Emma Straub on Jane Austen, Brooklyn & Modern Lovers

“This is Emma Straub’s tour of Brooklyn,” she says, stuck in traffic on Livingston Street.

We are on the phone discussing her new novel, Modern Lovers, and it’s fitting that Straub should be my vehicular guide through the borough of her most recent book. The novel follows two Ditmas Park families and their teenage children. It’s both a coming of age story and an uh-oh-entering-middle-age story. The parents, college friends and former members of the band Kitty’s Mustache, are grappling with their maturing marriages and relationships. A producer wants to make a movie about Lydia, their friend and the fourth member of their band. She skyrocketed to fame, and died young, and her renewed presence in the plot of their daily lives rekindles old grudges, old affections, and old questions about the fragility of friendship. Along the way, we encounter yoga cults, SAT prep courses, and delicious descriptions of Brooklyn dining. It’s summer in New York, and it’s sumptuous.

“I don’t know if you can hear that,” Straub says, “but that’s my phone telling me directions.” And then: “I’m turning this off because I know where I’m going.” She does know where she’s going. It’s hard to match the confidence of her narrative voice, the way it deftly manages and cares for the modern lovers of her book, its antic and engrossing cast of characters. Straub’s Brooklyn is lush and populated and humming with possibility. Over the Manhattan Bridge and onto the Flatbush Avenue Extension, one couldn’t hope for a better voice to lead the way. She confesses, unprompted and in no particular order, that she’s blocking the box, that life is good when you’re in front of Sahadi’s gourmet grocery store, and that she’s really quite adept at getting tickets. Most of all, she wants to make sure I know about the new cat cafe on Atlantic Avenue.

“You can go get a deep fried Twinkie [at ChipShop] and then pet a cat.”

I feel that my well-being very much looked out for during this interview. I feel it’s important to Emma Straub that I have plans after I finish talking to her about her novel. The empathy and humanity that is so visible in her writing comes through the phone, too.

“I’ve been sitting here for about seven minutes,” she says, “right at the door of Junior’s. I feel like I could get out of the car, go sit down, eat a piece of cheesecake.”

“If you need a slice of cheesecake,” she offers.

I do need a slice of cheesecake. Don’t we all? Or maybe it’s not that I need the cheesecake, but I need the offer. Every now and then, a book comes along that makes that kind of offer. Modern Lovers says, here, just in case you need this. Here is a book with a large, nuanced heart.

“The things you learn,” Straub says, “when you’re just sitting in traffic.”

Hilary Leichter: Modern Lovers revolves around a group of middle-aged friends that used to be in a band together in college. The fourth friend, Lydia, died of an overdose when she was young. I was reminded of some of my other favorite stories that deal with groups of friends, where one friend has died, or is gone, or has vanished. I was thinking of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and even The Big Chill. But The Waves felt really significant to me given that it’s also the name of the hotel that Andrew, one of the characters in your book, wants to open. Were these things that you were thinking about when you were writing the book? Was it important to you to have this absence, a character who is gone and creates a vortex at the center of your narrative?

Emma Straub: That is so funny. It never ceases to amaze me how many things happen organically within a book, like that, like The Waves, that you never think about in advance, and then someone says it to you and you think “Oh, that makes sense!” But you know, things can feel unintentional when you’re doing them and then they bubble to the surface in meaningful ways. That is hilarious.

One of the things that I was thinking about was the absence of old friendships and old relationships, but also how friendships that you keep change over time, and how sometimes you can feel sort of stuck in a previous moment with someone even when that moment has passed. We all have friends from childhood who we see a certain way, and who we know see us a certain way, even though we’re not really that person anymore. And sometimes that can be really nice and comforting. And sometimes it can be really frustrating. I think people also often feel that way about their families. Sometimes your parents see you one way long after you don’t want to be seen that way anymore.

HL: There’s a great passage where the character Harry, Elizabeth and Andrew’s teenage son, describes how he could construct a version of himself out of old photographs and his parents would probably not even notice. I think that’s a really interesting way about talking about characters in a book, too, kind of frozen in the eyes of their readers. Can you talk a little bit about the band, Kitty’s Mustache, and their hit song, Mistress of Myself? The main chorus from the song is a quote from Sense and Sensibility and then I started to recognize a lot of the characters’ names from Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth, Lydia, and Jane, and Bennet(t). Is this just another thing that I’m throwing into the air?

Jane Austen…is in my family tree somewhere.

ES: It is, it absolutely is! But the Jane Austen stuff tells you a lot about the make up of my brain. I sometimes think about the DNA of writers and books, and I sometimes think: who are my literary relatives? Jane Austen, I’d certainly like to think, is in my family tree somewhere. There are certainly things that happen in this book that are not Jane Austen-approved. Happy endings for everyone? But in general, I do believe in happy endings, or satisfying endings. Not necessarily that everyone is peachy-keen and perfectly squared away. But I want the reader to leave the book feeling secure that things are sort of taken care of. That’s how I feel about Jane Austen. I feel very well taken care of by her.

