Like her kindred spirits Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, and Marie-Helene Bertino, Laura van den Berg writes stories that are enchanting, and full of humor and light, but that also move through dark and often difficult emotional terrain.
Her first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, was longlisted for the Story Prize, and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Laura’s second collection, the chapbook There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights, is a storytelling treasure, and happens to contain my favorite story of hers, “Cannibals,” an inventive and hilarious metaphorical exploration of a child’s fear of being abandoned to the untamed outside world.
The eight stories in The Isle of Youth combine the innocent adventures of childhood with the confounding isolation of grown-up life. They feature girl detectives on the trail of faithless husbands, rocky honeymoons in exotic locales, and young magicians running out of luck and time. In its starred review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “If any writer is going places, it is Laura van den Berg.”
But then, I could have told you that years ago. I met Laura in 2007, in the B Concourse of O’Hare International Airport. We were both traveling to the Tin House Writers’ Conference, and had discovered, through the conference ride board, that we would be on the same flight from Chicago to Portland. We had agreed to look out for each other, so when I saw the young woman with big, Joyce Carol Oates-style glasses, a bulging canvas tote bag at her feet, and a novel open on her lap, I risked an introduction. We’ve been friends ever since.
Laura and I spoke by phone a few weeks before The Isle of Youth was published.
The Rumpus: You’re from Florida, but I’m not sure your first two collections even have a story set in Florida. But several stories in the new collection are set there, right?
Laura van den Berg: Yeah, about half the stories are set in Florida.
Rumpus: Is there a reason for that?
van den Berg: I think I would say, first, that the vision of Florida in the stories in The Isle of Youth is definitely not the Florida I grew up with. I grew up in central Florida, but the stories take place in southern Florida, which is like an entirely different state.
I would also say that when I left Florida for Boston, for grad school, I had this feeling of breaking away from a dull, stilted place. That I was finally going to the kind of place where people do something. And so, along with that, I decided I had no interest in settling stories back in Florida. It took me some time away from Florida to understand what an interesting place it is. Even central Florida, in the suburbs, where I grew up, is strange in all kinds of subtle ways. I didn’t really appreciate how strange it was when I was there. It was something I was only able to see in hindsight.
But I also think my own distance from Florida gave me a space to re-imagine it. So I developed a renewed interest in Florida, and my distance from it allowed my own imaginary Florida to take root in my mind.
Rumpus: Do you prefer to write about places you don’t quite know?
van den Berg: That’s absolutely right. I usually can’t write about places when I’m living in them. That’s just the way my imagination works. Some writers would love to write about the place they live. They could go around and research, and check street names and facts and all of that. For me, it’s almost like the more empirical evidence I’m presented with, the more my imagination shuts down. I need to write what I don’t know to discover what I do.
Rumpus: You seem drawn to settings with magical atmospheres.
van den Berg: I do think I’m drawn to locations with a potential for magic and strangeness. It was true with my first collection and it’s true with The Isle of Youth. But a number of the settings in the collection are places I’ve not been. It will probably be a surprise to exactly no one that I’ve not been to Antarctica, for example. But there’s a kind of extreme remoteness to that landscape that could potentially mirror the emotional remoteness the narrator in that story is grappling with.
Rumpus: How do you decide on the settings for your stories? How do they come to you?
van den Berg: Sometimes I might start dwelling on a location that seems to capture a narrator’s state of being. But then sometimes I just get captivated by the music in a name. I remember writing the title story of my first collection, and how I just loved the word “Madagascar.” I got fixated on the poetry of it. I think that story almost grew out of my fixation with the beautiful sound of that name.
So my settings can come from all kinds of esoteric sources. Occasionally, there will be something about the setting that captures some aspect of my imagination. But I think I’m definitely drawn to the idea of writing what I don’t know, or what I’d like to know, rather than writing about places I know well.
Rumpus: Do you worry about not having the authority to write about places that you don’t know as well?
van den Berg: It is something I think about. I just have to say, though—because we’re friends, and I can be completely honest—it’s probably not something I think about as much as I should. I am sort of a big believer that, at the end of the day, it’s fiction. You create an enchanting world, place, character, emotion, idea, language, etc., depending on the story’s aim, that the reader can inhabit. And if you are able to do that to your satisfaction then, as far as I’m concerned, you are doing your job.
There’s a John Gardner quote: “Fiction should be a continuous dream from which the reader never wants to wake.” My interest is in creating that continuous dream. When I research, I’m not thinking about gathering every scrap of information out there. I’m thinking about the information I need to have some hope of creating that continuous dream. When I think of authority, that’s the authority I’m after. I’m less interested in authority in the more literal sense.
Also, I think it helps that my characters are outsiders, visitors, as much as I am. I would imagine if you are writing about a character who is supposed to be of that place, those questions of responsibility and authority get more complicated.
Rumpus: What are the challenges in creating a continuous dream for the reader in that way?
van den Berg: I’ve read that someone once asked Richard Bausch, “Mr. Bausch, what do you do when you have writer’s block?” And he said, “Lower your standards and keep going.” That’s how I tend to approach things when I’m blocked. I lower my standards a few notches and just keep charging forth.
I think these stories were more voice-oriented than the stories in my first collection. With “Lessons,” the story of the adolescent bank robbers, I heard that first sentence, and the voice, really strongly. And my ability to continue with the story, and get a first draft down, really depended on my ability to continue hearing that voice.
