Author and Bookstore Owner Emma Straub Returns with 'All Adults Here'

Posted by Cybil on May 1, 2020
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Emma Straub was all set to spend May on tour promoting her new novel, All Adults Here. Instead, due to the global pandemic, the Brooklyn-based author is doing interviews from home while juggling homeschooling her two young children and helping run the bookshop she and her husband opened three years ago, Books Are Magic, remotely.
 
Straub, author of bestsellers The Vacationers (2014) and Modern Lovers (2016), is known for her richly drawn novels that explore, and delight in, the complex dynamics of families, marriage, and friendship.
 
All Adults Here is an insightful confection of secrets, regrets, revelations, and epiphanies centered on the Strick family. When widowed matriarch Astrid Strick sees a woman she’s known and disliked for most of her life mown down by a school bus, it’s the jolt that upends her life. Suddenly she’s reevaluating how her parenting shaped, for good and ill, the lives of her three adult children: Elliot, the eldest, successful and tortured; Porter, the middle child, an artisanal goat cheese farmer who is pregnant by a sperm donor yet finding it hard to shake adolescent habits; and youngest son Nicky, who’s still very much adrift. Astrid also decides to reveal to her children that she’s bisexual and in love with her hairdresser, Birdie.
 
Straub's novel is set in a tight-knit Hudson Valley town where there’s nowhere to hide, and her multigenerational cast tackles everything from parenting, prejudice, and birth order to middle-school stress and coming out as a trans teen.
 
Straub talked to Goodreads contributor Catherine Elsworth about the challenges of growing up, what she and her horror writer father, Peter Straub, have in common, and why she loves writing teenage characters.
 


Goodreads: So, how are you doing? It must be a weird time. Presumably you had lots of launches lined up for your book?

Emma Straub: I'm pretty good, all things considered. But yes, I had a week in the U.K. and then a three-week-long book tour here. And there was supposed to be school for my children, and a regular bookstore for my husband. Lots of things were lined up, but everything is on pause. 

GR: Congratulations on All Adults Here. I read in one interview that you were planning to write this book before Modern Lovers, but then Modern Lovers happened first. Tell me the story. 

ES: Yes, I was. After The Vacationers, I had these two ideas that were both just a sentence on the page, not fully formed at all. One of them was for a Brooklyn book about two families and long-term friendship. The other one was what I thought of as my “cheese book.” I love cheese, and my parents are both from Wisconsin, which is where a lot of cheese comes from. And I had this idea. In my head it started almost like a cozy mystery would, where it was all about the setting and the ambience. I amused myself so much. But then I wrote Modern Lovers first. Afterward, I was like, "Oh, my cheese book! What's going on with my cheese book? I gotta write the cheese book now."
 
Then, of course, as always happens, when I actually started outlining and thinking about the characters and the story, it turned out that it had very little to do with cheese. Spoiler alert, for everyone who hasn't read it yet, there is cheese in the book (Porter’s goat cheese business), but it's not at the forefront. And I would not say that the book is about cheese.

GR: Ha! Yes. When you got to the outlining stage, was Astrid the first character who came into focus?

ES: Yes. I guess I started with Porter, who is the character closest to my own age and current moment in life that I've ever written. But once I really started thinking about it, I knew that I wanted this (big) moment to set everything going, like a marble at the top of a marble run. 

I loved the idea of this perfectly bucolic, sweet, green little town and to have this very put-together, slightly grumpy woman sitting in her car, fixing her hair, and for her to see someone who she knows and is annoyed by get run over by a bus. It just made me laugh, even though obviously it's not funny to watch someone get hit by a bus. But I loved the idea of just, bang, you're off. 

So I guess from that point, from the first page—because I'm one of those writers who writes chronologically from the first page to the last page—I knew it was Astrid's story. Astrid is at the center of it. Generations of her family are very much a part of the book, but the real cool-but-melting heart of it is Astrid's coming out and coming into her own. 


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GR: Did you quickly map out all of her family members? 

ES: I did, but it's funny: I had this conversation with my editor, who's very smart. We were talking about birth order, and I realized I'd had the brothers swapped in my head in terms of their birth order. 

It didn't quite make sense, and I couldn't figure out what was wrong. And then I realized that I’d given the youngest brother all the qualities of an eldest child, and that I'd given the eldest child all the qualities of the baby. I'd been having all these problems, but once I switched them, it all made sense. 

