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Novelist Emma Straub asks life's big questions in 'This Time Tomorrow'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Emma Straub, has written a new novel called "This Time Tomorrow." It's on the list of books our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends reading this summer. Maureen described it as a time-travel fantasy imbued with Straub's signature awareness of the infinite ways we humans make life harder for ourselves. Straub's other books include "All Adults Here," "The Vacationers" and "Modern Lovers." She's also co-owner of the Brooklyn independent bookstore Books Are Magic. She spoke with FRESH AIR's guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.

TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: Who hasn't in some way looked at life and wondered, what would it be like to go back in time, to make different choices, maybe relive a chapter that set the path forward to where you are now? Emma Straub explores the possibility in her new novel called "This Time Tomorrow." It's about a woman named Alice who is living a quaint life in New York City, working as an admissions officer at the same private high school she graduated from while tending to her ailing father. The morning after Alice's 40th birthday, she wakes up to find herself back in the year 1996, reliving her 16th birthday, and she gets a chance to answer a question that many of us wish we could. Is there anything in the past that we would change given the chance?

Emma Straub, welcome to FRESH AIR.

EMMA STRAUB: Thank you so much for having me.

MOSLEY: I was hoping that you'd start with a reading - the moment that your main character, Alice, wakes up after a night of drinking on her 40th birthday and finds herself in her childhood home on the morning of her 16th birthday. Can you set up that scene?

STRAUB: Sure. So Alice has been with her father in the hospital. He's very sick, dying. And she's quite used to seeing him that way, as so many of us have - seen our loved ones hooked up to too many machines in a sterile, cold room. And as you say, she has gone out celebrating and found herself the next morning in her childhood bedroom. And she's just come out to see her dad - healthy, vibrant, in his 40s - sitting at the kitchen table.

(Reading) Leonard Stern was sitting at a spot at the kitchen table. There was a cup of coffee next to him and an open can of Coca-Cola. Next to his drinks, Leonard had a plate with some toast and a few hard-boiled eggs. Alice thought she could see an Oreo, too. The clock on the wall behind the table said that it was 7 in the morning. Leonard looked good. He looked healthy - healthier, actually, than Alice could ever remember him looking. He looked like he could run around the block if he wanted to just for fun, like the kind of dad who could play catch and teaches kid how to ice-skate, even though he absolutely wasn't.

Leonard looked like a movie star, like a movie-star version of himself - handsome, young and quick. Even his hair looked bouncy, its waves full and the deep, rich brown they'd been in her childhood. When had his hair started to gray? Alice didn't know. Leonard looked up and made eye contact with her. He turned to look at the clock, turned back to Alice and shook his head. You are up early, though - a new leaf. I like it. What was happening?

MOSLEY: What a scenario to wake up to - and to see a parent young again. Thinking about that moment when Alice travels back in time - her 16-year-old self wakes up. She hears her dad in the kitchen, and she sees her father for the first time when he was younger. Take me to that moment. I mean, I think it is one that if we put ourselves in that position and think about the person that we love, a parent that we love - what were the most important questions she had or new insights that she walked away with seeing her father sitting there in that moment?

STRAUB: You know, I think that all of us - if we close our eyes, we can picture the places we grew up, the house we grew up in. And we can hear those noises - the familiar noises, the ones that are so mundane, so quotidian, you know, that you would never even think to write it down, you know? - the sound of someone brushing their teeth or the sound of the toilet flushing or the sound of someone making coffee in the morning. But Alice - when she walks into that room, all of a sudden, you know, those things are like a symphony. I mean, it's - because she knows how fleeting it is and that in her current life, in the present day, she's never going to hear those things again. And so to be able to hear them again is just a beautiful, meaningful experience.

MOSLEY: Your book comes at a time when the world is really into stories about the multiverse and time travel. Why do you think that is?

STRAUB: Well, I - you know, I don't - I can't speak to, you know, like, the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse. That sort of thing is above my pay grade. But what I do know is that I am one of several writers I know who are mothers of small children who have written time travels during the pandemic. And I think it's because the past few years have been so wildly unsettling for all of us that some of us, who happened to be novelists, started looking for a way out or an explanation or some comfort. I certainly know that thinking about this book and writing this book and experience - the experience of writing it felt to me like true time travel and just a much, much-needed escape.

MOSLEY: You know, this book is not a memoir, but you make that very clear that it is the closest that you've come to an autobiographical work. And Alice, the main character in the book, is close to her father, who is a writer. And in real life, you're close to your father, Peter Straub, who is also a well-known author. And like your main character, Alice, you were by your father's side as well during this pandemic as he battled sickness. What was it about this moment that made you want to write about something that's so close to your real life when it comes to time travel?

