The amazing Laura van den Berg, whose second collection The Isle of Youth just made the Frank O’Connor shortlist, talks with The Masters Review about paving her own path in the arts, her upcoming novel, and her constantly shifting writers office.
One of the reasons I find your career remarkable is that you, so far (and I know you have a novel out soon) have gained success purely as a storywriter in a publishing world that seems skewed toward the novel. You had a chapbook of stories with Origami Zoo Press, then What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, another story collection [with Dzanc Books] and this past year The Isle of Youth, with FSG. I guess my question is: how did you do it? Did you find it was more difficult to publish a debut collection of stories, in particular? Did you ever feel pressure to write a longer work?
I mean, the most straightforward answer is that I just did it because that was the form that was speaking to me at the time. I think sometimes it can be difficult to engineer a particular path in the arts, as much as we might want to. I love reading novels and I just finished a novel. I started with the first chapter of that novel in 2008. So certainly as I worked on the novel, I’d been writing stories along the way. For me the two forms were kind of bleeding together at a certain point, as opposed to making some sort of holistic gearshift from storywriter to novelist. Everything was a little bit more mixed together than that.
I went to an MFA program and I wrote stories for workshop and my first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us . . . my MFA thesis was an early version of that book. And then what happened with the second collection, Isle of Youth, was that I started a novel in 2008 and I was working on it, and I had never written a novel before. And so it just took me much, much longer than I ever could’ve anticipated. And meanwhile, you know, I was writing stories and sending them out, etc. At a certain point I felt like the novel still wasn’t quite there, but that the collection was pretty well done, and I showed them both to my agent, and she agreed. We made the decision to send out the second collection in its completion with the first hundred pages of the novel. And certainly we heard from some editors who had difficulty with the idea of doing a second collection and thought that it would be better for me to wait until the novel was done and have a novel be my second book. The idea of doing two back-to-back collections didn’t seem viable to them. They sort of felt like it wasn’t a good strategy for me career-wise. But I don’t really believe in thinking about it that way. I was just sort of like: well, this is the book that’s finished. And I fell in love with fiction by reading short stories. The story is a form that’s very, very close to my heart. And so, I love the idea of getting to build a body of work as a storywriter. And then my editor at FSG just had a completely different take. She thought having a second collection of stories was a great way to build a readership as a storywriter before they publish my novel.
So I think that’s the thing about publishing: it’s a very rare situation where the views are going to be completely uniform. You know, you don’t need everyone to say yes, and you don’t need everyone to think that the path you’ve chosen is the right path. You just need that one person who sees things in a way that you do and I was lucky enough to find that.
I think story collections . . . there’s a lot of bad press for them in terms of salability, and it’s true that there are particular challenges with selling collections. But I think the honest truth is there are particular challenges with selling anything. So a little part of me dies when I hear someone say something like: “Well, I wrote a story collection but I know it’s not salable, so I’m working on a novel instead.” I just think of all of the people I know who have unsold novels or unsold memoirs, which are supposed to be the easiest thing to sell. The reality is that it’s all extremely difficult to sell, and so I’m not really convinced that one form is more difficult than another.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Another aspect of your stories that I really admire, and it’s something that I don’t think many people talk about, is how well researched they are. Your stories include facts about really strange things. You write with a lot of authority about the rare twinflower and the Loch Ness Monster [“Inverness”]; the lemurs in Madagascar [“What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us”]; the lore surrounding the Mishegenabeg [“Up High in the Air”]; and even the landscape of Antarctica [“Antarctica”]—to name a few. So I’m just wondering: how does research play a role in your writing process, particularly for these stories? And do you find inspiration in facts?
The truth is, I don’t do a huge amount of research. I know there are some writers who really love to fall down the research rabbit hole and read like ten books about Madagascar. That’s not really my inclination. When I research I’m looking for two things. I’m looking for the kind of information I need to hopefully not make some sort of terrible blunder. Like, you know, if I don’t know that Madagascar’s an island for example, that’s gonna be a problem for the average reader. I’m also looking for the weird, idiosyncratic, imagistically vivid facts that will help nurture this imaginative world that’s taking shape. My favorite way to research place is to find travel guides and read through them. If you pick up a Lonely Planet, it has both those things. It has basic information about language and currency and geography that you might be looking for. But it also has a lot of idiosyncratic details about the place. I like to read through a travel guide and pretend that I’m going on a very long journey to this place and think about what I would need to bring, and what I would need to know, and what I would want to do and see there, etc.
And I think, also, the narrative angle matters a lot in terms of the burden of expertise that you have to bring to the story. For example, with the Antarctica story, I’d been trying to write a story about Antarctica for . . . six or seven years probably and it kept dying. Midway through the story, you could just see it shriveling up. And I couldn’t figure out why. And when I wrote the story “Antarctica” that was in Isle I realized that I had been approaching those other stories in the wrong way for me. And what I mean by that is that I kept trying to write from the perspective of a research scientist who had been living in Antarctica on a scientific research base for some time. And when you choose that point of view, the narrator has to not only be an expert on the landscape of Antarctica, but they have to be an expert on some sort of science and how that relates to Antarctica, and so forth. And, I’ve never been to Antarctica and I don’t really know anything about any kind of science. And so the gap in information was just too great for me. I always tell my students that we’re only limited by what we can convincingly imagine and what was happening was that I was coming up against the limits of what I could convincingly imagine. And then I realized: If I’m writing from the perspective of an outsider, all the narrator really has to do is register the landscape to the reader in a vivid way. They don’t have to be an expert. They don’t have to know what all the stuff is called. They don’t have to know about all the science. It made be think back on the stories in What the World Will Look Like because those characters are always outsiders in the landscapes in which they find themselves. And so I think perhaps it’s no accident that I’ve chosen again and again to write from that perspective. Because I do think that changes the burden of expertise in terms of the kind of information that this character has to have.
