by Lydia Davis

Idea for a Sign

At the start of a train trip, people search for a good seat, and some of them take a careful look at the people nearby who have already chosen their seats to see if they will make good neighbors.

It might help if we each wore a little sign saying in what ways we will and will not be likely to disturb other passengers, such as:  Will not talk on cell phone;  will not eat smelly food.

Included in mine would be:  that I will not be talking on my cell phone at all, aside from perhaps a short communication to my husband at the beginning of the trip home, summarizing my visit in the city, or, more rarely, a quick warning to a friend on the way down that I will be late;  but that I will be reclining my seat back as far as it will go, for most of the trip, except when I am eating my lunch or snack;  that in fact I may be adjusting it slightly, back and up, from time to time throughout the trip;  that I will sooner or later be eating something, usually a sandwich, sometimes a salad or a container of rice pudding, actually two containers, though small ones;  that I am as tidy as I can be with the salad, but it is awkward and difficult;  that I am tidy with the rice pudding, taking small bites, though when the sealed top of the container is removed it can make a loud ripping noise for just a moment;  that the sandwich, almost always swiss cheese, with in fact very little cheese, mostly lettuce and tomato, will not be noticeably smelly;  that I may be somewhat more restless than some other passengers, and may clean my hands several times during the trip with a small bottle of hand sanitizer, sometimes using hand lotion afterwards, which involves reaching into my purse, taking out a small toiletries bag, unzipping it, and, when finished, zipping it up again and returning it to my purse;  but that I may also sit perfectly quietly for a few minutes or longer staring out the window;  that I may do nothing but read a book through most of the trip, except for one walk down the aisle to the restroom and back to my seat;  but that, on another day, I may put the book down every few minutes, take a small notebook out of my purse, remove the rubberband from around it, put that rubberband around my wrist, and make a note in the notebook;  that I may keep unscrewing the top of my water bottle and taking a drink of water, especially while eating my sandwich and right afterwards;  lastly, that after a day in the city I may untie my shoelaces and slip my shoes off for part of the trip, especially if the shoes are not very comfortable, then resting my bare feet on top of my shoes rather than directly on the floor, or, very rarely, that I may remove my shoes and put on slippers, if I happen to have a pair of slippers with me, keeping them on until I have nearly reached my destination;  but that my feet are quite clean and my toenails have a nice bright, dark red polish on them.

Lydia Davis is the author, most recently, of the Collected Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009) and a new translation of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Viking Penguin, 2010). She is currently assembling a new collection of stories.

Poems from Panorama-O-Rama by Adam Soldofsky

When encountering a belief

Adam Soldofsky was born in Oakland, California and raised in the Silicon Valley. He received his MFA from New York University in 2007. Poems of his have recently been featured in Paperbag and Clementine Magazine.

Poems from Panorama-O-Rama by Adam Soldofsky

I have wanted to be

Adam Soldofsky was born in Oakland, California and raised in the Silicon Valley. He received his MFA from New York University in 2007. Poems of his have recently been featured in Paperbag and Clementine Magazine.

Poems from Panorama-O-Rama by Adam Soldofsky

A silence has historically represented

Adam Soldofsky was born in Oakland, California and raised in the Silicon Valley. He received his MFA from New York University in 2007. Poems of his have recently been featured in Paperbag and Clementine Magazine.

by Max Ross


About a week after moving back home—an unhappy circumstance following my first romantic failure—I was looking for nailclippers in my mother’s dresser when I found two items that opened up to me a bit of her inner life: there was her cartridge of birth control pills; there was her journal. Although not quite exotic, these were evidence of separate phenomena I’d never given much thought to—my mother had sex and my mother was aging, and documenting how she felt about both. 

(Her razors dangling from the shower rack had a similar revelatory effect: It was strange to think Mom shaved her legs and armpits. It was strange to think she showered. Before moving home I’d apparently never considered that she groomed herself, but, if asked, would have guessed she woke up every day blow-dryed and fully garbed. I find solace in my belief that many sons assume their mothers exist this way.)

