Modern Lovers, Emma Straub‘s third novel, follows two interwoven families living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park. Years before, three of them had played together in a cult band, the fourth member of which became wildly famous before her death. As with Straub’s previous novel The Vacationers, this book memorably captures a group dynamic, with plots and subplots that encompass everything from young love to mid-life stagnation to creative rebirth. I talked with Straub about the process of writing the novel, the Magnetic Fields song “100,000 Fireflies,” and her future projects.
Your first novel followed one character over the course of several decades. The Vacationers and Modern Lovers both focus on groups of characters with a long shared history that extends beyond what’s on the page. What do you find most appealing about writing about characters with shared pasts?
It would be hard to write a novel that didn’t include any of that stuff, because you have to figure it out anyway. In order to write about characters who are in their late forties, let’s say, you have to understand where they’ve come from. If you know all of that stuff, why wouldn’t you include it? There might be writers out there–I’m sure there are writers out there–who feel like all that backstory is just for them and that they don’t need to include everything. I like to share everything that I’ve learned, I guess.
Were there aspects of the backstory that you’d wanted to include but realized that it didn’t fit in?
I included everything that felt necessary. I probably could’ve talked more about people’s childhoods or things like that, but I didn’t go down those roads, because it would have felt superfluous to the plot. There were some things–one of the characters, Zoe, I decided very late in the process that her parents should have been in a really popular disco band in the 1970s. I think if I had figured that out earlier, there would have been so much disco in the book, and it’s probably better that I didn’t do that. So much of writing, for me, is amusing myself. That backstory stuff is really just me having fun.
In the novel, you have all of these characters who played together years earlier in a somewhat popular indie rock band. Was that the germ from which this novel emerged, or was that an aspect to the backstory that came up later on?
What’s really hilarious is–as you know, and some people know, I have spent a lot of time working for the Magnetic Fields. One of my friends who is in the Magnetic Fields, and is the manager for the Magnetic Fields, told me after I gave her a copy of the book that she was sort of worried that it was all about them, that I’d written this Magnetic Fields roman a clef. Which I obviously did not do, at all, and I laughed hysterically, because the band in the book is not even remotely close to them. At all. My experience with the music industry and with indie bands has absolutely nothing to do with the band in this book.
The other thing that’s fun is that my husband listens to punkier, more angular music than I do. I really like melodies and choruses where you can sing along. I like pretty easygoing, Brian Wilson-y kind of music. But the band in the book is not that at all. It’s a much rougher, more riot grrrl-y sound than I listen to. So that made me laugh, too–the band in the book, not only is it not anybody I know, but it’s also not the kind of music that I like to listen to.
As someone who really enjoyed the essay you wrote about the last time you went out on the road with the Magnetic Fields, I’m happy to see music playing a part in one of your novels. But I was curious–the band in the novel had a song was then made famous by a cover version done of it. And that did make me think of the Magnetic Fields, in terms of how a lot of people know “100,000 Fireflies” through Superchunk’s cover of it.
So when Mike [Straub’s husband -ed.] and I started going out, I was right around the time that I worked for the band. Mike is a super Superchunk fan. The biggest Superchunk fan. And I was a super Magnetic Fields fan. Of course, it meant that we each have our own feelings about the definitive version of “100,000 Fireflies.” One day, we were on tour in 2004 and Stephin [Merritt] sang “100,000 Fireflies” to us in Mac’s voice. Which was pretty amazing, I have to say. For a certain kind of music nerd, that’s as cool as you can get, right there.
Did writing about a noisier kind of band have any effects on your listening habits after you finished writing the novel?
The truth is that I wrote this book while pregnant, and we moved while I was pregnant, and I had horrible bronchitis for the last few months of my pregnancy, and then we had a new baby. So I have truly not done anything. One of the things that happens when you have a book is that suddenly, people want to know what you’re reading. When I was still pregnant, I read the new Curtis Sittenfeld book, Eligible. But honestly, that’s the only book I’ve read this year. It’s horrible. I’m a judge for a debut novel contest this year, and the boxes of books are accumulating in my office, unread. But I can’t say that this book has made me listen to more music. At a certain point, I was watching a lot of YouTube videos of, like, L7 and Bikini Kill and things like that. But that was temporary. I mean, I love Kathleen Hanna as a human in the world. I think she’s amazing, and extremely inspiring. But I listen to the Beach Boys.
