Tag Archives: American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize

An Interview with Laura van den Berg

18 Jul
Laura van den Berg is the author of X. Her story, "Farewell My Loveds" does x

Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming story collection The Isle of Youth. In this interview, she discusses her story, “Farewell My Loveds,” which was published at American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

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.)

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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!

Laura van den Berg's "Where We Must Be" tells the story of a woman who finds a job playing the role of Bigfoot.

Laura van den Berg’s “Where We Must Be” tells the story of a woman who finds a job playing the role of Bigfoot. You can read it at The Nervous Breakdown.

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.”

Michael Noll

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

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is about motorcycle racing and the New York art world of the 1970s.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is about motorcycle racing and the New York art world of the 1970s.

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.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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Creating Suspense and Suspension of Disbelief

16 Jul
Laura van den Berg's story "Farewell My Loveds" was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Laura van den Berg’s story “Farewell My Loveds” was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Every writer must learn to create suspense. But how? Laura van den Berg offers a masterful lesson in her story “Goodbye My Loveds.” The story is included in van den Berg’s story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books and was first published in American Short Fiction and republished by Atticus Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story introduces a mystery right away: the hole in the street. But the exact nature of the hole is unclear. Is it bottomless as the little brother believes or simply a hole as his big sister, the narrator, suggests? In delaying the answer, the story not only makes the readers want to know the answer but also changes the readers’ expectations: perhaps the hole really is more than just a hole. In other words, when a story creates suspense, it also creates a suspension of disbelief in the reader.

Here’s a breakdown of van den Berg accomplishes this trick:

  1. She introduces the mystery (the hole in the street) and a sense of urgency (the brother wakes the narrator up at dawn to look at the hole).
  2. The narrator and her brother argue about whether the hole is actually a crack.
  3. The narrator and brother argue about when to use a flashlight.
  4. The narrator and brother argue about whether the hole is bottomless.
  5. The narrator imagines her brother disappearing into the hole.
  6. The characters go back to their apartment.

After each of the first five sections, the story shows us the hole. With each view, we (along with the narrator) see some new aspect of the hole and it becomes a little bigger, deeper, and darker. Here is each view:

  1.  “a dark circle on the asphalt. It was the size of a dinner plate, the borders uneven and jagged”
  2. “he reached inside, his arm disappearing to the elbow”…’Okay,’ I said, hoping he would stop before a rat found the soft tips of his fingers.”
  3. “It looked like a patch of asphalt just melted away, a miniature sinkhole precariously close to the rear of a brown Honda…I saw a narrow stream of darkness, as though I was gazing through a telescope trained on a black and starless sky.”
  4. “He aimed the light into the hole; the beam was swallowed by shadows.”
  5. “I examined the diameter and, to my relief, decided it wasn’t large enough for him to squeeze through.”

At the end, the narrator imagines her brother falling into it—and this moment introduces a new mystery: why would the narrator imagine such a thing? It is this mystery that will drive the story forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a small scene around a mystery.

  1. Choose a mystery. You might use a familiar horror from books/movies. In this story, van den Berg has used the bottomless pit. Here are some other options: pit of snakes, endless staircase, secret doorway, cutout eyes in a painting for someone to spy through, trapdoors, secret passages, monsters under the bed, bogeyman in the closet, stranger hiding in the back seat of the car, and spider under the bedcovers.
  2. Translate the mystery into familiar realistic setting. van den Berg makes her bottomless pit a pothole. Think about how you could put a secret doorway, endless staircase, or monster into your kitchen or bedroom. Which familiar objects could be made mysterious? Show it to the reader using non-fantastic details.
  3. Create two characters. One will believe that the mysterious object is truly mysterious, and the other will believe that it’s not. List ways that the first person might investigate the mystery.
  4. Let the characters argue about the nature of the mysterious object.
  5. After each investigation or argument, show the object again, with new details, each more mysterious than the last. Your goal is to make the reader appreciate the object in a new way.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Manuel Gonzales

21 Feb
Manuel Gonzalez's story "Farewell, Africa," was published in Guernica and the inspiration for this writing exercise. His new collection of stories, The Miniature Wife, is being mentioned in the same breath as George Saunders and A.M. Holmes.

Manuel Gonzales’s story “Farewell, Africa,” was published in Guernica and is included in The Miniature Wife, a new collection of stories that has been compared to the work of George Saunders and Aimee Bender.

