Laura van den Berg’s debut collection of short stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, creates a nuanced portrayal of female isolation and independence, featuring women who grapple with their careers, their lovers, and the occasional mythical creature in worlds as far as Madagascar and the Congo. In 2010, the piercingly sad, yet often humorous collection was longlisted for The Story Prize and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. On behalf of The Rumpus and Funny (and Smart) Women everywhere, writer Claire Stanford spoke with Van den Berg on the phone about first-person female narrators, morbid humor, and writing what you don’t know.
The Rumpus: We typically think of linked stories as pieces that are connected by the same characters, but your collection feels thematically bound. How do you see these stories reflecting on each other? Do you see this as a linked collection?
Laura van den Berg: I didn’t set out to write a linked story collection. I did not plan to write a collection filled with myths and monsters–it just happened to be what was coming out at the time. By the time I had six or so stories, I was still a graduate student at Emerson and needed to start thinking about what my thesis was going to be. When re-reading the stories in succession, it became very clear that there was a lot of thematic overlap. For example, a lot of the stories are set in far-flung locales, so there’s the foreignness. And there’s overlap in terms of the myths and the creatures that appear in some way in each of the stories, like Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster and the mokele-mbembe in the Congo.
And it’s interesting, your point about how we often think of linked story collections in terms of recurring characters, and that certainly is not the case in my stories. Each of the characters are completely discreet to those particular stories, but in some ways I think the narrators are all sort of the same character. Hopefully they feel specific enough to the world of their individual story that they don’t feel like the same character in a redundant way, but they are all dealing with similar emotional preoccupations and sensibilities, which is something that some people have liked about the collection, while others haven’t liked it so much.
Rumpus: A number of themes seem to connect these stories, but the themes that stand out most are the roles of mythical creatures, monsters, and exploration. What draws you to this idea of the unknown?
van den Berg: It’s such a fundamental part of the human experience–that there’s so much we live with in terms of the unknown. In fact, the unknowns that we live with are so great, some level of denial seems necessary to maintain one’s sanity. We don’t know what’s surrounding us in terms of the rest of the universe; we don’t know what happens to us after we die. It’s impossible to know in an absolute, complete way what another person is thinking or feeling. Much of the human experience is about connectedness, but at the same time there is a lot we’re shut out of. I think we’re often questing for what is fundamentally unreachable.
Rumpus: Your stories all feature female protagonists, many of whom are breaking the mold of femininity. The women seem to be struggling with what it is to be a woman–a girlfriend, a wife, a daughter, a sister-come-mother. What interests you about these kinds of women? Have you ever written from a male perspective?
van den Berg:I tried to write from a male perspective once, and it was an abysmal failure. It was a failure in just about every conceivable way. I admire writers who are able to do both, and it’s not something I would necessarily shy away from trying in the future. But I think that at this particular moment in time, my voice is very female. When I think of a character, or when I think of a place, I start to think who’s going to be inhabiting this place and whose story is this going to be; it’s a woman’s voice that comes into my mind. It’s not a calculated thing, like I sat down and said I’m only going to write about women. It’s just the way my process tends to organically go.
I do think in different sorts of ways, the women in these stories are grappling with what it means to be a woman, with wildness versus responsibility. Women often get the message, culturally speaking, that we are the ones who have to hold down the fort; we have to be responsible and we have to take care of people because we’re supposed to be nurturing. That push-pull is a big force for the characters in the collection. Shelby in “Goodbye my Loveds” is caught between trying to raise her younger brother and being a woman who wants to have adventures. The narrator in the title story is caught between being a good daughter and breaking away from her mother to make her own way.
That conflict is something that comes up for a lot of these characters–that conflict between do I stay, do I do the responsible thing, or do I just sort of say, fuck it, I’m going to walk away from everything.
