“Relationships Are What I Spend Most Of My Time Thinking About”: An Interview with Emma Straub
by Koa Beck
Brooklyn literary darling Emma Straub’s third book and second novel, The Vacationers, couldn’t be more different than her debut historical novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Set in the present day, The Vacationers (available tomorrow, May 29th) spans two weeks of a nuclear New York City family’s vacation in Mallorca, Spain. The Post family, which consists of food enthusiast wife Franny, recently fired husband Jim, and adult children Sylvia and Bobby, set off for sun and relaxation before Sylvia heads off to college. But as with all adorably dysfunctional families, the Posts encounter a lot more than just what’s on their vacation itinerary, particularly about one another.
I emailed with Emma about going from a sprawling 1920s novel to one that prominently features Facebook, the hangup of some writers being labeled “commercial,” and her own social media habits.
Echoing Other People We Married, The Vacationers once again has a character named Franny. What keeps bringing you back to this name?
It’s not just the name — the Franny who appears in three of the stories in Other People We Married also stars in The Vacationers. The stories, in fact, came from a draft of a novel that I was writing, so, in some ways, you could say that those stories came from the first draft of this book. Franny and I have been palling around together since about 2005.
In the early part of the book, you quote George Sand’s Winter in Majorca. Did her text inform the Posts’ vacation in Mallorca?
I suppose you could say it informed the vacation in so much as I read her book when I was doing research for the novel. I chose Mallorca as the setting in part because of its literary history, and I love that the most famous book about Mallorca (which is a very, very lovely place) is totally miserable. George Sand hated Mallorca. She and Chopin basically froze to death in a convent for a few months. I liked Mallorca about 300 percent more than George Sand did.
The parallel themes of family aside, how did you find the transition between a historical novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and a contemporary novel?
I wanted to challenge myself. That’s one of the things that seems fun about writing novels, figuring out new ways to do it. With Laura, I wanted to write an epic, something that covered a lot of time, and having done that, I wanted to try the opposite. The Vacationers takes place over two weeks. It was challenging in different ways. Even though the voice came more naturally to me, it’s hard to pace a book like this, and not to just say, “oh, yep, another day sitting around the pool.” Which is all I do on vacation.
What about family dynamics seem to endure? Both with Laura Lamont and The Vacationers?
Is there anything more universal than love and family? We all have parents and siblings and partners and children. This is what life is made of! Relationships are what I spend most of my time thinking about. Is that true for most people? I don’t know. I’m sure some people think about baseball and Crimea and sustainable farming. But even those things come down to relationships. (Sidenote: is it possible to use the word “farming” without getting hungry? I don’t think so.)
Do you find The Vacationers to be more commercial than your previous work? How do you define the space between literary and commercial? Or don’t you? Do you find labels like that to be arbitrary?
I think The Vacationers has the potential to reach a bigger audience, mostly because it’s contemporary, but I don’t know if that makes it more commercial. I suppose it does. I’m all for whatever label will help me get as many eyeballs as possible. Writers can get very hung up on such things, but I couldn’t care less. It’s my dearest hope that people will read my books and find them to be honest and funny depictions of life. Would it be nice to someday win a prize for Most Beautiful Sentences? Of course. But I will happily settle for the prize of Sells Lots of Copies, if the universe were so generous. We’ll see.
The Vacationers seems ripe for a movie adaptation, probably with Diane Keaton starring as the matriarch Franny Post. Have you received any film interest?
Diane, Meryl, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko — darlings, call me.
You’re very active on social media and a prolific writer (three published books in three years). What do you make of the literary disdain for social media and what the medium allegedly does to writing?
Ha! I had a baby seven months ago, so now my social media time happens at about 4 a.m. or for three minutes while he’s napping, so now I find the entire conversation hilarious.
n+1 recently dedicated an issue to the theme of MFA vs. NYC, underscoring the two cultures of American fiction. As someone who comes from both, what do you make of that tension?
Listen, it’s hard to be a writer. It really does help to know people — editors at magazines, older writers, people who can offer you a hand. I don’t think that’s nepotism, I think that’s generosity. Some people make those connections by being on the ground in New York, and some people make those connections at school. I loved my MFA program, and I loved growing up in New York City. Why choose, or pit them against each other? I think the only tension there is from people who feel like the hustlers in New York are too obviously phony, which is sometimes true, and that the MFA folk are sad, lonely people out in the tundra, which is also sometimes true. I also think they feed each other — I have lots and lots of writer friends in New York who would kill for a tenure track job at an MFA program anywhere in the world. Including myself, sometimes. I will say that I have lots of fantasies about moving far far away from both of those cultures and making my own cheese.
So much of a modern writer’s time seems to be dedicated to not only writing but tweeting, blogging, gramming, etc. Do you find this to be a necessary skill set for contemporary writers to cultivate?
I think it’s a necessary skill for me. Some of my friends choose not to believe it, and so it’s not true for them. I think it depends on the kind of person you are. I’m the kind of person who wants to show you how cute my cats are, and my baby, and my sandwich. It might not make me appear terribly serious, but it does offer a fairly accurate representation of my personality. If I didn’t get pleasure out of those things, I wouldn’t do them.
The New York Times reported recently that some authors are starting to appear at local NYC book clubs as members discuss the author’s book. Have you been invited to any yet? Would you attend?
Oh yeah! I ‘ve been to lots of book clubs. Some large, some small. I’m a snoop at heart, so really I just like seeing inside other people’s apartments.
Koa is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her @Koalani.