New York Times bestselling author and owner of Books Are Magic Emma Straub returns to talk with Zibby about her latest novel, This Time Tomorrow, which was inspired by her relationship with her father while he was hospitalized in 2020. Emma shares why she wanted to tie in her own 1980s nostalgia and if she felt a sense of closure after writing her most personal story to date. The two also discuss the importance of timing, the sensation of pre-grieving a loss, and whether or not Emma will return to the book she put on pause to complete this novel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emma. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time to discuss This Time Tomorrow. That was a lot of this times in that sentence.

Emma Straub: This time, this time, this time. Hi, Zibby. Thank you for having me. Always a pleasure.

Zibby: Hi, Emma. Of course. I was just raving about your cover. It is so cool. I had the galley. There’s this gold line swirling through it. Then even the letters, some of them are silvery, goldy. I’m not explaining it well.

Emma: It’s shimmery. It’s iridescent. I begged Riverhead for that. My last four books all had people on them, in different ways. They don’t all look identical, but they all had people on them. I said to Riverhead, I was like, “No people. I don’t want any people. I am tired of people.” They came up with lots of great book jackets. This is the one that I liked best. What I love the most is that shimmer. In a way, that feels like the book to me. That feels like the book.

Zibby: Totally. I love it. That’s amazing. By the way, somebody just interviewed me about something else. They said something like, “Who is your favorite character?” I was like, “There’s this woman, Alice. I have this on my desk right now. Let me tell you about Alice.” She is a really amazing character. She does totally come to life in a bazillion different contexts and timelines and everything, which is a great exercise in developing a character. What would this character be like in all these different settings and having to relive it? I know this came about, your dad was sick. Tell me about the genesis for this book and not just the part one where you deal with her current day, but then as the book starts time traveling.

Emma: You are a mom. You remember 2020. It was terrible. 2020 was terrible. That’s when I started writing this book. I was home with my kids. My husband was at the bookstore working crazy hours. My dad was in the hospital. None of us thought that he would be coming out of it. He did. I should say that up top. I had been working on a different book. I’d been working on a book that is more similar to my previous books before the pandemic. Then from March to October of 2020, I didn’t have any childcare. I was alone with my kids twenty-four hours a day, basically. My dad was in the hospital. It was for months. It was just horrible. When I finally did have childcare again, I couldn’t go back to the book that I’d been writing because it felt so foreign to me. It felt too silly. It wasn’t just a comedy, but it felt too silly to me at the time and just really far away from where I was mentally and emotionally. I was talking to my dad in the hospital. I was like, “What should I do?” He was like, “Maybe you should write a book about a woman visiting her father in the hospital.” I was like, “Okay.” I don’t think he has any memory of that.

We would sit and talk. When he was able to, we would sit and talk about books and writing and ourselves and our family and our lives. That was what I wanted to write. I started thinking about a woman who was a lot like me but not entirely like me and a man who was very much like my dad but not entirely like my dad. I sort of plucked us out of our lives and isolated us in this book. My parents have been married for fifty-five years. In the book, Leonard is a single father. I have an older brother. In the book, Alice is an only child. There are these major differences. I wanted to hang out with my dad. What I really wanted was the version of what we were doing in the hospital that I remembered from when I was a teenager, which was us sitting at the kitchen table where my dad had his spot and watching Jeopardy together and eating snacks and smoking cigarettes and wiling away the hours. That’s really what I did. I really wrote this book just to do that. I’d never written time travel before, but I found that it came quite naturally. We’ve all grown up, especially those of us born in the eighties, we were fed a steady diet of time travel, and so it felt just baked in. That’s how I wrote my autobiographical time travel novel.

Zibby: I love how you went back to a particular point in time here in New York which I lived through as well. All of the references were so familiar. Every time she went back — it started with the Crazy Eddie shirt. I was like, that is so perfect. Let’s bring back Crazy Eddie T-shirts. How fun would that be?

Emma: I bought one on eBay. I’m going to wear it on my book tour.

Zibby: That’s amazing. That is so amazing. Oh, my gosh, of course they exist. I shouldn’t have put that past you. It is this certain time that we all got to experience so collectively when there was so much less to do and less to watch. All those movies, I’ve watched everything you referenced. Peggy Sue Got Married, I loved that movie. I feel like nobody’s been talking about it lately. Every time you brought it up, I’m like, yes, yes.

