Location, Location, Location: Change in Setting Sparks The Vacationers
By Ellen Birkett Morris
by Emma Straub
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Sometimes a change of scenery makes all the difference. That was certainly the case for The Vacationers author Emma Straub as she struggled with a novel centered on the Posts, a family in transition.
|“I wrote a draft of a novel about the same family set in New York, and it wasn’t working at all.”
“I wrote a draft of a novel about the same family set in New York, and it wasn’t working at all. I had a flash that I needed to maroon them somewhere, and the book came together quickly after that,” said Straub, who is also the author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and the short story collection Other People We Married. Straub had also written short stories that featured members of the Post family.
In The Vacationers, she sent the family to the island of Mallorca as parents Franny and Jim celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary and deal with Jim’s infidelity, daughter Sylvia, a recent high school graduate, explores her burgeoning sexuality, son Bobby deals with romantic and money troubles, and family friends Charles and Lawrence wait to hear if their adoption will be approved.
“It forced them all together and allowed me to show the family members in different configurations,” said Straub.
As the various members of the family interact secrets emerge, rivalries reemerge and alliances are formed in ways that the mirror the beauty, pain and complexity of family life.
In her first iteration of the novel, the story took place in the course of a single day. In The Vacationers, each chapter covers a day in the two-week vacation.
“I love to outline and have a plan.”
“I love to outline and have a plan. This structure kept me organized and helped me keep things on simple. It really helped me figure out the pacing,” said Straub.
The story started for her with the characters Franny and Sylvia who came to her fully formed and “felt truly alive.”
“With The Vacationers I wanted to tell a story about these specific characters. Short stories often begin with a situation. Novels are about characters. They have to be because you are with them for a long time,” said Straub.
As she wrote themes emerged.
“As I was writing I was surprised to see that infidelity came up so much, even though I had outlined it as a theme. The story is really more about honesty in relationships and infidelity is a way to get at that,” said Straub.
Her main challenge when writing The Vacationers was managing her first pregnancy. “I was working around the clock while simultaneously growing and changing every moment. The hormones were the hardest part. I wrote every day. It was something my baby and I did together. It was very special,” said Straub.
The research was the fun part. Straub and her husband visited Mallorca and strolled the cobblestone streets and visited art galleries and small shops.
”All those places got tucked into the book,” she noted.
Although she has written other novels, Straub said the writing process is always challenging.
“It is always you and the empty page. The process is always the same, outlining, writing, revising. I have to relearn how to do it every time.” Straub worked with Editor Megan Lynch on both of her novels. Lynch has since moved from Riverhead to Ecco.
“Megan let me figure out how to fix the issues for each book. She pointed out what neighborhood they were in.” said Straub.
She recently switched agents and compared the relationship to getting married.
“Find the right person for where you are, who understands what you do well and where you want to be. Hungry young agents are the best. You need someone who will call you back, who you won’t be intimidated by, and who seems genuinely excited by your work.”
Straub said the biggest gift a writer can give herself is a thick skin.
“I have gotten rejected hundreds of times and still do.”
“There are good writers who lack the confidence to send out their work. Part of the fun is having work out in the world. I have gotten rejected hundreds of times and still do. You can’t be needy and precious about your work. When you feel you’ve done all the work just send it out. . . .If the piece is rejected it means that the piece was not a fit at this precise moment.”
Straub is philosophical about the process.
“The key is to remember nothing anyone else gets is taking anything away from you.”
“There are always going to be younger writers who make more money or get published more easily. The key is to remember nothing anyone else gets is taking anything away from you. Everyone is on their own timetable. No one is keeping score.”
Straub is currently at work on her next novel about a couple who lives in Brooklyn and play in a band and their teenage son.
|About the Author
Emma Straub is from New York City. She is the author of the novels The Vacationers and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and the short story collection Other People We Married. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Vogue, New York Magazine, Tin House, The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and the The Paris Review Daily. She is a staff writer for Rookie. Straub lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.
|About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.