In this Amazon exclusive, Lauren Groff, bestselling author of Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton, interviews Emma Straub.
Lauren Groff: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures follows the life of your title character from when she was a little girl in Wisconsin named Elsa Emerson, through her heyday as brilliant movie star Laura Lamont, and into the years after she has grown too old for the sexy roles she was once begged to play. Tell me about this decision.
Emma Straub: For me, the idea of Hollywood is so enormous and potent, so big, that I didn't want to try to pack her whole story into just one period. Laura's experience in the 1930s is so different from her experience in the 1950s, and the 1970s, that it would be a shame not to see it all. That's what I was after--all of it. Ha! That's not too ambitious, is it?
LG: Irving, Laura's beloved husband, at one point mentions off-handedly that he was late because he was talking to Greta Garbo on the phone. I felt a little jolt of electricity because until then I hadn't realized that I had been imagining Garbo in the role of Laura Lamont. I wouldn't suggest that you based this book on any one particular 1940s or 1950s actress, but who are your favorites from that time, and why?
ES: I was inspired to write the novel after reading an obituary of the actress Jennifer Jones, who would have been Laura's contemporary. After that, I stayed away from Jones, and to date haven't watched any of her films, because I really wanted the novel to be fiction, and not a thinly veiled take on her life. There are so many incredible actresses from that period-- my favorites would have to be Joan Fontaine, who gets a tiny shout-out in the book, because Laura loves her too, and maybe Gene Tierney, because she was so excellent in Laura. (Totally coincidental, I swear!)
LG: What attracted you to writing a novel about a film star of this era, as opposed to one about a contemporary movie star?
ES: We've got so little glamour nowadays--I like to read Us Weekly as much as the next girl, but because of tabloid culture there's no real mystery anymore. When a star is going through a hard time, we know all about it--when someone has a difficult pregnancy, or is getting a divorce, or is losing their mind. I wanted to go back to when people had privacy. Also, one of the aspects of Hollywood that I was interested in was the studio system, in which actors had very little power. I like to think that women movie stars today have more agency than Laura would have had.
LG: What kind of research did you do for this book?
ES: I did the best kind of research--my husband and I did a house swap with a woman in Los Angeles, and so I spent a month sitting by the pool, soaking up all the Californian air. Well, in reality, I spent much of my time reading books at the Margaret Herrick Library, which is operated by the Academy of Motion Pictures. They have every book ever written about the history of Hollywood, and biographies of every movie star, and microfilms of all the fan magazines. I was in heaven. And, of course, I spent a lot of time watching old movies!
LG: This novel is about many things, but I found that the deepest drama was in how Laura balances her real life--children, marriage, money, friends, grief, love--with her career. What prompted you to write a meditation about balance?
ES: I think one of the ways that we misunderstand, or misread, other humans is by thinking about them as operating on only a single plane. I wanted to write about a woman's whole life--that is, her love life, her family life, her work life, her friendships. My hope is that by showing all of those things, the reader will really understand who Laura is in a very deep way. Balance is so tricky, I think, especially for women. Even for a movie star.
LG: I had to laugh a little when I noticed that Laura leaves rural Wisconsin for the far more cosmopolitan Los Angeles to become a star, because your trajectory as a writer was the exact opposite: you left New York City, where you were raised, to go to Madison, Wisconsin for your MFA in fiction. How do you see acting and writing--both creative pursuits--either intersecting or standing in opposition to one another?
ES: What my mother would tell you is that all of the most interesting people are from Wisconsin. On the outside, writing and acting seem like they would require opposite temperaments, but I don't know if that's true. I think, for both pursuits, you need a deep curiosity about how human beings work. The main difference, I suppose, is that one is public and the other private, and clearly it seems preferable to choose the option that lets you stay home with the cats.
"Emma Straub is a magician, full of brilliance and surprise."— Lorrie Moore
"An exquisite debut novel that brings Depression-era Hollywood to life with startling immediacy. Laura Lamont is a memorable character, and Emma Straub illuminates her inner life with uncanny authority."— Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers and Little Children
“I absolutely loved this tale of one woman's incredible journey from small town girl to movie star. Straub brings Old Hollywood fully to life, in all its glamour, excess, ruthlessness, and beauty. I didn't want this marvelous novel to end.”— J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Commencement and Maine
“Fantastic…a stunningly intimate portrayal of one woman's life.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Straub’s brisk pacing and emotionally complex characters keep the story fresh…This bewitching novel is ultimately a celebration of those moments when we drop the act and play the hardest role of all: ourselves.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
“[A] timeless tale with true heartfelt warmth throughout…one of the most entertaining novels this fall.”—Matchbook Magazine
“delightful… mesmerizing.”—The Miami Herald
“at once a delicious depiction of Hollywood’s golden age and a sweet, fulfilling story about one woman’s journey through fame, love, and loss.”—Boston Globe
“Straub makes masterful use of the golden age of Hollywood to tap contemporary questions about the price of celebrity and a working mother’s struggle to balance all that matters.”—People
“Straub vividly recaptures the glamour and meticulously contrived mythology of the studio-system era.”—USA Today
“big-hearted…a witty examination of the psychic costs of reinvention in Hollywood’s golden age.”—The Washington Post
“[With] effortless prose and precise observations…Straub's novel explores themes of identity, career and motherhood through the filter of one woman's life experience…an entertaining narrative.”-San Francisco Chronicle
“Laura Lamont might be the most anticipated debut of the year. It's easy to understand the hullabaloo; Straub's style is clear and engaging, and her plot balances the glamour of the Hollywood Golden Age with trenchant thematic links to issues of contemporary working women. The result is a delightful, entertaining read with substance.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Like the protagonist in her new novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Emma Straub is a rising star.”—TimeOut Chicago
“Will appeal to any girl who has left a small town behind to follow her dreams to the big city.”—Marie Claire
“Dramatic, human and historical: like a classic Hollywood movie…Straub knows when to linger and when to be brief, and her portrayal of Elsa/Laura’s relationships is exquisite…Peppered with stunningly crafted sentences and heart-twisting storytelling, the richness of this full life is portrayed with perceptive clarity.”—BUST Magazine
“Straub imbues her writing with surprising insights and wit… [her] writing reminds the reader how good literary fiction can precisely capture the human experience.”—Pop Matters