An Interview with Novelist and Short Story Writer Laura van den Berg by Carleton Whaley (2016)

Laura van den Berg is a short story writer and novelist known for her collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, as well as her debut novel Find Me, which was listed as a “Best of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, and others.

Portrait of the author (Taken from the UConn Creative Writing Program Facebook).
Portrait of the author (Used with her permission).

This interview was conducted in the fall of 2015, while I was in a creative writing class with that had read and reviewed Find Me. Meeting the author of a book you’ve been poring over is always surreal, but on top of that I had been selected to have a one-on-one tutoring session with Laura van den Berg. Part of the deal was that I would also attend a dinner with her, and at that dinner my professor (who is also the Associate Director of Creative Writing) prodded me to ask for this interview. She had mentioned it months ago, but I thought it was just a nice idea, not something that would actually happen. I suddenly regretted wearing a shirt I was only 80% sure no one could tell was stained. I hesitantly asked, and although Ms. van den Berg looked at me curiously, she almost immediately said yes, she’d love to sit for an interview. We met the next day, after the tutoring session, and it was clear I had never interviewed anyone before. She was at ease, however, joking around and giving me some advice before we started. Much later, long after the interview had been completed and she had flown back home, I found out that it is customary to arrange interviews at least a month in advance, usually through an agent, and this only heightened my sense of gratitude for her graciousness.

Carleton Whaley: You mentioned at your reading last night that you only started writing in college, which is admittedly a lot later than some. Can you say how this has affected you, what kind of place it’s put you in?

Laura van den Berg: Just to clarify, you mean how has it affected me to start writing later?

CW: What I mean is, do you think it puts you in a different mindset than other authors?

LB: I actually think that’s an incredibly interesting question, I don’t know if I have a great answer for it. Every writer has their own trajectory, so like I mentioned at the reading last night, if you asked the same question to twenty different authors, you’d get twenty different answers. I know some writers who were writing when they were practically toddlers, and some who didn’t start writing until they were in their 40s. I find that the trajectories can be so incredibly varied, that to me my path doesn’t seem like a particularly strange one. Starting to write in college is still relatively early. It’s not like waiting until middle age and then starting to write. I think for me the bigger divide is actually my reading life. Not only was I not writing as a younger person, I wasn’t reading either. I think that one of the consequences of that is that it was something I was very self-conscious about. I know that everyone has gaps in their reading, but I knew mine were a lot greater than most people’s. So when I was in graduate school I felt, appropriately, that I had a lot of catching up to do. There’s a self-consciousness around that, but also it was really good, because I was super motivated not only to do as much of my own work as I could, I was also motivated to read read read read read. Poetry, nonfiction, fiction, story collections, novels; I just wanted to know. Another thing, and this is something I’ve started to think of more recently, I have met some writers who I think books and literature were a kind of solace and safe place as children, and who really had that experience of disappearing into books as kids. You talk to them and you can sort of tell that the majority of their energy put into the world, as a person, is sort of directed toward that imagined sphere. Not having that until I was a young adult, I think I’m very aware of the larger world. And I don’t mean the larger world in some grand way, but I’m not someone who thinks—I mean, being a writer is a crucial part of my identity, and I think I would become undone if I couldn’t write, and certainly if I couldn’t read, but I’m not someone who thinks that what you put on the page is the only thing that matters. I want to have contact with the physical world and sort of cultivate a meaningful lived life alongside a meaningful writing life.

CW: That’s really interesting, because something I noticed while reading Find Me was that as much as a lot of the book is in Joy’s mind, there’s this sense that the geography around her is so important to the structure. I’ve been trying to figure it out, actually.

LB: Yeah, and this came up a little bit last night. I feel that growing up in Florida, with such a pronounced sense of place, place is so important to me. Even if it isn’t named, it’s physical and it’s pronounced. I was thinking in Find Me, specifically, especially in the two different parts, apart from the basic differences in plot, the aspiration was in part to create a world that was more closed, cloistered, and isolated, both psychologically and literally. Even in the pallet in Part One there’s a lot of silver and white and gray, sort of monotone, and you’re in the Midwest, which is of course landlocked. Also I think that it’s nodding more to genre in more explicit ways, in terms of the genre of dystopia and even that of horror—you know, you have this hospital where malevolent things might be happening. And the intention in Part Two was more to disrupt and challenge some of what had been built in the first part. You now, they were designed to oppose each other in some respects. I think you get this sort of looseness in the second part in terms of plot and also Joy’s voice. She gets angrier, and there’s more color. But to get back to your question about geography, they’re also moving toward the coast, toward water, and for me that has some more openness to it in terms of psychological connotations. Winter is fading, and they’re moving to a place of warmth. The idea of starting in a landlocked placed and moving toward the sort of warm, coastal edge felt to me like an important part of Joy’s trajectory.

