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A Novel Wants Your Life: An Interview With Laura van den Berg
After releasing two widely-acclaimed collections of stories—What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us in 2009 and The Isle of Youth in 2013—Laura van den Berg is releasing her first novel, Find Me, this month, to much anticipation and advanced praise.
The novel tracks a fatal, memory-erasing epidemic that plagues the country, and the sinister hospital where—so it is being promised—a cure is in development. We follow Joy, Van den Berg’s protagonist, through this uncanny landscape, and a reader couldn’t ask for a better, more compelling guide: she is equal parts frightened and confident, jaded and hopeful, resigned and mutinous. And this is Laura van den Berg’s great strength: capturing with envy-inducing precision the fraught and fragile duality of human experience and connection. Her characters—like so many of us, like maybe all of us—often find themselves caught in Chinese finger traps, often of their own making, and it is something special on the page to watch as Laura van den Berg examines the ways in which they pull at the warp and weft.
This interview was conducted over email with Laura, whose brain should be studied.
Vincent Scarpa: You are—whether or not modesty prevents you from copping to it—a master of craft when it comes to the short story. This is an opinion shared by most everyone I talk to who has read the stories in Isle of Youth and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. I genuinely have yet to find a single detractor.I came to know your work—and then came to know you, after sending an embarrassing fan letter in high school—through your story “Where We Must Be,”and have remained utterly dropped-jaw ever since when I read you. I bring up that story in particular because it seems the best example of something you do so well in the short story, and something that’s incredibly difficult to pull off, which is striking the exact right balance between the A-story and the B-story, and making that juxtaposition a deeply resonant one for the reader. “Where We Must Be”is just one of many of your stories that function structurally in this way, but this is also a sweet spot that seems primarily reserved for the short form—the limits the form imposes are conducive to that kind of meaningful juggling. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the transition then from working with twenty-five pages or so of space into writing a novel like Find Me. What impulses that you may have felt in working on short fiction did you find yourself having to work against here? What literary muscles needed to be retrained, what tricks or methods abandoned?
Laura van den Berg: I’m not going to lie: it was a tough transition. I wrote the first draft of the novel in 2008 and approached it in exactly the same way I would when drafting a short story: wrote it all the way through, in a big rush, said yes to everything, no matter how ill-advised, jumped off every cliff, totaled every car, etc. In years past, did Find Me contain A. a subplot about a drug-dealing televangelist, B. a subplot about teleportation conspiracy theories, C. subplot about mind control, or D. all of the above?
All of the above, Vincent. All of the above.
As it turned out, having a 300-page disaster on your hands was very different than a 25-page disaster. Not long after I finished the first draft of Find Me, I had my first collection of stories come out and moved to rural Pennsylvania and was trying to negotiate a difficult period in my family life and my first full-time teaching job and relationships that mattered to me—you know, living. That slowed my progress for a while and then it took me a while longer to face my hideously messy draft, to understand what I’d done and how I might break from it, and then there was an even longer cycle of re-writing and starting over, re-writing and starting over. It was very hard to not be finishing anything for long stretches, that constant state of suspension, which was part of the reason why I started writing stories along the way and ended up with Isle.
Process-wise, the biggest thing I had to move away from was the incremental approach. If I am really into a story I’m working on, I could write a scene while holed up in the bathroom of a raging party—in fact, I have done just that. I could write another scene in the morning with coffee, another in my office at school, and so on, and all those little bits of time can actually add up to something worthwhile. With my novel, I found that ultimately I couldn’t work incrementally, in the midst of daily life, or else I was just going to keep repainting a house that needed to be set on fire and bulldozed. A novel wants your life, in a way—at the risk of sounding melodramatic—and so consequently a lot of the most important work was done at residences, when it could have my life for a set period of time, or during stretches at home where I could lock myself in a room for many hours.
So it was hard, but I don’t mean to make it sound like drudgery—it wasn’t at all. I’m not inclined toward drudgery, so if it was a slog, I would have given up on the book years ago, for I am not a very good slogger. The hard part was mainly psychological: how to keep the faith, how to not let doubt erode the project, how to ask the right questions, how to see with greater depth and clarity. To come through the other side of that, to get to have a lengthy and intense relationship with a project, is richly rewarding and…kind of addictive? In the midst of the toughest patches, there were times when I thought, Goddamn, I’ll never write another novel again, and now what am I working on? Yep.
