in conversation with Alex Shephard

In late December, Emma Straub told me that she is the “most rejected writer I know.” This is hard to believe – and not just because Straub knows quite a few writers: Other People We Married, her debut story collection, is one of the funniest and saddest books I’ve read in some time. It’s also one of the best.

Many of Straub’s characters are newly minted adults struggling with adult responsibilities – marriage, children, pets – but without the stable sense of self that supposedly comes with adulthood. And not much happens in Straub’s stories. In “Fly-Over State” the young wife of a newly minted professor befriends the man-child who lives next door; in “A Map of Modern Palm Springs” two wildly different sisters try to reconnect by eating mushrooms and going to Joshua Tree State Park. What’s remarkable about Straub’s stories is the depth of her characters and the subtlety of her writing: her stories are laugh-out-loud funny, but they also ache with longing and loneliness.

Straub’s first book, Fly-Over State (which contained the aforementioned short story) was the first book published by the innovative Flatmancrooked; Other People We Married, which comes next month and is available here, will be the first book published by a new publisher, Five Chapters. I spoke with Emma about being a guinea pig for publishing houses, her stories, and Jennifer’s Body.

You were “launched” by Flatmancrooked, the publisher of your first book, Fly-over State — fans bought shares in your success. How did that idea originate? And what’s it like to be publicly traded?

I was their guinea pig. People love to make me their guinea pig. …. I guess I didn’t think of myself as being publicly traded, but it was fun to have it feel like a community project. Places like Kickstarter are doing this now and it seems perfectly normal; so I think that [Flatmancrooked] is ahead of the curve. They knew that they needed support in order to print these books and they turned to our base. It was smart, and they’ve continued to do it to great success.

You were Twelve Chapters’ guinea pig, too — Other People We Married is, I think, the first book they’ve published.

[You mean] Five Chapters. Maybe you were thinking “twelve steps,” like I need a program to stop me from saying “yes” when people ask me to be their guinea pig.

I love being a guinea pig because I’m very game, especially when people are excited. The Flatmancrooked people had published a few stories of mine in their anthologies and I had just moved back to New York [from Wisconsin] and they called me at nine o’clock at night and said, “Okay, we have this idea. We want to do this tomorrow! What do you have for us?” And I said, “Okay.” It didn’t seem like I had anything to lose.

There was a lot of griping about the fallen state of the novel this year, but places like Flatmancrooked and Five Chapters are finding ways to make it work.

They are interested in a new kind of publishing model, which not everyone is. I have a lot of friends who work at big, regular, old publishing houses and it’s much harder to change. It’s harder for, say, Random House or Simon and Schuster to do something new because they have so many salaries to pay, and rent to pay on the giant building they’re in. It’s harder for them, whereas smaller presses can worry about doing interesting things and not having to worry so much about the overhead.

They can call you late at night with a crazy idea.

They’re running on fumes and ideas of potential beauty. They’re very romantic over there at Flatmancrooked.

It’s difficult to talk about your work and not discuss Lorrie Moore, who was your mentor when you were getting your MFA and who has clearly influenced your writing. How would you describe your relationship with her and how did her writing influence yours?

I love Lorrie. She’s my favorite short story writer, certainly. She’s funny and short stories are so often so depressing and really bleak and sad and Lorrie does a really great job of keeping them depressing and sad, but she keeps them funny. And she really enjoys word play and making actual jokes, which is also very much her personality. I absolutely went to [The University of] Wisconsin to study with her. …. In terms of her influence on me: I like to think I’m funny, I like to make jokes, too. I guess there’s a sort of quirkiness that my stories that reminds other people of her work.

You both write awkwardness really well. Your stories are interesting because your characters go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Instead of moving to resolve a conflict, your stories typically end with the recognition of a conflict. Your characters are somewhat aloof with one another, but especially with themselves.

Even when I was in college, that’s always what my professors would say: “your voice is so detached.” What does that mean? I don’t know! I don’t think you really get to choose the way your voice is on a page. A lot of these stories are extremely internal and that just felt natural to me. What’s supposed to happen in a short story? Is a comet supposed to hit? No! For me, the short stories I really love — not the only stories I love, but the stories I love best — are really, really quiet. They’re about someone just thinking and trying to figure something out. Like Margaret Atwood’s story, “Death by Landscape” — she’s just thinking about her friend going missing at summer camp fifty years ago, but it’s really just an old woman sitting in her apartment. Perfect. I don’t need explosions.

Not yet. Has Michael Bay optioned your book?

Michael Bay is actually going to film these stories in one continuous take.

With Megan Fox?

