Emma Straub is a bit of an anomaly in the publishing business: She’s smiley, she’s blond, she doesn’t wear all black. She likes social networking, especially Twitter. She isn’t afraid to get all lowbrow and confess her love for things like The Bachelor and the New Kids on the Block. And she’s nice—really, really nice.
Of course, she’s also a brilliant writer. The stories in her debut collection, Other People We Married, are witty, poignant, and concise, managing to often encapsulate a character or complex emotion in a few brief lines. As a result, we at EL are a little bit smitten with Straub—in fact, more than one staff member has confessed to me that they have a crush on her. And it doesn’t seem like we’re alone. Check out pretty much any literary blog — or literary lover, for that matter — and they will echo similar sentiments. Point being: if you haven’t read Straub’s collection yet, then you really, really should. Fortunately for you, Other People We Married was re-released on Riverhead Books yesterday (it was initially published on Five Chapters Books), and, before she got all wrapped up in the big lit-star hubbub, I got a chance to talk to her about her process, brownies, and, of course, Donnie Wahlberg.
Julia Jackson: The trajectory of Other People We Married kind of seems like a writer’s dream: Internet serialization, small press, critical acclaim, big press, and now you have a novel in the works. Can you tell us more about what happened? And what’s your novel like?
Emma Straub: Ha! I know, it really was a dream. It is a dream! I’m still dreaming. I think the part that gets glossed over, and the part that makes all this seem like less of a fairy tale, is that I wrote four novels that were rejected all over the place before the chain of events you mention. So it’s really been a very, very gradual process. My novel is about a woman who moves to Hollywood in the late 1930s, and becomes a movie star. Glamour out the wazoo.
JJ: A strong sense of setting seems to be key in a lot of the stories in OPWM (New York, Palm Springs, and Rome, to name a few). Does place inspire you, or is this a coincidence?
ES: I love to travel, and find it totally inspiring. I grew up in New York, and love it dearly, but it’s hard to feel like describing it in prose. Washington Square and The Fortress of Solitude already exist, you know? Along with five million other books. My next novel is going to take place partially in New York, though, so I guess I’ll have to find a way to say something new.
JJ: One thing I really like about these stories is that, in quite a few of them, rather ordinary things happen (a teacher has a crush on a student, two girls kiss, a woman makes friends with an unlikely neighbor), yet your stories are memorable, concise, and emotionally haunting. If it wasn’t a plot twist, then what was the inception of some of your stories?
ES: Most of my stories start with a really small idea: place, character, concept. A weirdo neighbor is always a good place to start—when I lived in Madison, WI for grad school, I really did have a creepy man-child next door, and I was obsessed with him. Once I read a piece in the newspaper about a prize-winning show dog getting lost at JFK airport, and that morphed into ‘Rosemary,’ which is far less dramatic.
JJ: Every time I’ve encountered you, either on the internet or in person, you’ve seemed so approachable, sweet, and funny. Please tell me that you’re human and do things that are disgusting/mean/insane. Or, conversely: What do you do to maintain that bright serenity?
ES: I just wrote a piece for Rookie about being nice. It is true, I am human. But I am a friendly human. What can I say? Some people like to complain and be assholes on the internet, but I think of Facebook and Twitter and certainly BookCourt as my places of business, so why would I ever be less than professional? I wouldn’t. If I worked in an office, no one would find it at all remarkable, I think. And yes, on my own time I am a wretched creature, rest assured.
JJ: Your brownies are famous, and this makes me incredibly happy. I love brownies. I love melting the chocolate. I love that the batter tastes way better than cookie dough. I love sprinkling coarse salt on top. And, of course, I love eating them. (Your brownie recipe is genius, by the way.) You got any other fabulous recipes up your sleeve?
ES: I just bought the Baked cookbook, and a few weeks ago we made the most incredible peanut butter and chocolate pie. Oh my stars.
JJ: Having been spawned by a writer: Did your father encourage you to write? Has he been able to offer you any good advice? Have you always wanted to be a writer, even when you were a little kid?
ES: My parents always encouraged me, and truly did make me believe that I could do whatever I wanted to do. In terms of having a writer as a model, though, I think the most important lesson that I learned from my father is that writing is a real, full-time job. Fuller than full time. Forget 9-5, five days a week—that’s for lazy people. That’s what I learned, that writing requires a dead serious commitment. No waffling in the Straub house, that’s for sure. Unless there are waffles, in which case, yes please.
JJ: Have you read anything amazing lately?
ES: Of course! I just finished Ruth Reichl’s memoir Tender at the Bone, which I loved. I just read some really amazing books for the Tournament of Books, but I can’t talk about those yet. Next up is Heidi Julavits’ new novel, and The Enchanted April. The stack is endless, but so delightful, who could complain?
JJ: What’s your favorite Twitter post (crafted by you, of course)?
ES: Hmmm. I refuse to quote myself, but how about this? Donnie Wahlberg is my guru. Here are a few:
Today! We can front or alter. We can learn & grow. But in the end we are who we are. You can’t trade you in for a new one so get used to it.
Today! There will be a moment when someone will be poised to ruin your day. In that very moment you have the choice to allow them to or not.
See what I mean?
Need more Emma Straub? Check out her recent mixtape, “Songs That I Play Really Loud So No One Else Can Hear Me Cry.”
–Emma Straub is the author of Other People We Married, out now from Riverhead Books. She likes love songs, chocolate, cheese, her cats, and her husband, though not necessarily in that order.
–Julia Jackson is a fiction writer and the editor of Electric Dish. Find her on the internet here.