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The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Emma Straub

If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we launched The Future of American Fiction: a weekly interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Each Tuesday we’ve brought you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

For our very last installation of our Future of American Fiction Series, we talked to Emma Straub, who knocked our socks off with last year’s short story collection Other People We Married, and has only separated us from those aforementioned socks further in her delightful new novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, an affecting, decades-spanning epic of a small-town girl’s escape to Hollywood, which hits bookstores September 4th. A true multi-talented modern author, she also happens to be a bookseller, a journalist, a designer, a charming Twitter presence and the sometime merch girl for the Magnetic Fields. So, you know, top that. Read on as we talk to Emma about e-readers, niceness, and her drawerfuls of unpublished novels.

Where do you see American Fiction headed? Or what direction do you hope — or fear — that it will take?

Well, I hope that it still includes wonderful independent bookstores, forever. I don’t know if that is true. Because it scares me how many people read things on their iPods or Nooks or Kindles or whatever. I don’t read anything electronically. I mean, I read Twitter electronically. But I don’t read books ever on any devices. I understand why people in publishing do, because the volume is too great, and I understand why reviewers do, people who are required to read six or seven books a week, and I understand if you’re taking a flight to Zimbabwe and you’re going to be in the air for sixteen hours and you want to bring four books. But if that’s not the case, isn’t it always more pleasurable to just carry around a book? So I hope that bookstores still exist, and that books as objects still exist, in the future. Other than that, I think we’re good. I continue to be excited about books that are coming out, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

You were recently called out on the Internet for being a nice person. Um, burn.

Burn, burn!

I don’t even know what question to ask about that.

It’s so stupid and pointless. I understand the argument that that person and everyone subsequently has made, which is that book criticism is maybe not in the state that people want it to be. But I don’t think it’s true. This weekend, there was the meanest review in the New York Times Book Review that I’ve read in years, for a woman whose books up until now have been well received. But she’s not famous. It’s not as if people didn’t like the new Junot Díaz — well, he already has a Pulitzer Prize, he can probably take it a little bit. Or Michael Chabon or whatever — people who have won such enormous acclaim that they are in some way immune. That just seems absolutely mean and pointless and unnecessary and cruel. So I was happy when my name stopped appearing in each new iteration of that argument. I’m nice. Ugh! I can deal with that.

Your short stories are very realistic and also somehow secretly magical, and I felt the same way about the novel. But there’s a certain quality to the stories – I was convinced that all of them were actually happening somewhere while I was reading them, and Laura is a little further off, a little more magical. So I guess the question is, why did you head in that direction?

I like the way you put that – that the stories could have been happening while you were reading them. That’s the way I felt about writing them, that they were that real to me. And some of them were in some ways biographical, or shared biographical details with me, most of them not. But they all could have, and they were all more or less possible in this moment in this place in this country — except for the one that took place in Rome, I guess. But they were all possible and contemporary and just at my fingertips. And when I finished writing them and when the book came out, all I wanted in life was to get as far away from that as possible. I was so bored of that. I was bored of short stories, I was bored of books about people in their twenties, and people having this “oh my god, what am I going to do,” moment, figuring themselves out. I was like, ugh, I am done with that — for now. Not forever, because I love books like that, but I felt like I had gotten it out of my system and I was ready for something else. I was working on a novel at the time that wasn’t going very well, that was the most boring book that anyone has ever spent a year or two working on. Just so boring. But then I read this obituary in The New York Times for this actress Jennifer Jones, and there it was. A whole novel. I mean, it’s not my novel, or it’s not what my novel turned out to be, but her life had such an arc, so many arcs, it had peaks and valleys and tragedies and triumphs, and I realized yes, that is what I want to do, I want to write a novel that people will actually want to read. Where people will want to turn the page. So that’s what I tried to do.

I have heard that you have more than one unfinished novel hiding in drawers.

Many. It’s four altogether.

