Making Magic in New York City: A Conversation with Emma Straub
Emma Straub’s book Modern Lovers first appeared on my radar when riding the F-train, which feels like the perfect introduction to Straub’s often New York-based novels. I glanced up and across the way. A fellow passenger had a paperback copy held between their hands. The rain shone against the car windows as we rumbled over the Manhattan bridge, and I immediately checked if my local bookshop carried the title. A Straub novel will follow you: Characters become friends, setting morphs into home, and tidbits of conversation drift through my head for weeks after finishing the book itself.
Straub’s novels tend to take place in New York City and involve very realistic characters, and This Time Tomorrow, her most recent, stands out by including a science fiction element. Post-pandemic, the magical world Straub creates feels particularly on the nose especially as many of us feel an urgency to make up for three years of stasis. Fans of time traveling and second (or third, or fourth) chances will find this novel enchanting, while fans of Straub’s previous work will find solace within the characters’ heads and hearts as they discover and rediscover what it means to grow up; grapple with time; and, ultimately, learn how to continue to tell a story.
Straub’s other books include The Vacationers and All Adults Here. Straub also owns and runs a Brooklyn bookstore, Books Are Magic, with her husband. I had the pleasure of speaking with Straub about time travel, our perceptions of New York, and best friends.
The Rumpus: Reading a book by you feels like a combination of putting on a favorite sweater and catching up over a long dinner with a best friend. Your books are entirely relatable, even this one which includes time travel. How are you able to capture the everyday tidbits of life and translate them onto the page in a way that is so compelling?
Emma Straub: That is so nice of you! Thank you! I love to be a sweater. What is life if not the tidbits? What else is there? I always find other people’s tidbits compelling, don’t you? That’s how you know you’re getting the real stuff, when you get into the nitty gritty details that make up one’s life.
Rumpus: The main character of This Time Tomorrow, Alice, often feels out of place or like everyone else is one step ahead of her. In 2022, we are all feeling about two years behind and the pressure to backtrack to “normal” is overwhelming. A line from your book that articulates an exact feeling I’ve had: “Sometimes [Alice] felt like everyone she knew had already become whatever they were going to become and she was still just waiting.” Alice struggles with this at forty, and also at sixteen (though in slightly different ways). Did you pull from your own experience of feeling this way? Do you think there’s a point where we finally stop feeling like we are impersonating our lives and actually start living them?
Straub: Alas, I don’t think so. Or maybe? For other people? Certainly not for me. I still have that feeling, that real life is up ahead. My children are big now, six and eight, and I did have the startling realization the other day that they are of an age where they are going to be remembering things, and the things that they are going through right now are going to be foundational, and that made me feel dizzy. So, never? I think never is the answer.
Rumpus: I found so much comfort in Melinda, Alice’s boss. Melinda tells the sixteen-year-old version of Alice that oftentimes things don’t go according to plan. Alice seems to struggle with trying to control how things are going, while also understanding that there is no perfect equation to getting what she wants. Why did you choose time travel as the means through which she explores this? In some ways, we all travel back in time whether attending a high school reunion or pontificating on what it was like prior to the onslaught of technology. Can we ever outrun the inevitable? Why is that idea so appealing?
Straub: You’re right—that’s exactly it, we all do it. We do it when we have lunch with our best friend from childhood, even if we’re kvetching about our children or our husbands or whatever. We do it when we’re with our parents. We do it all the time, and those of us who still live in the places where we grew up really do it all the time. Time travel appealed to me as I was writing because it was what I wanted to do while I was writing—it was the fall of 2020, my father was very sick, I was Zoom-schooling my kids. It was a disaster. I wanted out, and I wanted back. So I went back.
Rumpus: Alice says, “Maybe that was the trick of life: To notice all the tiny moments in the day when everything else fell away. . . You had no worries, only pleasure, only appreciation of what was right in front of you.” Alice’s father is a writer and he refuses to publish again in fear that his second work would always be in the shadow of his first. While this changes eventually, her father’s fear is one shared amongst writers in real life. Why do you think there is so much pressure to compare everything that comes after a success (or, as Elizabeth Gilbert refers to Eat Pray Love a “freakish success”) when one of the joys of being an artist is the process of creating? What small moments have added up for you in your own process?
