buff,” just because I know people with brains like that, you know, who can tell you every movie that Gene Tierney was ever in, you know. And that’s not—my brain doesn’t quite work like that. It’s too lazy, but I do love movies, and my book is all about…
[01:01:30] this woman who becomes a movie star in the studio system, and so I had to learn a lot about the studios and how they worked.
BL: Well, what was the inspiration for this? This seems like this is way outside of your personal…
ES: It is. [sighs] It is. Isn’t it wonderful when that happens? I was so bored writing stories about people who were kind of like me, even if they weren’t at all autobiographical. You know, I was so bored by the thought that they could be in some alternative universe.
[01:02:01] So, this novel really was inspired by an obituary that I read of the actress Jennifer Jones, who…
BL: Who’s that? Do I know that? Do I know her?
ES: No. I mean, you might. She won an Oscar in the ‘40s. She was in a lot of movies, but I had no idea who she was, and I have purposefully stayed away from her movies because I didn’t actually want to write a book about her.
[01:02:28] It’s not about her, but I was so blown away by her obituary because it was so sad. [laughs] It was so sad. You know, it was filled with suicide and pills and multiple marriages and, you know, her children dying and all these wonderful things.
BL: No cupcakes.
ES: No cupcakes there, man.
ES: So, I wrote a novel about a woman who has a sort of similar trajectory, and yeah, it was so much fun to research.
[01:03:03] BL: So now, you’re just flipping through the obituaries? Is this something you do regularly?
ES: [laughs] Don’t you?
BL: Every once in a while, but no, I don’t actually. I’m curious. This is a fascinating element.
ES: I love obituaries. I love obituaries. I do. I love them. They’re one of my favorite parts of the newspaper.
BL: So, how do you read the newspaper? Do you go to obituaries first? Is this like the first thing you go to?
ES: Well, I read all the weddings. I read all the obituaries. Then I read about movies. Then I read about travel.
[01:03:35] Then I read about real estate, and then maybe I get to the front page [laughs].
BL: And then eventually you get to the news—like the news of the day.
ES: Oh, and the food—and the food section. Yeah. The important…
BL: The food section…I’m kind of a sports guy.
ES: The important things first. Yeah.
BL: So, what about websites? Like where do you go? I don’t want to end on such a—what’s the word? Not boring, but just sort of like internet-y note, but I’m curious to know what you do online besides Twitter.
ES: Yeah! No, I mean, there are a bunch.
BL: Besides Twitter, what are you doing?
[01:04:04] ES: I read The Paris Review blog. I read The Awl. I read The Hairpin. I read Jezebel. I read Lauren Cerand’s blog Lux Lotus. I read Tumblr. I’m on Tumblr also, so I spend a lot of time reading people’s Tumblrs.
BL: What do you—can you tell me what the hell Tumblr—I have a Tumblr. Like my website is on a Tumblr. I don’t even know what a Tumblr is. What is a Tumblr?
[01:04:34] ES: Well, I mean, I think of Tumblr as just a more visual version of Twitter, where you have—it’s the same sort of principle, where you follow people’s blogs, and they follow yours, but I mean, I just think it’s more visual. So, people post and repost photographs. That’s how I use it. I use it just as a more visual side.
BL: So, for people who want to see your private photo collection should go follow you on Tumblr? Is that correct?
[01:05:06] ES: [laughs] I guess so. I mean, it’s not really—It’s not even like pictures of me so much. Although, I will say, Brad, I really like the pictures that you always include of yourself in The Nervous Breakdown emails, where there’s usually some like kitschy background behind you, like Hawaii or like a rollercoaster. Things like that.
BL: I’m trying to personalize it. I mean, do you feel like—and you can be candid with me here—but do you feel like I’m embarrassing myself? I keep asking people this.
[01:05:33] ES: No, I think they’re wonderful. I think they’re especially wonderful because you’re never smiling [laughs].
BL: [laughs] It’s ‘cause I’m working on a Saturday, and I’m…
ES: You’re like, “I’m Brad, and I’m sorry to be here.” [laughs]
BL: [laughs] I need to be more sunny. This is my attempt to be more sunny and conversant. I think if I’m talking, people get more of that from me, but when I’m…I’m not comfortable being photographed generally, so when I’m self-photographing, I’m always—I’m just focused on making sure that only one of my chins is showing.
[01:06:01] That’s basically where—that’s where I’m at, right there.
ES: [laughs] Yeah, you’re doing a good job. You’re doing a good job.
BL: It’s okay. Okay. I just, I feel like if you add photos, people are more likely to look.
ES: Better to look handsome and miserable. You know?
BL: Brooding. I like the word…
ES: …than to look sunny and have three chins.
BL: Brooding. Damaged.
ES: Yeah. Brooding. Damaged.
BL: Wounded. [laughs] All right, well…
ES: You’re doing a great job. You’re doing a great job.
BL: Well, you as well, Emma, and I gotta say I’m very, very glad that we had a chance to talk, you know…
ES: Me too.
BL: I’ve been sort of a fan of yours from afar for a while. I wish you all the best with Laura Lamont.
[01:06:34] ES: Thank you!
BL: And let me know when you’re out in LA. We should grab a coffee or something.
ES: Yes! That’s a date. It’s on the podcast.
ES: That means it’s in stone.
BL: It’s on the record.
ES: Yeah. Hurray!
BL: Okay, well listen, enjoy the rest of your day out there in Brooklyn, and…
ES: Thank you.
BL: …hopefully I’ll see you soon.
ES: Yeah, thanks for calling.
BL: Okay, bye bye.
ES: Okay, bye.
* * *
[01:06:57] All right, everybody. There you have it. That’s it. That’s the show. That is me talking with Emma Straub for an hour. Emma of Brooklyn, New York, telling me about her life, her work, her upbringing in New York City, her cool, permissive high school in New York City, her tweeting. You name it. What a delightful human being. That really is the word that comes to mind: delightful. Really excited to see what she comes up with in the years to come as a writer. I sense a bright future.
[01:07:26] And, if you want to check her out on the web, you can go to www.emmastraub.net, and if you want to visit her on the Twitter, you can go to her Twitter handle, which is @emmastraub. I believe that’s what you call it. It’s called a Twitter handle. So, before I go, one last thought on this whole Tim Robbins/Susan Sarandon letter/pencil-in-the-pocket thing that I was talking about at the open of the show. I think I figured it out.
[01:07:53] I think it has to do with the whole one-in-a-million thing. I think that was the thematic thread that I was trying to weave when I was writing them the letter in that motel room in Maine when I was 21. I think I actually might have had some logic there. When I was seven or eight, I threw that pencil. I knew instinctively that I had just hit a one-in-a-million shot. How many one-in-a-million shots do you hit? Maybe one in your life. Maybe two if you’re lucky. Three if you’re crazy lucky.
[01:08:19] I hit one. I knew it. Then you fast forward. I’m writing that letter. I’m 21. I’m thinking to myself, “This is a one-in-a-million shot. There’s no way I’m gonna hit it.” And so what do I do? I write them a story about the time that I did hit the shot. Does that make any sense? Is there a logic there? Maybe there’s some sort of logic there. I don’t know. I think I’m reaching. Anyway, I’m signing off. Back soon with another program. Thank you for listening. Thank you. For listening. Etcetera.