I was thinking about bands whose drummers went on to be iconic musicians on their own, and I was wondering if that subplot was a nod to Neko Case’s time in Cub.
I wasn’t thinking about Neko Case, but we can pretend that I was. In terms of the character of Lydia in the book, their bandmate who covers the song later and becomes hugely famous and then dies, is kind of….what if Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain were the same person. That’s what I was picturing: bleach-blonde, big-nosed, maybe a genius, maybe not a genius. There are so many people like that, who for whatever reason hit big at exactly the right moment.
Like Madonna. I was talking to my dad the other day about Prince and Madonna, and how it depends on your age and your point of view, how you encountered these people. For me, for our generation, Prince and Madonna are icons and hugely important and influential figures. But my dad was saying, “What? These people?” And he’s a cool dad! It all depends on your point of view.
A lot of Modern Lovers is set in a particular neighborhood, and one of your characters works in real estate, so there’s this even more in-depth perspective. Did you have to explore that neighborhood even more than you were already familiar with it when you were writing it?
I did a lot of in-depth real estate research when writing this book because we were moving, and we were looking for a new place to live. I went to so many open houses in Ditmas Park, and looked at so many apartments and houses all over the city. I do feel like I did my research. I acknowledged my real estate agents in the book.
It’s funny–in The Vacationers, the thing that I get nailed about most is an error I made with the time change. There’s a phone call from Majorca to America, and I flip-flopped the time difference. So instead of being five hours ahead, it was five hours behind, or vice versa. People email me about that more than anything else. So with Modern Lovers, a woman already wrote me on Twitter to tell me that I made some errors in terms of the neighborhood. So we’ll see. I don’t even know what the mistakes are yet. I think I did a good job, because I do know that neighborhood. I love that neighborhood. But apparently I didn’t get everything right.
I have some friends who are writers who take things like that really to heart. It truly doesn’t bother me. It’s fiction. If I say a street is a two-way street and it turns out it’s a one-way street or something, I’m not going to lose sleep. I have a four-month-old baby. There’s no sleep to lose.
What prompted wanting to delve into the New York restaurant world in one of the subplots in this novel?
I wanted to write about a restaurant for a few reasons. The first reason was because I had written about food a little bit in The Vacationers, because one of my characters is a food writer. I found that I really liked describing food. That gave me a lot of pleasure when I was writing. I liked it, so I wanted to do it again. Also, in Ditmas Park specifically, there are a small handful of restaurants, and that is the thing that brings a lot of people to the neighborhood. There’s the Farm on Adderley, which is one of my favorites. There’s Sycamore, which is a bar and a really phenomenal flower shop. And there are a few other newer places as well. There’s the Purple Yam; there are a bunch of places. I thought that if my characters were real pioneers in the neighborhood, that they’d been there for some decades, that that might have been their way in.
I’m not over there a lot, but whenever I am, I’m always surprised that I’m in Brooklyn. There are freestanding houses and yards and…
The food stuff was one thing that I was excited to play with because it was Ditmas Park. The reason that I set the book there was because… It was going to be a New York book, but I didn’t want it to be a brownstone Brooklyn kind of book. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted the book to be as universal as possible, and for people to be able to read it and say, “Oh! I never really thought about this kind of life in Brooklyn, that this exists.” I do think that people are often surprised when they encounter it for the first time. There are these gorgeous, enormous Victorian houses with garages and yards and driveways and all that. All the trappings of suburban life, but of course, you’re still three blocks from Flatbush with all of the noisy Brooklyn life going on around you. It’s not a bubble at all. It really is a fully-incorporated neighborhood. So I though that there was some juice there for me.
There are six major characters in the novel whose points of view the reader gets. Did you have a favorite out of all of them? I really enjoyed the fact that Ruby’s section began with a profane, angry tirade about…everything.