Manuel Gonzales’s debut collection of stories, The Miniature Wife & Other Stories, has been called “extraordinary” by the LA Times. A review in The New York Times reveled in the stories’ “delightful freakishness.” His writing can also be found weekly on the 1000 Words project, where he writes and posts a weekly story inspired by an image created by the photographer Emily Raw. Gonzales serves as the Executive Director of Austin Bat Cave, a writing & tutoring center for kids located in Austin, Texas.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Gonzales discusses his approach to “Farewell, Africa,” which tells the unexpected story of a pool malfunction set against the backdrop of the destruction of the entire continent of Africa. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the immediate suspense created in the first line—can be found here.

Michael Noll

In the first sentence of the story, you introduce a problem (the pool didn’t work), but you don’t reveal what happens until several paragraphs later. Was this an intentional move on your part to create suspense in the reader, or did the opening paragraphs come about gradually, over the course of revision?

Manuel Gonzales

When I write these stories that have a sense of non-fiction to them, I always approach them with this idea in my head that the audience already knows the larger points of the story. So with this, I assumed that the imagined reading audience for this piece would already know that the African continent has sunk into the sea. So the world I created that would contain this essay had to be larger than the essay itself, because otherwise the essay wouldn’t work, and that world included an audience for the essay. And since everyone who was going to read this essay would already know about Africa, the starting point had to be something small and specific, this based on the kind of New Yorker article made popular by Talk of the Town contributors and Malcolm Gladwell that I had in mind as my model. So really, how I started the piece was determined as much by the structure of it as anything else, and the fact that this also developed a sense of tension in the real reading audience was a side-effect—a good one—of the early decisions I made about what kind of story I wanted to write.

Michael Noll

I’ve heard some writers claim that funny stories are impossible to write. But this obviously isn’t true for you. One of the best parts of this story is the weirdly detached tone the characters have toward the sinking of Africa. For instance, the first thing Owen Mitchell says about his famous speech “Farewell, Africa” is that it was fifteen minutes too long. But even the name of the speech itself seems oblivious to any sense of real tragedy. The disconnect works so well. Was it part of the story from the beginning, or did you have to figure out the right tone? Comedy (even black comedy) and the loss of civilizations wouldn’t seem like an obvious starting point for a story.

Manuel Gonzales

The comedy is generally there at the beginning all of my stories. I had this title in my head long before I wrote the story. I’d misread a NY Times headline (Farewell, Africa) as us saying goodbye to the African continent, as if it had gone away, and that made me think of the idea that we would have written a speech to work against the tragedy of the African continent sinking into the sea—because we turn to speeches in almost all times of crisis—and that struck me as sad and absurd and really funny because of the absurdity and futility of it. I think that comedy has to be paired with tragedy in order for both of them to achieve the effects you want them to achieve.

Michael Noll

At your book launch in Austin, you mentioned your love of stories that sound like nonfiction. This story seems to fit that description–journalistic in tone and approach. It’s almost possible to imagine this story appearing as a magazine profile. What draws you to the voice or style of the essay?

Manuel Gonzales

I really like reading essays, the New Yorker profile or a good GQ essay by Wells Tower or Rolling Stone piece by Mark Binelli or the old profiles and essays about New York written by Joseph Mitchell, and I liked the idea of using the techniques of a nonfiction piece in fiction. For one, you can get away with a lot of different things—exposition, for instance. You can load a nonfiction piece with exposition (telling instead of showing) without a lot of consequence, and then you also can use the tone and form to sidestep a number of obstacles that otherwise might gum you up when writing a piece of fiction. The tone gives you a certain kind of pre-set credibility, in fact, in the same way that medical language or legal language or scientific language can. Because when we read something in this tone and style, our expectations become set to ‘nonfiction’ almost subconsciously.

For this story specifically, I tried a few times to write about the guy who wrote the Farewell, Africa speech as a straightforward short story but found every time that the focus would become him and his small and narrow personal investments, and the story never achieved the tone or the largeness I wanted it to, never became the thing I wanted to read. So, after a few false starts, I decided to try writing a Talk of the Town piece about that guy, and that led me to the idea that what I would write about would be a fundraiser party for a museum dedicated to these continents that had sunk into the sea, and from there, everything else fell into place.

The other thing about using this kind of form is that you can break out of it and by breaking out of the form, for just a moment, in the middle of the piece, you create a space that’s a little surprising and potentially more emotional because of how and when it arrives.

