2018 Contest: Interview with Fiction Judge Laura van den Berg
Laura van den Berg is the author of the novel Find Me, a Time Out New York and NPR “Best Book of 2015,” and two story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, both finalists for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her next novel, The Third Hotel, is forthcoming in 2018. Her honors include the Bard Fiction Prize, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. Her fiction has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, and her criticism has recently appeared in The New York Times Book Review and BOMB. Born and raised in Florida, Laura currently lives in Cambridge, MA, where she is a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard University. She also teaches in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Interview by CHASE BURKE
Black Warrior Review: Something I love about your work is the way it often creates a sense of unease, both for your characters and your readers. In your novel Find Me, I’m thinking of Nelson’s tunnel, or the locked-down hospital, or WAreSorryForYourLoss.com, or the animal masks that Marcus wears. In your story collections, there are magicians, monsters, holes in the earth, youthful robbers (who also wear masks!), missing family members, the continent of Antarctica, etc. Sometimes these strange people and strange places are explained, and sometimes they aren’t. The tension there is compelling. Do you find that your work gains an additional kind of traction when you shove the strange and normal against one another?
Laura van den Berg: I am temperamentally drawn to work that shoves the strange and normal against one another, it’s true, although I don’t see the “strange” and the “normal” as being two separate categories of experience; for me, they are intertwined, hard to separate. Which is to say that what appears to be “normal” can, at times, feel profoundly strange. I’m sure that growing up in Florida has shaped my sense of what constitutes strange—but let’s face it, our so-called normal world is weird as fuck. So perhaps what I’m really drawn to, in both my writing life and in my reading life, are situations where the strangeing of the normal is particularly heightened. I’m also interested in intensity—what creates it, what sustains it—and like meeting characters at a moment where their sense of reality is, in one way or another, being dismantled.
BWR: Can I just say: I adore your sentences. Something like “Imagine that we are just a nation of people with a deep desire to die,” from Find Me, is so resonant sonically, but it also, you know, says so damn much about America. But you’d never know from seeing this in isolation that the speaker of that line has just done a theatrical cartwheel. And your work is full of stuff like this, these kinds of doozie lines and uncommon juxtapositions. So this makes me wonder, how do you approach considerations of “craft”?
LVDB: I take a pretty expansive view of craft, which is to say I don’t see craft as just being technique—it’s also process; subject; ideas and feelings; visions and dreams; the words that are put down and the words that are avoided. I write first drafts quickly and messily because I want to dream on the page and I want to take risks before I have a chance to talk myself out of them—hardly anything written in the first draft or two makes it into the final thing; those early drafts are just feeling around for tone and character and world. And then I spend a lot of time trying to solve certain technical problems, and spend even more time dealing with the craft puzzles that are emotional or philosophical, a question of technique and of values and of vision—those are always the hardest ones. These questions might concern overarching things like structure or time, but they nearly always concern the sentence, given that, in a story or novel, our narrative elements are built by individual sentences. I am a pretty omnivoracious reader in respect to prose style, but if the prose doesn’t have its own music, if the relationship to the sentence seems unconsidered or superficial, I have a really hard time reading the work. And if in my own drafts the prose is totally inert then I know the prognosis is grim.
BWR: You strike me as a get-the-work-done kind of writer. (This is a good thing; I, for one, am often lazy.) Do you follow any particular routines? How do you make it (the writing, the “magic”) happen?
LVDB: I think I have become less so! Writing just gets harder and harder—and thus slower. Now, especially if I’m between projects, I write when I feel compelled—and if the compulsion cuts deep enough I don’t have a particularly difficult time forgetting the outside word. I have no routine, beyond the fact that I belong to a writing space and go there as much as I can. I also try—try being the operative word here—to make notes every morning and to read a little every morning. The bigger challenge for me is not so much literal time, but making sure I have the headspace to drift and dream.