VS: For many short story writers—or, at least, for this one—what’s frightening about the prospect of a novel is the necessity of unlearning the impulse to always be closing. You and I both had the gift of studying with Pamela Painter—the unofficial queen of the short-short—and she’s very much a writer and teacher who encourages this idea of always having the end in sight. I’ve found that tremendously helpful in writing stories, but I imagine that ideology sort of needs to be jettisoned when working on a 270-page novel, no? You must be willing to write with the purpose of opening up more avenues, more possibilities, rather than being in the mindset of getting from the first sentence to the last. And, perhaps most obviously, you have to convince yourself as the writer that your potential reader will be both willing and wanting to follow your lead for a much longer time. Having gotten to the other side of this obstacle now, I’d be curious to know how you’re approaching stories, if you’ve returned to them. What, in terms of craft, has revealed itself as true or mostly true in working on both the short and long level?
LvdB: I do remember Pam talking about having an end in sight—and I often feel that with short stories. I might not know how it ends, but maybe there is an image or some kind of vague point on the horizon I sense I’m writing towards. And I tried to hold on to that with the novel, but ultimately had to embrace letting go—of not knowing the ending or even the next chapter or turning point. I had a two- or three-year stretch where I would think (and, ugh, say) periodically, “I’ve got it! I’ve figured it out! I’m almost done!”and that feeling would always turn out to be illusory, a mirage in the desert, until one day it wasn’t, but by then I had at least started saying those things aloud. If you’re working on a novel, whatever you do, don’t say, “I am almost finished with my novel.”It’s worse than chanting Bloody Mary three times in front of a mirror.
In the novels I most admire, there is this sense that, within the confines of the world, the possibilities are always opening in new and surprising ways—that was a quality I strived to capture, with the hope that the reader would be willing to follow me. Since I was working on stories, on and off, while I was writing Find Me, it didn’t feel strange to return to the shorter form. The story is my first love and though I’m working on a new novel project now, I’m also working on stories; the story-novel rhythm seems to be a good one for me. There’s an Aimee Bender quote that I think of often and it goes: “Write what you feel like writing each day…it sounds so basic, but there’s something radical in it, and it has helped me many, many times.” I love this sentiment, and working on stories and a novel at the same time helps me from feeling too “trapped” in a project. And I love that sense of expanding possibilities in the story form, too. So perhaps the concept isn’t so different, but it’s just that the scale is more compressed.
VS: Find Me is a novel concerned with many things, but primarily it is asking questions and seeking answers about memory: its malleability, its relationship to abandonment, and the ways in which it comes to calibrate our lives. Joy, your unforgettable narrator [accidental pun!], has this to say: “A theory on why we stop remembering: there is a part of our story that we do not know how to tell ourselves and we will away its existence for so long that finally our brain agrees to a trade: I will let you forget this, but you will never feel whole.”I found that passage so moving. It’s such an elegant thesis about the pursuit of willful amnesia as a kind of survival skill, as well an astute commentary on how our memories—be they accurate or not, if memory can even be said to be evaluated in terms of accuracy—often irritate our attempts at self-narrativizing. What about these concepts compelled you toward a novel about a fatal, memory-erasing epidemic—told in the first person, no less! How did you wrangle such a limitless area of inquiry into what Find Me contains?
LvdB: To a certain degree, I think both self-narrativizing and selective memory are essential survival skills. It’s that Joan Didion chestnut:“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But to what extent are our memories objectively “real”and to what extent are they influenced by our self-narrativizing? That can be a tough question to parse. In any case, this is an area that interests me enormously and that accounts for my draw to the first person, I think. Even a reasonably reliable first person narrator is still engaged in self-narrativizing. Jim Shepard, by the way, is brilliant on this, both in his first person stories and in his lectures/writing on craft.
In my teens, I went through a very bad mental health patch and found myself in a therapy group made up of young women, some of whom had endured truly horrific childhood traumas. In some cases, these women had the sense that something terrible had happened to them, but key details were repressed. This struggle was not my struggle—I had my problems, but my parents loved me, I had never been abused, I did not have vast stretches of missing time—and yet I will never forget witnessing that battle occurring within these women, being desperate to remember and also being terrified to face what their memories might be holding. Not remembering was killing them, but remembering might kill them, too.
