Life & Culture

‘It feels like sometimes you’re living on Mars’

Author Emma Straub tells Jennifer Lipman about the challenges of writing contemporary fiction in a pandemic and in Trump's America


Emma Straub should have spent the past few months on a book tour, with stops around her native United States and in the UK. As a mother of two, who combines a successful career as a fiction writer with running a Brooklyn bookstore alongside her husband, frankly she was ready for the peace and quiet.

“I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to it; so many hotel rooms alone,” she laughs wryly. Instead, with schools closed, she has been eking out time for Zoom book launches between full-time parenting of her “very energetic and loud” four- and six-year-old, who are “always naked and always attacking each other”. Meanwhile her husband has been overseeing a fledgling e-commerce business to save their bookstore.

In some ways, it’s fitting she is spending so much time considering parenting; the new book, All Adults Here, is all about the complicated dynamics of the modern American family. Characters include Astrid, a widow in a picturesque Hudson Valley town, concealing an unexpected romance from her adult offspring — all of whom have messy personal lives themselves — and her granddaughter Cecilia, on the cusp on teenagehood and wondering where she fits into the world.

It’s familiar territory for Straub, who has made a name for herself with character-driven tales of parents, children and relationships. Her bestsellers include The Vacationers (a fraught family holiday in Europe) and Modern Lovers (hipster ex-college friends deal with impending middle age). Her writing is lightly comic but touches on serious issues too; All Adults Here, for example, includes a trans teenager facing hostility from peers.

“I’ve written lots of characters who have identities different than mine, whether sexuality, gender or race, and I’ve always felt fine about it, because it’s the job of a fiction writer to imagine worlds that have different kinds of people in,” she says, explaining the extensive research she did to develop the character. “But I was nervous writing a trans character — for anyone from a marginalised group but especially trans kids, I don’t want to do a disservice.”

Straub enjoys writing from the perspective of teenagers, perhaps because she —unusually — loved being a teenager. “I hated it in equal measure, of course, but it was such an intense period of self-discovery.”

The daughter of horror writer and Stephen King collaborator Peter Straub, she grew up in Manhattan. With an atheist Jewish mother and an agnostic Christian father, she identified as Jewish but the family never celebrated any religious holidays.

She attended an Episcopalian school, spending formative years in a cathedral. “It had nothing to do with me certainly, or with my family,” she recalls. “There were other students who would come with their parents for services, and that was all just a total mystery to me.”

Exposure to Jewish customs has come more recently, thanks to her younger son attending a synagogue pre-school for the past two years.

“It’s been really nice because the things I learned at my Episcopalian school that I have retained have nothing to do with religion but they have to do with stories and characters,” she says. “That’s what he’s gotten there — he’ll come home from school and say girls are dressed up as Queen Esther. It’s great. He has learned more about Judaism in pre-school than I ever did and it’s really nice to have that in my life.”

Straub’s debut, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, depicted an actress in Golden Age Hollywood, navigating the studio system and the fickle nature of fame. The heroine marries a Jewish studio boss — as Straub says, many were Jewish —much to her midwestern mother’s disapproval, with antisemitism clearly pointed to as the reason. Straub used to see such discrimination as something “that happened hundreds of years ago, millennia ago… ancient history” but the older she gets “the more I understand how short time is and how short generations are”.

Published in 2012, it was her only foray into historical fiction. But writing about modern life poses a challenge today; how to do so when you don’t know how the defining story of your time is going to end (not that, she admits, she is getting much writing done with her children at home anyway).

“My novelist friends and I are talking about what a weird time it is to be a novelist because we have to make choices about what we’re writing next. Are you going to write something set in 2025, what is the world going to look like?” she says. “I am not brave enough to guess. Historical novelists win at the moment.”

All Adults Here is not a political novel and is about America generally, rather than Trump’s America, although Straub suggests that it may be “slightly misandrist, because that’s how I was feeling when I was writing it, that men are the problem”. Unsurprisingly, she is no fan of the current occupant of the White House, but neither is she confident he will be out by November.

“I was so optimistic in 2016, I was sure that [Clinton] was going to win,” she sighs. Biden “is fine”. “He’s not the most thrilling but he’s a sane and an empathetic person. That’ll do.” She’s more concerned about fairness; whether people are prevented from voting by post, say. “It is appalling how many people find it really hard to vote because Republicans have rigged it.”

We discuss the recent TV adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America; at times, Straub says she feels “a bit like we’re living inside that, where the people who are running the country are so terrible and so wilfully ignorant to basic facts, that it feels like sometimes you’re just living on Mars”. When it comes to the pandemic “so many people are working off totally different sets of basic facts”.

Although New York remains partly in lockdown, the bookstore has now reopened, meaning she and her husband can share parenting duties again and at some stage she can return to her next novel.

Book sales are doing well because people “are in need of things to do and places to go without leaving your house” explains Straub. “TV is fine but you can’t do it all day long.”

And, she adds, “to my money books have always been the best and cheapest form of transportation”. That’s true — whether your destination is a family lunch in the Hudson Valley, a holiday villa in Europe, or 1950s California.

All Adults Here, Emma Straub, Penguin, £14.99, out now

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