That morning, a snowy one, with flurries wetly pelting all our house’s windows, I’d come down to the kitchen just as she was leaving for work. It was still dark out—before going to her office, my mother always swam one mile in the JCC’s pool, which meant she started her days driving in the traffic-less pre-light dawn. I sometimes imagined her swimming: a slender, black-haired woman in a black one-piece swimsuit, going back and forth between the pool’s tile walls, and so not really going anywhere. I’ve found that in many respects I’m an American, obsessed with things like progress, and I considered her routines absurd.

My mother was the Seniors Outreach Coordinator at the Minneapolis JCC, and in winter part of her job was to organize volunteer groups to shovel the front walks and driveways of elderly, incapable Jews in St. Louis Park. (On our answering machine, I heard messages from sweet-voiced old women thanking my mom for her help, which she always listened to with a hand pressed to her chest, as if to hold her own gratitude in place; sometimes she called back to thank the women for thanking her.) Today, because one of her volunteers had phoned-in sick, Mom would be shoveling, too. Already she’d zipped up her puffy white winter coat, and we exchanged good mornings as she reached into our refrigerator to retrieve the container of coffee yogurt that would comprise her lunch. I could tell, too, that she was debating what from the refrigerator’s bounty she could offer me for breakfast. Our relationship was a judo of politeness, the ultimate aim of which was to maneuver the other into accepting a favor. Mom was nurturing and sensitive around me because I was touchy about living with her again, about having just broken up with my girlfriend of five years, and because, even though I found waiting tables a noble and enlightening endeavor, I knew I wouldn’t do it forever, didn’t know what I would do next, and was becoming restive (I wasn’t eccentric enough to go after any PhDs, but was thinking a Master’s Degree in psychology might look nice on my wall). In turn, I was careful with her because I thought she was still damaged from her divorce three years prior, which had followed my father’s announcement that he was “essentially a gay person.” She’d since hunkered down into her habits – all the lap-swimming, bed-making, plant-watering stuff that helped her pass hours painlessly, and which I gently berated her for because I thought these routines kept her stuck in the same unhealthy mindset, disallowing her from confronting her sadnesses and resentments head-on, thereby disallowing her from Getting Over them. In fact I was obsessed with helping her Get Over her marriage, and thought that if she tried smoking pot with me, or let herself sleep late a couple mornings a week, her brain would rearrange itself and register only the beauty of falling snow, the glow coming off the cookies she baked, and so on. But she never acquiesced. And even back then I sensed something slightly off about my motivations. I think it was this: Mom’s moping habitually around was proof she still loved my father, which was comforting for me to believe. I wouldn’t have been shocked if a therapist happening by with a pipe and a portable couch told me my attempts to help her Get Over it were actually attempts to remind her how hurt she was, to remind her how much she loved my father despite the impossibility of being with him (the therapist now thoughtfully regarding the tobacco smoke he exhales), as a means to convince myself that, emotionally, nothing had changed between them, and that their marriage was still metaphysically intact. That is, I wanted somehow to preserve their marriage.

Now, gently, as if wary of waking up a dangerous beast inside it, she shut the refrigerator’s door, and put her yogurt into the small, polypropylene cube that would keep it cool until noon. Also she crossed the kitchen to place a chilled orange down in front of me. Then she watched the orange for a moment, her fingers hovering above it, suspicious it might roll away.

“Please remember to walk the woof,” she said.

“The woof will be taken care of,” I said, and began to peel the orange. Immediately one of my fingernails broke off against its rind.

“We had a good walk this morning, so she should be all right until midday or so. Rabbit likes the snow,” Mom said. “No one was out yet and she got to run off the leash. She loves that.” For a moment she looked at the window above the sink, which, against a backdrop of gradually lightening morning darkness, was dotted with snowflakes, and accumulating more of them. “It’s so silly,” she said. “Everything’s just going to need to be shoveled again tomorrow. But the volunteers signed up a month ago, and I can’t switch around their schedules. It’s so hard to plan these things sometimes.”

“If there’s anything I can do, just say the word.”