So how did you end up publishing short stories first?

I was a poet in high school and college, and then the second I graduated, I decided okay, now that that foolish childhood playtime is over, now I can begin my career as a novelist. So I wrote three novels back to back, and because my dad is a writer and I had sort of grown up around people in publishing, I got an agent quickly, and she sent out my first novel immediately. And it got rejected everywhere. But it got beautiful rejections, just beautiful rejections. So I figured okay, that agent didn’t work, obviously, so I got a new agent, wrote another book — the second one was like Nancy Drew, except starring me, basically. There was a poet who got murdered, a gay boy poet, it was very sexy. It was terrible. And that got rejected everywhere. Then I tried to write a fantasy novel, which is really hard. Really hard. Oh my god. That’s hard. Anyone who talks shit about J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman or anyone who has successfully created another world that millions of people can believe in should be like, stoned to death. Because that is the hardest thing in the world. I couldn’t have more respect for people who do that well. But it wasn’t me, so that didn’t go well. That was the point when I decided that maybe I should start to look at MFA programs. I only started writing short stories in my MFA program, and I found it delightful. I mean, I loved Lorrie Moore and Raymond Carver, there were certain people I loved already, but I had never really plumbed the depths of the American short story, which is just really rich and wonderful. So I read a lot of short stories, and wrote a lot of short stories, and started publishing those during my MFA.

Also, please tell me about touring with the Magnetic Fields.

It’s really fun and really exhausting. One of the jobs I had in between college and graduate school was as [lead singer] Stephin Merritt’s personal assistant. And I would, you know, buy his dog dog food and take his pants to be hemmed and alphabetize his song books and type up his lyrics, and buy him whisks to use as musical instruments — whatever he needed, I would do. It was my favorite job I’ve ever had. And starting in 2004, wherever the band went I would go with them. I went once by myself and cried in the bathroom every day because I was so miserable. Then my then-boyfriend, now-husband started coming with me, and it was great. We’d keep the tour blog, we’d make everybody laugh, we’d find the cute vintage clothing stores and bookstores in every city. And we know all their fans. That’s really the nicest part — we’ve been to the same cities with them so many times that I know that when we’re in Austin, Texas, this couple is going to come and they’re going to bring me cookies. And in San Francisco this guy is going to come and he’s going to bring me a box of fancy chocolates. I’m making it all about me. But really it’s just that I feel like we have become in this very small way a sort of connector point in between the fans and the band, like if a fan makes something for Stephin we will actually make sure he gets it, we get him to sign ukuleles for people, and it’s all very sweet. So we went on a giant tour with them in the spring where we were gone for six weeks and on a plane every day, and it was the most exhausting trip I have ever taken. We thought, “we are never going to do that again.” But then the band asked us to do this one week in November, and so I’m the opening act.

I’ve never seen a novelist open for a band. That’s a cool idea.

Yeah. The reason that I was not surprised that this happened is that when I met the Magnetic Fields for the first time, it was because Neil Gaiman was opening for them, and my parents are friendly with Neil and so we went and that’s how it all got started. And Kelly Link opened for them once — well for Future Bible Heroes, one of their side bands. So I don’t know what I’m going to do. I now have a tiny pink ukulele that I have taken pictures of on Instagram but I have not yet learned how to play.

What’s the last great book that you read?

Well right now I’m reading Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, which I’m pretty sure is capital-G Great. But I’m about halfway through, so I don’t want to commit to saying that yet, even though I am absolutely loving it so far. But the last book I finished that I can tell you for sure is capital-G Great is Stuart Nadler’s Wise Men, which just blew my mind. It’s really beautiful, it’s an epic American story, it’s about love and race and money and Cape Cod. I don’t know. It’s so amazing. So I look forward to everyone reading that in February and understanding what I already know, which is that Stuart Nadler is a genius and that we should love him.

Illustration by Geoff Mak.

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