CW: Having finished it recently, and just hearing that—it just makes so much sense. And you talking about genre brings me to another question. Some of the criticism that I’ve seen of Find Me has been from people who sort of qualify themselves by saying how well they know dystopian fiction. Their comments range from people saying your book doesn’t line up with the genre to people saying, paradoxically, that it’s just another dystopian novel. I guess I’m just wondering; how would you answer that?

LB: It’s been really interesting to see the divide between review coverage. Between reader reviews on sites like Goodreads, for example, versus paper and magazine reviews. I got one very bad review, and everyone gets a bad review, from NPR, who did not like it at all. I mean, it was a really odd book in a lot of ways, so I had no idea what people would think of it, and what reviewers would think of it, so I was really excited and relieved to see that by and large the review coverage was really positive. It even made me think about the book in new ways—it wasn’t just dumbly positive reviews. Anyway, a lot of the conversation around the novel was very gratifying in that regard. And so with Goodreads reviews, if you sort of line up reader reviews next to critic reviews, you’d see that the reader reviews are much more critical. I think you find that one of the tricky things about writing a book that seems like it has a sort of genre premise is that it pulls in people who normally read in that genre, people who think “Oh, I love science fiction,” or, “I love dystopias.” And in my case, it’s not that. The book is more about Joy’s strange, sometimes violent trajectory through the world. It’s not really a dystopian novel in the traditional sense of the word, in that the dystopia sort of fades into the backdrop. And I think that’s actually a common thing. The good thing is that having a book that appears to belong to a genre, but doesn’t, can pull in readers to your work that wouldn’t normally read it, or might not have seen it otherwise. And if they connect, that’s amazing. But it can also pull readers to your work who are hoping for your book to be something that it just is not. People who come to my book hoping for an engrossing, labyrinthine science fiction plot are gonna be super disappointed. Someone who comes to it with a contagion-esque or epidemic standpoint, looking for what would actually happen during an epidemic or crisis, is gonna be disappointed. Anyone who goes to Threats for a Gone Girl-esque book, where everything is tied up in this amazing way at the end, is gonna be super disappointed. But I don’t know that it’s necessarily my job to respond to criticism, whether it’s from a professional critic or a reader. I think anyone who connects to the book, who connects to the world, who connects to Joy, is the right reader. You can’t write for every reader. I’m glad you got it, I’m glad you read it, it’s obviously still good for my book sales, and I’m glad you gave it a try. It just wasn’t for you, and that’s ok.

CW: I think that’s a really great way to look at it, without getting too emotional. I mean, I was reading the criticism and I was getting mad, so…

LB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I think sometimes you see the divide there, on Goodreads, and Amazon too, but I think people who review on Goodreads do it more and get really into it. It’s very interesting to see the divide between books that do well critically and books that do well—I mean, there are books that appeal to both professional critics and readers, so it’s not to say that books are one or the other, but there are definitely some that critics will love, and they’ll say “this is the best/most innovative thing ever” and readers will say “this is the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever encountered.” So I think it’s more that people who review books for a living are used to reading a certain kind of fiction, like people who review more experimental fiction are used to reading experimental fiction. And then someone reads a review in the New York Times and they see this review for this kind of fiction they’ve never read before, and they read it and think “this is not at all what I was expecting!” I think the easy thing for writers is to just be really snobby about things like Goodreads, and just say “Well, they’re just a bunch of idiots,” and I don’t really like that. I think anytime literature elicits an impassioned response from someone, even if it’s a negative response, I think that’s ultimately not so bad.

CW: I definitely understand. So, this is back to starting out, who were the first people you gravitated toward, as far as literary influences? And would you say those have remained somewhat constant, or have you drifted?

LB: Well, I didn’t know anything about fiction, or contemporary fiction, so I just read whatever my professor handed to me. Some early people, for sure, were Amy Hempel, you know her story “In the Cemetery Where Al Johnson’s Buried,” is still one of my favorite contemporary short stories; Laurie Moor was a big one; Charles Baxter; Richard Bausch; Alice Munro; Edward P. Jones, a lot of people we would consider to be contemporary classics in short fiction; Jim Shepard, you know, the contemporary canon for short fiction, and so that was my reading life for a long time. But there were two big turning points for me after that. The first is when I started reading things that were departing from realism. Things that you’d call magical realist, or fabulist. And also people who approached realism in very different ways. You know, Joy Williams is one of my favorite living writers, and most of her work is in more or less of a realist vein, but often feels very surreal, so it’s like her realism feels very different from Richard Ford, who I also love. His collection, Rock Springs, is really amazing. Flannery O’Connor is a really great one too. But definitely reading people who were departing from realism was just really exciting for my brain. And then the second point was reading, or learning to read, a lot of literature in translation. One of the most important classes I took while in grad school was a class in the contemporary French novel, and it was just a totally different vision of how the novel could operate. It opened up all these avenues of structure.

