"Sort of Irresistible:" Emma Straub and Meg Wolitzer on "Modern Lovers"
Emma Straub's fiction from her sparkling short story collection Other People We Married to her Golden Age of Hollywood tale Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures to 2014's hit The Vacationers manages a rare marriage of warmth and wit, framing unpredictable quests after human fallibility within surefooted stories alive with humor and studded with insight. Her latest novel, the instant bestseller Modern Lovers, pursues a close-knit group of college friends the kind you make when you're in an indie-rock band together into the adult world of marriage, family, memory, grief, and the early tremors of midlife's tectonic shifts.
Straub was recently joined on stage at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble by Meg Wolitzer, whose many works of bestselling fiction include The Interestings (soon to be adapted as a television series), The Ten-Year Nap, The Wife, and the critically hailed YA novel Belzhar. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Meg Wolitzer: They said your work isn't treacly. But isn't treacle, like, delicious?
Emma Straub: I think it's too delicious.
MW: I think so. But your work is often described as "delicious." That's one of the words. I think if you Google you and "delicious," you might get a lot of hits.
MW: I'm making that up but it sounds right. Actually, the noun "wit" comes up a lot if you look up Emma Straub. "Wit." And the San Francisco Chronicle said that you put the "fun" back in dysfunction. Emma tells many good jokes, and many of them are in this novel. Actually, I was thinking there are so many really funny lines in this book, which we're going to talk quite a bit about. But there's a kind of Bachelor show . . . Do you know The Bachelor? It's a television show I've heard about. I've heard some people might like to watch it if they're reading Proust, like I would be doing. In Emma's version, two of the women are vying for the Bachelor's hand, one named Kimberly and one named Kenderly, and that is really pitch-perfect and wonderful.
Did you see the New York Times today? Michiko Kakutani's great review. Oh my God! This is so wonderful. If somebody gets a bad review and then you do an event at night, then you go up to each person as they walk in. "Don't say anything; don't say anything." For me, in my experience, if I've got a bad review, I have this one aunt . . . I don't know if I told you about this.
MW: Do all of your friends know to leave you alone when you get a bad review? This one aunt, she's so excited because my name's in the paper, and she calls me up and she goes, "I saw your cute article." Then the next day a giant sort of laminated version of the review shows up. It says: "A Disappointment."
That is not the case here. It was one of those reviews that you really, you know, kill to get, and I'm so happy for you, because the book is so, so terrific.
So the book opens, Emma, as you know, with a book club.
MW: You have been in a book club for how long?
ES: I've been in a few book clubs. The only good book club I've ever been in is the one on the block I just moved off of, so I feel like I'm sort of like on thin ice with my book club at the moment, because they told me when I moved that I wasn't going to be allowed to be in the book club any more, but then I had a baby so I was like, "But that's my excuse." So they said I could still be in it, but because of aforementioned baby I haven't gone since I moved. But yes, I am in a really, really good book club, and I dedicated the book in part to them. Because I didn't know that it was possible to have a good book club.
MW: Well, you have a very funny, wonderful description of book clubs. So what about the people in book clubs who don't read the books?
ES: And that's been me. I'm going to be honest.
MW: Let me give you a quiz.
ES: Oh, no.
MW: In Moby-Dick . . .
ES: I have never read Moby-Dick.
MW: When they are making soap out of blubber, is that a . . . It's a two-part process. Do they dry it first . . . But you obviously didn't read the book.
ES: No, I haven't. But my dad never read it either, so I feel like I get extra points for that, for being second-generation writer, non Moby-Dick reader. MW: But I will say this. A book club is such a wonderful way to open a novel and open this novel, because you're bringing all the characters together. This is a book in which there's a number of characters who have known one another for a long time, since Oberlin. And what is it about Oberlin?