“Thank you. Everything will work out, though,” she said. “I just hope the roads aren’t too bad and that everyone can get there all right.” She took a step toward the garage, and then reconsidered it. “Do you want anything from the store? I need to pick up some things on my way home.”

“You’re overdoing the Mom thing. I’ll be fine. I can go to the store, too, if you need.”

“There are more English Muffins in the freezer,” she said, then shouldered her swim bag and lunch cooler and went downstairs to the garage. A moment later she came back up—she’d forgotten her car keys, and spent a minute looking for them before realizing she hadn’t forgotten them, they were in one of her jacket’s pockets (“I really am losing it sometimes,” she said), and then she left again.


Earlier in the winter, before I’d officially moved in, I’d stayed over at Mom’s during one of my preliminary, Ibsen-esque fights with Jenna, and hid her swim bag in my room. My intent was to shake up her routine and take her out to breakfast before she went to work. When I came downstairs in the morning, Mom was pacing around the kitchen, frantically opening and closing the cupboards, lifting up newspapers and magazines as if her bag might be beneath them.

“It’s not in its place,” she said.

“Would you have left it at the gym?”

“No,” she said. “I couldn’t have.” She opened the refrigerator, laughed at how unreasonable she was being, and closed it. “I remember having it yesterday, and bringing it into the house. I do.”

“Are you sure? Not to be clever, but you might just be remembering bringing it in two days ago, or earlier in the week.”

“No,” she said. She listed the reasons why she was certain she remembered—NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” had been on, a report about the musicians selected to perform at the upcoming party for Bush’s second inauguration, which she’d listened to in her car and then, once she’d come inside, on the house’s stereo. She went to the front hall’s coat tree, under which she always stored her bag. She checked beneath all the parkas and slickers to see if she’d hung it up. Then she went down to her car to see if it was in the back seat or the trunk. “It’s the strangest thing,” she said when she came back up.

“Mom. Let’s do breakfast. Let me take you to breakfast.”

“I’d just – I’d really like to find my bag. I don’t feel awake until I swim. It wakes me up.”

“You can miss one day,” I said. It made me nervous watching her, but the only guilt I felt was that she didn’t suspect me.

Her instincts rooted in repetition, she went again to the coat tree, and then again to her car.

“Where could it even be?” she said. Her voice marbly.

“It will turn up,” I said. “Let’s go to French Meadow. Maybe your bag’s at French Meadow.”

From the front hall I heard her say, quietly, and to herself, “The inauguration. I remember. I distinctly remember.”

She left shortly after, and bought a Speedo from the JCC’s athletic desk. When she found her swim bag the next day, nestled under a blanket in her trunk (“I don’t know how I missed it,” she said), she threw away the new swimsuit.


Having read some of Freud’s juicier bits, and also Goodbye, Columbus, I’ve begun to wonder whether I really was just rummaging for my mother’s nailclippers. As a result of my father’s egress (he said he hadn’t been hiding his sexuality from us, but truly hadn’t known he was gay; I chose to believe him, but wondered how he could conceal this from himself for four decades), I endeavored in those years, my early twenties, to be conscious of my subconscious. That is, I went around trying to Know Myself and be True To Myself and, close friends have since informed me, I was generally self-righteous, sex-obsessed, and boring, principled in the way only people oblivious to large psychological parts of themselves can be principled, holding forth all the time on fracking and education reform, pounding tables as I made important points and making the silverware bounce and chime. (In fact, this behavior led directly to the end of my relationship with Jenna, who, no matter how well or loudly I argued its value, was uninterested in finishing her bachelor’s degree.)

Mom’s room was silent except for the occasional gust of wind that made the windows shudder in their panes, as if someone were outside, tapping on the glass and wanting in. All her blinds were pulled up to let in the pinkish, just-emerging light; even though in winter she left before the sun was fully up, and returned after it set, she always raised her blinds in the mornings. Another of her habits. Maybe she liked the idea of her room getting sunlight, whether or not she was there for it.

