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Emma Straub on using time travel to escape the pandemic in 'This Time Tomorrow'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you could be your 16-year-old self all over again, what would you change? That question is at the heart of Emma Straub's new novel, "This Time Tomorrow," in which the central character, Alice, is turning 40. But when she wakes up in the morning after what we can fairly call a big birthday bender in a bar, she is not 40, she is 16. She is somehow back in her teenage bedroom, in her teenage body, and everyone around her, including her beloved dad, is young again, too.

Emma Straub, hey there.

EMMA STRAUB: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: OK, I want to start with Alice. As I mentioned, she's turning 40. But she still lives in the same apartment she had since she was 25. She is still in the same starter job working at the school that she went to when she was a kid. She's dating a guy she's not really in love with, and it's not clear if she's going to do anything about that. Is it fair to say Alice is stuck?

STRAUB: Yeah. You know, Alice is definitely stuck. She's in a holding pattern. And she's not quite sure how to shake out of it, although I will also say that she's not miserable. You know, it's not that she's made horrible life choices. It's more that she hasn't really made any life choices (laughter).

KELLY: So you bring in about the most dramatic way possible to shake things up for her - time travel.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: And I thought one of the really fun things about this book was I was trying to figure out what kind of time travel are we dealing with here? Is this going to be like "Groundhog Day"? Is this like "Back To The Future"? Without, you know, giving anything away, just give us a little bit of a sense of what happens.

STRAUB: Yeah. Well, OK, so that - you know, that was - one of the really fun things about writing this book was having that sort of conversation with myself. What kind of time travel is going on here? What are the rules? And then also having Alice go through that because Alice and I are the same age, and we both grew up on, I would say, a steady diet of time travel. You know, the '80s and early '90s were rich with time travel narratives.

And I wrote this in 2020 when, of course, I couldn't go anywhere. I couldn't really walk down the street. I couldn't leave my house. And I couldn't abandon my small children or my current life. And all I wanted to do was this. All I wanted to do was have access to the places that I love the most, which are the, like - the, you know, diners and hot dog restaurants of my youth on the Upper West Side.

KELLY: Wow, and I love that. I hadn't thought about writing a time travel story during the pandemic, when we all were desperate to travel to another point in time. And I'm picturing you now, you know, in lockdown, in quarantine with little kids running around saying, Mom's going to just disappear. And you had your own portal, in a way. You powered up your laptop, and you were headed somewhere else.

STRAUB: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

KELLY: It feels like we should let people know this is - it's a story about time travel. It's also very much a love story about the love between a child and their parent. So introduce us to your other main character, Leonard.

STRAUB: It really is a love story. It's a love story between Alice and her father, Leonard Stern, who in her present day is in a hospital, mostly unresponsive and hooked up to a lot of machines and dying. And it might sound strange to say that I have written an autobiographical time travel novel, but it's...

KELLY: (Laughter).

STRAUB: ...It's exactly what I've done. Like Alice, my father is a writer. And he was quite, quite ill while I was writing this. And this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to go somewhere where we were both safe and healthy and chain-smoking and watching "Jeopardy!" Like, I wanted to go sit at our kitchen table and just have everything be OK, and so that's what I did.

KELLY: Oh. Did it help? Did it work?

STRAUB: It did. It did. I mean, I cried a lot (laughter). I cried a lot while writing. But I really - I enjoyed every minute of it because it felt so real to me. And my father is OK.

KELLY: Oh, I'm so glad. I was going to ask, yeah.

STRAUB: Yeah, he's OK, and writing this book was very much a gift for myself. You know, as you said, it's a portal that I gave myself. And so, you know, it would have been incredibly meaningful to me regardless. But the fact that my dad then got to read it was pretty wonderful.

KELLY: Yeah, that's lovely. I do need to ask about one other character - this unchanging, eternal character, whatever time moment we're in - the cat...

STRAUB: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Ursula, is alive and well. This cat must be, what, at least 25 years old?

STRAUB: Yeah.

KELLY: Unless she, too, is a time traveler - what is it with Ursula?

STRAUB: Ursula is immortal. I - you know, I just - I decided - I got several notes from my editor at various points saying, what is going on with this cat?

KELLY: I'm with your editor (laughter).

STRAUB: But I (laughter) - the other - you know, the other deep relationship - this is exactly why people come on NPR, right? To say these kinds of things - is my beloved cat, Killer, who was 16, died while I was writing this book. And I wanted her to live forever.

KELLY: Yeah.

STRAUB: And so she did. She is there. She is Ursula. She's ageless. She's immortal. She's perfect. Yeah, you know, if we can't grant the creatures that we love immortality in fiction, then what is the point?

KELLY: I love that. So through the book, Killer is still curled up on your chest when you wake up in the morning. Yeah. What would you go back and change if you woke up and you could be 16 again?

STRAUB: I don't think I would change anything. I think I would just - I would really - I would ask more questions. And I would soak it all in. I would soak it all in.

You know, it still seems just wild to me to think about how young my parents were, how young my grandparents were, you know, just people who I don't have access to in the same way or who - you know, I don't have access to those versions of them anymore. Yeah, and also, you know, maybe, like, jump off something high...

KELLY: (Laughter).

STRAUB: ...Just to do it, you know? Just be a little reckless.

KELLY: Take advantage of that 16-year-old body that's going to spring right back.

STRAUB: Yeah, those, like, bouncy bones and things.

KELLY: And it sounds like just to go back and sit at your kitchen table again - the moments that don't stand out when you're living through them because it's every day, and you realize it's the everyday that's the stuff you're going to miss.

STRAUB: Yeah. Just the "Jeopardy!" at the kitchen table. Alex Trebek forever.

KELLY: (Laughter) We've been speaking with Emma Straub. Her new novel is "This Time Tomorrow." Thank you so much.

STRAUB: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.