STRAUB: Yeah. You know, it's something that I have never done before. You know, there are always, you know, little shards of me, little sprinklings of me and sort of my actual life throughout all my books. But I had never turned to fiction in quite this way. And really what made me know that it was all right was because it was something that I had seen my father do. My dad has written a lot of books and a lot of very scary books.

MOSLEY: Right. As a horror writer. Yes.

STRAUB: Yes. And I saw that that one of the things he was always able to do in his books was to use things that had been really difficult for him in his life, particularly like, you know, traumatic things that had happened to him in his childhood, as a certain kind of fuel maybe for some of his work or to use writing as a certain kind of processing tool - you know, not writing as therapy - nothing like that. But just, you know, writing is such a powerful way of getting inside your feelings, at least for me, in a way that I don't really have access to in another way.

I've always used writing as a way to further understand myself and other people. And writing about characters that were going through something like what my father and I were going through - it felt so good to me to let the art do its work, you know? Like, it's - I mean, it is a novel that I think that anyone who has had a loved one - a sick loved - or who has been through a death of a parent - people will be able to see, I hope, you know, their own experience and to get into those feelings because I was feeling it so deeply when I was writing.

MOSLEY: Your father was hospitalized for quite some time in August of 2020 with a heart condition. How is he right now?

STRAUB: He's all right. He's sending me text messages about all my - all his thoughts about my book tour and my book. He's reading it again for, I think, the fourth or fifth time. He's terrific. He's terrific. He is.

MOSLEY: I'm interested to know, as someone deeply invested in interrogating relationships in all of your books, was there ever a time maybe when you were younger - you mentioned your dad has already read this book four times - was there ever a time when you rejected his critiques?

STRAUB: No. No. You know, it's - I really - I can't overstate how lucky I am to have the dad I do, especially as a writer, because I think that he always understood what it was I wanted to do and never doubted me for a moment. And, you know, I think, often writers' parents, you know, suggest other things, like maybe law school (laughter) or I don't know - something that might have some guarantee.

MOSLEY: As we mentioned, the character in the book Leonard is sick and he's hospitalized, and his daughter Alice visits him daily. You had to do that in real life. How did the process of writing this book help you in processing your father's aging and his mortality?

STRAUB: Well, shoutout to my therapist. You know, so my therapist and I have talked about this a lot. And she uses the term pre-grieving. And I think that - I think it's something that so many of us have to do, you know, when our loved ones are ill over a long, long, long period of time. You know, I think I used to think about death as quite a simple thing - you know, something that happened in one moment and before it, you know, that you couldn't prepare and that afterwards was after, and that's when the grieving began. But I know that's not the case and - because I know how much time the loved ones really have to sit with the inevitability of their loved one's death. And I certainly did that with my dad while I was working on "This Time Tomorrow."

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emma Straub, author of the new book "This Time Tomorrow." She and her husband own Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, N.Y. More after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "GROOVE HOLMES")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And we're talking with author Emma Straub about her new book "This Time Tomorrow." Straub is the author of four novels, which have been published in more than 20 languages. And Emma and her husband own Books Are Magic, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Your main character Alice is sitting with her own life choices. She's turning 40. She works in the admissions office of the high school she graduated from. Her job is a daily reminder of her life choices. There's this line in the book where you write, sometimes Alice felt like everyone she knew had already become whatever they were going to become, and she was still waiting. And I was struck by that because I was also wondering if you think this is kind of a phenomenon of middle age, where we're sitting with our place in the moment that we're in.

STRAUB: Yes, I do. I do - very much so. I mean, I am now 42. Although because I turned 40 in April of 2020, I haven't fully accepted that yet. And so I think I'm just going to keep turning 40...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

STRAUB: ...Until I feel like we've really moved into the next phase. But in any case, yeah, I think that so many people in my generation feel that way, that, you know, we've been waiting for some sort of flag to come down that says, oh, yes. Now you are entering this phase of your life - because I think when you're a child, you look at your parents who have made whatever decisions they've made about, you know, where to live, what jobs to have, what, you know, school you go to - all of those, like, big, major life choices. And then, you look around and you realize that it's your turn to make these really - to build these enormous blocks of your life and that you're no longer in the sort of preliminary stage. And I think it's really easy to look at your choices in your 20s and say, oh, this doesn't really - you know, I'm just doing this for now, whatever it is. But, of course, each choice we make leads to another opportunity and another opportunity and another opportunity. And so I definitely feel like, you know, my early 40-something cohort is definitely looking around, especially right now in the world that we live in, saying, like, wait a minute, I didn't sign this form, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

STRAUB: ...Agreeing to have this be my full adulthood.