I don’t think I took a deep breath or felt a sense of trespass or anything when I opened her dresser, but now, retrospectively, I mentally pause before sliding out the drawers. It was a waist-high thing made of chocolate-colored wood, its contents organized according to their mass: heavy wool sweaters folded like straitjackets in the bottommost drawer; jeans and fraying t-shirts in the middle; her socks, underwear, swimsuits, and bras floating ethereally around in the top, almost as if the drawer was filled with water. Her undergarments (to my relief) were beige and uninteresting (although some of her bras were decorated with a miniature, useless bow right in their centers). Also the top drawer contained her journal, her nail clippers and emery boards, her birth control dial, old pairs of glasses and swimming goggles, Band-aids, Band-aid wrappers, and a satin jewelry box filled with diamond and pearl earrings and her wedding and engagement rings, all of which she still occasionally wore.

The strange thing, as I weighed her half-empty dial of pills, was not that Mom slept with the guys she dated—the guy she dated: an affable, flannel-wearing landscape architect from Fargo who wrote a newsletter called Soil Life—but that, with a little contemplation, it became apparent she wanted to (otherwise, presumably, she wouldn’t have participated). I rarely attributed desires to my mom. Actually, I couldn’t conceive of her desiring anything at all, except to be back with my father. But sex is such a desire-involving activity. Also, passionate—passion being another thing I didn’t believe she was capable of; I imagine it’s difficult to be passionate about swimming the same enclosed distance day after day, and I doubted she looked passionately forward to Tuesdays, when she watered the sunroom plants. Evidently, though, I’d been wrong about her. I clipped my hangnail and let the enamel drop to her dresser’s surface.

The contrast: in evaluating my father—an inscrutable, balding litigator who wanted me, I was becoming increasingly aware, to write his biography—I could only consider him as desirous and passionate. He had, after all, redefined himself purely in sexual terms. To maintain a superficially ordinary relationship, Dad had insisted after he came out that we begin exercising together, and bought us matching weightlifter’s gloves that left exposed the tips of our fingers. Answering one of my many questions, he explained one morning at the Y that being gay “was more than just about screwing”—something to do with a higher manifestation of masculinity (that nevertheless seemed, in practice, to involve incisive wine knowledge, spandex, and the occasional brightly colored scarf).

He lay down on the bench press and placed his hands symmetrically on the bar. “And certainly there are things I miss,” he said. “Having a family. Your mother’s cooking, frankly. But I’m at ease psychologically, and feel much more myself.”

“What else do you miss?” I asked.

He lifted the bar from its holsters, and brought it down to his chest just once before replacing it.

“It’s the kind of thing where I guess I’m used to being nurtured,” he said, “I’ve never really thought of this before. But guys, just naturally, aren’t wired to be nurturing.”

In earnest now he began his second set. As I spotted him, counting off his repetitions while he lowered and lifted the bar, his arms trembling as he worked—we always tried to lift slightly more than we were able—I understood I needed to do something for him. But what, I didn’t know. I sensed, though, that I was the only person he could say things like this to.

Still, everything he mentioned was secondary to the fact he’d rearranged his life (and Mom’s) so he could sleep with men. I viewed him as a man of deep personal desire, with the courage to fulfill his desires even at the expense of those he loved. I wanted to be more like that—to Take What I Want From The World—but knew I was more my mother’s son: an oyster, waiting for the things that nourished me to pass, or not pass, through my shell. 


Only in the last six or seven years had I begun to learn experientially about birth control, menstruation, sex, and the embryos that so often resulted. This knowledge had come to me primarily through Jenna and a couple other waitresses we worked with. (It will always wow me that their periods were synchronized because they spent so much time together at the restaurant, blaming one another when the cramps began; during that week their breasts—and tips—were all slightly larger.) Jenna, when we’d lived together, set her cell phone to go off at ten each morning to remind her to take her pill.

