Emma Straub

Emma Straub’s debut, Other People We Married, is a story collection to be savored. Read it too quickly and you’ll run the risk of missing the small moments that come to shape Straub’s characters and her stories. A subtle shift portends a larger upheaval; a small jab becomes emblematic of a deeper rift; a word said or unsaid derails an entire conversation. Those moments—identifiable in life only in retrospect, when everything is irrevocably different—when things begin to change, are Straub’s strength, and their accumulation is one of the virtues of Other People We Married. (Straub’s sharp characterization and cool, clear sentences can be counted among the many others.)

In “A Map of Modern Palm Springs,” the narrator’s older sister asks her to find some weed for them and she brings back mushrooms; “It seemed like something Abigail would be impressed by, if I brought back something more serious,” she reflects—and indeed, she has brought back, or unearthed, something much more serious, whose consequences begin to be felt only at the end of the story. In “Fly-Over State,” the protagonist, Sophie, a New York native who has recently moved to Wisconsin with her husband, a college professor, has a brief encounter at a party with the son of her new neighbors.  The adolescent—whose name she understands as “Mud”—is surly, and Sophie finds herself “actually enjoying this, the first sign of unfriendliness in a month.” A tenuous bond, born of alienation, forms in this abbreviated conversation, and grows in importance as Sophie’s half-hearted attempts to assimilate fail. In “Puttanesca,” guilt over an elevator door left open underscores the guilt Laura, a widow, feels at visiting Rome, where she’d spent an idyllic vacation with her husband, with a  new lover. Race through Other People We Married and these moments will resonate only after you’ve finished a story; thankfully, it’s possible to reread, to return to those crucial moments Straub has  so carefully sketched. If only life worked on the same principal.

Straub and I corresponded recently via email; an edited version of our conversation appears below.

INTERVIEWER

In Other People We Married, you write convincingly about experiences I assume you haven’t had: being widowed, being middle-aged and unhappily married. How do you find those voices and make them authentic?

EMMA STRAUB

Why, I made them up! For me, the real pleasure in writing fiction comes from imagining those voices and situations. That’s the whole point, really. I suppose there are people who only write from their own point of view, but I’m not one of them. As for making those voices authentic, I really have no idea, but thank you for the compliment.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever mine your own life for fiction? If not, where do you find the inspiration for all the things you “make up”?

EMMA STRAUB

There is never a situation or a character that is directly taken from my own life, though there are aspects of my life in everything I write. The real answer is that every character has something of me in them. I suppose if you were to go through with some kind of supercomputer and aggregate all of the emotions and characteristics of every person I’ve ever written, you might wind up with a sort of EmmaFrankenstein monster, but that would be very hard to do, as a much larger percentage of the emotions and characteristics are completely made-up. As for finding material, oh, everywhere! The newspaper, my friends, films, books, my husband, travel. Especially travel. Being outside of my normal routine always opens my eyes a bit to lurking storylines and possibilities.

INTERVIEWER

Several stories are written from the male perspective—do you find that more difficult than writing in a female voice?

EMMA STRAUB

It can be hard to write from a male perspective. I think I’ve done it unsuccessfully more often that successfully, but that won’t keep me from trying. One needs to hear from men every now and again, don’t you think? I find it impressive whenever anyone gets any voice totally dead-on, male or female or canine.

INTERVIEWER

You’re not afraid to make your protagonists slightly unsympathetic—I’m thinking especially of Sophie in “Fly-Over State,” who is clearly unhappy, and with good reason, but also a bit unnecessarily snide to her well-meaning neighbors. How do you create a character who is off-putting, but not so much so that he or she loses the reader’s sympathy?

EMMA STRAUB

People are rarely purely sympathetic, and the same goes for some of my favorite characters in literature. Take George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, for example, the heroine of Middlemarch. Dorothea is utterly frustrating, but you have no choice but to love her, because you understand the depth of her person. That is my ultimate goal.

INTERVIEWER

Quite a few of the stories end on a moment of uncertainty or indecision—Claire going back in her house at the end of “Rosemary”; Sophie going to talk to her husband at the end of “Fly-Over State”. How do you know which moment is the right one to end a story on?

