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How Emma Straub got to know Los Angeles for 'Laura Lamont'

September 10, 2012|by Carolyn Kellogg
  • Emma Straub, the author of "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures"
Emma Straub, the author of "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures" (Emma Straub, copyright…)

Internet regulars know Emma Straub, an effervescent young writer and bookseller from New York who has been accused of being the nicest person on Twitter.

In her debut novel, “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures,” tells a classic tale of fame and family set in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Aspiring actress Elsa Pitts arrives in Los Angeles in the 1930s; she quickly goes from comely Midwestern blond to glamorous brunette. Of course the name -- Elsa Pitts -- had to go. Probably faster than the hair.

In preparing to write the book, Straub started by watching a lot of old movies. That wasn’t enough, however; like her heroine, she had to come to Los Angeles.

Straub will read from “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday  at Skylight Books. She answered our questions about how she got to know Hollywood.

Jacket Copy: “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” tells the story of a starlet in Hollywood’s gilded age. Was that always the book’s setting?

Emma Straub: Absolutely -- the setting and the story were intertwined from the start. There would be no earthly way to tell Laura's story without Hollywood. There are actors everywhere, of course, but there are only Movie Stars in Hollywood.

JC: When you began writing, did you plan to come visit L.A.?

ES: I'd been to L.A. maybe 20 times before, over the years, but it's such a sprawling, giant place, I knew I had to do some serious research before attempting to write about it. I was most concerned with making sure I understood the studios, and the sort of places actresses like Laura would inhabit, but I did feel like I needed a much deeper understanding of the city itself. I took a few research trips -- a couple of short ones, and then one long one, a whole month.

JC: You thank the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Margaret Herrick Library in your acknowledgments. What it like doing research there?

ES: It was dreamy. The place is quiet as a tomb, which is exactly how I like to work. The librarians are helpful, even if, like me, you walk in like a total idiot and say "I need to learn about Hollywood between 1938 and 1980." Ha! They helped me make sense of their exhaustive collection.

JC: Did you visit any specific places to get a sense of the city’s past?

ES: I went to Paramount, and to Warner Brothers, and to Sony, the former MGM. I went to Union Station, and the Biltmore, and the Hollywood Bowl. I went to half a dozen movie theaters. I ate at Yamashiro. I wanted as many specific places in my head as possible. Of course, when writing fiction, all of that blurs out and becomes something new. The research only gets you so far.

JC: Were there any Laura Lamont haunts you would have liked to visit in person, but couldn’t?

ES: I didn't get to as many of the old-school L.A. restaurants as I wanted to, but blame that on Gjelina and all the different kinds of avocados at the farmers' markets. I also would have liked to spend more time at the studios, but that's more for geeky fan-girl purposes.

JC: Did anything about the city surprise you?

ES: As a New York City native, I was raised to look down on Los Angeles. You know, Biggie vs Tupac, etc. [Jacket Copy: Clearly Tupac is superior. Please] I think the biggest surprise for me, over the course of the last few years, is how much I really love it. My older brother is smart and has lived in L.A. since he was 18. If my husband had his druthers, we would be living somewhere near the Arclight. Or maybe living at the Arclight. 

JC: Did anything you discovered here change the course of your novel?

ES: There are a lot of things I discovered in L.A. that changed various aspects of it, sure. I think the whole book would have been impossible without the research I did at the Herrick. It's hard to pick out individual things -- Irving Green, my character who is based on Irving Thalberg, wasn't in the first draft. That's a big one.

JC: Are there any commonalities between a studio actress of the 1940s and a young writer today?

ES: Hope? Devotion? I think both actors and writers are starry-eyed, and require a laser focus simultaneously. It's so hard to do anything creative, to really devote yourself to it fully. That's what Laura wanted to do, to work and work and work until she felt like she could make sense of her life, and the lives around her, and that's what I'm trying to do, too.

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