JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz. It's a small town girl's dream: One day you're strutting the floorboards of a summer stage; the next, the silver screen. Thus is the arc of Elsa Emerson, a Door County, Wisconsin, girl whose life at the Cherry County Playhouse never quite goes away when she becomes the Oscar-winning Laura Lamont.
The quiet merging of the two selves through the decades, happens in "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures," a high-buzz debut novel from writer Emma Straub. Straub says that her main character came to her while reading a New York Times obit on the life of the real-life actress Jennifer Jones.
EMMA STRAUB: I was just struck by her life. And it just seemed like a novel. And I couldn't get it out of my mind, and so I copied it down, and I just kept going back to it. And when I decided that I did want to write this novel, I made sure to stay away - actually - from Jennifer Jones' biography, because I didn't want it to be, you know, a thinly veiled version of her. I really wanted my Laura Lamont to stand on her own feet.
LYDEN: One of the things that Laura Lamont has to contend with - as a child, and then later on, throughout her life - is that her beautiful older sister, Hildy, the one who put on costumes and sashayed through the house; the one who liked boys; Laura - when she's still Elsa - discovers her, and something really terrible has happened.
LYDEN: Can you tell us what?
STRAUB: After her first night on stage at her parents' theater, Elsa runs up the stairs, excited to tell her older sister about her triumph; and walks into her sister's bedroom, and discovers that her sister has committed suicide. And it's the event that really haunts her for the rest of her life, and it's also sort of the impetus for her to strike out for Hollywood - because her beautiful and talented older sister, who she thought was always destined for great things, you know, is no longer able. She really thinks that she has to do it. She has to live both lives, you know; her own and Hildy's.
LYDEN: So tell us what happens to Elsa.
STRAUB: So when Elsa Emerson is about 17 years old, she marries another actor who is at this theater that her father runs in Door County, Wisconsin. And they move to Los Angeles in the late 1930s, to become movie stars. And when they arrive, they have two children back-to-back - very quickly, And Elsa's acting career is sort of put on pause, and takes a backseat to her husband's.
But then when she's eight months' pregnant with her second child, she meets a producer at a party at the Gardner Brothers' studio - which is my pretend studio that I sort of modeled after Paramount, which was my favorite that I toured. She meets this producer, Irving Green, who dubs her Laura Lamont. He gives her this new name. And then as she becomes Laura Lamont, she makes one very, very good friend, an actress named Ginger Hedges - who's sort of based on Lucille Ball.
LYDEN: And Ginger becomes hugely successful, and Laura wins an Oscar.
STRAUB: Yeah. Laura - you know, Laura had a nice little run there. She dyes her blond hair brown and becomes, you know, what she thinks of as a serious actress; whereas her friend Ginger becomes more of a comedienne. And then things start to - I won't say go wrong, but things get more difficult for Laura, after that.
LYDEN: It's in her endurance that I think she really triumphs. I don't want to give the ending away, but you're very gentle and loyal with this character.
STRAUB: I love her. I love her. You know, I spent a lot of time with her. And I think that because I followed her for so many years, I do feel very, very fond of her - and very loyal to her.
LYDEN: My guest is author Emma Straub. Her new book is "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures." I want to talk about how she - even though she does not return for well over a decade to Wisconsin, she really kind of carries it with her; because I think what gives this novel its heft is that the old Elsa is still inside her. Her mother just doesn't really relate to this movie star. And constantly, family issues keep bubbling up in this celluloid life.
STRAUB: Mm-hmm. You know, I heard Ann Patchett speak at an event in Brooklyn. And at this event, she said that, you know, people always say to her that they think her novels are, you know, very different from one to the next; but she thinks that she really just has one subject matter. And I started thinking about it, and I think that might be true for me, too; that the subject matter that's really at the heart of this book - and at the heart of many of my short stories, also - is this sort of idea of the self that we present and like, how is that different than the self we are inside?
And it's, you know, Elsa Emerson becomes Laura Lamont, but of course, she's always Elsa as well. And it's sort of having a private life versus a public life; and those issues of, you know, who are we, to our mother? Who are we, to our husband or wife? Who are we, to our children? That's really what she struggles with throughout.
LYDEN: "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, " Emma, is your first novel. And you had a collection of short stories published before it, and you really kept at it. You had written three or four other novels before this one. Why did you keep going?
STRAUB: You know, I - it absolutely never occurred to me that it wouldn't happen eventually. I never, for a moment, doubted it. You know, I thought, OK, I'm not good enough yet, I'm not there yet, but I'll get there.
LYDEN: That's Emma Straub. Her new book is called "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures," and she joined us from WBEC, our member station in Chicago. Emma Straub, thank you. Please take a bow.
STRAUB: (LAUGHTER) Thank you very much.