Straub: Oh yes, it’s hard, of course, to write a follow-up to a big success. I think I was lucky that no one really read my debut novel and that my readership has increased slowly and steadily. I think it would be crippling to write a first book and have it be a huge smash hit. First of all, you wouldn’t understand how grateful you should be, and how unusual that is, but second of all, how on earth could you try to recreate that? I know now, from my vantage point at the bookstore, how truly rare and random that sort of success is—a book like Eat Pray Love, a book that people who haven’t read a book in a decade will buy. Luckily for us, Liz is tough and very, very good at her job. Her novel The Signature of All Things is one of my favorites. It makes moss sexy.
Rumpus: Throughout this novel, there’s a theme of loneliness and combating it by looking to certain consistent touchstones like Alice’s family cat, the ashtrays in her dad’s kitchen, and the continual beauty and excitement of New York City. Alice believes marrying someone will give her the certainty of being seen—what we all want after all is to be seen, though we may disguise that feeling under desire, desperation, or denial. How did you decide to combat Alice’s loneliness? She never has a solid relationship in this book, but toward the end the possibility of one appears. Why was it more important to give Alice this journey solo than a traditional “happy” ending like the Alice of the first half of the book craves?
Straub: Well, Alice does have solid relationships—she’s in a romantic relationship when the book starts, and she has the same best friend she’s had for decades, and she has a close relationship with her father. I don’t think getting married is a panacea for existential crises, certainly. And not to put too depressing a point on it, but whether or not she has a partner isn’t going to save her father, and that’s what she comes to see. There are certain things that we have to accept as inevitable, no matter how painful.
Rumpus: I loved Alice’s father. His presence was quiet, yet reverberated on each page. Your father, Peter Straub, is a writer. Was this character inspired by real life? What do you think is the most important part of Alice and her father’s relationship?
Straub: You know, what’s funny about Leonard is that while the whole book is very much inspired by my relationship with my dad, Leonard and my father aren’t actually very similar. Yes, they’re both writers, and New Yorkers, and smart and funny, all that, but it was important for me to make Leonard and Alice their own people. I didn’t want to write a memoir. The feelings of anticipatory grief and of unconditional love, those are real and true, but I did need to make sure that the book was fiction. My dad is far too wild for one of my books. The people aren’t ready.
Rumpus: I follow you on Instagram, so I know you have a cat. There is a very special seemingly immortal cat in this book. Can you talk about the development of this lovely fellow?
Straub: Oh, Ursula. Leonard and my father are not perfect mirrors, but Ursula is a perfect mirror of my cat, Killer, who died last year. If there was any justice in the world, if years were handed out based on merit, she would have lived forever. I will never know a better creature, and so how could I not grant her immortality when given the chance? Not to get too hoogly-moogly, but if there’s an animal that can transcend time and space, it’s gonna be a black cat.
Rumpus: You use time travel in this book as a way for Alice to learn about herself and to learn, as she puts it, “what actually matters.” What was appealing to you about time travel? How much research did you have to do?
Straub: My personal knowledge of time travel is rather limited, but I did grow up in the eighties and nineties, a fertile time for time travel pop culture—Marty McFly, Bill and Ted, Peggy Sue, Quantum Leap—all that stuff. Once I had decided that time travel was going to be a part of the book, I rewatched a lot of those things, and also read a lot of time travel novels—Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Octavia Butler’s Kindred. That’s the best kind of research, I find: reading great books. I did not study quantum physics.
Rumpus: As a tarot reader, I found the part when Alice leaves her fortieth birthday to get her cards read particularly interesting! Alice asks, “How do I know if I’m living the right life?” This is a question my own clients ask me, though in slightly different words. What do Alice’s relationships with her best friend Sam and with her dad, say about her fixation on getting it “right?” Was there a moment in your own life where you felt something click into place? Are you still searching?
Straub: I’m still searching—I think we all are. I was listening to an episode of Design Matters yesterday, and Adam Grant described this feeling that I often have, which is never being able to celebrate any achievement, because by the time I’ve gotten there, I’m so far away from that feeling of really wanting it. He said it much more clearly, but I think that happens to all of us, that our goals shift as we evolve. So to answer your question, I think I will always feel like I’m in pursuit of something, but I don’t think that negates the choices I’ve already made.
