Editor-in-chief Emily X.R. Pan talks to author Emma Straub about her new novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, published by Riverhead Books on September 4th, 2012.
What’s your of elevator pitch synopsis of Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures, for readers who haven’t yet gotten a chance to pick up your book?
Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures is a novel about a young girl from Door County, Wisconsin, who after a family tragedy strikes out for Hollywood, and becomes a movie star in the Hollywood studio system. And then things get messy.
I fell in love with Laura Lamont immediately. Her need to always pay tribute to her sister was so moving. It reminded me a bit of Darin Strauss’s memoir, Half A Life—the idea that he had to live enough for two people to try to make up what happened. How did you first develop the idea for this book and this character?
I found it, like all good ideas, waiting for me in the obituary section of the newspaper. I was reading the obituary of an actress named Jennifer Jones, and it read to me like a novel. It had a beginning, middle, and end, it was extremely dramatic. Really good things happened to her, really bad things happened to her. And I was really taken with her story, so I copied it down in my notebook, and I just kept going back to it. I was sort of working on something else at the time, but I just kept being drawn back to her life story. Then when I decided that I definitely wanted to write it I stayed away from her actual biography, because I didn’t want it to be a biopic sort of thing. So Laura herself is entirely fictional, but that’s where it started.
Everything you describe in this book feels so incredibly real. I can almost smell the Cherry County Playhouse, and I loved your descriptions of everything in Hollywood too . . . the Gardner Brothers Studios and the various stages, Edna’s shop and everything. Can you talk about the research you did in order paint these pictures for your readers?
I took a few trips out to Hollywood—I’m glad you mentioned Edna’s shop. I love Edna so much. One of the really fun things about writing novels—that you don’t get to do as much in shorter pieces of fiction—is you get these secondary characters that are so much fun. She’s one of my favorites. She’s very much based on Edith Head who is like the world’s greatest costume designer.
But anyway, the question was about research: so I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, and there’s this special library in L.A. that’s operated by the American Academy of Motion Pictures (the people who give out the Oscars) and they have everything. Like they have every book that anyone has ever written about Hollywood, about the studios, about the actors, about the directors, about the producers, about interior design, about the costumes. And they have every newspaper, and fan magazine, microfiche . . . so I spent lots and lots of time there.
I think I probably took about three research trips, but one was a month long, so that was the heaviest load in terms of going to the library and going on studio tours and all that. My husband and I did a house-swap with a woman in Los Angeles. I wanted to tour around the studios and to check out Beverly Hills Hotel and all of these places that figure into the novel, but I also just really wanted to spend quality time in California, because it’s a very different place than New York. The light is different and the air is different, and just the feeling of driving everywhere is different. And I just loved it; I could’ve stayed forever. Eating everything from the farmer’s market and swimming in the pool—it’s a beautiful way of life, I must say.
That last part sounds like really difficult research.
Oh that was definitely the hardest part, all the swimming and the guacamole.
What about the Wisconsin parts?
Oh, yes! The bulk of the book takes place in California, but there are a few important chapters that take place in Door County, Wisconsin, which is where Elsa is from. My entire family is from Wisconsin but I had never been to Door County until a couple of years ago. It was my mom’s 65th birthday and we went—she and my husband and I, and we stayed on this road called Peninsula Player’s Road, which is the street where this local theater is. And later on—I mean this was years ago—but it came back to me so vividly that I knew that that’s where Elsa’s family was. I even named the Emersons after the people we were staying with there. And I’m going on my book tour—I’m actually doing an event at the Peninsula Player’s Theatre, which I’m very excited about. I haven’t ever been inside; I don’t know if it’s the way I imagined it at all. Probably not. But we’ll see.
Before this novel, you published a book of short stories, Other People We Married. In another interview you mentioned having written other novels, and that you’d put them away in a drawer—was this a brand new project, or was it a revision?