ES: I grew up on the Upper West Side, and then I went to Oberlin because so many people I knew went to Oberlin, and they all seemed to really like it, and I had a good time when I visited because I went to a good party, and my one friend had this really cute roommate. You know? But then I went to Oberlin, and it turned out it, like, really was in Ohio . . . It just wasn't as dreamy as I thought it was going to be. Everyone else there loved it. Every single other person I know who went to Oberlin had the best time of their entire lives there. But that was not true for me. But it is actually true for the characters in my book. The characters in my book enjoyed their college experience.
MW: Regarding writing a book with multiple points of view, can you talk to that. People ask you, if you're a writer, about that. What struck me about this book is that you treat everyone so tenderly. Is this something that you're aware of doing?
ES: I don't know. I guess so. I want to like them. OK? I always think it's funny when people talk about the likability or unlikability of characters, my characters. I'm always surprised. Because I really do like them. Even the ones who aren't perfect, which is all of them, I actually really enjoy spending time with them, and so I do want to treat them tenderly, and I hope for things to go well for them. It doesn't always happen. But yeah, I do want to treat them tenderly.
And to answer I think your question about the point of view: The reason why I like to do that, I feel like I have a sort of addiction problem with switching points of view, because it's so fun to talk about the same problems from different perspectives, because then you can do what you can never do in life, which is to actually understand what someone else is thinking and to say, "Oh, I feel this way about my marriage, but how does my husband feel?" or "I feel this way about my son but how does he feel about this?" So it's fun to hop around. Don't you think?
MW: Oh yeah. When you were saying that, I just was feeling so depressed that we all only get this one little window to look at . . .
ES: That's terrible!
MW: When people say, "What's your name?" you don't have to say the same thing. It's so weird. It's terrible. You have to walk around with your bio, with your feelings about things, but with characters . . .
MW: How about with writing male characters, gay and straight characters, characters of different races or different ages? What about that? Do you feel challenges with that?
ES: I don't know. I'm trying to think which is the most challenging. Maybe the teenage boy. I don't know. In this book, I have a teenage boy.
MW: I love him.
ES: I love him, too. Thank you. But I don't know. I was raised with a lot of teenage boys. Maybe the dad. Maybe he was the hardest. I had fun. I don't think that any of them were challenging because of their differences for me. I think Andrew, who's the father, and the main couple . . . the husband . . . he was probably the most challenging just because he's sort of the most at- sea. He's the character who understands himself the least. So I guess it was hardest to pin him down on the page in a way where the reader would feel for him in addition to feeling frustrated by him.
MW: Because there is that thing called the imitative fallacy. So if you write about somebody boring, you can be boring when you're doing it.
MW: But if you have someone who really doesn't know what to do, and he's kind of lost and kind of getting involved in a fishy enterprise . . .
ES: I call it the Yoga Cult. But we can call it whatever.
MW: Back at Oberlin, you have the most wonderful and again delicious plot with a band. The lead singer dies, and there's going to be a biopic. They have to get the rights to use the song. To me, that is such a wonderful way to sort of look at the past and look at the present. It's not amorphous. It's this beautiful time. Were you in a band?
ES: No, I was never in a band. I had a boyfriend in a band once. That was fun.
MW: But when you think about where ideas come from, that's something . . . That's always, like, the deadly question in the audience, and the writer has to act like they've been asked it before.
ES: But this is my first event, so I have never been asked this before.
MW: Here's the thing about it. I did an event once with Elizabeth Strout, and it was about character, and somebody asked where Olive Kitteridge came from, the idea for the book, and she said . . .
ES: Did she say Mame?
MW: I think she said something like this. I'm not going to get it right. She pictured a large woman standing next to a picnic table, and that was her way in. What was your way into this book? Was there an inciting scene?