MOSLEY: Yeah. One of the other things your character, Alice, is most surprised by at this stage of middle age is when she time travels to the 90s, she sees just how young and vibrant her father really was back then. And I think we've all had experiences like that, maybe looking at old videos or photos and thinking, I really thought my mom and dad were old back then, but they were so young. And I'm just wondering, in writing this book, did you in any way come to this realization about yourself?

STRAUB: Yeah. I mean, I - you know, I have been having this experience, in writing this book and thinking about this book, that, you know, I feel like I'm reminding myself, you know, that I am still young and that I will never be this young ever again.

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

STRAUB: And, yes, like, do my knees make crinkly noises when I walk up stairs? They do. They definitely do. But I do take comfort from the fact that, like, (laughter) I have written this novel that, really, is a reminder to appreciate everything. I mean, the other night at my book launch for "This Time Tomorrow," I was sitting off to the side while my friend, Stephin Merritt, sang a couple of songs. And I was watching my two children and my husband and my parents in the front row. And I was so aware that that might never happen again, you know, that I might never - who knows when I will publish my next book? Who knows how everyone's health will be? Who knows who will be here, you know? I just - I was so moved just staring at my family and thinking, like, this is right now. This is right now. I have all of this right now. And, I mean, you can't ask for more than that.

MOSLEY: Do you think that writing this book, in a way, was the gift of being able to see that? Because I do think that maybe a limitation of the human experience is that we are always thinking about the future or the past. We're never really squarely in the present. People do things to allow themselves to be there. There are devices. But those moments where you can truly sit in the now, in the present, it's kind of a hard thing for us to do.

STRAUB: Yeah. Oh, it's impossible, you know? I know - I have some friends who are poets and who are good at meditating. And - (laughter)...

MOSLEY: Yep. Yeah.

STRAUB: ...You know, practice gratitude in a more active way. And I just - you know, I am an anxious person. And I am always in motion. And, yeah, those moments are really rare. And, you know, my hope is that when people read this book that that's the feeling they will have or want. And then they maybe pick up the phone and call someone who they've loved for a long time and just say, hello.

GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with novelist Emma Straub. Straub's new book is called "This Time Tomorrow." We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. And Justin Chang will review the new film "Top Gun: Maverick." Here's Stephin Merritt and his band the Magnetic Fields with his song "Book Of Love." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOK OF LOVE")

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) The book of love is long and boring. No one can lift the damn thing. It's full of charts and facts and figures and instructions for dancing. But I, I love it when you read to me. And you, you can read me anything. The book of love has music in it - in fact, that's where music comes from. Some of it is just transcendental. Some of it is just really dumb. But I...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB WILBER AND KENNY DAVERN'S "ROSETTA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Emma Straub. Her new novel "This Time Tomorrow" is one of our book critic Maureen Corrigan's recommendations for summer reading. Straub's other books include "The Vacationers," "Modern Lovers" and "All Adults Here." She's also co-owner of the Brooklyn independent bookstore Books Are Magic.

"This Time Tomorrow" is a time-travel fantasy. The main character, Alice, is turning 40. She's been spending a lot of time with her father at the hospital, where he's been ill with a heart condition. She's also been wondering if she's living the right life. After a night of drinking too much, she wakes up and finds herself back in 1996, on the day of her 16th birthday. Her father is younger - in his 40s - and healthy.

The book is partially inspired by Emma Straub's experiences visiting her father, horror writer Peter Straub, during the months he was in the hospital. Emma Straub spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.

MOSLEY: You describe books for your family not as accessories but appendages. And I thought that description was really interesting. They were attached to you. How so?

STRAUB: Yeah. Well, my dad - I mean, so my dad, to this day - my parents moved from the Upper West Side about six years ago and now live about five blocks away from us in Brooklyn. And even so, when my parents come over to our house, my dad always brings a book with him, just in case.

MOSLEY: Just in case he has a free moment.

STRAUB: As if my two children would ever leave him alone - you know, not a chance. But, yeah, I mean, he was always like that. Both of my parents just read all the time. And books were a vital - a vital - part of our home life. And, I mean, there were - you know, there are bookshelves in every room, stacks of books on the floor in every room. And, yeah, I mean, I - there's no memory of anything that I ever did with my family without books. When I think about, like, childhood vacations - like going to Disney World, that sort of thing - what I really remember is, like, sitting next to the pool with my dad reading books.