Rumpus: You used the terms “wildness” versus “responsibility,” and another way I had been thinking about it when I read the stories is that many of the characters could be described as lonely or adrift; however, it also seemed to me that many are quite independent. Does a tendency toward loneliness (or solitude) cause independence? Or do they have an independent spirit, which means they are destined to be a little lonely?
van den Berg: I think it’s a little of both. Again, to talk about Celia, the narrator of the title story, there’s a point where she acknowledges that maybe she’s a little bit more her mother’s daughter than her mother knows, or that Celia would care to admit. Even if it manifests in a less extreme way than it does in her mother, maybe she has a bit of that adventurous spirit and a bit of that ruthlessness too.
I do think my characters have an independence of spirit, and I also think that they are quite lonely. I’m not sure I would say one causes the other, but I think that the two are intertwined. These characters are isolated. Even in the stories where they have a lot of interaction with other people, disconnection is a recurring element. Diane in “Up High in the Air” is having an affair with one of her students–she then goes home to her husband, sees a friend, and talks to her mother, so in one way, her life is quite peopled; however, the thing that comes up again and again is that she’s speaking a slightly different language than everyone else in her world. I think that’s the case for a lot of these women. They’re talking in a language that other people aren’t quite getting, and there’s a sense of displacement.
Rumpus: One thing I particularly noticed in “We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life,” but which runs through the whole collection, is humor and absurdity. I’m thinking of the main character, Joyce, who receives an anonymous phone call from a “specialist” who is, literally, calling to offer her a fabulous life. What do you see as the role of humor in your work?
van den Berg: It’s amazing to me the different reactions I get at readings. Sometimes I’ll read the Big Foot story, “Where We Must Be,” and get a lot of laughs. Then I’ll read the same story at another venue, and it’s absolute stone-cold silence, which freaked me out at first. The varying reactions happened enough that I realized people respond to the story in different ways; for some the stories are quite funny, and for others, the humor is not there. Of course, the stories are serious in that most of the characters are dealing with heavy emotional predicaments–but I am drawn to quirky, dark humor, and I think my characters have the sensibility where they find comfort in making fun of things and noticing the weird, often funny, details that other people overlook.
I appreciate dark humor in other writers, especially when that humor is coming from a place of pain. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s character is always saying “comedy is tragedy, plus time.” Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is an amazing, devastating story that centers around a baby who has cancer. There are parts of that story that are absolutely hysterically funny, and this interesting thing happens in terms of your role as the reader, where you read it and you have this moment where you’re like, Oh my God, this is this story about a baby with cancer and I’m laughing. Moore can make humor feel transgressive, and to me that’s where humor gets interesting–where you’re not laughing because it’s obvious humor; instead, it’s this weird and complicated humor. As a reader, that’s the kind of humor I’m most interested in encountering.
Rumpus: You’re working on a novel now. How do you find the process of writing a short story different from the process of working on a novel?
van den Berg: The process is really different. It’s a completely different form, of course, but there is quite a bit in terms of craft that carries over from the short story. For me, the process took some getting used to. I wrote the first draft of a novel quickly, and then when revising, I was approaching it the way I would revise a short story, which is tackling the thing head on. I found that that really wasn’t working. I had to find ways to break it down. I started breaking the book into 50 page chunks and revising it that way. I had to find ways to make it seem conceptually manageable, which might not be the most efficient way to do things because it all has to work together in the end. But that’s what’s been working for me lately.
I also found it necessary to adjust my expectations. With a short story, even though some stories take years to get right, when you’re revising it, you can print out the draft, read it, mark it up, and enter your edits in a day’s work; even if the story’s final form is a long way off, there can be a feeling that you are making progress. With the novel, the progress is slower. I had to commit to the process and commit to being patient–kind of like willing myself into a state of hypnosis.
Laura van den Berg’s new stories can be found in current or upcoming issues of American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, and Ploughshares. In addition, the first foreign addition of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us will appear this February in Australia (via Scribe). Though it must be said that the work she might be proudest of is being ½ of the Glimmer Twins.