You may have heard the name Emma Straub lately. One of this fall's most buzzed-about authors, the Brooklyn, New York, author and her first novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, have been lauded by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and many other media outlets. Like the protagonist of the book, Straub also has a Wisconsin connection: She's a 2009 graduate of UW-Madison's MFA program in fiction writing.
Straub is thrilled to return to Madison for her debut appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival. "I'm so excited to be part of the festival and to speak to the MFAs," she says.
Straub will read from Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures Friday, Nov. 9, at Overture Center's Capitol Theater as part of the "Friday Night Festival of Fiction" at the fest.
This won't be Straub's first trip back to Wisconsin since she graduated. Even though she was raised in New York, both her parents hail from Milwaukee, and they all return to Wisconsin frequently for family events. Her parents -- author Peter Straub and wife Susan -- met at UW-Madison, on Bascom Hill, to be specific, when they were college students here in the 1960s.
Straub's Wisconsin roots influenced her decision to set parts of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures in Door County, and more importantly, to have her main character be a Wisconsin woman. "I always knew that I wanted Laura Lamont to be from Wisconsin, from the Midwest. I wanted her to be good at heart, really strong, sturdy, reliable," she says.
Indeed, for a movie star, Laura Lamont is no diva, and her unflappable, optimistic personality is a highlight of the book. Like the good Lutheran she is, Laura bounces back from adversity, makes the best of bad situations and puts others' needs ahead of her own. Nearly everyone in Wisconsin knows someone just like her.
When the story opens in the 1930s, Laura's parents run a community theater in Door County, and Laura is still known by her original name, Elsa. While still in her teens Elsa marries an aspiring actor and moves with him to Hollywood, but it's Elsa, not her husband, who finds fame -- and a new name, Laura Lamont. It's a novel about identity as much as it is about Hollywood.
As Elsa moves through the Hollywood studio system, and transitions into being Laura, she retains the best of her Wisconsin ideals; she becomes Laura on the outside but remains Elsa at her core. Straub was inspired to write her novel after reading an obituary of Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones, though Straub stresses that her book is not a fictionalized biography of Jones, and that she refrained from reading too much about Jones in order to avoid overlap.
Straub's previous book, Other People We Married, is a short-story collection that was published by an independent small press -- a micropress, Straub says, run by "one or two people who also had day jobs." She promoted this book herself using the Internet, setting up a personal website and running a Facebook page, Twitter account and Tumblr blog. She believes her consistent self-promotion helped her when the Penguin imprint Riverhead Books was considering publishing Laura Lamont.
"They knew how hard I was working on my own behalf," says Straub. "Being active on the Internet showed the publisher how serious I was and that the marketing mattered to me."
These days, publishers tend to put a lot of the book-marketing duties on the writer.
"When my father started writing novels in the 1970s, you basically just wrote your book and turned it in, and you were done. It's not like that anymore," she says.
Straub is currently taking a sabbatical from her bookseller job for a cross-country tour promoting Laura Lamont. But she intends to return to the bookstore soon. She is a huge fan of independent booksellers, which she credits with generating early buzz about Laura Lamont.
And what comes next? Riverhead Books will publish Straub's second novel, The Good Face, in 2014.
This review is one in a series of author interviews, book reviews, and other curiosities leading up to the Wisconsin Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 7-11.