So the divided self was always the draw. Certainly I was aware of the larger echoes of self-narrativizing and collective amnesia on both a national and global stage—I wrote the first draft of this novel on the heels of the Bush years—and for a while, there were threads that tried, not very successfully, to speak to the cultural amnesia more explicitly, but ultimately the book found itself when those threads fell away and I just fully embraced Joy’s interior journey.
VS: The ideas regarding memory that the novel presents are further complicated when Nelson, a man Joy finds on the road while seeking her mother, makes an interesting distinction between the human and the animal, saying, “…what separates us from animals is not logical thought but our ability to set our own traps.”In what ways do you see Joy as setting her own traps in the novel? And, in a broader sense, in what way do we as humans do this? It’s an unnerving observation in how dead-on it feels, how precisely it is delivered.
LvdB: I think we’re often guilty of gravitating towards the familiar. Even if we recognize that certain patterns are unsatisfying and destructive, there can still be a comfort in the familiar recognition of a cycle repeating itself. When we do things that are bad for us, we’re often keenly aware of a destructive impulse playing out. Joy feels “less than”and thus has a tendency to end up in situations where her power has been ceded to another figure. The novel tracks her gradual, flawed fight for autonomy.
VS: On a craft level, I really loved the way lists function in the novel. Joy makes lists habitually, willing herself to remember things both painful and banal. This move does double-duty, in the sense that the lists are of course resonant in a context wherein so much is being forgotten, but they also provide an opportunity for the reader to see Joy as setting her own traps, in that these lists limit, they self-synopsize, they purport to be in and of themselves wholes. Or are they holes? When she’s listing, the reader has a chance to see the way in which Joy is comforted by distillation, by tailoring. How do you see the lists functioning formally in the novel, and was that an organic maneuver in drafting?
LvdB: Oh, I’m so glad you asked about the lists! They were fun to write. They started as a way for me to understand Joy’s character and the world at large, and I believe it was my editor who suggested they take on a fuller role. I think they’re definitely a way Joy organizes her understanding of her environment, which is often bewildering, but it also shows the limits of her understanding. She can list facts about Kansas, for example, but is that the same as knowing what Kansas really is as a place? She can list the chronology of her childhood and the rules of the hospital, but what exists in the gaps? So I do think they are holes, in that way; they hit on that distinction between information and a deeper kind of knowledge.
VS: Joy observes that, “to look inside yourself and see so much mystery is the worst kind of loneliness.”Reading that the first time, I felt the distinct pang in the abdomen I associate with your work, while also thinking, yes, of course, it is the worst kind of loneliness, but it is the best kind of fiction. Characters who share Joy’s sentiment are, to me, the most fascinating characters. Now having three books under your belt, there are some themes and abstractions which obviously preoccupy you, one of which is this idea of our own unknowability. That you frequently explore this in the first person is stunning to me, and a testament to your ambition and strength on the sentence level. Perhaps it’s a lofty and impossible question, but I’d love to hear you talk just a bit about why you feel magnetized toward this area? What about it continues to be generative for you in your work, perhaps even in your life?
LvdB: Why Vincent, I love causing people a “distinct pang in the abdomen.”Thank you!
Unknowability—I’m obsessed with it, obviously. I’m not in a therapy group any more, so now all my anxieties are appearing in my fiction. So much is unknowable, of course: the inner lives of those around us, our most hidden impulses and capacities, what will happen an hour from now, what will happen after we die. If I keep up this Joy-esque list, I might have an existential meltdown right here at my desk.
So here is a different list. Here are some of the things I think we want most in life: to, with as much clarity as possible, understand where we came from and what that history means; to understand who we are; to be known; to feel free. That might sound like a simple list, but I believe all four of those things are incredibly difficult to achieve—especially since it’s hard to feel truly known if you don’t understand yourself and your history. These things have to be fought for, oftentimes. Joy deeply wants all of those things and they are deeply inaccessible to her, and the fight to make them accessible is, for me, the central story. Maybe I’ll end up being the kind of writer who keeps trying to find different ways to look at a similar emotional landscape? A lot of my favorites are those kinds of writers, so I could do worse.
Laura van den Berg’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a finalist for the Frank OConnor International Short Story Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (published by FSG Originals in 2013), received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Find Me is her first novel. She lives in the Boston area.
Vincent Scarpa is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas and managing editor of The Austin Review.