That’s really interesting. Also your first novel will come out with FSG in 2015.
The blurb on your site describes it as being about “an America devastated by a sickness that destroys memory” and a young woman who is immune to this disorder. This sounds really interesting. Would you care to share any more information about it? And also just the main differences between the process of writing stories and the longer form.
The main difference for me was time. I might work for six months on a story, or maybe I’ll work on and off on a story for a year. But I’ve never worked on one continuous narrative for six years. I think the novel is so much about endurance. I’m a big Murakami fan, and he wrote this nonfiction book What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing. I’ve read some excerpts from it and there are some moments where he just talks about how if you’re engaged in any kind of athletic training it’s that sustained gradual push that allows you to eventually break through to the next plateau of endurance. And he draws a correlation between that and writing fiction. And for me I thought that that was absolutely true. And so the biggest challenge was just sustaining that energy, sustaining that forward momentum, and trusting that at some point you would break through to the next plateau. I found it to be that kind of very slow incremental process where you’re just pushing, pushing, pushing forward. Definitely more a marathon than a sprint, if you will.
And so. But to tell you a little bit more about the novel itself . . . the novel is set in an alternate America devastated by a sickness that destroys memory. It’s a two-part structure and the first half of the book is set in this creepy hospital in Kansas in the Midwest in winter and then the second part is the narrator, who is a young woman named Joy, out on the open road and she’s traveling toward Florida where she believes she can find her mother. The reason why I settled on an alternate “now”—as opposed to an America that might exist way in the future—was because our current moment feels so apocalyptic to me. Between war, between the various environmental meltdowns. In smaller ways, too. MRSA on planes. Cities that have been hit particularly hard by the economic turndown. I lived in Baltimore for three years—a wonderful city in many ways, a place I really love— but there are some neighborhoods that are still just ravaged. Boarded up building after boarded up building, no grocery stores, and so on. But people are still living there and trying to make a life there. So it was not any one thing but more a confluence of things that for me has made our moment in America feel so very apocalyptic. I really wanted to take that weather, that atmosphere, and ask: what might be the tipping point?
That sounds really interesting. I look forward to reading it.
Another question is: What writers would you consider your biggest influences?
As I said, short stories were my first love. When I was starting out a lot of people who are in what you might call the contemporary canon in terms of short fiction were huge influences. So Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Edward P. Jones, Jim Shepard, Alice Monroe, certainly. Those people were all very important to me. One thing that was particularly important to me in graduate school was that, when I arrived in my MFA program, I had really not read very much literature in translation. And I took a class on the contemporary French novel that really just blew my mind. I was introduced to people like Jean Echenoz and Marguerite Duras and Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Michel Houellebecq. And to me it felt like a totally different vision of what a novel could do and what a novel could be. So a lot of those writers were particularly important, and, I kept reading, you know, Echenoz and I kept reading Toussaint. One of his more recent books Running Away is a novel that I really love. So that was a very important discovery for me.
Great. My last question is: I read your piece on the FSG site about finishing The Isle of Youth, in which you discuss how your office was a portion of your living room, until your friends generously let you use their empty space. I thought this was a really interesting discussion of how physical space relates to creative space. I also essentially write from my living room, and so I was really intrigued by this. And I guess I’m just wondering: what is your office like these days and is there a certain atmosphere in which you work best?
Yes. I’ve actually found the atmosphere I work best is not at home. I’m married to another writer and our life has been very transient in some ways in that we’ve moved around quite a lot for jobs and fellowships. We currently live on a boarding school campus in Massachusetts for a job that my husband has and even there our life has been transient because we were in one kind of housing and now, this summer, we’re in another kind of housing. So I joined a communal writing space in Boston called The Writer’s Room. We live just outside Boston and I had been commuting to school for teaching and I couldn’t get in a really good groove at home. And so when I joined this communal writing space, it was just sort of immediately amazing. It’s super-quiet. You have great views, you have great light. And I think there’s just something about entering into this space where the only thing I do there is write. I don’t do any other kind of work there. It’s just helps me kick into a higher gear of concentration. You know, that’s not for everyone. But I am a big fan of the writing spaces. I recently took a one-year visiting writer position at Colby College. So with the Colby job the change for me is that I’ll be living part time in Maine and I don’t know how much I’ll be able to use this wonderful space in Boston because I’ll be farther away. So I really actually have no idea what my writing space will be like for the coming year.
But I’ve learned that there are definitely sets of circumstances that work best for me. The most ideal situation would be that I would be able to go to the communal writing space on a daily basis. But I think that our transient lifestyle has also trained us to be very flexible. And I think that’s important. I mean, we all have the right conditions and the right atmosphere that’s particularly conducive to work. But, you know, the fact is that life happens and life never stops happening. And so when I have students that are like: “I can only write at 5 o’clock in the evening, listening to classical music,” I’m like: Oh, I don’t think that’s gonna serve you very well out in the real world to have those sorts of constraints. Because the world tends to not helpfully clear away writing time for us. It’s something we really have to fight for. And I think some of that fighting means being flexible and being able to work under circumstances that might not be ideal.
Interview by Sadye Teiser