After our abortion I insisted we supplement her birth control with condoms, which at first was exciting for the variation, but quickly led to problems. Our sensitivities were diminished, mine especially, and we needed a multiplicity of lubricants, pornography, a vibrator that buzzed cheerily, and Viagra to arouse each other for any sustained time. Our bedroom rituals necessitated that we keep adding more. On one Sunday we both had free there was a moment, when the internet disconnected just as I was looking for a realish-seeming film clip we hadn’t yet seen, and Jenna was shaking down the last bit of solution from our bottle of Wet-Ex, and it all became irrevocably absurd to me, all these hoops we had to jump through just to get each other—or maybe now to get just ourselves—off.

“This is ridiculous,” I said. “Isn’t it? It is.”

“What’s ridiculous?”

I gestured to the Wet-Ex bottle in her hands that she still hadn’t managed to extract any lubricant from, and to the paused figures fucking on our laptop.

“All this stuff.”

Jenna admitted the implements were getting chore-ish and distancing, and actually, coming to this realization together was the last truly intimate moment of our relationship, the last time we experienced anything resembling mutual empathy. We didn’t break up then, but something about acknowledging that I was less attracted to Jenna than to an excitement I needed her to help me produce—it pervaded the next few of my weeks. We began to disagree about things and I quit doing small favors for her. The dishes accumulated, our garbage overflowed, I instigated long, silent meals—I am a skilled silence-wielder—in restaurants I wondered what it would be like to work at. I hinted again, and less subtly than before, that Jenna should finish her theater studies, saying I couldn’t be with someone who had no ambition, and I left copies of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard near conspicuous seats in our bathroom and car. In sum, lacking the courage to end the relationship, I made myself unbearable. Jenna one afternoon reconfigured the furniture—always a bad sign—and soon after suggested, timidly but resolutely (as a convincing Nina tells off her Kostya), that I move out. 


I replaced my mother’s birth control beneath what was evidently a very old or favorite pair of Fruit of the Looms and supposed that, so long as she was sleeping with her boyfriend, I hoped it was fulfilling. Certainly there was some mental dissonance—it was, after all, a weird thing to become aware of my mom’s sex life, and simultaneously understand that her devotion to my father was not so consummate as (so says the therapist, gliding offstage on his roller-couch) I’d hoped. But, and I can’t explain why, it was thrilling to be wrong. I felt, I think, the same empathic relief as when Jenna and I realized how impossible our relationship had become; all of a sudden I realized that, in her slow, methodical way, my mother was not merely trying to endure the world, but trying to make herself happyI hoped she’d be successful. And Dad, I thought as the dresser drawer fitted into its enclosure, whatever he was doing, I hoped it was worthwhile, too. (Thinking of his wanting to be nurtured, though, I doubted the likelihood of this.) Seldom but sometimes I have these moments where my chest becomes a mouth, gaping, and all the world’s good seems trying to enter. (Other times, the mouth remains open, and nothing enters, just gusts of wind.) I hoped Jenna was happy, and did my mental best to undo six years of my pretensions about her needing to Get Ahead in Life and go back to school. I remembered, too, to send myself a small prayer for happiness, without really knowing how to orchestrate it. (To be good was a way I’d heard about, but who knew anything about that? Politeness was the extent of my goodness—I’d held twelve thousand doors open for twelve thousand elderly women—but didn’t know how to move beyond.)

Then, remembering there was a journal to peruse, I opened Mom’s underwear drawer again. 

Her journal was a whole other deal, full of death thoughts. It was just a notebook, with eyes of paper caught in the spiral binding from pages she’d ripped out. A blue Bic pen was wedged into the wire. I took it and lay down on her bed, that great big queen-sized square. There were Mom’s customary rationalizing phrases; she’d written “everything happens for reasons” in multiple entries, which bugged me—I couldn’t believe that my father had become gay for any reason that might benefit her, even in a tangentially cosmic manner. But this and other rationalizations were superseded, as I paged through, by her ruminations on abandonment, loneliness, the desire not to die. I realized I had no idea what occurred inside her head. Certainly it was a more complicated place, more shadowy and bat-filled, than I preferred to believe.

Sometimes it makes me very sad to think that my father is gone. It’s as if it didn’t happen very long ago at all, even though I know it did. I miss him.