ES: I used to have a neighbor who was in his fifties when I moved next door to him, and he was a drummer in a rock 'n' roll band. When our house was perfectly silent and we were in one particular room, we could hear him practice. It was the kind of thing that, you know, in a neighborly way, he would apologize for every so often, because you know, nobody wants to live next door to a drummer. Except we actually loved it, because he was . . . is still this very quiet, sort of easygoing guy in his fifties who was the drummer in a rock 'n' roll band in the neighborhood, and we just thought that was great. I mean, we loved him all the more for it.
So for a few years, I was trying to sort of think about a short story about the teenage son of some middle-aged people in a band in Brooklyn, that was sort of inspired a little bit by my neighbor. But then, it was really hard to write for some reason. I just couldn't get anywhere with it. Like, I had a paragraph, and that was it for, like, years. And then I realized that if I zoomed way out, I could write a whole story that wasn't just about the band, but was about a family and a marriage and the kids. Then I thought, "OK, now I have this seam," but then I kept writing. I kept writing about their lesbian neighbors and their teenage daughter, and I realized that I liked them so much more that I just couldn't I was getting pulled the book was getting pulled that way. Which was actually a new experience for me.
I don't know if it's always the same for you, when you have an idea for a novel, if you like outline or if you have a plan that you then stick to. But I usually have a plan, and I sort of know where it's going, but with this book I really didn't. It was the first time. It was really fun to just sort of be floated along by the ideas themselves, and to not really know where I was going. What do you do? Is it always the same? Or is it different? Tell me everything, please.
MW: For a small fee . . . It's interesting about how that happened with this book, though. Because I think sometimes letting books become the book that they want to be, even if you don't want them to be that, is a hard thing to do. It's a very hard thing to do.
I think you can have an outline as long as you know that it may be rubbish, that it may absolutely be something you throw out. I always think of outlines as being sort of like an EpiPen. You have them in your pocket and you may never use them, but it feels great to know that you have it there. So it's kind of a good way to be.
But it also lets you know that you're such a natural novelist that you wanted to keep going outward into these characters' lives. People often talk in reviews of you, or just when I hear people talking about you on the street . . .
ES: Yeah, on the street.
MW: They talk about how funny you are. I'm very interested in humor. It's a strange thing in fiction, isn't it? People say this thing to you, "I laughed out loud." And do you ever really believe them?
ES: That they laughed out loud while reading my book, or . . .
MW: Anybody, not just you.
ES: I used to work at a bookstore, and the hardest thing to do was to recommend new, funny books for people. Like, people would often come in and say, "Oh, I just read Meg Wolitzer's The Position. What should I read next? I like books that are smart and funny . . . "
MW: The answer is obviously The Magic Mountain.
ES: Yeah. There you go! But it was the question I think that stumped my fellow booksellers the most. There's this sort of like fuzzy zone where there are some writers who people think of as funny, like our friend Lorrie Moore, of whom people also say, "Oh, she's great and smart and funny." But sometimes, if you're too funny, people don't trust you.
MW: Well, there's something people want, I think. Sometimes they want writers to have real gravitas on the page and be very funny when you get up and speak.
MW: But for you, humor comes very naturally out of who you are. One thing tat I often will talk about when people are becoming writers is who do you friends think of you as, and if that kind of person . . . if that sort of sensibility isn't in the book, I kind of wonder why it's not. But with you, actually your book and you are of a piece.
Do you think that for you, does the humor always come out of character? And how does it come out?
ES: Yeah, I think so. I think for me the parts of this book that were the most fun to write were scenes with the teenagers, and their humor in particular I felt just was bubbling over all the time. I couldn't stop thinking of funny things about teenagers. Well, you've written about teenagers, too. It's sort of irresistible, because you can't help but go back in your time machine and think about all of the ways that you were self-conscious that now seem so hilarious but were so deeply painful at the time.
MW: Right. But I think in doing that, though . . . The word "painful" was in there. It's more wistful than painful in here, because you deal with the past. Whenever the past shows up, or somebody remembers . . . Remembering being a teenager, which is so awful and yet so touching all at once. It's all in this book. It gives you those feelings.
