Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming collection The Isle of Youth, a book that prompted a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly to gush, “If ever there was a writer going places, it’s Laura van den Berg.” Her previous story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books, was called “stunning, desolate, and unforgettable” by Booklist.
In this interview, van den Berg discusses her drafting process, how a childhood spent in Florida gave birth to a slanted sense of reality, and how she reads to solve her own writing challenges.
(For an exercise based on her weird and tender story “Farewell My Loveds” click here.)
You do such a great job at creating suspense in this story: What is the nature of the hole in the street? How did the parents die? Who was Calvin? I’m curious how you approach a scene or section of a story. Do you begin with an idea (for instance, a hole in the street) and then write a scene that revolves around that mystery, delaying as long as possible the answer? Or do you start with something more nebulous and then create the elements of suspense in revision?
Laura van den Berg
I’m an “intuitive drafter,” which means I usually barrel ahead without any kind of plan and end up with a mess on my hands. The real story often doesn’t emerge until I’m deep into revision. But for “Goodbye My Loveds,” the narrator was always grappling with not having access to certain kinds of information, so many of those questions were present in early drafts. However, the handling of those questions—what will be revealed; what will be denied; what will be offered in the place of the missing information—changed dramatically during the revision process.
One thing I love about this story is how quickly you’re able to establish the dynamic between the brother and sister. There’s one moment in particular that is really great. The sister has convinced her brother to leave the hole and go back into their apartment. You write, “He thanked me for looking at the hole and apologized for waking me so early. I told him it was okay, I was glad to see it.” There’s such sweetness in that moment. It comes shortly after the sister says that her brother “was twelve, but most people thought he was younger.” In just a few sentences, you’re able to show a basic dynamic (he’s immature and headstrong, she’s protective) but also how much they care for each other. How did you develop these characters in your head? Did you begin with sketches of them? Or did you drop them into the premise to see what personalities emerged?
Laura van den Berg
For this story, “drop them into the premise to see what personalities emerged” would be the most accurate. I did a lot of work around adding texture/complications to the brother-sister relationship, but that rapport was, happily, there from the beginning.
I’m interested in how you describe your own work. If someone asks you, “What kind of stuff do you write?” what do you say? I ask because this story has a strong non-realistic element. I’m not sure what to call it: absurdist, fantastic? At the very least, the premise is elevated beyond what we generally think of as realism. Your other stories do this as well. You have one about an actress who takes a job pretending to be Bigfoot. Other writers (George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell) have a similar aesthetic. It’s as if you and they are combining the light, fun qualities of pulp with the emotional depth of literary fiction. What do you think? Do people ever look at you funny when you tell them you’ve written a great, serious, beautiful story about Bigfoot?
Laura van den Berg
I would agree that my work isn’t quite realist, but I’d be hesitant to put myself in league with George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, and Karen Russell—and not just because they are all staggeringly good writers whose work I admire greatly!
To take the Bigfoot story as an example: a more committed fabulist—or magical realist, etc—might very well have Bigfoot appear as a character in all his (her?) monstrous glory, where as “Where We Must Be” concerns a woman dressing up as Bigfoot, which is certainly unusual, but could, for all we know, be happening somewhere in the world as this very moment (I kind of hope it is!). To me reality seems perpetually multifarious, bewildering; it often evolves, sometimes instantaneously, without our consent. I am most drawn to fiction, and hope to write fiction, where the force of that disorientation is felt.
Aesthetic and perspective are often inexorably linked—how do you see the world? Where are you coming from when you sit down to write? I grew up in Florida, a deeply odd place, in a large family prone to eccentricity. For example, we kept, for a time, a wolf as a pet. Her name was Natasha and she lived in our suburban backyard, where she became a prodigious pacer and digger of holes. In graduate school, the details my peers often tagged as being “surreal” and “bizarre” seemed pretty normal to me; without knowing it, I had carried the eccentricity that I had lived, that felt as much like “reality” as anything, over into my work. In time, I realized that aesthetic/perspective could become not only a stylistic feature, but also a meaningful narrative tool.
I was even more conscious of this when working on my second collection, The Isle of Youth, due out in November. All the stories involve crime/mystery in one way or another: a woman investigating the mysterious death of her scientist brother in Antarctica; a gang of teenage bank robbers called the Gorillas; twin sisters who trade identities and become ensnared in the Miami underworld. I love noir, and I was aware of using that stylistic features as a means of reaching a new—for me—emotional/psychological/aesthetic space.
Going back to Bigfoot, people do look at me funny sometimes. Occasionally people seem surprised that a woman would write about Bigfoot, which surprised me as I hadn’t been aware that cryptids were such masculine territory. And a lot of people have asked if I had ever worked as a Bigfoot impersonator. I’m always a little heartbroken when I have to answer “no.”
I believe you’re currently at work on a novel. When you find yourself stumped, which writer do you turn to?
Laura van den Berg
I am often stumped and while, like most any writer, I have a huge stable of “favorites,” I often find myself turning to whatever I’m reading at the time. For example, I recently finished Rachel Kushner’s stunning novel The Flame Throwers and that novel taught me a great deal about writing a certain kind of first person narrator—and also a great deal about endings. So what I’m reading often helps me with whatever puzzle has been tripping me up—Ah! How did the writer pull off that ending/scene/tone/structure?—or even helps in the sense that it shows me what I hope to avoid in my work—Where did things go awry? How could the writer have avoided falling into that particular trap? How can I avoid falling into that trap? I usually am reading a few books at the same time and more often than not, they are all teaching me something.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.