She’s playing every role, actually. You are going to be amazed by what Megan can do. I actually am a big Megan Fox fan. I don’t know if you saw Jennifer’s Body, the greatest film ever made, but it’s amazing…. It’s like Heathers…. My husband and I call it “J-bod.” It’s important to find someone in life who shares your affinity for things like J-bod — I should have an advice column for getting married. It could be called “Emma’s Tips.” When I was in high school I had an advice column, “Dear Emma.”

What kind of questions did people ask?

I had to make them up most of the time because my friends were too lazy to write in. Sometimes my friends would submit questions about me, because I was famously in love with all of my teachers. So someone would write pretending to be me writing about my math teacher.

In a number of your stories — especially in the dinner party scenes in “Fly-over State” and “Some People Must Really Fall in Love” — all the trappings of adult life are there, but your characters are unable or unwilling to behave accordingly. There’s a sense of confusion as to what it means to be between, say, 23 and 35.

Yeah. They feel phony and unformed. I have to say, though, dinner party scenes have always been my favorite. I read War and Peace just for the dinner parties. Jane Austen novels? Dinner parties. That’s what I’m most interested in. I don’t know why they appeal to me so much. Not just dinner parties, though — party scenes in general. In Skippy Dies, for instance, there’s a scene at a dance, “The Halloween Hop” and it ends like Caligula, with everyone naked and writhing on the floor. That’s my favorite scene so far.

Aside from college and graduate school, you’ve lived in New York your entire life. And yet, very few of your stories take place in the city — your characters have lived in New York or do live in New York, but the action takes place elsewhere.

I wrote a lot of these stories in Wisconsin, but not all of them. There’s so much fiction that takes place in New York City that I don’t feel a burning need to add to that pile. I’m more interested in people feeling somewhat uncomfortable and feeling out of their element.

Do you think that was partially a result of living in Wisconsin?

I felt out of element, certainly, living in Madison, Wisconsin. So those were the kinds of things I was thinking about. So, yes, that’s probably true. I’m never going to be a Woody Allen-like person, even though I’m extremely devoted to New York City and I don’t think I could ever live anywhere else. I was happy in Madison — which, for the record, is a wonderful place — but I knew I wasn’t going to stay, just because, how could I?… My family’s here [in New York]. It’s home.
And to move into the MFA/NYC conversation, being in New York this last year has been astonishingly good for me as a writer because it is very true that there are these two cultures: the MFA universe and the NYC universe. Before, even though I was in New York my whole life, and my father’s a writer so I always knew a lot of people in publishing, I was not a part of that because I was a child. Even though I was writing after college, I wasn’t part of any kind of scene. When I went to Madison I became part of the MFA scene and went to the AWP conference. There are a lot of writers who are rock stars in that universe and live outside of New York and for them, that’s really the place to see and be seen every year. And I’m not belittling that: I think that AWP is really fun and that the small presses and the university presses get a huge boost from it every year because it’s really hard, if you’re a small press, to get distribution. But if you’re at AWP, or another conference like it, and you have a table where there are thousands of people walking by every day, that’s great for business. I’ve been published by two small presses and I think that that is really important.

But on the other hand, being back in New York City has been really important for me because I really have gotten to be more plugged in to the New York City scene. I go to a lot of events; I have a lot of friends who are other writers or work at other book stores or do various things in publishing. It’s been really exciting, because I know if there’s a book that I really want that’s coming out, I know someone who works at the publisher and I can get a copy. Or if there’s some event that’s happening — like the First Novel Prize, tonight — I know people who are up for it, and if I wanted to spend money I could go to the party. That culture just does not exist other places, for good or bad. I have friends who are writers in LA and Austin and Minneapolis and I think they’re missing something by not being here.

Economically it can be more challenging, though, as New York is really expensive and teaching gigs are more difficult to come by.

Nowadays part of the reality of being a writer is that you’re going to have other jobs. That’s just true — unless you’re J.K. Rowling, you’re going to have to supplement your income. But I have other jobs; I work at the bookstore.

And you make and sell prints with your husband. And work for The Magnetic Fields… Speaking of The Magnetic Fields, your stories share some qualities with his songs — or maybe Jens Lekman — a similarly detached blend of humor and sadness.

I spent a lot of time with Stephen. I would not compare myself to him in a thousand years. (Laughs) But I love him dearly. And he makes me laugh. And Jens. Oh, Jens. In another life I would like to be a [Swedish] pop star. I do sometimes wear braids and fasten them on the top of my head… I gave Stephen a copy of a novel that I was working on that I actually took apart — I cut it up and some of the pieces exist as stories in this book. But Stephen read the book as a novel and he called me up and said, “Alright. I will play the part.” So he cast himself immediately in the film version, even though he said he didn’t have enough screen time. I took that as a compliment.