But I want to talk a little bit, more generally, about what novels do. Do you feel, like I do, that we live in nonfiction times?
ES: Because of the Internet, you mean?
ES: Because of the Internet and reality television?
ES: And Donald Trump.
ES: Well, at the moment I have a four-month-old baby and a two-and-a-half-year-old baby who I guess isn't a baby any more! So fiction is something that I long to return to, both the reading of and writing of. So for me, right now, the idea of a novel is like jumping into a perfectly cool swimming pool.
MW: You mean reading one?
ES: Yeah. That sounds so great.
MW: What would you want to read right now, if you hadn't read it before? Well, there's always Moby-Dick, because you haven't read it before.
ES: Moby-Dick, the how-to soapmaker's guide to killing a whale. Well, maybe that isn't even . . .
MW: Well, is it the characters? What is it about fiction? ES: I think it's the possibilities you haven't thought of yet. I just read that Maria Semple has a new book coming out in the fall. That is the book I want to read right now.
MW: Because you loved her last book?
ES: Because I loved her last book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette. I like that book in particular because I really detest epistolary novels.
MW: Here's something I want to ask you about. This phrase "beach read," what does that mean to you? A question they ask Kimberly and Kenderly.
ES: It means that it has sand instead of pages. What does "beach read" mean to me? I am not a snob, But "beach read" to me, I guess a beach read is a book that you're choosing to read for pleasure.
MW: Right. I think they're trying to say that, and I think reading is about pleasure. Don't you?
MW: We share an editor, by the way.
MW: And now she must choose. We share an editor, and one of the things that Sara and I talk about (and I'm sure you do, too) is writing books that you want to write and people want to read, the kind of book you want to read. You can't really go wrong with that unless you're such a freak that no one wants to read those things.
MW: But it is about deep pleasure. To me, being alone in an air-conditioned room with a long book that you want to stay with . . . that's my Platonic idea. People are nodding, so I know a few . . . We're all in agreement about this. I think not everybody feels this way, but people who have come to a Barnes & Noble event perhaps think this way, so I am very grateful about that.
But I am really interested in what makes us read and what a book is. There's a line by Zadie Smith in a great essay that she wrote called "Feel Better," in which she says, "When I write, I'm trying to express my way of being in the world." I feel that way very much about this book.
ES: I met Zadie Smith once, and it was so awkward, because . . .
MW: You were wearing a turban, too?
ES: Well, I wasn't. I wasn't. But it was at a very small bookstore in Greenpoint, in Brooklyn, and I was so intimidated just by the idea of being in the same room with her that I hid sort of like in the furthest corner. But in order to get out of the bookstore, she had to walk right past me, so in the end we were like six inches apart just with a thin bookshelf between us, sort of like with books up to our noses. I was staring at her, obviously, because what else was I going to do? It was like I was at the Zadie Smith exhibit in a museum. And she looked at me, and, like a normal human person, she actually recognized me, which surprised me a lot. She said, "You're Emma Straub, aren't you?" or something like that, something like a normal, sane person. And I said [nervous laughter] I really couldn't speak. Not because I'm like such a crazy fan but just because I really admire . . . anticipated her speaking to me . . . It just really threw me off, and I could not speak.
MW: I might point out that you're there in front of me, really comfortable and unintimidated. You're so relaxed. You can't believe that we're in the same room. I'm just pointing that out.
We share something else interesting, I think, in addition to Sara, our wonderful editor, which is that we are both the children of writers.
MW: What was that like?
ES: I mean, it was nice. Are you surprised that people keep asking you about it? Do you feel there's like some weird, hidden truth, that all the people who ask us children of writers about, that they're trying to get through, where, like, we finally break down and say, "It was horrible! It was horrible!"
MW: To me, there are two things. I think they kind of want to know if there was competition. That's the hidden question.
MW: But I'm not actually asking that. I'm asking it in a kind of good and wholesome way, which is: You grew up in a household where it was OK and normal to be a writer, and I think that's the greatest thing.
