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Emma Straub: How I Write

"I feel like you could write about a family forever and never run out of conflict or love or hurt feelings."

Emma Straub burst onto the literary scene with her celebrated short story collection, Other People We Married. Since then, she has authored several acclaimed novels, including Modern Lovers, The Vacationers, and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Her most recent novel, All Adults Here, is perceptive, funny, and heartfelt. It’s a masterful story about the life cycle of one multi-generational family – in all its messiness and imperfections. In addition to being an author, Straub and her husband are the owners of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, a beloved independent bookstore.

Writing about relationships

I see my ultimate subject as the characters’ relationships with one another and their relationship to themselves. So I love to write about families. I feel like you could write about a family forever and never run out of conflict or love or hurt feelings. It felt very natural to have this one family going through issues of pregnancy and sexuality and resentment – happening simultaneously.

Character development

I write little character studies and plot outlines, and I pretend I know all that I need to. Then I start writing and things always change. My understanding of characters always deepens, if not changes entirely. It depends on what they do and their reactions and conversations I uncover as I’m writing.

Writing routine

When I was in my twenties, I’d write 25 pages a week. I was a speed machine. Now I try to write 10 pages a week, but that doesn’t always happen. I have to split my time between writing and the bookstore, and it’s harder to get pages written now when I’m home alone. I can’t work there because there’s laundry and all that. So now I work at a coworking space. 

Revision process

I’m a firm believer in finishing it before revising. I like what Anne Lamott says about shitty first drafts. Get it down on paper, and then you fix it with the second draft. A lot of new writers spend a lot of time worrying about perfection and making something beautiful. But I don’t think it matters how beautiful something is if it’s not done. If you’re obsessed with perfection, you’re never going to finish. The best way for me to accomplish what I want is to finish. All Adults Here is my fifth book, and this one took the longest to write. I did more drafts and revisions with this one than I’ve done with anything. It’s not because I wanted to; it’s because my life got busier between the publication of my last book and this one.

Infusing humor

It comes naturally to me. Humor has always been my default crutch. If I feel uncomfortable or awkward, I’m extremely likely to make a joke. It’s the way that I see the world. My first novel had moments of humor. But it was with my second novel, The Vacationers, that I realized if I wrote more in my own voice and my own point of view, it would be more successful. Meaning that I would be able to better communicate. It was a lovely thing to realize that the closer I stayed to my natural voice, the better my work would be.

—Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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