How I Write

08.29.12

How I Write Family Edition: Emma Straub & Peter Straub

Her dad is a famous horror writer. His daughter is a rising literary star with a debut novel. Emma and Peter Straub talk to Noah Charney about family ties.

Emma Straub is the author of the new Hollywood novel Laura Lamond’s Life in Pictures. Her book is quite a break from the work of her father, the literary horror novelist Peter Straub. Peter has been a bestseller for decades, and his Ghost Story is considered a masterpiece of the genre.

Where did you both grow up?
Emma: The isle of Manhattan. My mother likes to call me a little island girl. I can’t help it if I’m provincial.
Peter: Milwaukee, Wis., in various suburbs.

Where and what did you study?
Emma: I studied horseback riding in a former garage on West 89th Street. I studied poetry and boys at high school in Brooklyn. I studied tater tots at college in Ohio. I studied short stories in Wisconsin. I study my cats at home.
Peter: I studied English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and at Columbia University, New York.  Later, I studied less formally at the National Library, Dublin, Ireland.

Where do you live and why?
Emma: I live in a gorgeous house in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that no one has ever heard of, and that’s precisely why I can afford it. I flirt with the idea of leaving New York, but so far I haven’t been able to make the leap. The city is my home, and my family is here, and books are here. It’s a very hard place to leave.
Peter: I live in Manhattan, New York City, and love it here. NYC is a fantastic place, filled with riches and treasures of all kinds.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process.
Emma: Tea cat internet internet tea cat cat cat email work work work work work cat tea email. Approximately.
Peter: I usually spend a lot of time walking around, putting ideas in a notebook, seeing where various hares might run. Then I really just try to write about four or five hours a day. I play a lot of CDs while writing, these days a lot of Fleet Foxes, Lester Young, Paul Desmond, the Grizzly Bears, Keith Jarrett.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?
Emma: I recline. My “desk” is my lap, and my “chair” is a chaise lounge. It’s a very bad habit, and I think I’m probably ruining my neck, but I just don’t like to sit at a desk. This way it feels like I’m in bed all day long.
Peter: I work in an average-sized room with a large, messy desk, a big iMac, a great sound system. There are a lot of Blackwing pencils, old emails, and untidy heaps of books on the desk. I can see a bunch of Stoker and World Fantasy awards, a ton of books, pictures by Kitaj and Susan Bee, a leather couch.

Emma, what was it like growing up with a renowned author as a father?
Emma: It was very handy, really. Not because he would say particularly wise things, though I’m sure he did that often, but because it meant that he had a wild and vivid imagination, so he was always great fun to be around. That’s still true. My dad is always the most popular guest at all my parties. He’s the best and the smartest and the funniest. Big Pete 4 Eva.

Peter, tell us something about you that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
Peter: I am lazy, vain, passive, egotistical, and selfish. Those are the good parts of my character. Also, my daughter’s career as a writer is just now really taking off. This year she is publishing a book of short stories and a novel, and people are raving about her all over the Internet. I am incredibly proud of Emma. I’m also very proud of my son, Ben, who is doing a terrific job of representing me in Hollywood.

Describe your ideal day.
Emma: Sweater weather. Yoga class. Husband. The movies. Rigatoni bolognese. Cats. Bed.
Peter: My ideal day would consist of a lot of good work, an hour of yoga, a drink or two, dinner, wine, conversation with my wife, a visit from my daughter, a good movie on the tube, or a night in a jazz club.

Do either of you have any distinctive habits or affectations?
Emma: If only I knew. Laughing too loudly, I suppose. Baking things? This question is hard. Wearing poufy things on my head?
Peter: Almost everything I do is habitual. I pace and I talk to myself. I affect a good wardrobe. With many bow ties. Yes, I definitely affect bow ties.

What else do you wear on your head, Emma?
Emma: I have three boxes full of sequined and tulle thingamajigs that go in my hair. Those are my favorites, for sure.

What is a place that inspires you?
Emma: Anywhere that isn’t home. I love hotels. Hotel lobbies! Hotel bars! Hotel restaurants.
Peter: The office at the top of my house.

Please recommend three books to your readers.
Emma: Only three? I work as a bookseller, so I have a dozen of these in my back pocket at all times. Dozens of dozens! But if you walked into the bookstore right now and asked me, I would recommend Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April, and Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse. You should read all three.

Peter: Some Other Place. The Right Place, Donald Harington; Rivers and Mountains, John Ashbery; The Ambassadors, Henry James.

Peter, do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
Peter: I often wonder. Charles Bernstein and Ann Lauterbach, maybe. Bradford Morrow, certainly. Stephen King, too, for sure.

Emma, what would you do for work, if you were not a writer?
Emma: I do lots of things for work in addition to being a writer—I work at a bookstore, I design wedding invitations and screen-print posters with my husband. I teach writing workshops. If anything, I’m trying to cut down on all that work, and just focus all my time and energy on the writing.

Peter, what is the story behind the publication of your first book?
Peter: I had very good luck, though the novel itself was not very good. I was living in Dublin and sent it to a U.K. publisher, André Deutsch. Deutsch accepted it, and so did a U.S. publisher. I didn’t even have an agent.

What are your next projects?
Emma: I’m just starting a new novel. Cross your fingers for me! I’m having fun so far.
Peter: I’m writing an as-yet-untitled novel in which Jack the Ripper is identified as a time traveler from 1958 Milwaukee, Wis.  Mentally and spiritually, he’s not the healthiest boy you’ve ever met.