An Interview with Emma Straub, Author of ‘Modern Lovers’

Because Beach Readin’ season is in full swing

06.21.16
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As a novelist, Emma Straub enjoys the kind of fame and community that is rarely granted to writers in this day and age: Her Instagram page—most recently, an amalgamation of screenshots of glowing reviews for her new novel, Modern Lovers, and live breast pumping coverage from Amtrak bathrooms on her ongoing book tour—also happens to be where her readers come to wax poetic on her latest work, baby monitors, and Beyoncé. It is, dare I say, one of the calmest and happiest places on the internet.

At this point, Straub’s sophomore novel, The Vacationers—in large part responsible for the aforementioned community—needs no introduction: It was one of the most popular books of Summer 2014, as well as a New York Times Bestseller. But in case you were resistant to its aqua-hued cover’s charms, it follows the picturesque Mallorcan vacation of the Posts, an Upper West Side family dealing with at least one case of infidelity, and slowly coming to terms with each other’s choices in life. The Vacationers captures the overwhelmingness of being stuck with one’s own kin, and the fragility of intimacies so well that it could be a late Woody Allen film set over a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. Alas, it takes place in a vacation house overlooking the glistening Mediterranean Sea, and the only foods that (fittingly) make an appearance are olive oil-drenched pasta, tapas, and seafood.

There are a number of parallels between The Vacationers and Straub’s latest effort, Modern Lovers: They both take place over the summer, feature adolescent hero(in)es looking forward to full-fledged adulthood, survey romantic relationships and friendships in midlife (who said the latter is any less romantic?), and present Woolfian cooking and dining sequences. Set in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, Straub’s third novel presents two families who live a stone’s throw from each other: the once-hip, ultra-appropriate Elizabeth and Andrew Marx, and their exemplary son Harry; and the careless and cool Zoe and Jane Kahn-Bennett, their rebellious daughter, Ruby, and their restaurant, Hyacinth.

For a quick second, it seems that it’ll be all book clubs, rustle of the leaves, and a seemingly eternal summer (the author’s stronghold), but it only takes an impertinent Hollywood producer who wants to work on a movie that is partly about Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe’s college band, Kitty’s Moustache, and a few teenage kicks for all the seemingly solid relationships to go up in flames. (In all fairness, let she who hasn’t once wanted to sleep with a childhood friend cast the first stone.)

Busra Erkara: You said you were pregnant when you started working on Modern Lovers, which brought about an organic deadline. What did you have in mind when you first started working on the book?

Emma Straub: The idea for the book started with music. There was a middle-aged couple who were also part time musicians, and that was the genesis. Then I realized, it wasn’t actually a novel about music; it was a novel about friendship and marriage, and these people who used to be cool realizing that they weren’t so cool anymore. And in fact, their children had taken up the mantle, and were having sexier, more interesting lives than they were.

Busra: The way you see it, the book is equal parts about marriage and friendship.

Emma: There is so much external pressure in the universe to choose a partner, a spouse to spend your life with. And of course, it is extremely important to have a primary relationship in your life that brings you satisfaction. But it’s also really important that not be the only one—that’s what I was thinking about as I was writing this. These characters are people who’ve been married for a long time, and whether their marriages are perfect or not, it’s not the only thing that matters. It’s also important to them that they have other solid relationships in their lives that bring them pleasure.

Busra: You’re known for capturing human emotion in all its minutiae. I think another thing you’re really great at is capturing awkward teen sexuality.

Emma: Is there any other kind of teen sexuality other that awkward teen sexuality? (Laughs.) I don’t think so. I love teenagers and I love writing about teenagers. I think it’s because the first time you do so many things is when you are a teenager. It’s this field of perpetual discovery, that you’re running and rumping through, and that makes it so much fun to write about.

Busra: In large part thanks to Hyacinth, the fictional Ditmas Park restaurant, we get to read even more about food in Modern Lovers. What led you to explore that?

Emma: One of the reasons why people who don’t live in Ditmas Park go there is because there are a few really excellent restaurants. So I thought it would add some verisimilitude to have some of these characters in the neighborhood, people who have been there for a long time to be involved in the restaurant business. This may sound less artful, but it’s also nice to have another setting, another place where you can send the characters.

Busra: One of the co-owners of Hyacinth is Zoe, a black, lesbian woman who is also a mother. Did you feel like you needed to do additional research for her character, or did you have a defined idea from day one?

Emma: Both Jane and Zoe’s characters definitely evolved as I was writing. At first they were way in the background. Zoe was always a part of Elizabeth’s backstory, but I wasn’t sure if they were going to be this much a part of the book. But I liked their family so much that I kept “going down the block” to write some more.

Busra: There is also a lot of passing commentary on New York City real estate, and how expensive it has gotten as one of your protagonists is a musician-turned-real estate broker. Do you see New York as one of those cities where only the super rich can live in anymore?

Emma: As a native New Yorker, real estate is always, always interesting to me. I do think that it’s gotten so out of hand lately. So many friends of mine has moved, especially ones that have kids. And it makes me really sad, because I don’t want all the smart, interesting people to leave. But, on the other hand, no matter how expensive it gets, there are always going to be young, vibrant, creative people moving to New York City to try to live their dreams. Whether they have a tiny apartment in the West Village, Bushwick, Queens, or Staten Island—wherever it is—they will be there. That’s never going away.

Busra: I came to your Fake Talk Show last year and Christian Rudder, a founder of OKCupid, was one of the guests, and you talked a little bit about online dating. Even when they have access to computers and apps, your characters carry some sort of an offline purity. Would you ever be interested in writing a relationship story that starts on Tinder?

Emma: (Laughs) I don’t know! Well, part of it is the characters’ ages. That’s the zone they are in. But it’s also just that I have been with my husband since I was 22 years old, and so, I completely missed the online dating revolution. Like I’ve never been on an online date, I never had a profile. I just don’t know how that works, really. It’s something that I’m going to have to figure out eventually—because I don’t want to seem like I’m writing books that take place in the previous century. But it seems like a scary world out there.

Busra: You present the epilogue in newspaper clippings–like Pitchfork reviews and Grub Street write ups. Is it a nod to how nothing goes without a comment anymore?

Emma: That’s an interesting way to think about it. I felt so attached to these characters that I really wanted to give myself, and the reader, a little sneak peek. Just like a tiny little window into the future. Because I thought the book was ready to end when it ended, but I wanted a tiny little slither into the future, and that was a fun way to get it in there.

Busra: Wait, does it mean there will be a sequel?

Emma: I have a lot of books to write. Maybe someday. But not just yet.

Busra Erkara is a writer and editor in New York. Her main interests are fiction, film, art and food, in no particular order. Follow her on Twitter, @busra_erkara and Instagram, @busra_erkara.

Get your copy of ‘Modern Lovers’. Photographed by Leandra Medine.

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  • Interesting! I haven’t read any of her books but this interview makes me want to pick them up!

    Patricia | http://thesundayusual.blogspot.com

  • I’m currently reading The Vacationers. The cover looked so inviting, it made me want to jump right in. Dysfunctional families make for a great beach read.