Rumpus: One of my favorite quotes from this book is: “The feelings were the truth.” I’ve been told “feelings aren’t facts,” yet your quote rang true. Whether I’m reading a contemporary novel, poetry by Rumi, or a memoir written by someone fifty years older than me in a completely different state and place in their lives, there are certain words that immediately tuck themselves into my heart. Alice fosters a relationship with trusting her feelings as she grows in this book by beginning to ask different questions both of herself and of those around her. Is there a particular book or writer that elicits a feeling of truth for you? Do you think the questions we ask ourselves as writers can be influenced by the time in which we occupy a space and how often we return to it?
Straub: I certainly think that writers are influenced by our time and circumstances—I see that much more clearly the older I get—no one writes in a vacuum. Different books can feel true to us at different points in our lives. There are so many books that I loved as a teenager or in my twenties that I want to reread, because I know they will be completely different experiences now. The reader completes the experience, always.
Rumpus: As a native New Yorker, one of my favorite parts of your book is sightseeing. I love coming across places I know and meeting places I have yet to explore. As I read, I kept thinking about how a city like New York can be so overwhelming to live in and to capture. What about NYC continues to draw you in? How did you decide what parts to visit in this novel?
Straub: The last (and first) time I wrote a New York City book, I swore I’d never do it again. People are so protective, so ready to bounce. I got a lot of emails from old men who lived in Ditmas Park (where Modern Lovers took place) telling me the details I’d gotten wrong—men love to send those emails. But this time, I didn’t worry about it. I just enjoyed it. This is my part of my city, my childhood, my home turf. If anyone doesn’t like it, they can fuck all the way off. This book means too much to me to worry about what people are going to say. New York will always be my home. And as for choice—we all have the same amount of choice about where we’re from as we have about who our parents are, which is to say, none. This book couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.
Rumpus: Anne Carson writes, “girls are cruelest to themselves.” What about the bond between Sam and Alice was based on your own experience with close friends in your life? Why do you think that no matter the age or year they were able to maintain their tight connection to one another?
Straub: Sam is partially inspired by one of my closest friends from childhood. She and I haven’t been in touch in a very long time—probably almost twenty years—but I think of her often, and her apartment, and her laugh. Sam isn’t her, to be sure, but part of what felt really deeply restorative about writing this book was spending time thinking about the people whom I loved the most during this earlier part of my life and what they were like then. My father and I are still very close, but he’s not the same as he was in 1996, and neither am I. So writing the book felt like a present, really, to be able to spend so much time with us, back when there was more time.
Rumpus: I found a beautiful tribute to a friend of yours in a piece you wrote for Vogue. You end the article by saying, “We were falling from one reality to another, from before to during, and someday we will fall into after.” In a lot of ways those words feel particularly appropriate to encapsulate the theme of This Time Tomorrow. I think Alice’s father understands the last part of that statement—falling into the after. Does it take us a lifetime to “get” that? What about the quarantine allowed you to find comfort in just being?
Straub: I think the scary thing is that I was wrong. I don’t think there’s an after for this, at least not in the way that I imagined there might be when I wrote that in (I think) April of 2020. Life right now—not in my book, in our actual shared world—is all about living in that transitional moment. So much of writing this book was my way of dealing with that reality, of having to accept the moment that you’re in, and the feelings that you’ve got, because there isn’t an alternative. Except in art, right? Writing this book was my gift to myself, an escape hatch, a secret passageway. If I couldn’t have it in reality, I could have it in fiction. And not to spoil the ending of the book, but, even then . . . things do come to an end in their own time. One thing I’ve been working on for the last few years is thinking less about the long term, and more about what’s in front of me. I spent my twenties and thirties running as fast as I fucking could, hustling as hard as I could, writing as much as I could, having kids, doing it all. That’s not how I want to spend the rest of my life. I love to work—I’ve always loved to work—but I would like to attack pleasure and relaxation with the same amount of energy as I attacked my career. Because what’s at the top of the ladder, you know? I’m trying to move into my Ina Garten years. Hydrangeas. Cocktails. Let’s see if I can fall into that sometime this decade. Want to come?
Author photo by Melanie Dunea