I started a number of stories where I heard the voice really strongly in the beginning, and then I lost it, and despite lowering my standards and continuing on, I somehow could never quite get it back. And those were the stories that I would end up just throwing away.
So I think capturing, and nurturing, and incubating that voice became a more important part of my process. Which sounds more fragile than it has for me in the past.
Rumpus: In The Isle of Youth there are magicians, private detectives, magical settings, remote islands, and other places associated with adventure. What do you think draws you to those narrative elements? Are you searching for common themes in them?
van den Berg: I definitely felt under the influence of noir when I was writing this collection. I had been watching a lot of Antonioni movies, like The Passenger and L’Avventura. And Hitchcock movies, like Vertigo, that are more mystical.
I had also been reading a lot of Javier Marías, whom I love. I think he’s one of our greatest living novelists. But if you strip away everything, and get to the core of his writing, what you have, basically, is a detective story. So I was really interested in fiction that draws from that pool of elements and images: appearances, unexplained incidents, doubling, all those classic tropes. I tried to do my own thing with them.
Rumpus: There’s always something dark and unspoken the stories in The Isle of Youth seem to be circling around.
van den Berg: Yeah, exactly. In some of the stories it’s a little more hidden. In some of them it’s more explicit. There is an actual secret at the center of “Antarctica,” for example.
I think my aim with these stories was to use elements of crime, and noir, and use those mysteries as a way for the characters to examine and take apart the mysteries of the self that they’ve been grappling with. I was interested in using the pressure of those genre elements to heighten the suspense of internal mystery, or to give me a means of exploring that internal mystery.
To use Marías as an example, in the early stages of his novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me, the narrator is going to have an affair with a woman but she dies mysteriously. And the rest of the novel is his attempt to unravel why she died and what it means, for her and for him, as well. But unlike in a lot of stories, the literal mystery is never solved; the main “action” occurs on the internal stage. That’s what I love in Marías, and what I wanted to try to do myself.
Rumpus: You recently moved back to Boston, but I wanted to ask you about life in Baltimore, your home for the past three years.
van den Berg: I really love Baltimore. It’s a really great city for writers and artists. The cost of living is still reasonable, and I loved the artistic community there. I found it to be very friendly, very open, and just genuinely interesting. There was way more happening, in terms of readings and art openings and performance art, than I could have possibly kept up with. There was always something to do, or see, or hear, or look at. I was amazed at how much Baltimore had to offer in that regard.
Baltimore is also a city of wonderful idiosyncrasies. There was a guy down by the train station who sold fruit from a horse-drawn cart, and this guy who ran a flower store and owned a huge parrot, who he sprayed with a hose, on the sidewalk, in the summer. The city was chock-full of characters. And maybe because Baltimore is a smaller city, and things are much more concentrated, I noticed its character more.
That said, it can be easy to romanticize the quirkiness and charm of Baltimore, but it is absolutely struggling with serious problems in a visible way. The David Simon side of the city is certainly there. And so perhaps there is something about being personally aware of that. In Boston, or New York, it’s easy to forget those aspects, those gaps. The city is so huge, you can turn away from what you don’t want to see. Baltimore won’t let you do that. So perhaps, when we think about the kind of crime and noir elements in the stories in The Isle of Youth, maybe Baltimore was seeping in.
Rumpus: Being in such a rich environment must have made you more productive.
van den Berg: Yeah. I’ve never been as productive as I was in Baltimore. I was almost kind of scared to leave because it had been so productive. I wrote almost all of the stories in Isle while I was in Baltimore. I have a novel coming out with FSG, probably in 2015, and I wrote most of it there. I started new things that are still in flux and in progress. It was an enormously productive time.
The entire time I lived there, I was consistently engaged in looking at art, or encountering art in some capacity, at readings, or exhibits. Even just riding the bus from my apartment to the train station. There was a street art project, called Open Walls, in the Station North District, which is the area just north of the Baltimore train station. I love a lot of those murals.
So there was great art visible everywhere, even from the bus window. I think something about the energy of that, in a kind of subconscious way, helped me to be very productive there.
Rumpus: And how is it being back in Boston?
van den Berg: I love being back in Boston. We are in Andover, Mass, about thirty minutes north of Boston. A lot of my really good friends from grad school are still in the area, so that’s super-nice. And Boston also has an amazing literary community and literary history. We have so many great bookstores. In Andover we have a great independent bookstore that’s just down the street. In the city, I love Newtonville Books and Brookline Booksmith and Porter Square Books and Harvard Bookstore. The indie bookstore culture here is really rich and I love that.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you’ve made it as a writer? Do you ever feel that way? That you’ve achieved a certain security or stability?
van den Berg: Never. Not even remotely.
That said, there are certainly moments where you say, Oh man, I can take a breath. I don’t need to worry as much. Or you finish something you feel proud of. But it’s always a moment. I feel like I’m only as good as my next project. I’m only as good as the next book.
But I also think artistic energy requires a certain degree of restlessness. If you’ve worked hard for something, and it has really worked out, you deserve to sit back and be like, I feel good about this.
But I think you have to have that moment, and enjoy it, but not get distracted by it. There’s always a next book to write and that’s where the eye should always be falling.