BWR: I’ve been thinking a lot about place since leaving Florida (where I grew up) to move to Alabama. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the places I was raised in, and how those places enter my writing. I know that you, too, grew up in Florida and have since left—yet Florida is a presence in your work, in a way that I find very familiar. I feel a compulsion, sometimes, to write about where I came from, though I never feel like I am Writing About Florida. Maybe it’s a kind of re-visioning of what I grew up around, or a kind of processing of youth into fiction. (Maybe that’s all fiction is!)
This is a long-winded way of asking a pretty generic question: how does place factor into your writing? And more specifically, how does the warped specificity of a place like Florida factor into it?
LVDB: I like that idea, a “re-visioning of what I grew up around, or a kind of processing of youth into fiction.” Yes, I suspect that’s partly what makes me circle back to Florida again and again, so much unfinished processing. And also why it took me one book before I wrote about Florida at all; for a while the place, and everything that had happened there, was just too close to the bone. For a while, I thought that maybe I could just ignore Florida altogether, but as we both know—Florida will not be ignored.
Have you ever read Dorothy Allison’s essay on place that’s in the Tin House Writer’s Notebook? I love that essay and teach it often. Because Allison’s definition of place is so multi-dimensional, at one point in the discussion a student will usually ask, “Well, where does place stop and other stuff begin?” Which is actually the perfect question because, in my reading, one of the arguments that Allison is making is that there is no end to place, it seeps into everything. So we are places and places are people; it’s a kind of symbiotic relationship.
So, as a person who feels her sensibility and sense of self was very much (and continues to be) shaped by place, this is all exceptionally important to me on the page. I can’t write anything if I don’t know where it’s set, where the events are happening—even if the details of setting are minimal. That is one of the most useful things that Allison does in her essay, the way she draws a distinction between setting and place—setting is part of place, in other words, does not in fact constitute place.
Interestingly I haven’t written much about Central Florida, where I grew up, favoring instead other parts of the state that I know well, but never lived in. When I know something too well it’s almost like I can see it. I’m standing too close and have no perspective. And maybe Central Florida has remained too close to the bone in some ways, even after so much time. But I’m trying now.
BWR: You’ve taught a lot over the last few years, from Warren Wilson to Bread Loaf, and you’re currently a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard. Do you feel that teaching has changed your writing? A more open-ended question might be: How has teaching informed your writing, and has it changed what you seek in or expect from fiction?
LVDB: I love teaching fiction and I think it has absolutely nothing to do with writing fiction. Like zero. To start, teaching is a fundamentally social job and, for me, writing is fundamentally solitary. But I do think teaching fiction, spending so much time reading/discussing student work and also published stories and novels and essays, has made me a better reader and helped me to develop a more expansive language for talking about fiction—never a bad thing for a writer.
BWR: What do you look for in short fiction specifically? When you’re out in the world reading stories—in, say, a journal like BWR—what makes you stop and say, “This is doing something.”?
LVDB: Authority is one of the hardest things to talk about in fiction, but I think it is one of the first things we register on the page—that feeling of being in the presence of a very particular sensibility. A command of tone, of one’s lines, of time. It is truly amazing what can become possible when a writer locates an interesting tonal register and never abandons it. I look for risk and surprise, for stories that don’t make the obvious or safe moves—qualities that have infinite manifestations on the page. A sense of place. A sense of the world around. A sense of human urgency and of mattering. I once joked to a workshop that I was only interested in stories where the life and death of the soul was on the line—and I was kind of only half-kidding. A person might hear this and think—so what, every story should be set in a burning building or in a plane as it goes down? If only external drama was a surefire way to create a sense of mattering on the page! In my experience, the qualities that make a story meaningfully urgent are more elusive in nature.
BWR: Finally, what’s on the to-be-read shelf?
LVDB: I just finished a wonderful debut novel called Mem by Bethany C. Morrow, which The Unnamed Press is bringing out in May. I’m just starting Alexander Chee’s forthcoming essay collection How to Write An Autobiographical Novel—and have a feeling it will be swift love.