This was totally new. I have three novels in a drawer that I wrote when I was age 22 to 24 that got sent out by agents to every publisher you’ve ever heard of, and got hundreds of rejections. And those novels are happy in the drawer, I think. The first one was kind of amazing, and I might go back to it someday. But the second one was like my take on a Nancy Drew mystery novel, which it turns out is really really hard to write. And the third one was like a fantasy novel with a parallel universe, which is even harder—I don’t recommend it. So those are happy in the drawer. This felt like a step forward. It’s more ambitious than anything I’d ever written. I’d never done any research or anything before. This felt like going in a new, good direction.
How long did you work on this book?
About a year and a half. Not a really long time. I write quickly.
Did you encounter any challenges shifting from the short story mindset to writing a long form novel?
I mean even though it sounds sort of ridiculous, I really have always thought of myself as a novelist. I guess because my dad is a novelist . . . I don’t know. It was always the form I envisioned for myself, even though my forays into novel writing did not go very well. I was never discouraged by that. I always thought, okay, it’s just not my time yet. I just need to keep working. I just have to get better. But I never took it as a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be writing novels, or that I wasn’t good enough, or that I actually wasn’t a novelist within. When I went to my MFA program in Wisconsin, I spent time writing stories as most people do in MFA programs, and that was really good practice for my brain. I think writing stories sort of broke me of some of my bad habits, like babbling on about nothing for too many pages, talking about things that don’t matter, pacing—I think I learned something about pacing, writing short stories.
One of the things that one of my MFA professors liked to talk about was the backpack. And when I teach workshops now I always talk about the backpack—I think it’s a very useful metaphor. The idea basically is that when you’re writing a story you put on a backpack and it’s totally empty and very light, and then every detail you add goes into the backpack. If you’re not careful you end up climbing a mountain carrying somebody’s mother in law, and a grand piano, and some dream sequences—really heavy things that you probably don’t need—up to the top of the mountain. And that I think helped me a lot, writing this novel too. Because the book covers so much time; it starts in 1929 and ends in 1980 and I jump around—I skip things. It doesn’t cover every day of her life in that period. I only wanted to show the things that were really important. Like I didn’t want to show the year where Laura was basically okay and nothing happened really and it was fine—I wasn’t interested in every moment. I was interested in the pictures. I was interested in the particularly important periods in her life.
So before you were talking about the difficulty with writing those novels . . . in another interview you said that you thought of yourself as the most rejected writer—
Oh, I am SURE it’s true. I am sure it’s true. I challenge anyone—you’re all challenged, Bodega readers, to present me with more rejection letters than I’ve gotten.
So how does that factor into your mindset when you’re working on your novel. Like Updike said that the writer’s main obligation is to get into print . . . do you think of it differently—?
Well, no. I do think it’s important to get into print. And that was always my goal. I mean, you know, I have a lot of friends who are better writers than I am, whose sentences are more beautiful, and whose language is more poetic. But they aren’t as willing to put themselves out there to get rejected. Whereas I am completely immune. You cannot wound me by rejecting me. You could maim me in many other ways, but not that way, which I feel is an enormous gift that I have given myself. And it was getting the first three novels that I wrote rejected over and over and over again—it just doesn’t hurt my feelings anymore. So now when I write, I feel like I have all those pages behind me, and I’m not scared. I’m not scared of anything. I push myself more, and it’s not that I write with the market in mind. It’s not like I would think, “Oh, you know, what XYZ magazine might really need is like a story about a one-legged dog.” I don’t think of things in such a mercenary way, but I do want things to be published. I do think the point for me is to share things with people. That is absolutely part of the equation for me. For some people that doesn’t matter as much for them—and that’s fine. I’m not trying to convert everyone to my way of thinking, I think that there are a lot of writers who write really slowly and are totally happy to publish one story every ten years or one novel every ten years. But I just have more to say than that.
In Zadie Smith’s essay “That Crafty Feeling,” she talks about the balanced diet of what she’s reading while she’s working on a book, how she “[reads] lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when [she’s] too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when [she’s] syntactically uptight.” What authors and books were you reading as you worked on Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures? What was your inspiration and your roughage?