That novel was The Anniversary Party?

The Franny Gold stories are from a novel that I was calling The Anniversary Party, although it had several other titles, including Other People We Married. It was so boring. It was so boring. The entire book took place at an anniversary party. We were just talking about how I like party scenes, and I decided that I could write an entire novel that was a party scene and it didn’t work out very well. So I was quite happy to cannibalize it because it made me feel like it wasn’t all in vain. And I was really attached to the characters because I spent a couple years working on it. So I’m happy that they’re going to see the light of day.

It took me a moment to realize that the 18-year-old Franny in “Pearls” was the same person as the 30-something Franny in “Other People We Married.”

I really like the idea of following up with characters later on. When I’m working on longer things I often concoct elaborate back stories for people…. We should follow up with Mud [the aforementioned man-child in “Fly-Over State”]. Oh, no. Mud is not going anywhere good, let me tell you. Mud was based on a neighbor that I had who I’m pretty sure broke into our house several times. He was really terrifying, I made him much more sympathetic as a character. People have asked me if there was going to be a romance. No, no, no. He’s a creepy man-child next door.

How did you start writing?

In high school, I wrote poems that were very good. I won prizes; I published a few poems; I thought I was really hot shit. And then I went to college and everyone hated every poem I wrote. The poetry faculty at Oberlin really did not like me. They might have liked me personally, but they did not like me; I didn’t get a good reception. And that might have had something to do with the fact that I had an extremely inflated opinion of my own work. In fact, I’m quite sure that it did. But at the time, I didn’t get that…. I never took any fiction classes because I thought that was too serious — and these are more signs pointing to Emma as a teenage asshole. I was like, “Fiction? That’s a real job. You can’t fuck around with that in college. You can’t just take a class. Are you kidding?” I didn’t think that was how it worked.

So when I graduated, I decided to write a novel. I gave myself an outline and wrote this completely bananas book that was like Wuthering Heights set in my high school: there was incest, there was a fire. It was great. But it was a total mess because I didn’t know how to punctuate dialogue — I didn’t know anything. I could barely type, let alone plot something that was three hundred something pages. But I did — kind of. I got an agent easily because I knew enough people to get recommendations. And because the book sounded good — the pitch was great. It still is. [Ed. Note: It totally is.] Then it got rejected everywhere. Every publisher you have ever heard of turned it down. I had some meetings with editors, but it was a total disaster.

Then I wrote another novel that was like Nancy Drew; a detective story with a college girl protagonist. And that was even worse. Rejected all over town. The third one was kind of my attempt at writing a fantasy novel — the worst of the bunch. I started going in one direction and then went straight down. After all three of these novels got sent out and rejected everywhere I decided [that] maybe I should think about an MFA program. I knew I was serious — there was no question that it was what I wanted to do; it was always what I took most seriously. But I just wasn’t very good at it and I didn’t understand some basic things. I really felt sad that I didn’t take any classes in college when I had all these wonderful professors at my fingertips. I really regretted that.
So I went to Madison and did my MFA and I loved every second of it. …. It’s six people for two years and you’re just together and that’s it. You really get to know each others work intimately, which makes a cocoon around you. Which I guess is what some people complain about MFA programs: they’re too cocooned. I just wrote and revised, which I had never really done before, and I got a lot better.

It’s strange that you wrote such batshit books and ended up publishing a collection of remarkably subtle and disciplined stories.

[Laughs] Thank you. I don’t know what happened. I gave myself permission to slow down [at graduate school]. And those years — and not to sound like a hippie — but those years were a magical gift from a fairy godmother. I can’t say enough wonderful things about the program and the people I was in the program with. It was like it was my birthday every day. I loved it so much.

Between poetry at college and your first three novels, you faced rejection after rejection. How did that affect your drive?

I am the most rejected writer I know. I say that confidently and proudly. It means that I am completely immune. It doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. My drive remains strong — stronger than ever. I’m like the little engine that, you know, won’t give up. (laughs) I have some friends who are really wonderful writers — better writers than I am — who are still scared of being rejected. So they don’t send their work out or they send their work to maybe two or three places: The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, maybe Harpers. And then they get rejected from those places and mope. I don’t do that. I don’t at all.

I hope that the novel I’m working on now is my first novel to get published, but it might not be. And that’s okay. The writers I respect the most are the ones that have novels in the drawer. My friend Ben Percy wrote three novels before one got published. Jonathan Franzen was at BookCourt the other day, and he mentioned a failed book that he had been working on and had to abandon. That happens. It’s really hard.

You use Twitter, your iPhone, and Facebook quite frequently. How does being connected affect your work?