I’m someone who always thought about birth order as being like your astrological sign—you see in it what you see, but it doesn't really mean anything. But then I had children, and I understood for the first time that the birth order—I mean, it has something to do with the children themselves, but it has so much more to do with the way those children are in turn raised by their parents, who are, of course, very different parents as each child comes along. I really had no idea. 

I think that knowledge really informs the book, that it's hard to be a kid, and it's hard to be a parent. It's hard to be an adult kid of a parent and have your own children. We're all still learning things, and we're all still having these light bulb moments that we probably should have had ten years ago or 20 years ago. Or maybe everyone else is just far more evolved than I am, but I find that I am still learning what feel like basic lessons about how to be a person and how my life interacts and intersects with my parents and my children. 

GR: You write from multiple perspectives with apparent ease and seem just at home writing in the voice of a 68-year-old as you do a 13-year-old. Has that always come naturally to you?

ES: I think so. My first novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, covered a woman's life from childhood until she was about 80. It's one of those things where if I spent too much time thinking about it, I would probably scare myself off. But if you just plunge in and know the characters, then it doesn't seem tricky to get inside them.
 
I turn 40 in a couple of weeks, and I like to think of myself as youngish. But in this book it dawned on me that I'm pretty far away from these 13-year-old characters (Cecelia, Astrid’s granddaughter, and her friend August). I feel like I can understand Astrid's world better because I do remember life without cellphones and life in the last century.

But yeah, I love writing from different ages and genders and all that.
 
I think that, for me, writing fiction and reading fiction is the best, cheapest way to live a totally different life and to go somewhere outside of your skin. I always find, actually, that when I write a character like Elliot in this novel, or his wife, Wendy, if there's a character that when I start writing, I think, "I'm not really crazy about this person," writing them is always the one thing that’s guaranteed to make me sympathetic to them. 

I think it’s because when you write a character and you really imagine what it is to be inside their body and looking through their eyes, and all the experiences that they've had to get them to that point, you can't help but be sympathetic and feel for them. It's like being their therapist and their parent all in one.

GR: Do you prefer writing younger or older characters?

ES: I have always loved writing teenagers, and there are always teenagers in my books. I would say I get the most pleasure out of writing young characters, but even that is a pleasure that has changed over time, because my relationship to being that age has changed. So I think that I'll have to stop eventually because I'll no longer be seeing it from the inside. I'll only be seeing it from the outside, you know? 

GR: This is something that’s also true about Modern Lovers: that the teenage characters at times seem wiser, or more courageous and evolved, than many of the adults. 

ES: Yeah. I don't want to spoil the book, but I think that there are ways that children, if children are taught from the beginning that gender is a certain way, then that's what they think for their whole lives. Right now, at least in the world that I live in, which I know is Brooklyn and very much one direction, I feel like change is possible. Because I know how easily kids can take to something and understand if their parents are supporting them. 

I think that if every kid knew from birth that, yeah, you can have two dads, you can have two moms, boys can be married to boys, girls can marry girls, people can have no gender, people can change their gender, then the world would be a much safer place for a whole lot of people.

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GR: I also don't want to include any spoilers, but I’d love to know more about how you wrote the trans character in this book. Did you do much research?

ES: I wasn't sure exactly what was going to happen. I know a lot of trans people, and I know a lot of trans kids, or young adults who transitioned in high school. And I just can't think of a braver thing in a person. I am so amazed by those young, young people that I know. 

In terms of research, I had one trans friend of mine read it, just to make sure that I wasn't saying anything offensive, that I was portraying the experience in a way that felt good and right. I watched a lot of coming-out stories on YouTube and Tumblr. It's amazing how many kids come out to their class, or come out to their parents, and film it. It's really incredible.

I guess with my character, I tried to be conscious of what a kid that age would have seen and would have taken in, the conversations a kid like that would have with their friends, parents, and loved ones. 

GR: And was it important to you that they wouldn't experience any kind of horrible rejection or trauma?

ES: Yeah, it was. Oh God, I mean, there's so much trauma in the world, especially right now. I feel acutely aware of all the traumas that literally everyone in the world is experiencing right now.
 
Even before that, when I was writing this book, I think it might sound sort of hokey, or too optimistic, but I feel like the more stories that can be told where any prejudice or bumps that a character has that have to do with their gender or sexuality, that those bumps are clearly bumps in the other person's mind and not in their own. That was important to me. 

For example, Astrid is almost 70 and comes out to her adult children, and they all react in different ways. It's not totally smooth, but the issues that her kids have with it have nothing to do with the fact that their mother is in a romantic relationship with a woman. It has everything to do with the way she was a parent to them, which was important to me.

