Emma Straub is the gift that keeps on giving. She’s the New York Times-bestselling author of Modern Lovers, The Vacationers, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and the short story collection Other People We Married. She and her husband are the owners of the beloved Brooklyn independent bookstore Books Are Magic. She is loved and admired by the literary community far and wide. I’m not totally convinced that Emma Straub isn’t just three rays of sunshine, standing on top of each other under a trench coat.
In her latest novel, All Adults Here, out May 5 from Riverhead, Astrid Strick has had her ducks in a row all her life, no silly business, no stone left unturned. Her three grown children don’t know any mother besides the compulsively scrupulous one they grew up with, until they are introduced to a new side of Astrid, the one lurking beneath the surface, hesitant to make the leap from private to public. Since witnessing Barbara Baker, a 40-year acquaintance, die in a school bus accident, Astrid has tried to reconcile who she is now with who she thought she was as a mother, a wife, and, ultimately, a person moving toward her future. It is the story of love and growth among a triangulation of generations, of distance and collision, and what it means to be an adult still, and forever, in the throes of growing up.
Written in a signature wit that can only be delivered by Emma Straub, All Adults Here is the novel you want on repeat, the characters immune from the fade of memory. It sparkles in its own unique way among Straub’s body of work, and I was fortunate enough to discuss its unmistakable shine with her.
The Millions: There used to be a moment in the Celion Dion Vegas show—just stay with me here—and I don’t know if she does this anymore, but she would dedicate a song to “all of the children and parents in the room.” Which is, just, everybody? But also, I can’t help but feel like this book is for everybody. Was this your intention writing it?
Emma Straub: Greg, not nearly enough people start out their interviews with Celine Dion anecdotes. Thank you for starting this out on that note, I’m having a wonderful time already, no small feat these days.
To answer your question, though, that does indeed include everyone, but I think there are a lot of childless adults in the world who don’t see themselves as children, and who wouldn’t self-identify that way, despite having passed through those years of their lives. All Adults Here is very much for everybody, because, as you and Celine know, we all fall into one or both of those categories, and for me, the book is really about the point in life when you’re in the middle of that Venn diagram, and are both a parent and a child simultaneously.
TM: What was your initial motive for writing this book? What were you looking to explore and, ultimately, unearth?
ES: Oh, to have a motive! What a beautiful idea. The next time I write a book, I’m going to try that. You’re much closer when you say explore and unearth—that’s really what writing is about for me, and what writing feels like—and if we can loosely say that my motive was to write a novel about people, then what I ended up exploring—how people are or aren’t allowed to change, forgiveness, sexuality, adult sibling relationships, for a few—all came about in the exploration. If you’d asked me what my book was about when I started, I would have said the answer was cheese.
TM: You and your protagonist, Astrid Strick, are, obviously, at very different points in your respective lives. What was it like getting in her head?
ES: Delicious. I loved Astrid. She’s tough, she’s cool to the touch, she doesn’t fuck around. Also, unlike me, she’s a successful cook and gardener and full of skills. She was a pleasure. And I think that through her, I was working to better understand women in my mother’s generation—maybe mothers in all generations—but mothers who are further down the road than I am. My kids are four and six years old, and already I feel like I understand life so much more differently than I could before. This is obviously not to say that people without children can’t understand people of different ages and stages—I think I’m just a bit slow, actually, to understand things.
TM: Even though she dies on the first page, Barbara Baker is very much an omnipresent character throughout the book, serving as a reminder to live authentically, especially for Astrid. Was Barbara and her death your first choice as That Moment of something clicking for someone—in this case, Astrid—or were there other moments you considered as well? What made you ultimately choose Barbara’s death as the impetus for what follows?
ES: Oh yes, that scene was so much fun to write. It’s not a spoiler, because it’s the very first sentence. Poor Barbara gets whacked right off the bat. It just felt right, to have someone who feels neutral to set the whole thing in motion, and then, at the end, to see Barbara from the inside. I guess I was thinking about a character like Barbara—an acquaintance, someone who Astrid had formerly socialized with but not for decades—because I’m surrounded by people like that at [Books Are Magic]. Parents of kids I went to school with, former teachers. That sort of thing. And of course people I’ve met just through the store, but now say hello to on the sidewalk three times a day. It’s a funny thing, being a fixture in a small town. Even if that small town is Brooklyn.
TM: You reference Don Hill’s, a former nightlife staple for any club kid in New York City, in the book. I used to spend a lot of time there myself! Do you have any memories from this place, beloved and missed by the nightlife community, and if not, what made you choose to include this particular spot in the book?
