Sheltering: Emma Straub’s Book Feels Like a ‘Fantasy Novel’ Now
The Author of All Adults Here Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, bookstore owner and author Emma Straub speaks with Maris Kreizman about her new novel, All Adults Here. Straub talks about the support that’s poured in for her bookstore (Books Are Magic) and how best to support our local institutions right now. She also discusses writing a realistic, true-to-life novel that now feels fantastical (going out to a diner? Being surrounded by neighbors?), generational differences, not having time to read the newspaper in quarantine, and one day writing a YA novel. Please purchase All Adults Here through Books Are Magic if possible! If not, then please purchase through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman. We have a very special episode, I think it’s warranted to say, because we have author and bookstore owner and book ambassador to the world, Emma Straub! [holds up All Adults Here]
Emma Straub: Yay! That’s my book.
Maris: Yay. Welcome! Show us your T-shirt.
Emma: This woman Katie Kimmel made it. I made myself T-shirts last time for Modern Lovers, and I thought they were so amazing, but it was a line from the book, and nobody cared. Even my editor was like, “Where would I wear this?” And I wear mine all the time. But this time I went more straightforward, and it just says the name of the book.
Maris: Can’t go wrong with the name of the book. Although the song lyric was something that I really did feel.
Emma: Thank you, Maris.
Maris: So, Emma, how are you doing?
Emma: I’m super. No, I don’t know. I’m hanging in there, like all of us, I think. As I was just saying before we hit record is that I’m home with my kids all day long, they’re four and six, and I’m so busy with them doing homeschool math and art projects and lunch and all that stuff, that I don’t have time to read the newspaper or listen to NPR or any of those things that everyone else is doing all day long. I feel like I’m in the hatch on Lost, where I have to push the button every whatever number of minutes.
Maris: You get to listen to a nice record, climate control…
Emma: Yeah, it’s okay. I feel okay. But I really miss the world, and I really miss my bookstore. And it sucks. It sucks to publish a book right now, but I just feel—I don’t know if you feel this way, but the people who I really feel for are the debut authors. This is my fifth book, and I love it and I’m really proud of it and I think it’s probably my best book, but it’s my fifth book. I’ve had lots of different publishing experiences, and I’ve sold my next book already, so I know I’ll be able to do it again in whatever the world looks like after. It makes me so sad to think about what all the debut writers are doing, where they’re like, “This was my whole life! Leading up to this moment! And I’m alone in my apartment!”
Maris: How is the bookstore managing? Would you like to say the name of your bookstore, just in case?
Emma: My bookstore is called Books Are Magic. It’s on Smith Street in Cobble Hill. If for some reason you pay attention to Maris and you don’t know where my bookstore is, I feel like the world is broken. It’s going great. You know, it’s weird because it’s closed.
Maris: That is weird.
Emma: And nobody can go in. But we’re shipping things out, and people have been ordering books like crazy all day long and all night long. Kind of especially all night long, actually.
Maris: When you can’t sleep at 3 a.m.
Emma: Right, you’re like, I just need a [mimes buying a book on phone]. My husband has been working his ass off there, and it’s really amazing to see all the notes pour in. Pretty much everyone who orders something fills out the little notes field and says thanks, we love you! Sometimes it’s a friend of mine from elementary school and sometimes it’s my agent and sometimes it’s our neighbor and sometimes it’s someone who lives across the country who we’ve never met, but who came once last year on vacation, that sort of thing. It’s really great. I feel like this is the moment. You and I both know very well that you have to support your local places, otherwise they won’t be there anymore. This feels like the most extreme example possible, but I think that people get that right now, and they really are trying to support us.
Maris: I think people will want to hear this, the sunnier view. Because I feel like there’s a lot of doom and gloom, too. Which of course there is! It is bad. But you’re going to be there.
Emma: We came into this in a good spot because we had a robust online presence already. A lot of the bookstores who never had a website before, they are all in a really different spot than we are, trying to figure it out. I think that Bookshop is probably helping those places a lot. It’s crazy times. What’s amazing to me is when I wrote All Adults Here I was like, this is my world, this is what my world feels like. Even though the book takes place upstate, I was like, this is what it feels like to be an adult who also has children but who’s around your parents all the time, you’re walking around your small town where you see the people you made out with in high school, your teachers are their teachers—that is my life. That is my life all the time. Now, I feel like it’s a fantasy novel. The idea of going to the diner that you’ve gone to since you were a child…
Maris: I mean, the Hudson Valley in general, it’s just like, why don’t I have a place to escape to up there?!
