Brooklyn, Child-Stars, and Cover Art
We get the scoop on â€˜Modern Loversâ€™ from the lovely Emma Straub
Book of the Month, Emma Straub
Emma Straub's fourth novel revolves around three old college friends, now in their late 40s. As Judge Morgan Jerkins describes, 'œStraub creates a story that is Brooklyn-specific but manages to elegantly balance that with universal themes, like love, identity, and growing up.' We talked to the Brooklyn-based author about the making of 'Modern Lovers.'
The Vacationers followed an American family to Mallorca. Modern Lovers is set in Brooklyn - much closer-to-home for you. Was it easier writing about a familiar setting?
It's funny, setting a book in Mallorca was easy because almost all of the action inside one house, they did go out and do various touristy things and go to the beach and the museums, but almost all of the action took place inside this one house, so in many ways it could have taken place anywhere. With Modern Lovers, I sort of wanted to do the same thing. I wanted the book to exist in a Brooklyn that is real and recognizable, but it wasn't so tied to Brooklyn that it couldn't couldn't happen anywhere else, which is partly why I set the book in this neighborhood called Ditmas Park which is very unlike what most people think of when they think of Brooklyn. It's got big houses and lawns and garages and driveways and things like that. It looks very much like suburban, any town USA. I was actually sort of reluctant to write a Brooklyn book because there are so many of them, and that was how I sort of talked myself into it.
I read in an interview that you said: 'œThe beautiful and terrible thing about New York City is living your life in shared spaces.' I think all of us who live here can relate to that. What's your craziest New York City story?
I grew up here, so I sort of don't have very much to compare it to really. I have certainly wept in public, vomited in public, urinated in public, you know, all of those things that you do out of necessity occasionally. Most recently, vomiting out of the open door of a car on the West Side Highway. But that's a highway, that could have happened anywhere. I was nine months pregnant, and it happens.
That's excused. Are these characters based on anyone you know, having grown up in New York?
Not specifically. Several years ago I started working on a short story that was partly inspired by a band in my then neighborhood of middle-aged people and I was thinking about what that would be like, to be a teenage kid of older people in a rock n roll band. But then once I realized that it was novel, it really had nothing to do with anyone. Happily all of these people are fictional, although I did go to Oberlin, and several of these characters went to Oberlin. And I did go to private school in New York City like the teenage characters, so I have things in common, I suppose, with all of them.
New York City, Oberlin...Do you ever get parallels to Lena Dunham, Girls, literary culture?
Sure. Lena Dunham and I also went to the same high school. I know her a tiny bit. The planet is not that big. I went to both high school and college with tons of people who are writers, and filmmakers, and artists, and I grew up in a certain sort of pocket of New York City, where it's not at all surprising that people have done creative, interesting things. The same is true from Oberlin, I have a lot of friends who are musicians, and poets, and cool people.
We featured a book in May, & Sons, by David Gilbert, which our Guest Judge Josh Radnor picked and which portrayed a very different part of literary New York.
I love that book, that's a great book.
It is a great book. There's so many worlds within that literary New York world.
I'm happy to be included in the young, female literary universe. I think there are so many cool, smart, young women writers nowadays. And Lena Dunham is doing a really fabulous job I think with her Lenny newsletter, of highlighting a lot of those people who aren't the old school New York City writers.
Who would play Lydia in the real-life movie of Mistress of Myself?
I don't know she'd have to be a young, angry-looking girl...hmmm who's good and angry? It's funny I've thought a lot about various parts of the book and have it be translated into film and there's a filmmaker who's working on an adaptation right now. I haven't thought about Lydia. I guess she's in the background for so much of the action that I think of her as sort of a ghost in the book, so I don't know that's a hard question.
I see Zoe as a Lisa Bonet type character.
Oh yeah, yeah. I love her. And then her daughter can play Ruby.
Perfect. I hope that happens.
Do you find that your contemporaries are those who are a little older than you are experiencing any similar life transitions to those that the characters go through in this book?
I do know a lot of people who have kids who are starting to leave the nest. I mean certainly when my older brother left for college. My parents sort of flipped out in a way that I had not anticipated, because they'd always been very chill. But I think it's really, really a weird transition to go from being in charge of a kid's every meal and every move for 18 years and then to suddenly be faced with the idea that they're moving out and that they have their own lives, that they're sort of in charge of themselves. I have two sons now, one is 3 months and one is almost 3 years and I can't imagine, I never want them to leave me, I want them to stay with me forever, you know.
Spoiler alert question: Where did the idea for kombucha bust come from? Were you mocking the cultish obsession with workouts like hot yoga, barre, soulcycle'¦
Well I don't know how much you pay attention to what former child-stars are doing in Venice, California, but there is this actor named Andrew Keegan who was in Ten Things I Hate About You.
I loved him.
Yeah, he either started or was a part of a start of a cult sort-of-thing in Venice that I kept reading about that I just thought was so hilarious. I knew I needed something for Andrew [from Modern Lovers] to sort of fall into. He needed something because he's a guy who's in his 40s and he still hasn't found his thing. And so he's highly susceptible to outside influence. I thought like a yoga cult, what can be better than that? It promises transcendence and you're surrounded by young, hot bods.
Your book cover is beautiful. How important is it to have a really gorgeous book cover?
I would say it is of vital importance. With The Vacationers certainly I think that the book got good reviews and all that, but I don't think it would have sold half as many copies if it had a different book jacket. I think you need book jackets to be things that people are drawn to and that people want to pick up and fondle. It is the most important marker of what a book promises to be. And I think sometimes that's where publishers get into trouble. Because they try to sell a certain aspect of a book too much, or too little. I should say also that my husband designs book jackets, so I spend a lot of time talking about fonts and images, in my home life too. I think Riverhead has done such an amazing job with The Vacationers and with Modern Lovers, it's just like making them look the way I feel like they should look, and just doing the most beautiful job giving them faces, that I think suits them. I should also say that I love the Modern Lovers book jacket so much that Leah drew, that in order to not have to worry about what to wear on my book tour, I have ordered two outfits from this company called Print All Over Me, that are just the illustrations from the book jacket.
That is really cool. I always ask our authors and our Judges, do you have any relationship to Book of the Month and how does it feel that your book was selected as one of our featured five?
My father is a writer, so I always knew about Book of the Month Club, because I think his books were selections a few times. To me, it makes me think about my childhood. And then also, I really like getting presents in the mail, and I think any sort of subscription service is perfect because then you just have to sit there and wait for your present to come. Especially as a new mom with zero free time - I don't leave the house very much at the moment - anything that comes in the mail is perfect.
This interview has been edited.