MOSLEY: Really? At Disneyland?

STRAUB: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: Everyone else is in the pool, and you and your dad are on the side reading a book.

STRAUB: Well, we'd take breaks. You know, we'd take breaks - go splash around. But, yeah, then back to the Lois Duncan, back to the Christopher Pike. You know, I had priorities.

MOSLEY: Yeah. You mentioned earlier that, you know, writing this book allowed you a little bit of space during the pandemic, just mental space to focus on the possibilities of a future and just to escape that cloistered feeling that we all were feeling during that time. It also took you just a year to write this book. Was that a record for you?

STRAUB: You know, books take different periods of time to write, certainly. But what I can say about "This Time Tomorrow" is that it really felt - it was the most immersive writing experience of my life. It absolutely just came out of me. And I don't mean in some, like, you know, taking dictation from above sort of way, but just that I was so happy to work. I was so happy to be able to have time to write again after six months with zero child care that I just - I took such profound pleasure in the work that I was devoted to task in a way that felt new and unusual.

MOSLEY: You know, Emma, in a way, your life feels like a novel. You're a daughter of writers and literature lovers in New York. You become a bestselling author. You open up a bookstore. You said earlier you kind of jumped. You said, you know, I graduated from college, and then I started publishing. But there was some stuff in between that, right? And that includes rejection.

STRAUB: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, I have so many rejection letters. I could go toe to toe with really just about anyone in terms of the number of rejection letters that I racked up. I started writing novels. Really, it was, like, the moment I graduated from college, I declared myself a novelist, and I started writing books. And it was great practice. The books were terrible. But I am so grateful that none of them got published (laughter).

MOSLEY: Really, looking back, you can see that. You're happy about that, yeah.

STRAUB: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, I did - I got rejection letters. Two of my favorite rejection letters were from the two editors who I have worked with at - as an adult. They wrote me beautiful rejection letters and said quite clearly that I wasn't ready, and I wasn't. They were right. You know, my editors, I have to say, are usually right.

MOSLEY: What did those lovely rejection letters say?

STRAUB: Oh, there was one that was great that was - it was for a novel about a murderous poet. And the woman who is my editor now said that she loved the poems.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: You got what she was saying. Yeah.

STRAUB: Yeah.

MOSLEY: You know, one of the things that I was most captivated by in this book was this ability to be able to go to a time that I remembered very well, the '90s - we were about the same age - back to a world before emails and social media. What was that like for you to be able to situate yourself as a writer in that space and excavate?

STRAUB: It was just heaven. It was just heaven. I mean, when I tell you that writing this book made me want to throw my telephone into the river (laughter) - I just - you know, we - I think we forget because things happen so gradually. You know, sure, when - like, I had I think - I had a computer when I was in high school. I had AOL Messenger. But it happened so gradually that, you know, OK, email, OK, computers, OK, cellphones, OK, iPhones - you know, the creep of technology into every moment of our lives, you know, it's insidious. And it was - it did make me feel like I could breathe a little deeper to write about 1996 and to remember what it felt like.

I think all of us who are of a certain age remember that freedom, especially as a teenager, of walking out of the house, you know, you've made a plan with your friend. You're going to meet them on the corner of 86th and Broadway or wherever it is. And you're going to go and stand there. And you're going to wait for them to show up. And you're going to do whatever it is. You're going to twiddle your thumbs. You're going to smoke a cigarette. You're going to write a poem in your notebook. But you're not going to scroll through other people's lives for 30 minutes, you know? You're not going to have some sort of FOMO (laughter) moment. You're just going to be right there. And I think that, that is something that we are all missing so much right now, you know? I feel surgically attached to my telephone, you know, in ways that I think are good, you know? Like, especially, like, on my book tour now, if I get a text from my husband with a picture of our children in real time eating breakfast or whatever, that is wonderful. And I love that. I love that immediacy. But I don't like getting, you know, sucked up into the swirl of social media, when all of a sudden you think, oh, my God, I've lost an hour doing what?

MOSLEY: You have a pretty big presence on social media, though. So many of your fans connect with you there. We see so much of your life.

STRAUB: Yeah. I know. That's the rub for me because, I think, I certainly have some writer friends who - some friends, period, not all of them are writers - who saw from a mile away how dangerous and toxic and time-sucking it could be and just declined to participate. But I am an extrovert and an extremely social person. And I do - I love it. I love it. You know, I've always really enjoyed the ability to be more connected to people who I don't see in my everyday life through social media. And so, yeah, for me, it's hard. I think, maybe, I need one of those accounts that, like, you know, the teenagers have where, like, nobody knows it's me (laughter).