HL: It’s a generosity. I felt that reading your short stories, too. I think there’s a real generosity that you give to the characters. Which isn’t to say that they’re all likable all the time, or they’re all lovable all the time, but you feel that they’re taken care of and someone loves them. I think that’s Jane Austen, too. Her characters feel loved.

ES: Think about all of the annoying people in Jane Austen novels. That’s just the job, of making you sympathetic to most of them, even if it’s just for a moment. Even the creeps can be entertaining. And of course the whole idea of likability is preposterous anyway.

HL: Yes, right! I’m thinking about the character from Pride and Prejudice. I’m completely blanking on the name, but he’s Elizabeth Bennet’s original intended, and she rejects him, and he’s the most annoying. But you just really feel for him. There’s compassion there.

ES: Do you mean Mr. Collins?

HL: Yes!

ES: And you’re just like blegh. But by the end you’re thinking oh, he’s just a person. He’s going to make her friend happy. It’s going to be alright.

HL: Exactly. What do you think Jane Austen would think of the marriages in your book?

ES: Oh man. I think she would enjoy Zoe and Jane’s marriage because they’re sort of funnier with each other. They’re sort of more quippy with each other than Elizabeth and Andrew. But I think Harry and Ruby would be her favorite couple in the book for sure. Young love. A young, powerful woman and the sort of gentle boy.

HL: I loved the way you included ephemera — articles, advertisements, clippings. It made the book feel like a neighborhood to me, like I was just sitting on the corner listening to what was happening around me. It had a Greek chorus vibe. I was wondering how and if Brooklyn asserted itself as a character in this novel, and if you had a chance to spend any time in those beautiful old houses in Ditmas Park as part of your research?

ES: Yeah, I did. When I was writing this book I was also looking for a place to move. My husband and I had decided we were going to move within Brooklyn, but we were exploring new neighborhoods. And we spent some time in Ditmas. We used to live quite close to Ditmas Park, so we’d walked those streets before, anyway. And we were going to a lot of open houses, really looking at real estate very seriously. I went to so many houses in Ditmas Park, which was great, because even when I walked in and thought “I don’t want to live here,” I thought, “well, maybe one of my characters wants to live here!” So I did a lot of real estate research, killing two birds with one stone. And what I really liked about Ditmas Park was that it’s this funny little island in Brooklyn that doesn’t look like anywhere else in Brooklyn. It’s got some of the trappings of more hip neighborhoods or more gentrified neighborhoods, but it also has been the way it is for a lot longer than people realize. There’s nothing trendy about it, which is what I really liked. It really is family oriented and feels like the ‘burbs. There are garages, and driveways, and all these things that growing up in New York City I always thought of as completely foreign. So I loved the idea that I could give my characters some of those things, things that I always secretly wanted or fantasized about.

HL: I love that idea of real estate hunting for yourself but also for your characters. There’s this wonderful line where Zoe is alone in the house and she hears a thud, and thinks someone is there, but it’s just the house creaking. She thinks, “The house had its own problems.” We’re seeing all this drama between characters, but maybe the house has its own story happening at the same time, and its own drama. What was the quirkiest house that you saw when you were looking at real estate?

ES: There are so many weird houses in Ditmas Park. I mean, everywhere in the world. The one house that I would say I enjoyed touring the most was — well there were a few that I really liked. Some of them had been sort of chopped up, and had weird carpets and locks on all the bedroom doors. There were some houses where we were like, “Uh, what’s going on here?” There’s some that would require a lot of renovations and money and things I didn’t have. And patience with renovations, that’s really what I didn’t have, because I was also seven months pregnant at the time. But one of the houses, I realized part way through the tour, belonged to Noah Baumbach’s father, and so was the setting for The Squid and the Whale, which is one of my favorite Noah Baumbach movies, and in which I have a very, very, very brief cameo. Sort of randomly, because I was friends with the woman who was his assistant at the time. I was just an extra. But I realized that I was inside that movie in this whole new way. We did not buy that house.

Houses do have their own stories.

Houses do have their own stories. My parents just moved out of the house I grew up in after about thirty years, and it’s so strange to me to think that someone else is living in that house now. That the house is still there, but that I can’t go to it. It boggles my mind. I feel like there must be traces of my childhood there, even though I know there aren’t, because obviously my parents took all of their things, and I haven’t lived there in fifteen years or more.

HL: I feel like the stand-in for that feeling in movies in books is always the series of notches on the wall. That’s the stand-in for every footprint and scuff.

ES: Yeah, my parents painted over that wall a long time ago.

HL: I was thinking a lot about Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures while reading this, and there’s a recurring theme in some of your books about how people deal or don’t deal with fame. If Lydia from Modern Lovers and Laura could meet up and have a drink, would they have advice for each other? Or anything to learn from each other?