Emma: Well, that’s a whole other conversation.
Maris: Yes, we’ll save that. Or like, why did I never invest in a goat farm?
Emma: Why don’t I have a goat farm?
Maris: Tell me more about All Adults Here. I always feel weird when I ask particularly a female author how much is based on experience, but certainly when I was reading the book I thought oh, I can see that Emma is in this place right now, and that might have some bearing.
Emma: Yes, and it does. I mean what’s funny about writing fiction, especially being a woman as you point is, people always want to say, “Oh, okay, so this one’s you, and that one’s that person,” and that’s not how it is. At least for me, that’s not how it is. But if you were like, “Emma, is this book you?” I would say yes, because I’m all of them. I’m every character in this book, and every character in all my other books, too.
Maris: Of course you are!
Emma: What’s so funny is—I will say this to you, pretending nobody else can hear us—in some of my other interviews for this book, and in some of the reviews that have come, there’s a sense of like, “Wow! Look at all these topics!” Because there’s a trans kid and there is an older woman who is experiencing a new aspect of her sexuality, and there’s an abortion, there’s all this stuff. To me I’m just like, yes. That’s life. I haven’t said this to anyone—again, I’m just pretending that this is me and my friend Maris talking—to me, when people say that, what I hear is them saying is “There’s no one gay or bisexual or trans in my family or my world,” to which I say, that’s so funny that you think that. That’s not true for literally anyone on the planet, even if they think it is. To me, it just feels like a more accurate depiction of what families are like, to include all those things.
Maris: And I think you do a great job in the book showing us that it’s changed over the generations, that something you didn’t talk about became something that you could, and you should. I loved how Cecelia makes fun of her dad for saying that she’s so openminded.
Emma: You know what’s funny, like so many white, cis-gendered women of my generation, I have always thought of myself as a very openminded, forward-thinking sort of person. But having children and then also, even more so actually, spending a lot of time with people in their twenties, has shown me how old I am and has really forced me to acknowledge like, what in my patterns and brain is there just because it was put there when I watched Reality Bites in eighth grade, ninth grade—1994, what was that?—let’s say ninth grade. And My So-Called Life, all of those things. I ate those things as food and as truth. I mean I’m not telling anything that Miss Slaughterhouse 90210 doesn’t know.
My staff is all in their twenties mostly, almost entirely, and it’s been really fascinating and world-expanding to understand how people in a generation younger than us see themselves and see the world. I don’t think that’s something that I even understood as I was writing, because there wasn’t anything I was writing that was coming from my interactions with my staff at the store, but I do think they did something to my brain, something really nice to my brain—not always comfortable, mind you, but something good—and that opened me up a little bit in terms of what I was able to observe and to name.
Maris: I do feel that we are so steeped in pop culture that the joke now is you can’t watch anything before 2000. Very few things actually hold up. Soapdish.
Emma: Oh man, I know! River loves Weird Al now, and Weird Al is great and so smart, and the profile in New York Times Magazine was a thing of total love and beauty. But there’s one weird al song where all of a sudden, he says hermaphrodite, and it’s supposed to be hilarious. And I’m like oh god, no. It is hard to consume things. I read so many old picture books to my kids, and there’s a lot of stuff there too where you’re like, oh my god. Should I not read this? Should I not point out that the costume this child is in is…
Maris: I can only imagine. I know you had Quan Barry as one of your last in-store events. I think about the character in that book who was against the reading of Huckleberry Finn in the 1990s in high school. How are we all to be the arbiters of that?
Emma: I know. It’s a whole crazy…
Maris: Yeah, maybe we’re getting a little off topic.
Emma: But to bring it back, the feeling of being in the middle of it, being in the middle of your children and your parents, not being anywhere close to a teenager anymore but still having real access to those emotions—
Maris: I do feel like, I’m going to cut you off there and say I do think there’s a part of you that always writes a teenager with specific empathy and wit.
Emma: Thank you. I love a teen. I just love a teen. I always have. I don’t know if it’s something that I’m going to age out of. Remember when Tom Wolfe wrote that book?