GR: There’s lots of humor in your books. Is that something that's always been part of your writing? 

ES: Yeah. I think if I tried to write a truly comic novel like Where'd You Go, Bernadette, which is profoundly hilarious, I would fail. Where I succeed, I think, I hope, is that I can write a novel that has ups and downs like normal life, but I can put these funny lines in throughout to show that these characters are people with senses of humor.
 
So often I read novels where all of the characters seem 100 percent humorless. And I just think, Why would anyone want to spend time with these people?

So I don't do that to my characters. I let them have slightly cruel jokes, and I let them describe what they see as funny. For me, especially right now in the midst of something so dark, I'm so happy, really, to be home with my kids all day because it means that I'm laughing and we're being goofy. They're telling fart jokes. 

They know that something really serious is happening outside, we talk about it, but they're kids, so we play. We make each other laugh all day. That is what makes life seem OK right now, you know? I think hopefully that will be what makes people want to read this book. 

GR: You wrote this book at the same time you were launching a bookshop. That must have been a lot!

ES: Yeah. I pushed back the deadline for this book so that I would have more time to write, but then instead of having more time to write, we opened a bookstore, which meant, of course, that I had way, way, way, way, way less time to write.

GR: Before the pandemic, what would your week look like? 

ES: When we opened, I just was at the store every day for six months. Then in the two and a half years since that, I've tried to split the week up a thousand different ways. Usually it means I'm at the store maybe two weekdays a week and writing three days a week, but that also probably means only until three o'clock, when I have to go pick up my kids. I don't have full workdays ever, really, so I just do as much as I can. 

I feel really lucky to have a beautiful bookstore, and I feel really lucky that I get to write novels and that, even though I have two very demanding, sometimes high-stress jobs, I also have the flexibility to spend a lot of time with my kids. It's one of those things where, yes, I'm very busy, but I'm very busy doing things that I really, really want to be doing. So I feel lucky. 

GR: What are some books that you've read recently and loved or are excited to read?

ES: Lily King's Writers & Lovers is so good. It's a book about a writer, with writer friends and writer boyfriends, which is not usually the kind of book that I love, but it's so perfectly done. It's funny. It's moving. It's delicious. 

I've been reading a lot of rom-coms lately, because that's what my brain wants. One that I really liked was called One to Watch by a woman named Kate Stayman-London. It's about a plus-size fashion blogger who gets chosen to be the next bachelorette. It was really fun.

There's a memoir coming out called The Fixed Stars, by a woman named Molly Wizenberg, that is just an incredible memoir about parenthood and sexuality and writing that I just loved.

GR: Your father is Peter Straub, the famous horror author. When you were growing up, did you read a lot of his books? Was he an influence on you? 

ES: Oh yes. There's a scene in All Adults Here at a summer camp that was very much my summer camp. One of the things that I remember most vividly from my camp is this springy bunk bed and reading one of my father's books there. I was probably ten. My dad writes very, very dark books, but I just couldn't wait. I was so excited to be able to read them.

People sometimes say, "Your dad's books are so scary. Why aren't your books scary?" I think that both of our writing output is just the way that we process the world. So in that way, it doesn't seem that different to me. I mean, he writes very long sentences, and I try to get where I'm going faster. My books are usually about 300, 350 pages, and his are like 600, 700. But I think that the impulse is exactly the same, which is that it gives us total pleasure and it's a way to process things. That's how I feel about it, at least. 

GR: Do you know what you're going to write next?

ES: Yeah, I do. I started writing my next book, and then things got jammed up and suddenly here we are and I'm with my kids 24/7. My husband is single-handedly, with the help of just a couple of booksellers, keeping our store alive. So I'm not writing anything right now.

I will eventually, but because of the way things are, it's impossible. But that's OK. I feel like we are living through something really enormous right now. I think being focused on my kids and my bookstore is OK... 


 

Emma Straub’s All Adults Here will be available in the U.S. on May 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Lori (new)

Lori L Thanks for the I interview. I am a would be author whose dreams and love of books were seen as wasting time. Trying to correct that as a 60 something. This interview gave me a little inspiration! 😊


message 2: by Ravi (new)

Ravi Torne Nice interview. Thanks. I felt the zeal of Emma Straub in writing really lively, interesting and a bit funny books.


message 3: by Tahsin (new)

Tahsin Deniz Very nice interview...


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message 5: by Holder.Sseo (new)

Holder.Sseo I felt the zeal of Emma Straub in writing really lively, interesting and a bit funny books
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