ES: I don’t think Lydia can learn anything from anybody. What I was interested in about Laura Lamont is that she was trying to do it all. She really wanted it all. She wanted the career, and the family, and love, and everything. And I don’t think Lydia gives a shit about anything except fame. I think she’s got a one track mind for sure. Lydia only cared about being famous. She is a spurned lover in the book, but that didn’t really matter to her, not in the same way that having success mattered to her.

HL: Were you ever in a band in college, like Kitty’s Mustache?

ES: When I was in college I had a boyfriend who was in a band, and I had lots of friends who were in bands, but I had absolutely no, less than zero, musical talent or ability. I didn’t even really like to do karaoke. It’s no good. Nobody wants to hear it, that much I know for sure. But I did enjoy, at Oberlin, going to see my friends’ bands all the time. And I had a lot of friends who were in the conservatory too, and so they were really, really good musicians. I had a lot of friends who had taught themselves how to play guitar, but I also had a lot of friends who were really astonishingly good musicians. It was a real pleasure to get to see them. And I was always in love with everyone who played music. I mean, how can you not be?

HL: Especially in college. There’s nothing like a guitar. Elizabeth is sort of the master songwriter of the group, and I loved the way you show her writing music, in her garage with the door half closed. I thought that was such a great image. Do you have a similarly specific set up for when you sit down to write a book?

ES: In theory, yes. After looking for a new place to live for a year, we finally moved in November, and then I had horrible bronchitis for the last couple of months of my pregnancy, and then I had a new baby, and then it was January, and then the baby — he’s much nicer now, but for the first few months he was basically screaming twenty-four hours a day and eating every two hours. So I have not had a chance to work yet in my new space. But I have a new office that I’m really, really excited about working in — someday. Someday. Maybe when my book tour is done. I’m hoping when my book tour is done I will get there.

HL: A new office is exciting.

ES: We live over in the Columbia Street Waterfront District now, and so I can see a lot of sky, which is really nice. I used to look out my window and see trees, and I love trees, and I miss the trees that I used to stare at out the window. But now I get sky, and I’m looking forward to seeing what that does to my brain.

HL: I wanted to ask you about vacations. Because your last book was about a vacation, and this book is about a Brooklyn summer. Is there something inspiring to you about that kind of bite-sized structure for a book?

Summer seems so endless and important when you’re a teenager.

ES: With The Vacationers, I was coming off of Laura Lamont, which covered decades and decades and decades of time. After that I wanted to give myself the opposite — not problem — but the opposite set of rules. The Vacationers is bing, bang, boom, and I knew I had to smush everything together to make everything happen really quickly. With this book, I liked the structure of a summer especially because of the teenagers. So much can happen in a summer when you’re a kid. Summer seems so endless and important when you’re a teenager. What are your friends doing? What are you doing? Where are you going, are you going somewhere? Do you have a job? Do you have to take the stupid SATs? Do you have a summer love, do you not have a summer love, does everyone else have a summer love? These are some of the things that I thought about. I also think that Brooklyn can be so disgusting in the summer. It’s so hot and sweaty and gross, and that can really drive people crazy. So I wanted some of that, too. That really sweaty, your-clothing-is-sticking-to-you kind of stuff that might drive you to join a yoga cult.

HL: If anything’s going to do it, it’s August in Brooklyn.

ES: Right now I’m sitting in front of the Brooklyn Civil Court, which I can tell you is the worst place on earth. Because I had to go there about fourteen times when my husband and I decided to hyphenate our last names. Which is a terrible thing to do. If anyone reading this, if you ever think “oh it would be so sweet to hyphenate my last name,” just do it when you get married. If you’re an idiot like me and you decide six years later that it would be nice if everyone had the same last name, it requires several trips to this pit of hell.

HL: Wait — is this the same place you go to get the marriage license?

ES: No, no. Actually recently, a couple of weeks ago, I married some friends of mine. I had to go to City Hall, to the Marriage Bureau to get registered with the city. And that was lovely. That was a lovely experience. There were flowers everywhere, there were people wearing wedding dresses, there were couples of every age. It was just the beautiful fabric of Brooklyn. That was glorious. I just wanted to stay there forever and marry everyone and throw rice. No, this is a very different place. This is low ceilings, and broken elevators, and a lot of bureaucracy.

HL: I’m so sorry.

ES: That’s my PSA of the day.

HL: I changed my name legally when I got married, but I still use my maiden name for writing, and it’s very confusing. I kind of made the decision on the spot when we went to get our license. So I think about that a lot — should we have hyphenated? But, too late!

ES: I think you did the right thing! When I got married I never in a thousand trillion years considered changing my last name. I was like, why on Earth would I do that? But now, what I realize we should’ve done is to pick some other name that we both liked. Like Sprinkles. Or like, I don’t know, Traffic Cone. Anything, anything would be better than the monstrosity that we have.

HL: I’m going to be looking for the next book by Emma Traffic Cone.

ES: Emma Traffic Cone is going to be huge in construction vehicle literature.

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