CW: You’re starting your new novel, right?

LB: Yeah!

CW: Do you have a go-to process for coming up with ideas, or are there certain habits you fall into when creating new work?

LB: I don’t have too many novel ideas, and I’m sure you’re like, “You just finished your novel and you’re already working on a new one, so that’s not quite accurate,” but actually this new one grew out of a short story I wrote a few years ago. In the summer of 2012, I wanted to continue along with the characters, which hardly ever happens with me and short stories, but I just had that impulse. So I just wrote a really messy draft of a novel, and then I put it away. And then I sold my second story collection, and Find Me, so I needed to work on those books and sort of go through the publication process. But I was interested to see what would happen when I put it away: would I just forget about it? Or would it stay with me? And it did. I found that I was longing to go back to it, but having the time to think about it was really helpful, because I found that I couldn’t just continue with the story. I had to keep the characters and the place, but chuck everything else. I thought about it all the time, and finally in the fall of 2014, I think, I did go back to it in a really serious way. And I’ve written some short stories in the interim, but that’s pretty much what I’ve been working on since.

CW: We talked a bit about this at the reading, but do you find generating ideas for short stories easier?

LB: I don’t really think in terms of generating. It will be interesting, because I think after this novel it will be a while before I write another novel, because I don’t have a single, solitary novel idea, or even close. Not even vibrating on the outskirts. So I’ll have to see if I’m more proactive about generating story ideas. I think I sort of only want to work on something if I feel compelled in that direction. And I don’t mean “it comes to me” like the Muse visits, but I think I’m waiting for those moments where I see, hear, or feel something that really catches my attention in a particular way. And I think that’s where ideas come from. It’s not so much me sitting down and thinking “well, what if I wrote a story about this, or a story about this,” it’s more about really trying to be attuned to the world, and seeing what comes back.

CW: I think that’s really interesting, because I’m constantly having ideas and trying to write them down, but I don’t stick with it.

LB: Yeah, and I know a bunch of writers who are very conscious in giving themselves assignments and exercises to get at new ideas, so everyone is very different in that way.

CW: So, Salon Magazine—and I’m sure you get this all the time—Salon Magazine called you “the best young writer in America.” What was it like to hear that?

LB: I mean, it was very kind, and it was the day before Find Me came out, so it was very exciting. And obviously it’s a great joy, a great privilege to put a book out into the world, but you know you’re nervous too, so that comment would have meant a lot to me in any context, but particularly right before the book came out. At the same time, it’s not something I would take literally, and I would not suggest anyone else take it literally either. There are about 200 people I would put ahead of myself. And certainly, when you put something online you’re thinking, “What will encourage people to click this link?” and “Best Young Writer in America” encourages more than “Interview with Debut Author.”  So I don’t know if Salon meant it to be taken literally either. But it was great for the book, and it was exciting, but I wouldn’t for a moment internalize it at all. The one downside, and it’s not a real downside (this is like the world’s smallest violin territory), but it definitely does invite people to say (like on Goodreads) “This is definitely not the best young writer in America.” Which is kinda funny. So it’s interesting to see how it really does bring out that contrarian response. As soon as you say “this is the best” their inclination is to demonstrate how it is, in fact, not the best.

CW: Do you think that since then there’s been more pressure? I mean, I’m just imagining myself in that situation, and I don’t deal with pressure well, so—

LB: Well, I mean, there wasn’t any pressure because the book had already been written and published, so you can’t do anything to it after that. Your job is essentially over, so I was doing the book tour and readings, and chances are that wasn’t going to impact the book’s life in a really significant way. So then it was just in the hands of the gods, you know what I mean? And you don’t know where it’s going to be reviewed, or how people will review it, and there’s not a blessed thing you can do to control that either. So I think there wasn’t a lot of pressure, because the part of the process you can control is over.

CW: Is that title something that pops up still? That was earlier this year.

LB: Yeah, publishing is funny because it has a very short memory. It feels like it was a while ago, but it was only in February, like, it was this year, it’s not like it was three years ago or something, but it feels at once very recent and very, very far. It comes up, it’s something that people ask me about, because it was such a bold statement, and people wanted to know what its impact was.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor.

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