I love the teenagers. I always love my teenagers best. I’m trying to work on a YA novel now, and if my baby ever starts sleeping more, I will actually do that. Harry and Ruby, the two teenage characters, are probably my favorites, just because there’s so much hope and possibility in a teenager. That’s certainly why I love movies about teenagers, and YA novels, because there’s hope. Unless you’re in a John Green novel, and then you’re hoping not to die. But you know what I mean. There’s this sense of life stretching out before you, and that’s fun for me.
One of the things that I liked about the novel was that you delved into how love at that age can feel incredibly overwhelming, but that the great love of your life is probably not going to happen when you’re eighteen years old.
One of the fun things that I was thinking about when writing about Harry and Ruby’s relationship was that Ruby is a much more experienced kid than Harry is. I don’t want to spoil my whole book, but–by the end of the book, they both understand that it’s not going to last. Harry wants it to. But they both know that they can’t.
I remember when I was in high school, there was one couple who were the most serious couple. The girl had keys to her boyfriend’s house, which I thought was crazy. He even gave her a ring–they weren’t engaged, but they engaged to be engaged. I couldn’t fathom having that kind of a relationship. It was so over my head that they were even playing at that. And now, I see that it was like playing; it was like playing house. They didn’t marry each other. They didn’t even stay together until they both graduated from high school. But in that moment, they wanted to be so serious. They invested in all of these grown-up symbols of what love looks like. And I think that’s what some teenagers do, if they’re lucky enough to have a boyfriend or girlfriend that they really like. I never had that problem. (laughs)
In the novel, you wrote about a number of characters who met at Oberlin–were you drawing on your own experiences there?
Yeah, I guess so. I went to Oberlin a long time after these characters would have been there. When I got there, there was a kid whose claim to fame was that he lived in the apartment where Liz Phair had lived. Things like that. And I was friends with tons and tons of musicians. I was friends with a lot of kids who were in the conservatory there, in the jazz program. But there were all of these other people who were in rock and roll bands. I had a lot of friends who were in bands at Oberlin, and I spent a lot of time in sweaty basements listening to my friends play music. So it made sense to me that these characters might have gone there and had this experience.
I also think that Oberlin works specifically because it’s so isolated. Unlike kids who go to NYU or Harvard or anywhere in a city, students at Oberlin really have no choice but to make their own fun. That worked for my fictional purposes.
You’ve now written two novels that are centered around families or sets of families, and one novel that encompasses the entire life of its main character. Are there structural things you’d like to try out in future projects?
When I wrote Laura Lamont and segued into The Vacationers, in my wildest fantasies, I thought, “I’m going to be like Jennifer Egan, and have every novel totally different from the last one!” I would love that. I would love to have to switch it up the next time. What I’m trying to do now is this YA novel that’s in the first person and in the present tense. I don’t know if it’s going to stay that way. I have about twenty-five pages. It does feel good to give myself a challenge. With Laura Lamont, my challenge was to do a lot of research, and to track this one woman and sustain the story over several decades. With The Vacationers, it was the complete opposite–to cram everything into this very small timeframe. Modern Lovers was more of a relaxed structure. I didn’t feel like I was giving myself a formal constraint. It felt easygoing, which was fun.
But I’m not sure. We’ll see what happens with my YA novel. And then my next adult book that I have planned out is all about cheese. I just have to figure out what works with cheese in terms of a structure. Round, maybe.
As an admirer of the nonfiction that you’ve written over the years, I’m curious–are there more essays in the works?
I do. I’ve written a few more essays lately. It does feel like a natural palate cleanser. I think what has happened in the last few years is that I’ll spend this concentrated, concentrated time writing a novel, and then before I get started on the next one, I spend some time writing smaller pieces that tend to be nonfiction. I have what feels like the start of a collection, maybe. I’m not sure yet. I feel like I don’t quite know what the center of it is. But I have a lot of essays that I want to write, and some day I’m going to have time to do that.
Photo: Jennifer Bastian