Emma: First of all, yes, the book is full of pop culture in a way that none of my books have ever been before. I don’t know if this is a remnant of MFA program life, but I’ve always felt like I want to keep culture out as much as possible because, of course, it’s never the point. If you’re talking about a painting that’s a real painting, you should be able to describe it in a way that it feels real whether it’s real or not. The same goes for a song or a movie or whatever. I do love to make up cultural things. I always have. For this book, I just felt like I was throwing the doors open to everything. I just wanted it to be real. I wanted it to feel like if you lived through this period, you would know these movies. This is actually what Alice would do. If Alice were a real person, she would go back, and that’s what she would say to her friend. She wouldn’t be like, oh, my god, I’ve never heard of time travel before. How does this work? She would be like, wait, is this like Back to the Future? Are there two of me? Is this like 13 Going on — what is this? Which one am I in? How does this work? It felt very freeing to just let all that stuff pour in. I think that the reason that people often don’t want to include real cultural references is because it dates a work so precisely. Since I was already doing that in this book, it didn’t matter to me.

Zibby: You got a free pass. It’s okay. You won’t get in trouble. It’s all good.

Emma: I feel like it’s the same for the New York stuff. For people who aren’t from New York or who have never been to New York, it doesn’t matter to them if Gray’s Papaya is a real place because I describe it and tell you what it tastes like and what you can order and whatever. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not if you don’t know that place. If you do know that place, you’re like, oh, god, I need a hot dog for lunch.

Zibby: Totally. I love that. What I really love, though, is when you go back in time, you — not you. When Alice goes back in time, she brings the attention to the fact that in all these movies, it’s often about the romance and so much less about the family. Although, I guess in Back to the Future there was a lot of family going on. She wants to spend more time with her dad. That is the driving force of this, even though you have the relationship. It’s almost like Sliding Doors meets one of these movies because then you see all the other outcomes and different kids. I love thinking about that stuff. What if I had ended up with this person? What if it had happened at a different time? Would the kids be different? All that stuff.

Emma: Of course, because it would be. It would be. I have the two children I have because those were the embryos — you know what I mean? It’s random. It’s random who shows up in your life.

Zibby: You could argue that those souls were destined for your family. There is that.

Emma: Maybe.

Zibby: Maybe they would look different.

Emma: I just think that it’s all timing. It’s all timing. Everything in life is timing in terms of the people you meet and the way you are when you find them and how you evolve. It’s all based on your relationships and your jobs. All of these things that are sort of random eventually add up to your life. It was really fun to think about Alice. You’re right, I consciously wanted to make this not about the romance. There is some romance in it.

Zibby: Although, thank you for those scenes.

Emma: At the bookstore, we often talk about what people love. People love a romance. I don’t just mean romance novels. People love sexy books, whether they’re paperback rom-coms or high, literary masterpieces. People love a sexy book. I’m like, I wrote a sad book about a dad dying. That’s sexy, right? We all write the books that are the books that we need to write. This is what I needed to write.

Zibby: I love how it comes together. I feel like one of the themes at the end that you tell through Kenji is that it’s so important to just address when someone is sick or when someone has died. It seems so obvious, but it is so helpful to connect on that level and not avoid it. I feel like if people take one thing away, for people who always feel uncomfortable not knowing what to say to people who have lost somebody or whatever, that is a great takeaway. It’s okay. You just say, hey, how are you doing? That must have been terrible. Oh, my gosh, lymphoma is awful, or whatever.

Emma: It’s something that I have thought about a lot. I have so many friends who have lost their parents in the last couple of years and when I was a kid and when I was in high school. I never knew what to say. Part of this book is, even though my father is still alive, is me sort of reckoning with that, with the fact that you don’t really understand until you find yourself in the middle of it. Then you’re like, oh, fuck, I was so awkward. I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing that I sort of didn’t say anything. You wish you could go back and just be like, do you want to have some pizza? I’ve always been a very good note-writer. I always write a note, but what does that do? That doesn’t do that much. Is it better to write a note than do nothing? Yes, but it’s probably also better — it’s like when someone has a baby. Sure, it’s great to say congratulations, but then most people say, congratulations, can I do something? To which the new parent always says, oh, no, no, no. Now I understand you don’t do that. You just show up. You drop the food off, or the whatever, on the doorstep. You wash the dishes in the sink. You hold the baby so someone can take a shower. Then you get out of there. This is growing up, right? We all have to learn those things firsthand before we understand what is good to do.