In terms of how it affects my work, it slows me down horribly. If I didn’t do it, I would get a lot more work done. But, I love it. I really am horribly addicted. My husband routinely threatens to throw my iPhone out the window of a moving vehicle because I’m so attached to it. But I think it’s really a phenomenal way to have an ongoing conversation with other smart people who are interested in what you’re interested in. I think there are a million different communities out there. And I happen to be involved in one of them, in this tiny little literary pocket. I think it’s funny, and I really have made friends. …. I see it as an extension of the MFA universe: you can have an ongoing conversation with people who care about you and care about what you’re working on and who want you to get to work and stop [procrastinating]. I could talk ad nauseum about how I think Twitter is wonderful. I gave my agent and her boss a Twitter tutorial recently, and she did not get it… It can be overwhelming, certainly, if you follow seven hundred people and you haven’t checked it in four hours. It’ll seem like an endless stream of nonsense. But it’s my endless stream of nonsense.

What were your favorite books of 2010?

I should have brought my list. I write down everything I read in chronological order. My favorite book by far this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It made me weep; it made me laugh. I did both in public places — frequently! The safari chapter — part, story, whatever you want to call it — I loved it. She’s a virtuoso. I love all of her books, but I think it’s by far the best. She came into BookCourt, the bookstore where I work, to sign some stock and I was too afraid to even speak with her. I came in, I made a joke, and then I ran away. I made her laugh, she smiled at me, and then I ran away before I could say anything that would embarrass me too much.

Another one of my favorites this year was a story collection by Marissa Silver called Alone With You. She’s from California. The stories were a little dark. Unpleasant things happened to the characters, and I like that.

Marcy Dermansky wrote a novel this year called Bad Marie that all of my friends talked about so much, I had to pick it up and read it. It too is about bad things: it’s about this wicked woman who works as a nanny for her childhood friend. She sleeps with the woman’s husband and steals the baby and goes to Paris. It’s amazing.
I decided that this year I’m not interested in anything boring. I don’t want to read anything that’s too much like my own life. I don’t want to read anything that I’ve read before. Anything too naturalistic. For example, I haven’t read the new Jonathan Franzen yet because I feel like it’s about real, very relatable human beings and I’m just not interested right now. I bought it, and I’m sure I’ll love it — it’s not that I don’t think I’ll enjoy it — I’m just not in the mood.

My dad had a book come out this year, A Dark Matter, that was wonderful metaphysical horror. My friend Ben Percy had a book, The Wilding, also metaphysical, maybe less metaphysical horror. My friend Danielle Evans wrote Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, an incredible story collection about what it’s like to be a teenage girl. My friend Julie Klamm wrote a dogoir, a memoir about having dogs, You Had Me at Woof! – the best title of the year. That also made me cry on the subway. And Jessica Francis Kane. I hope she wins [The Flaherty-Duncan First Novel Prize] tonight. I mean, there are other good people — I’m not trying to say she’s the only qualified recipient. But it took her ten years to write The Report. That’s gotta win a prize.

What older books did you read in 2010?

This year I discovered Steven Millhauser. Oh my god. He’s a lunatic! He’s so incredible that I don’t even have words to describe him. It started with his most recent book, Dangerous Laughter. I took that on my honeymoon and read it on the beach in Mexico, which is not really where you’re supposed to read Steven Millhauser.

Where are you supposed to read Steven Millhauser?

God, everywhere else. And there, too. After that I read Edwin Mullhouse and Martin Dressler.

We wanted to do a 14 under 14, but Edwin was the only person we could think of to be on it.

Edwin would be number one. Right now I’m reading Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. I’m on volume two. And I went to see him read last night and he was so Irish! Oh god, I loved him. His hair was kind of greasy and kind of long around the edges in this really ’90s way. He was wearing a t-shirt. He was so funny and so smart. He quoted Kierkagaard and didn’t sound pretentious! Which is really hard. I’m really enjoying it and it has some more boy geniuses.

Have you been to any interesting book events recently?

This weekend I went to this thing called “Book Camp,” which was billed as an un-conference. I’ve been to other conferences as a writer — like AWP, things like that — but I’ve never been to something that was on the other side, where I was one of two or three writers there. It was really publishing professionals, editors, agents, people who are developing apps for the iPad, digital publishers, publicists talking about the year in books and what’s happening next. And it was kind of terrifying because I felt like I was seeing something that I wasn’t supposed to see. Writers are often kept out of a lot of conversations in publishing, whether it’s about sales figures or publicity budgets so their feelings don’t get hurt. I felt like I was eavesdropping. There was a lot of lingo flying around that I didn’t understand.

Like what?

I couldn’t tell you! It was like they were speaking Portuguese.

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