MOSLEY: Yeah, really. Right? Yeah. How do you cope with being an extrovert? I mean, reading and writing is such a solitary activity, at least it feels like it. There seems to be a juxtaposition between your internal self and then your need to be external.

STRAUB: Yeah, that's why it's really good that I have a bookstore. It's so healthy (laughter).

MOSLEY: That feeds it for you? Yeah.

STRAUB: Well, yeah, because, I mean, not only, you know, do I have, like, a brilliant, funny staff of people who I can always talk to about anything, whether it's books or movies or pizza or TikTok or, you know, whatever. But also, you know, we're open to the public, so people just come in. People just come in. And because I live in the neighborhood where the bookstore is and it's the neighborhood that I went to school in, my children go to school in, I really know everybody. It drives my husband absolutely crazy when we walk from our kids' school to the bookstore because it takes me about three times as long as it takes him because I stop and talk to so many people.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emma Straub, author of the new book "This Time Tomorrow." She and her husband own Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, N.Y. More after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And we're talking with author Emma Straub about her new book, "This Time Tomorrow." Straub is the author of four novels, which have been published in more than 20 languages. And Emma and her husband own Books Are Magic, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y.

New York is such a present character in so many of your novels and, of course, in this one. Have you ever thought about or is there a desire to think about other locales and other places as you continue your journey as a writer and a novelist?

STRAUB: Yeah, of course. Of course. You know, I think that, if anything, I've always been wary of writing New York City just because so many people have and so many people do. And, you know, there is that sort of voice that says, like, does the world need another novel set in New York City? But with this book in particular, there was no way to separate the story from the place, you know? New York City was so much a part of the way I thought about the novel and what the novel meant to me. And I think that, you know, even though - you know, I'm a New York City kid. And so if you happen to be a New Yorker, there will be things that resonate with you. My hope is that by being as specific as I possibly can be with all of these places from my youth that the reader finds themself in the places of their youth, you know? It doesn't - yes. So the diner - my diner, 3 Star on the corner of 86th and Columbus, a truly disgusting hole in the wall that I loved with all my being - that was where I went and ate French fries at 2 o'clock in the morning with my friends. And maybe for someone else, it was a Friendly's or a Denny's or something else entirely.

MOSLEY: If you could actually go back to your 16-year-old self, what would you tell her?

STRAUB: I would tell her to quit smoking (laughter).

MOSLEY: Do you still smoke?

STRAUB: No, no, no. I was a very good smoker, but I quit in my early 20s. But what else? I don't know. I mean, you know, I think I would tell her - if I could go back to my 16-year-old self, I would ask more questions. I would feel less self-conscious. I think that teenagers, teenage girls in particular, waste, like - I don't know - probably 75% of their brain cells feeling self-conscious. At least I did. I just think there was room for a lot more in there, other feelings and other conversations. And, yeah, I mean, I would say hang out with my parents more. But the truth is I hung out with them all the time (laughter).

MOSLEY: You spent so much time with your dad in the hospital. I thought it was really interesting that you said you all would talk about writing.

STRAUB: We'd talk about what we are working on. We'd talk about things that we have written. You know, what was really unique in our relationship about the time that we had when he was in the hospital - he was there for four months. And, you know, nowadays when I am with my parents, I am often also with my children, which means that there's no sort of sustained adult conversation allowed. It means that every conversation is likely to be interrupted with questions about snacks or video games or, you know, anything. And so my dad and I were able to talk or not talk or just sort of be together for hours with no one else in the room.

MOSLEY: That slowed-down time - it sounds like such a gift but also such a scary moment. Was there ever a time when you were writing this book, processing all of this and afraid that he wasn't going to make it?

STRAUB: Oh, 100%, yes. And he certainly thought so, too. I am so glad that he is still here, you know, just because I get to spend more time with him, mostly - that's No. 1 - and that my children get to spend more time with him but also that I got to give him this thing and say, here; look; I made you this; I think you'll like it, and then he does.

MOSLEY: Emma Straub, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for this book.

STRAUB: Thank you so much for talking to me. I so appreciate it. It's an absolute thrill.

GROSS: Emma Straub's new novel is called "This Time Tomorrow." She spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley. Tonya hosts the podcast Truth Be Told. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Top Gun: Maverick" with Tom Cruise and the role he originated 36 years ago. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN'S "BIG STUFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.