The American author comes to bookstores with her latest novel Tomorrow at This Time (Neri Pozza) and poses us all with the question of questions: if we could go back, what would we change?
The perfect past-life moment to return to for Emma Straub is a vacation with her parents and older brother. She recounts it sitting in an armchair in a hotel in downtown Rome, her blue eyes wide open to the memory of those days. But before returning to that moment she takes a deep breath. Her father, the well-known writer Peter Straub, has been dead just over a month, and there is so much of him in that memory. "My brother would usually disappear because he would always find someone to play with, my mother would take up tennis, go for long walks or hikes, and my father and I would stay, sitting by the pool, drinking Coca Cola, each with his stack of books beside him. There, that to me is perfection."
A perfection that Alice, the protagonist of Emma Straub's new novel, Tomorrow at This Hour, published by Neri Pozza, rediscovers as she travels through time and discovers herself, on the eve of her fortieth birthday, to be sixteen again. No longer beside her father, Leonard Stern, who is elderly and confined to a hospital bed, but beside her father who is young, full of life, charming. And with a new opportunity in her hands: to build a new relationship with him.
Why go back in time?
"I think this idea of traveling back in time, so revisiting, going over the crucial moments of one's life, is a compelling idea and also a very human one. We all have moments in our lives that we would like to go back to either because they were such painful moments that filled us with regret and so we would like to go back to change something, or on the contrary because they were such beautiful and unforgettable moments that we would like to simply repeat them. That's the simple idea, all in all, behind this book I wrote. I personally felt like spending a little more time with my father, and to do that I chose moments from my life and built this made-up world around them so that I could write this story."
Is there a lot of autobiography in it then?
"Yes this is my personal journey through time. The characters in the book are Alice and her father Leonard and they are definitely two different people from me and my father. I put a lot of care into making them very different from us: I am married and have two children, Alice is single, my father was married to my mother for 56 years, Leonard on the other hand is a separated man. Of much my own in this book are the feelings, indeed I would say that this is by far the most personal book I have ever written and ever intend to write."
Starting precisely with feelings, what work did you do to build Alice and Leonard's relationship as a woman, mother and daughter?
"That's a good question. Precisely because I wrote this book starting from the first months of the pandemic, I had to put the different parts of myself on the scale but in a different way than usual. I have two sons who are now 6 and 9 years old, but especially with the first son, when I took him to school, the next day was all about me, instead in these two years our identities were constantly being weighed in an attempt to stay in balance all day long: pandemic, lockdown, no babysitting. I was just a mother. Then my father ended up in the hospital and I found myself constantly shuttling back and forth between mother and daughter me, always trying to carve out that little bit of time to do my job. Since my father unfortunately died, I have gone back into daughter mode but I know that sooner or later I will return to my life as a woman, mother, writer, bookseller."
Has writing about Alice standing by her dying father also helped her deal with the same situation in her daily life?
"Enormously. I think I knew it was going to be this way. When I was writing this book I cried every day however that feeling I appreciated it and yet I appreciated it to the fullest only when I finished the writing of the book and gave it to my father. And he liked it very much. It's not for everyone, you have to be a very out-of-the-ordinary person to accept such a gift. He knew he was close to death, and I remember the first thing he jokingly asked me was, "What page do I die on?" I realized how rare it is for a writer to have someone who will understand the finished product but especially the experience you had as a writer, in preparing this work. Your acceptance of this book because of how I wrote it and what I wrote."
As a writer, was she frightened by the idea of writing a novel going back in time?
"Yes, I was worried because I had never approached anything like that. My books are always about relationships between members of the same families, complex and populated but I've never had any inclination to write science fiction. I was particularly concerned because my father, who was a genre writer, had put me on notice. He hated it when a literary writer stole some element of genre literature, the kind he did, to write in a completely different genre. Now the topos of time travel completely transcends science fiction, it belongs to all of us, it's an element you find in cartoons, in so many movies, and even in high literature."
What does it mean for you to offer this book to readers?
"The book came out in the United States in May, and right away I began to be contacted by people who had lost someone dear to them. It was really incredible. I was inundated with messages from people telling me about their losses and how much they wished they could go back in time with the person they had lost. It is very difficult for a writer to imagine how his or her book will be received; I think my novel hit people in a very sensitive place. I find it wonderful when they tell me they cried reading it."
What moment would you like to return to today if you could?
"Right now I would like to go back to the vacations I took as a child with my parents and my older brother. He would usually disappear because he would always find someone to play with, my mother would go for tennis, long walks or hikes, and my father and I would stay, sitting by the pool, drinking Coca Cola, each with his stack of books beside him. There, that to me is perfection."