Books catch you up. You might hurtle to the end of a page-turner, only for a line to snake its way up much later and snare you. Sometimes, simultaneous reading allows one book to complement another but at other times its leads to a spaghetti tangle of confusion. What’s it like to meet two writers at once? Two writers who have never met, who live in different countries, write different sorts of books and are linked only by their publisher? What’s the point?
Emma Straub was described by our host, Sam Baker, from The Pool as ‘brainy and beachy’ (‘beachy’ in a good way) and is renowned for comedy in her books The Vacationers and in Modern Lovers, just published and which brought her from the US to London. Carys Bray was dubiously described by the Mail as a ‘gifted pathologist’, highlighting her talent for close observations of contemporary small-town life. There don’t seem to be many jokes in her books, but quite a bit of heartbreak. In her new book, The Museum of You, her 12-year-old character was named Clover because the name has ‘love’ in the middle.
The two writers began by reading, although Emma Straub switched her selection when she realised that she, too, was going to read about a parent-child relationship. Each encouraged the other. ‘You think you’re a slow writer?’ queried Straub, author of four books and two children since 2010, praising Bray’s productivity. The follow-up to Bray’s acclaimed 2014 debut, A Song for Issy Bradley, has its own follow-up underway.
Bray writes about the place she comes from: working class north-west England. But for a long time she didn’t she was allowed to use such a personal setting. Other writers – like Jen Ashworth – showed her it was not only possible but valid. Eventually she saw no problem with requisitioning a creepy local beach when she needed a fictional version.
Independently, on the other side of the pond, Straub faced a similar problem in reverse. What could she possibly add to the canon of books set in over-described New York? Not that she wanted to write about trendy 20-somethings. So she too seized the particular to write about the universal – a small pocket of Brooklyn that she knew well and which housed the kind of families who could live anywhere in America.
More parallels emerged with the realisation that in writing you have to make decisions. (Don’t wait for the muse to guide you, friends.) Straub’s Modern Lovers began as a short story about a drummer she knew, but it didn’t work. So she pushed the music to the background, widened the entire canvas of the novel – and then the book began to form. Bray too talks of playing with ideas, trying different approaches, but then making a decision to push one aspect – she waits for the line that hooks her (Straub found hers flipping through a Jane Austen novel, so friends, read widely) – and then forget that the book could have gone in any of the other possible directions.
Sounds tough, but I admire her conviction.
Writing is in their blood. Straub’s father is the horror writer, Peter Straub, so she grew up knowing that a professional writing life isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Bray has always written, but hers was private for many years. Growing up a Mormon, she was encouraged to write a journal from the age of eight. But it wasn’t a career option ‘until it was’.
We had an hour together, and then questions. If we’d chatted all night, perhaps more similarities would have emerged – or would the differences have forced them – and us – apart? Time to read the books, I think. Enjoy!