ES: Oh yeah. I mean, it made it so easy for me. It made it really, really easy for me to think that it was just a possibility. I think that is the biggest gift that my dad gave me, was that, from a very early age, I had complete confidence. Not that it would be easy to be writer, but that it was possible and not a crazy, cockamamie idea. I mean I had friends in grad school, who even though they were there to get an MFA, were still really not sold on the idea of being a novelist.
MW: I've always heard, and I can't remember . . . I always think it was Jonathan Franzen, but I'm not really certain . . . There was an essay about what makes people readers, and I think we can extrapolate from this about writers. On the one hand, I would add, you have parents like ours, who loved books and supported you as a writer, and then you had parents who treated books as a kind of thing, like, it was bedtime, put that book away, and that would make the book into a kind of hot object, and would make people want . . . I would do that with my children when they were little. I'd say, "Put that book away," and then I'd go outside the door and listen as they turned pages. So the book is either something that the family shares or it's this illicit thing. I think that you had the former.
MW: We're very lucky to have that. But you mentioned the MFA program.
MW: So you're a degree holder. I am impressed by you. What was that like?
ES: It was great. I went to the University of Wisconsin, where Lorrie Moore was teaching, and I figured out very quickly that all I wanted to do was just be as close to her as possible, as much as possible, because she smelled good, she was nice, she would buy you like glasses of wine and cheese, and then also say smart things about you, but also just talk to you about Friday night lights or whatever. She was just fabulous! I loved it. I had been writing novels for a few years at that point, but unlike Meg, who published her first novel when she was thirteen years old . . . How many years old were you?
MW: I guess I was twenty-two.
ES: Yes, twenty-two. Like I said, she was thirteen years old. When I was writing novels when I was twenty-two, they were terrible and nobody wanted to publish them. But still, I'd been practicing.
MW: Well, it was just because they were a little pretentious. Her first book was called Emma: A Life.
ES: It was only 950 pages. But what I loved about my MFA experience was that it was two years, and then I had a fellowship for a third year, so it was three years total where, like, I was expected to do very little else. And it was amazing! I loved that. I know that there are a lot of people who go to MFA programs elsewhere, like at lots of schools here in New York City, where you're paying vast sums, and so you have to have three jobs anyway to pay for it, to be a degree-carrying poet. Which should be illegal, I think. Not to be a degree-carrying poet, but to have to pay like $60,000 a year for that privilege. But my program was free, and all I had to do was write. It's a great luxury.
MW: Yes. And Lorrie Moore described your short story collection, Other People We Married,
as a revelation.
ES: She did?!
MW: She did. I thought it was very nice of her.
Man in Audience: You mentioned earlier that the kids today never pick up the phone, they text. Based on my daughter and other teenagers I know, they don't seem to be reading books very much either, particularly new, longish novels. So as we see a whole generation coming eventually into their period of peak reading, say twenty-five to thirty-five . . . Do you think five-ten years from now, books like you guys have written will still be relevant and interesting to this young generation? And does the world of Twitter and everybody writing in such short, punchy little phrases inform the way you guys approach your writing today?
ES: I know a lot of teenagers, and they all read books. Maybe that's just my crowd. I run with a cool crowd. But I do know a lot of young people who read voraciously. I am not worried. And I love Twitter, and they don't care about Twitter. Are you kidding? They would much rather read a book than go on Twitter.
MW: Actually, because you do these multiple viewpoints, maybe you could have a gimmicky thing. You could have a novel with 140 characters.
ES: But they only get to speak once.
MW: There was actually a study done where they showed footage of amoebas under a microscope to preschoolers, and they asked them what they'd seen, and these children said, "That one is the funny one, that one is the mommy." They were turning one-celled organisms into characters. I think we may be hard-wired for stories.
ES: I think we're good. Don't worry. We're going to be OK.
June 15, 2016