In restaurants I’m having trouble hearing. It happened again last night with Kevin at Lucia’s. It was so funny! I just could not hear what he was saying. I read something that said restaurants are beginning to play louder music, and are designed to be loud to make a place seem popular. But I don’t think that’s it. My hearing just isn’t working like it used to.  

I have a lot to be lucky for, though. It’s difficult to remember that. I think about a lot of people who are in worse positions than I am, and I try to remember that I am lucky. Some people have lived their whole lives in fear.

I folded shut her journal and laid it on my chest. What could I do for her? What did she need done?

In moments that required action I always remained still, wondering about the most proper response while doing nothing. As the time in the restaurant I’d seen a customer pinch Jenna’s ass and just continued to carry drinks to my table, and then, when Jenna told me about what had happened, I acted surprised and pretended not to have watched her flirt back. As the time when my father loaded the bench press bar with too much weight, and couldn’t lift it from his chest; I stood above him, watching him huff and strain as the bar rolled closer and closer to his neck, but didn’t react. When Dad called out for help, a man working at the bench beside us nudged me out the way and lifted the bar back into its holsters. Afterward, Dad and I pretended the whole thing never happened, he too embarrassed to bring up his physical weakness, I too embarrassed to remember my lack of recourse. Subsequently we began to lift lighter, more manageable loads.

I did not do, but instead imagined a thousand other earths where I was an Olympian, always achieving things, so that I could endure this lonely and moderate one I was inert in.

But what’s to be done about one’s troubled parents? Abraham begat Isaac; questions beget questions. All I was capable of—and I’ve come to believe this isn’t negligible—was to make myself receptive to the fullness of their lives, to accept their favors, and to listen.

Everything will work out, though. I just hope the roads aren’t too bad and that everyone can get there all right.

Max Ross’s stories have appeared in American Short Fiction and Five Chapters.

by Kimberly Grey

The Last Marriage

Two wrecks in a room. The beginning of every sorry-edged thought. Hand over all your possible languages and you won’t get hurt. We go together like Mozart and sulfur. All this musical burning. Red want. What is it? It’s something you don’t do which I cannot name. I miss it so much. It’s set between us like a giant swan. I associate all thoughts with blushing. Thoughts of me. Of you. The big birch in the back wants to be the only one. Evenings are like this. Begging for their own perfect light. Part of my mind is always blowing. The other part is restless and trimmed. It’s still cheap to want each other. If June wants to finish us we will always associate it with nostalgia. Memory where the heart should be. All my wits to you in this final try. It’s true that I will love your body more when I no longer have it. It will translate your stunning into something bearable. Too much beauty can break

your neck.

Kimberly Grey is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her work has appeared or will appear in The Southern Review, Boston Review, TriQuarterly, Colorado Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Best New Poets and elsewhere.

by Kimberly Grey

To Marry

I’d call you starling

before darling, but if it’s love

baby; you more you more.

And if we are sprung,

let’s be. It’s the twelfth Wed-

nesday of the year and we

are as inventive as a choked

blue sky. It’s time to be

unmeasured. The love-

less lady on the corner says

our hands are worth this

hushing. Aerodynamically

speaking, there is no flight.

Husband and wife, we are

scuttling things, wishing

for grounds and nouns; all

and sundry. For someone to X

in and X out the darkness.

Poor little elegy. Right now

we can only see your shimmer

and light is just the damndest.

There is no synonym for marriage

but the hollowed out verb.

However dumbly, we are

merry with it. Always somebody to love

somebody: tweedle-sweet

and tweedle-sweat.

Kimberly Grey is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her work has appeared or will appear in The Southern Review, Boston Review, TriQuarterly, Colorado Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Best New Poets and elsewhere.

by Emma Straub

Emma Straub in conversation with Emily X.R. Pan

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.

Emma Straub is the author of the novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and the story collection Other People We Married. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published by Tin House, The Paris Review Daily, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time, Slate, Cousin Corinne’s Reminder, and many other journals, and she is a staff writer for Rookie. Emma lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she also works as a bookseller.