Maris: Yes. He was showing up at frat parties in his white suit.
Emma: I don’t want to do that. It is getting harder, though, because even though the emotional experience is timeless, the actual experience is really changing right now. I felt like I was pulling it off being like, some people have two Instagram accounts! Did you know that? That’s as tech-savvy teen as I got in this book. But I do think that’s something teenagers know and take for granted, and people older than me don’t. I don’t know how many actual teenagers are going to read my book.
Maris: All of their moms are very thankful to you for explaining what a finsta is.
Emma: Right, their moms, I’m going for the mom crowd. There’s so much that I don’t know about what it’s like to be a teenager now. But I think with fiction, what has always been true is that you put in the parts that you know, and you put in enough of the signposts, and then the reader really does the rest. I think it’s okay to leave holes in that sort of thing. People who are writing YA books have to go much, much deeper in. I have these two precocious eighth graders who are trying to figure themselves out and wanting so badly to be good and cool and happy and loved, just like everybody. Someday I’m going to really go for it and write a whole YA, but not yet.
Maris: We’re going to hold you to that. Any last thoughts, specifically for people who are watching this who are wondering how best to support their local bookstore?
Emma: Yeah! Sure do. The number one thing that you can do, Maris watcher, is to buy what they’re selling. Some bookstores have websites, many many many bookstores have websites that are still open for business, so go to your local bookstore’s website, whether it’s www.BooksAreMagic.net or not, and order something. But do keep in mind the bookstores that are still shipping, the bookstores that are shipping from the Ingram warehouse. If you order from Bookshop.org, which is a great way to support independent bookstores—every book that you order from Bookshop gives some money to independent bookstores, and you can choose to align yourself with a specific bookstore or not, or with Maris; there are lots of choices there, which is great. Even Bookshop, things are slow right now. Shipping is slow right now. There are maybe a quarter of the people or less doing all the jobs that are getting those books to people right now, no matter where it’s coming from.
I would say the best thing to do is to order a gift certificate or something like that. A lot of stores have set up GoFundMe accounts, those are great too. A lot of stores have made merch. I would say the number one thing you can do, in a totally honest bookseller way, is to order something that no one has to package or ship, and after that is ordering lots and lots of books and merch and puzzles and whatever. Also, remember that your bookstores are trying their best to bring themselves to you in this new way, which means most bookstores that host events are still hosting events on Zoom or Crowdcast, and if you go to their website or their Instagram or wherever you would normally find out about their events, you will see the information about the Zoom ones. And go to them! The people whose events you go to are going to be so happy to see your little name pop up. They are going to be so happy.
You can order a book, or you can just like their pictures on Instagram. Pretend that your bookstore is your friend and just check in on your friend the way that you would want your friend to check in on you, because we see it all and we appreciate it, and it helps us keep working as hard as we are to make sure we’re there for you and that we can keep paying our booksellers. We haven’t had to lay anyone off yet. I can’t tell you how much I miss my booksellers. I feel like they would be like, Emma, you weirdo, leave us alone, we’re fine. But I’m a mom with two small children and so I don’t get out a lot except to go to my bookstore. I really miss it. I really miss it. I really miss it.
Maris: I miss it too, and I miss you, and I’m so happy I got to see your face for a little.
Emma: But I will say one thing, to give you the pitch.
Emma: I’m having a Zoom book launch talk show. As Maris knows, as a former guest on one of my talk shows, sometimes I like to have talk shows, which I call pretend talk shows. It’s just me interviewing and chatting with various people. I don’t have everyone totally confirmed yet, so I’m just going to give some hints, okay? Hint number one is that I’m going to have, I think, two musical guests, and if you happen to have an early copy of my book and you open it up to the epigraph page, it’s not ABBA, but there are two other musicians on that page; so I might have two musical guests. One of my big inspirations for writing this book was wanting to write a novel that felt like my version of the Gilmore Girls, that’s another hint.
Emma: And then I wanted to make sure that I could use some of my big, loud voice to help some debuts get a little love. I think I have three really, really, really fabulous debut novelists lined up too. So, May 5, Books Are Magic, Zoom on in, you won’t be sorry. That’s what I’m going to say about that.
Maris: You will not. I know it! Thank you so much, Emma.