“I don’t like the outdoors,” says Emma Straub. “It freaks me out. My idea of perfect relaxation is going to the movies.” In researching her first novel, then—Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Riverhead), out today—the Manhattan native tested the limits of her Netflix queue.
The book starts in 1920 in Door County, Wisconsin as Elsa Emerson leaves her small town an innocent blonde and re-emerges years later as a glamorous brunette movie starlet named Laura Lamont. You’ve heard this age-old story before, of course, but Straub nevertheless sweeps you along for the entirety of her heroine’s life, which proves alternately triumphant and tragic. The drama is tightly plotted and its outlook a little earnest, much like the films of its era.
I caught up with Straub—the author of the acclaimed 2011 story collection Other People We Married—last week as she was rushing off to her day job as a bookseller at Cobble Hill, Brooklyn’s Book Court.
Your novel is about the rise and fall of a movie star during the heyday of the studio system. It is not, as far as I can tell, based on your own life. Well, I was an extra in The Squid and the Whale! I knew this girl who was Noah Baumbach’s assistant, and she said, ‘Do you want to be an extra in this Eighties creative writing classroom scene? I know you have the wardrobe.’ [laughs]
What was the initial spark for the book? The initial spark came from an obituary—because obituaries are so sparkly—for the actress Jennifer Jones. She was famous in the Forties: she won an Oscar; she was married to studio head David Selznick. Her life was very dramatic. At the time I read her obit, I was working on a different novel that was just completely boring—like, tedious; it was like mumblecore.
The book is not mumblecore at all, but more like one of those big prestige movies that come out in December and are meant for the Academy to lap up. That was the goal. I was so taken by this woman’s life story that I just kept coming back to it. I was like, ‘That is a novel. That’s what a novel can be—that big and sweeping.’ That’s how it started. And to this day I have stayed away from seeing Jennifer Jones’s movies, because I wanted to be sure the character of my novel was her own person. Some day I’m going to give in and watch them all.
Okay, time for a stupid hypothetical: How would Laura Lamont counsel Kristen Stewart? Oh my god. She would say, ‘Girl, keep your mouth shut.’ And ‘Go hide!’ [laughs] I feel so sad for her. Obviously, sleeping with a married guy—that was a bad thing to do. But she’s only 22, and I was a really dumb 22-year-old. Also, poor Rob. I feel so sad for him too.
He’s kind of like the sad puppy at the pound right now. Oh, such a cute sad puppy! Such a cute, glittery, vampire puppy. Did you read the piece Jodie Foster wrote? It was really good—it was about how vicious the world is now, and how if she grew up with the level of scrutiny Kristen’s getting, she wouldn’t have made it out alive.
Jodie Foster is a bit like Laura Lamont, isn’t she? She’s the tough lesbian version. I like that idea, because I always wanted Laura—even though she didn’t have as much agency in her career as she wanted—I always wanted her to be strong. Or to at least try to be strong. And there aren’t many people I would absolutely trust with my life, but Jodi Foster is one of those people—her and Meryl Streep.
Portrait: Sarah Shatz