ES: I spent a lot of time at Don Hill’s. A lot. Oh, lord. I loved it so. We used to go in high school, on ‘80s night. This was like 1996 to 2001, I’d say, high school and college. There were always movie stars. I followed Joaquin Phoenix around the whole place, when he and Liv Tyler were dating. She would dance and he would sulk. It was incredible. We were cool NYC kids, and would never dream of approaching a celebrity, but one night I was so very, very drunk, and I was standing in that narrow hallway waiting for the bathroom, and Liev Schreiber was suddenly right next to me—this was in the days of The Daytrippers, and Walking and Talking, and Scream, all truly exceptional movies that I loved—and I clapped my hand on his arm and said, like a 96-year-old grandmother, “Li-ev Schriber! I am such a fan!” And then, of course, I ran into him on the street the next two days in a row. I miss being young and stupid in New York City.
TM: Robin, whom we originally meet as August, is trans. You write her and her arc with such care and sensitivity. How did you ensure writing this character with responsibility and respect to the trans experience?
ES: Thank you. As a cis-woman, obviously I can only try to understand the experience, and I would never try too write a book that was exclusively a trans character’s story, because there are fabulous trans writers for that. I’m reading Jordy Rosenberg’s The Confessions of the Fox right now, and one of my fave YA debuts in recent years is Tobly McSmith’s Stay Gold—but I did feel like I could write Robin’s story with love and care. I asked a trans friend to read it. I read a lot of books about gender, a lot of kids books in particular. And I watched a lot of YouTube and Tumblr coming out stories. I hope I did Robin proud. I certainly was proud of her. I don’t think there’s anything more brave than a kid knowing who they are, and telling the world. One of my children identifies as non-binary. We talk a lot about gender in my house.
TM: What did you learn about yourself, as a parent, while writing this book?
ES: Oh god, a lot. I learned a lot about myself as a parent and a child and a person, in part because of the book but also because it took me four years, and so much of my life has changed in that time. Hell, so much of my life has changed in the last month! Could I tell you exactly what I learned? No. But I can tell you that I’m very glad that I found a therapist I love before the pandemic.
TM: You, as you mention, birthed your third child, your bookstore, during the writing of this book. How has becoming the owner of a bookstore influenced your voice as an author?
ES: I don’t know if the store has influenced my voice, per se, but it has certainly influenced my reading habits, and my book intake, which of course only adds to a writer’s voice. I love my bookstore. I don’t want to spend too much time on this question because I will start crying. Let me just say that I really, really can’t wait until we can open our doors again.
TM: You write that Astrid had “always been trying to survive one day so that she could live the next,” which is a helpful and poignant reminder to live in the present, to find joy where you can. How are you finding joy right now, in the midst of this global health crisis, on top of also having to promote a book and take care of your business and employees?
ES: So, a lot of childless people on social media are just cackling to themselves (and to me! directly! which is very rude!) about how much better it is not to have children at this moment. In some ways, sure, you have endless days to yourself, and can learn how to knit or read all of Tolstoy or whatever. But if I were alone, I would be spending a lot of time reading the news, and on Twitter, and watching CNN, and I think I would be a wreck. Because I’m with my kids all day, I’m not doing that. I’m building things out of Legos. I’m playing games. I’m watching My Little Pony. I’m baking cookies. I’m cuddling and reading books with the people I love most in the world. So that’s where I’m finding joy.
Obviously, the twin worries of my business and my book are enormous, but honestly, and I don’t know if I should say this, but I’m a very ambitious person, and always have been, and the silver lining of this horrible, horrific experience is for my ambition to sit down for a little while. I want people to buy my book, of course, and I want my business to survive and succeed, but right now I just want the world to be okay.
TM: Books Are Magic is my second home, as it is for so many in the community. How are you all doing?
ES: Thank you for asking. We are doing okay. It’s weird and uncertain, and we’re taking each day as it comes, but we’ve been flooded by online orders, and so we are buoyed by the support of the community and the neighborhood.
TM: Besides ordering books from the website, what are other things we can do to support the store and its employees?
ES: I’m glad you asked! There are lots of things one can do. Shipping things out (whether things are shipping from the store or from a warehouse, as the case may be, depending on what different bookstores are doing) costs money, and so if you really want to do a store a solid right now, order a gift certificate. But yes, order books, order merch. Buy audiobooks from Libro.fm, buy ebooks from Kobo. Buy subscriptions, or join memberships programs. If there isn’t a store you love, but you want to support bookstores more generally, order books from Bookshop.org, which gives money back to indie bookstores, unlike Amazon, which is just out to crush all of our souls. I think if this slowing down is good for anything, it will be all of us living more intentionally, and thinking before we make choices. Shop like your life depends on it, because it does. What is New York without small businesses? What is your neighborhood without the places you love and rely on for community and sustenance?
TM: Releasing a book right now seems to be scary and uncertain at best. But what is one good thing about releasing a book right now?
ES: As for a good thing about having a book come out right now, I’d be hard pressed to come up with something other than my total lack of anxiety about it, because my anxiety is working so hard in other zones. But if that’s a silver lining, I’ll take it.