I keep a list of everything that I read—I wish I had that in my pocket so I could break it out and tell you exactly. A lot of the things I was reading were Hollywood-related. There’s this one really wonderful book called Furious Love about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s romance and it really makes everything come to life really vividly, which is helpful when thinking about sort of the old Hollywood—sometimes when you’re used to seeing images in black and white it can sort of feel bloodless, and it’s taking place at a real distance that makes people not seem as human. So that was one book I really loved.
Another book that I read while writing this that really helped in terms of bringing Hollywood to life was a book called Chocolates For Breakfast by a woman named Pamela Moore, it’s from the mid-sixties, and it’s been out of print for decades, I think. But Harper Perennial is re-issuing it next year, I think. It’s sexy and sad, it’s like The Bell Jar in California and on the Upper East Side. And that sort of helped me think more about youth in the past—which is a hard thing for me to wrap my mind around also. You always just think about things happening in black and white, and I don’t know, teenagers don’t really factor in to that. Like if you think about teenagers in black and white, if you think about Leave It To Beaver or something, where everything is peachy keen when obviously that’s not the case. So that was a really juicy one that I think everyone should read when it comes out again.
I read lots and lots and lots. I read constantly. I like Zadie’s idea though that different things are used for different purposes, and I think that’s true. But I’m not that organized.
Your father is Peter Straub, who is also a very prolific writer. With his constant influence in the house, when did you first start writing?
I wrote as a child, constantly. My parents were always uncovering little novels and things that I wrote when I was small. I never once considered any other profession. I did want to be an actress for a very short period when I was about ten years old, where I bought this book called So You Want To Be A Star! and it gave you all these hints and tips about what to do during your auditions, and it was just terrible. I went to one audition, which was for a Michael Keaton movie, and it was to play Michael Keaton’s daughter. I don’t know if you can pull up the visual of Michael Keaton—but he doesn’t look anything like me. So that did not go over well.
And then I realized that I actually didn’t want to be an actor at all because that means you have to get up in front of people and pretend to be somebody else, which I prefer to do in the comfort of my own home. I mean—one thing I actually sort of learned writing this is that I think writing and acting are actually very similar. And the whole point of both professions is that you really get inside someone else. So I think I understand actors more now.
There were so many moments in the book that made me feel like you had maybe been an actress in a past life. Or like when she goes to the auction and finds the script with Irving’s notes—and those notes felt so real, they felt like workshop notes but for actors. Did you interview any actors or directors or anything?
I didn’t. I know some actors, but I didn’t. I read a lot of biographies of actors. But I didn’t interview anyone; I didn’t want anyone else’s voice in my head. I didn’t want to ask my friends, what are your deep thoughts about acting? That just came out of my brain. That’s why fiction is so much fun. You just imagine it, you just make it up and then it’s true.
So to go back to your father’s influence on you—what he writes is extremely different from what you write.
Yeah, my dad writes very dark psychological horror novels. They’re huge, like five hundred, eight hundred pages. He is very good. I love his books. And I couldn’t write one like them if you gave me a million dollars. I just couldn’t. I tried with those earlier books I mentioned before—I tried to do genre and it just wasn’t me.
What was the first book that made you realize you could maybe try to write realistic literary fiction?
You know, I’ve had so many favorite writers and favorite books over the last, say, twenty years. But when I was thinking about MFA programs I started reading more short stories. I started reading Lorrie Moore, who ended up being my professor and my thesis advisor in WI. And she blew me away. I just couldn’t believe her. I couldn’t believe that it existed. Her voice felt so fresh and so original, like splashing cold water on your face. I just gobbled her up—I read everything back to back, which I very rarely do. Some people are organized and read that way. I almost never do it, but I did it with her. So she might be the person who really made me think like, “Oh, maybe there’s another sort of avenue that I could take.” Because her voice—there was something familiar to me about her voice. Just in terms of her sense of humor, and that she’s really good at making things both sad and funny simultaneously, which is where I always want my work to go—that’s my favorite kind of thing in the world.