EMMA STRAUB

That’s the beauty of the short story—with a novel, you want things squared away, like Emma and Knightley’s wedding, but with a short story, things can be a little unsettled. I love the idea that people can read things differently—that’s a glorious thing. When I write a short story, I just want to capture a certain moment or feeling, and then let the sucker loose.

INTERVIEWER

Most of these stories revolve around relationships that are disintegrating or broken in some way. Is it possible to write about a happy relationship, or is a short story about a great marriage doomed to be incredibly boring?

EMMA STRAUB

Many of the responses to the collection have mentioned this doom and gloom, but I think there are some very warm relationships too, albeit struggling. I guess I do think that it’s more interesting to look at the problematic moments instead of the sunny ones. I promise you that my next collection will have at least two blissfully happy couples—I can’t promise you that nothing bad will happen to them, but it won’t be the relationships’ fault, how’s that? Bargaining!

INTERVIEWER

 

 

You got an MFA at University of Wisconsin-Madison. What was that like?

EMMA STRAUB

I thought the MFA was a magical experience, truly. To have that kind of time and head space devoted to nothing but writing, reading, and thinking did me immeasurable good, and it was such a supportive environment. One caveat: I think it’s a little crazy (if you’re not a millionaire) to pay for an MFA program. There are so many that offer scholarships and fellowships that cover the entire cost of tuition. I don’t know why anyone would pay fifty thousand dollars to become a writer.

INTERVIEWER

You have a website and a twitter account, which means that you’re doing some amount of writing for “free.” Does that bother you at all?

EMMA STRAUB

Well, since my tweets are only 140 characters, I never worry about losing money on them, but I see what you mean. I still do a lot of writing for free, though I’m trying to seriously cut down. As a young writer, it really is how you get your name out there, and as a small press author, I have certainly needed all the help I could get. So one needs a balance. I still get very, very excited when someone sends me a check for my writing, no matter how large or small the sum.

INTERVIEWER

Do you support yourself with those (very exciting!) checks, or do you have a “day job”?

EMMA STRAUB

I do indeed have day jobs, including working at BookCourt and designing things with my husband (www.mplusedesign.com). These other jobs have been essential to my livelihood since graduate school. I feel very lucky to have sold my novel to Riverhead for enough money that I needn’t worry about scrambling for the next few years, though living in New York City is horribly expensive, no matter your budget. It’s going to be a funny shift, actually supporting myself with writing. I hope it lasts forever and ever, amen.

INTERVIEWER

If you’re an unknown writer, are you just shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t put yourself out there on the internet?

EMMA STRAUB

There will always be writers who abstain from social media, and while I don’t think they’re shooting themselves in the foot, I do think that they’re doing themselves a disservice. There is so much to be gained by using social media. I’ve made a vast number of friends on Twitter in the last couple of years, people I would never have met otherwise. On the other hand, I do think that it has to be genuine—when someone is forced to be on Twitter or Facebook by their publisher, you can tell—it’s like pulling teeth. I just happen to get a lot of pleasure out of it, but then again, I’ve always been a very chatty person.

INTERVIEWER

How important is it to you to have a community (on-line or in person) of fans and fellow-writers etc.?

EMMA STRAUB

Having a literary community is hugely important to me. Other people get office lunches and chats at the snack machine and witty banter in the elevator—I have Twitter. It has been my safety net, my cocktail party, my group therapy. I will say that it helps that many of the people I’ve met online are also in New York, and so I get to see them in person, too, but it all started on the internet. Like most marriages in 2025.

INTERVIEWER

How do you structure your writing time? Do you wait until inspiration strikes, or do you have a routine that you try to keep up?

EMMA STRAUB

Discipline is the most underrated, overlooked skill that a writer needs to have. There’s no way around it. If you don’t have discipline, you’re sunk. It is so rare (at least for me, as a fiction writer) to have a piece commissioned. I am almost always writing something for myself. That’s just how you make the donuts. One writer I know writes a single page every single day—and he was nominated for a National Book Award. One writer I know writes two pages a day—and she has two children under three years old. Self-discipline is non-negotiable. It’s ambition’s smarter sibling.

 

 

 

 

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