Zibby: Those are the things you remember the most. I feel like there’s always this flurry of cards and calls or texts or whatever. When my husband’s mom passed away, this one friend of his sent us a banquet dinner from the local pizza place. I’ll just never forget the tins and undoing those tin foil edges and being like, that was so nice. I’ve never been so appreciative for pasta with vodka sauce, which I don’t even normally eat. That was the nicest. It’s a good lesson that I guess we learn as we are grown-ups. I feel like so many lessons Alice learned came from being a grown-up. Even when she goes back, some of those things and some of those types of people you are, they aren’t clear until later, what’s really important and all of that. Hopefully, books like these can try to teach it, try to share. Show don’t tell.

Emma: We’ll see.

Zibby: We’ll see. Did you feel a sense of closure once you finished this book? Do you feel like it helped you process some of the stuff?

Emma: Yeah. What my therapist describes as pre-grieving — I didn’t know that that was something. I think that there are obviously people who lose loved ones very suddenly where you’re plunged into the after zone totally unexpected. Often, it’s not that. Often, we see it coming. We see the cliff. We know how deep it is on the other side. We spend years preparing. I don’t know if anyone can ever be prepared. Probably not. I spent a lot of time, more than just the years that I’ve been working on this book, processing this idea. I can’t say that I feel closure, but I definitely feel — I feel really happy. I feel really happy that I was able to write this book for me. I wrote it really, truly just for me. Then the fact that my dad is still alive and could read it is an amazing additional gift that I don’t take for granted for a second. The thing that really gets me always is that — my dad has written twenty books. They’re all very scary. He is in all of them. He is in all of them in ways small and large. He is not a serial killer, mind you — a lot of his books have serial killers in them — or a torturer of any kind.

Zibby: Good to know.

Emma: He is all over his books. I’m grateful that I have those books that are full of his brain and his thoughts and his jokes. Then I think about my kids having my books that are full of me in all of those ways and then additionally, that they have this book now which contains us both in a certain way. Not that Alice and I are identical and not that Leonard and my father are identical. This is, without a doubt, a book that is an examination of our love. That’s pretty amazing. Hopefully, my children will appreciate it. I think they will someday, hopefully.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Now hopefully, they’ll write something about you.

Emma: Oh, god. Maybe. I don’t know if I want that.

Zibby: I know. I’m like, would I want that or would I not want that? Will you ever go back to that other one that you abandoned?

Emma: I don’t know. Maybe. It was a good one. I was excited about it. I had done some research for it. This book, This Time Tomorrow, all I had to do was just close my eyes and text my friends from childhood to do research. The book that I had been working on, I had traveled. I had really put in some legwork. I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not sure. We’ll see. I have to go back and see if there’s any life in it.

Zibby: Did you have a real-life Tommy-type character?

Emma: Hundreds of them.

Zibby: Hundreds? Oh, my gosh.

Emma: Maybe not hundreds. I have all my diaries. I was always in love with somebody, or six somebodies. I was really able to compartmentalize my affections. I had crushes on everybody. There are a lot of them.

Zibby: I have my diaries too. I haven’t figured out what I should do with them all. I like how you channeled it into that. That was very creative. I’m like, YA, I’ll just — I read out loud my — I took this trip with my family when I was in eighth grade to China and Japan, but I wrote it as if I was — I didn’t sound like I was that old. Anyway, I read it to my little kids. I was like, “This is what I was like.” Of course, my diary is like, “Here’s what I had to eat on the airplane.” It’s another way of time travel. I was introducing my almost-nine-year-old to my fourteen-year-old self. I’m like, “This is the way I spoke at that time.”

Emma: It’s amazing.

Zibby: I feel like that’s another layer of what this book does so well. That’s very cool. Awesome.

Emma: What did you eat on that airplane?

Zibby: All the stuff I still eat. They were like, “This is ridiculous.” Grilled chicken and a Caesar salad. It’s ridiculous. I haven’t changed at all. I’m like, “I shouldn’t have eaten that cookie.” They’re like, “Ha ha.” Maybe it wasn’t such a big introduction after all. Last question. Any advice to aspiring authors?

Emma: At the moment, my advice would be to write the thing that you feel most moved by, that you feel most emotionally connected to, and that you know you can write better than anyone else, whatever it is, whether it’s fiction or a short story or your memoir, whatever it is. Believe in yourself, and to know that you are fully capable and just to have faith and do it, just to try.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you not only for taking me back to 1980s New York City, but also Alice’s life and walking through Belvidere and just the whole thing. There was such a strong sense of place. I really feel like I ventured through someone else’s shoes, which is what the best books do, so there you go.

Emma: Thank you so much, Zibby. Always a pleasure.

Zibby: You too.


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