Emma Straub is 42 and lives a full life: She and her husband have two young children and own an independent bookstore in Brooklyn and she has written her seventh book, “This Time Tomorrow.”
But Straub knows that in the book world she still to some extent lives in her father’s shadow: Peter Straub has written more than two dozen horror and fantasy books, most notably, “Ghost Story,” “Shadowland,” “Koko,” and his collaborations with his friend, Stephen King, “The Talisman” and “Black House.”
Related: Love reading? Check out the free Book Pages newsletter about books, authors and bestsellers.
So when Peter Straub needed heart surgery during the 2020 pandemic, it not only shook his daughter, it also inspired her. “This Time Tomorrow” is, at its heart, a book about father-daughter relationships and about the acceptance of loss — but as a tribute to her dad, Straub makes it her first foray into the supernatural.
In the novel, Leonard Stern, who is revered for his one novel about time-traveling brothers, is lying in a Manhattan hospital near death. His daughter Alice is on the verge of turning 40 and her life stuck in neutral; she’s mourning all the conversations she never got to have with Leonard. Suddenly, however, Alice falls through the looking glass, finding herself back in 1996 at age 16 again. Alice struggles to make the most of revisiting the past even as she must negotiate how it changes the present. The result is a simultaneously a light and entertaining comic romp and a poignant exploration of what we can change and what we must accept, especially when it comes to family.
Straub spoke recently by video about showing her father the novel, writing during the pandemic and sharing her favorite time travel books and movies. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Were you at all superstitious about writing about a dying father while your own father was so sick?
If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that he is going to die someday; he’s not going to escape that. Neither are any of the rest of us. So I didn’t feel like I was cursing him. In fact, it feels so miraculous that he lived through the writing of the book and that he’s here still. I feel so grateful.
Q. Were you worried about how he’d react?
I talked to him about it a bit as I was writing but he wasn’t in a state that he totally got what I was doing. When I gave him the book for the first time, he was still foggy. But he has now read it two or three times. I wasn’t’ nervous to give it to him in the way people who write autobiographical things often are; his whole existence as my dad was proof he would be fine with it. Fiction was where he worked through things and writing was how he did it. So I knew he’d understand. He did, he loved it.
Q. Did writing during the pandemic inform the sense of loss and the nostalgia for the past that simultaneously infuse the book?
Yes, one hundred percent. The pandemic made this an irresistible book to live inside. I was stuck in my house except for visiting my father in the hospital and I was stuck in this terrifying moment where everyone was afraid to go outside.
I’ve always been really hesitant to write about my New York City, but being stuck in my house with my very loud children, I really wanted to be able to go out and I wanted my city back. Not just my 2020 city but my city, which is the ’80s and ’90s of the Upper West Side. I couldn’t go back, of course, but I had so many conversations with friends from childhood about what we remembered. It made me so happy. Despite the fact that I cried a lot while writing the book, it was so much fun to write.
Q. The sense of viewing one New York laid over another older version reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s post-9/11 essay about the city and its constant change. Was that on your mind at all?
Yes. His book “The Colossus of New York” is one of my all-time favorites and that’s what I wanted to capture — that feeling of being a New Yorker and the accumulation of layers as Alice turned back a clock on her memories. I also thought about Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters,” which captured the feeling of walking around New York at night. That was such a rich and meaningful part of my life as a teenager and as a parent and during the pandemic that was something I could not do, go walking around the city for two hours with a friend. But I could do it in the book.
Q. Alice must learn to stop living passively, but as someone with a family, a bookstore and a collection of novels you’re clearly not letting life pass you by. How did you connect to her?
If I interacted with my 16-year-old self, she’d feel pretty happy. I’ve done OK by her. But I live a four-minute walk from my parents and my kids go to the school I went to so all day long I’m interacting with people who knew me as a child or teenager, meaning I do feel like I live in this tiny, tiny bubble: my house, my parents’, my bookstore, my children’s school. So I do feel what Alice feels wondering if I’ve moved forward and grown as a human.
Q. What was it like traveling back in time to capture the emotional swings of teenage life?
I love teenagers and writing them because everything is so close to the surface and so life and death because you’re doing everything for the first time. In my mind that all still feels quite recent to me although I don’t know what it will be like when my own children are teenagers.
Also, I’m a hoarder so I have all my diaries. There are hundreds of pages of me pining over whomever, so I could access those feelings quite easily.
Q. Favorite time travel books and movies?
“Peggy Sue Got Married,” even though I didn’t find the ending satisfying. “Back to the Future,” of course” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
For books, “Kindred” was amazing. Don’t tell Steve [Stephen King] but I didn’t read “11/22/63,” although I thought the adaptation was really good.
All these stories underlined for me how steeped I was in time travel already and that gave me a sense of permission to do my own thing.