Michael Noll

Here’s sort of a weird question: Lots of writers/people apparently send Bill Watterson their work, simply because they loved his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. They don’t expect a response from him. They’re just happy knowing that he might see their work. If you could send your story or your collection to any writer, living or dead, just in the hope that he or she would read it, who would you send it to?

Manuel Gonzales

Joss Whedon. I could go on and on about his work and how he creates story and how he moves in and out of genres, uses various compelling and fascinating forms, and how he works from a very emotional and very relatable starting point with all of this, which is what makes the stories work the way they do. As a writer, he’s been one of my bigger influences. He was one of the first in television to create season-long story arcs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files (not a Joss Whedon show but the two overlap a little) you could say led to, ultimately, shows like The Sopranos, Alias, The Wire, and Lost—full of complicated storylines, deeply felt and inhabited characters. He also traffics in a mix of genres. He’s worked in horror and in space westerns and in sci-fi thrillers, but what makes them successful, when they are their most successful, is his investment in character-driven stories. He and his writing staff are great at plotting but the plots serve the characters and their growth, helps complicate our understanding of these people and the worlds they inhabit, which has always struck me as a literary approach to storytelling.

February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Make the Reader Want to Know

19 Feb
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“Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales was published in Guernica. You can read the story online here. Or, you can check out the story collection The Miniature Wife.

The writer Ron Carlson once began a story workshop by listing the things that we, as writers, would love to be told—but would never hear—in a workshop. Number one was, “If you stop writing, I’ll die.” The truth is that we’ll never receive the praise we truly want. No one’s life hinges on our work. Our readers won’t die if we hang up our writing shoes.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t make them curious—maybe even make them sweat.

Manuel Gonzales’s new story, “Farewell, Africa,” rivals any potboiler for its ability to create suspense. By the end of the first sentence, we want to know something very badly, and we’ll read until we find it out. “Farewell, Africa” is included in the new story collection The Miniature Wife and was also recently published by Guernica. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

Kenneth Burke, in his essay “Psychology and Form,” explains the relationship between writer and audience. To create suspense in the reader’s mind, Burke claims, requires “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the [reader], and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.” To create the appetite, the writer first dangles a prize in front of the reader—saying, in effect, “You know you want this, reader.” Once the appetite is created, the writer delays handing over the prize as long as possible, introducing, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.”

Let’s look at how “Farewell, Africa” creates and then delays the satisfaction of an appetite.

The story begins this way: “No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked.” Immediately the reader wonders what went wrong. Or even, more basically, how can a pool not work? The statement is so unexpected and odd that we naturally want to know more.

But the story withholds the answer for several paragraphs. It shifts gears, explaining the pool’s size and architect and the fact that it “had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost.” Now we’re really intrigued. What continents were lost? What is this world we’ve entered? In effect, the story has pulled a bit of sleight of hand, replacing the initial prize that we wanted with something else that we also want. We want to know why the pool didn’t work, but we’re distracted with the sheer strangeness of a world with disappearing continents. When, at the end of Part I, the story finally returns to the pool, it’s with a savage, understated rush that catches us by surprise: “’The damn thing’s not working.’ Then he took a sip of champagne and said, ‘Too bad this didn’t happen with the real Africa.'”

As readers, once we’re hooked so firmly, we’ll follow the story wherever it goes.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Begin a scene by selecting a place (i.e. kitchen) and at least two characters (man, woman).
  2. In the first sentence of the paragraph, tell the reader what will happen in the scene (man will propose, woman will reveal she’s pregnant). There are many different ways to approach this first sentence, but, for now, simply tell the reader the information, either in third person (The man practiced his marriage proposal as he walked into the kitchen) or in first person (I didn’t want to tell him I was pregnant right away, so when he came into the kitchen, I asked if he’d picked up take-out).
  3. In the second sentence, introduce a diversion—or, as Burke calls it, a frustration. The diversion can be anything (take-out or the lack of). The idea is to get the reader interested and distracted by this new piece of information.
  4. Follow the diversion for as long as you can (argument about take-out).
  5. Then, surprise the reader by coming back to the info promised by the first sentence (Oh, by the way, Honey, we’re having a baby).

In short, promise the reader something, delay delivering on the promise for as long as possible, and then deliver. That’s one way to create suspense.

To learn more, look for an interview with Manuel Gonzales on Thursday.

Happy writing.

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