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Laura van den Berg: The Odd Moment

March 6, 2014

The author of The Isle of Youth on Florida, her influences, and the pressures of conformity that female writers face.

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Photo by Paul Yoon

Laura van den Berg’s newest book, The Isle of Youth (FSG Originals), a “best of 2013” staple and recently named to The Story Prize longlist, is a spirited and enigmatic collection. A void lurks in every story. In “Antarctica,” a woman follows news of her brother’s death to a remote research facility hunkering down for winter. In “The Greatest Escape,” a magician’s assistant boozes and thieves in the shadow of her missing father. Even the collection’s most whimsical story, “Acrobat”—set in Paris and peopled by, well, acrobats—the action begins with a marriage’s abrupt and mysterious failure. Van den Berg’s heroines often seem distant, but they’re only remote from the surface intrigues driving their stories forward. With the more fundamental and uncanny mysteries that spread through their lives, they’re fully engaged. The result is an alluring sense of dread and a collection of stories that’s captivating from first to last.

Van den Berg spoke with me by Skype from the campus of Phillips Andover, where she lives with her husband, the writer Paul Yoon, and where the couple is presumably having a strange and enlightening influence on future leaders of the nation. She is energetic and thoughtful in conversation, a talented handler of divergent strands of conversation—a skill that bodes well for her upcoming appearance, March 19-23 at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, where she will be a featured speaker and a panel moderator. We talked over the course of an hour about existential noirs, the expectations for how a woman author should look, and the wide berth that Florida affords to the weird.

—Dwyer Murphy for Guernica

Guernica: When I read reviews of your stories, your narrators are usually referred to as “cool” or otherwise detached. Do you bristle at that kind of description or welcome it?

Laura van den Berg: Emptiness is one of my key subjects. When people talk about my narrators being cool or detached, I think they’re responding to that preoccupation. It’s a tricky thing, trying to write about emptiness in a way that feels rich and alive and full, and that’s something I really wanted to do with The Isle of Youth. But, quite frankly, I bristle at very little when it comes to reviews. Some people mean “cool” as a compliment and others mean it as a criticism. It’s just a matter of taste. I want people to like my work and I read my reviews, but I try not to let them, positive or negative or otherwise, get under my skin. I feel fortunate just to have people taking the time to read my work and to write about it in an intelligent way. I also get described as weird or strange a lot. I’m fine being cool and weird.

“Every state has their odd features, but Florida has lots of odd features. We’ve got hotlines to call for when there’s an alligator in your backyard.”

Guernica: Weirdness does seem to come up pretty often, too. You’re sometimes set up as the opposition to “realist” writers. But I get the impression that the action in your stories doesn’t strike you as particularly weird.

Laura van den Berg: Well, you know, I’m from Florida…

Guernica: Enough said.

Laura van den Berg: Every state has their odd features, but Florida has lots of odd features. We’ve got hotlines to call for when there’s an alligator in your backyard. When I first left Florida, I would write stories for my MFA workshops and include details like that, and readers would leave notes in the margins about how weird that was. I’d think, “Really—you find that weird?” That’s Florida.

Guernica: So you’re predisposed to see the world in a “weird” way?

Laura van den Berg: I think it’s the business of the writer to not only pay very close attention to the world around them, but to also learn to pay attention to the quality of their own sight—what they see and how they see and why they see that way. When I walk into a room, my eye seeks the idiosyncratic detail, the odd moment. It’s not necessarily a choice. It’s an internal sensibility, a part of who I am.

Guernica: Your Florida stories are mostly set in Southern Florida, not the part of the state where you grew up, in Orlando. Do you prefer to keep that bit of distance?

Laura van den Berg: I have a difficult time writing about things that I know too intimately. For another writer, knowing the city layout—the streets and the 7-11s—would ignite the imagination, but for me it has the opposite effect. It shuts down the imaginative possibilities. South Florida is perfect, because I know just enough to feed the imagination, but not so much that it shuts me down. And South Florida is just my favorite part of the state. It has the Everglades, the Keys, Miami. Miami has a decaying glamor to it that I love. For a story with a noir sensibility, Miami is great. There are beautiful and opulent and glamorous parts and there is also a very gritty side. I’m really drawn to places that have that duality and tension, these different forces pushing against one another.

Guernica: This next issue of Guernica is looking at the American South, and I wonder, as a Floridian, writing in that setting, do you feel a part of the Southern literary tradition?

Laura van den Berg: I guess technically I’m a Southern writer, but really Florida is its own thing. If you’re a North Floridian, you might feel like you’re in the South, but if you live in Miami or the Keys or Central Florida, you’ve probably got a different vision of what Florida is like. My Mom’s side of the family is from Nashville and my grandmother is from Georgia, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the South and I love a lot of Southern literature, but as a writer I can’t say I feel personally connected to that tradition.

Guernica: The VIDA Count was released the other day. Last year at this time, Lauren Groff was interviewed in Guernica, and she was talking about some of the insidious problems women authors face—getting cover art with high heels or headless women. Have you encountered any of that?

Laura van den Berg: My experience at FSG has been amazing. During the production process, we actually moved away from a more conventionally marketable cover for The Isle of Youth—a collapsed woman, a very cool-looking cover, but definitely more expected for a book of stories about women in peril– and toward something darker and dangerous and more conceptual. I feel so lucky to be working with people who don’t have a conventional view of what it means to market work written by women, about women.

“I suspect women authors feel more pressure to appear soft and approachable, like someone who would be fun to invite to your book club.”

However, I have experienced what Lauren is talking about in other ways. I look a little tough in my author’s photo, and I’ve been amazed at how many people—universities, magazines—ask me to send them a different photo, because they say I look aloof, unapproachable, tough, scary, and/or sad. I started asking male authors with tough-looking photos if they had ever gotten any grief about this and they said no, never. When it comes to the author’s photo, women are more likely to hear things like: “You don’t look as pretty as you could in your photo!” or “Why aren’t you smiling?” I, for one, would like to know what it is about an un-smiling woman that makes some people so fucking uncomfortable. Or why anyone would assume a woman’s foremost concern is prettiness.

A lot of women feel the pressure of conformity, whether it comes from the publisher or a stranger on the street. I suspect women authors feel more pressure to appear soft and approachable, like someone who would be fun to invite to your book club. And in real life, I would like to think that I would be a fun person to have hanging around a book club, but these are dark, tough stories and so it makes sense to have a photo that reflects that. But our culture does not do a great job of honoring complexity in women, in giving them the space to contain multitudes.

So no smiling in author’s photos! It is a point of principle now. In fact, I aspire to look even tougher in my next photo. This is my own small stand. The more we can push against the cultural standards and do what feels authentic to us as individuals, what feels authentic to our work, the better.

Guernica: Do you ever hear a similar reaction to the women in your stories—readers asking why they’re so dark or tough?

Laura van den Berg: I think some people are surprised at how violent these women are, in both their action and their inaction. I’m interested in putting women where you might not expect to find them—private eyes and bank robbers and alcoholic kleptomaniacal magician’s assistants. I’ve been grateful for the thoughtful, insightful readings of the characters that I’ve encountered since the book has been out in the world. Although I did have one reader wonder why I hate men. I told him I don’t—I love men very much—and that it’s a mistake to conflate character with author. Sometimes you hear readers say to an author, “Why did you DO that?” when in fact the author didn’t do anything; the character did.

In Isle, I do think it would be fair to say that the men are peripheral. They’re important to the stories, often crucially important, but they’re in a supporting role. It’s a woman’s world—they are the ones who are choosing the act or to not act; they are the ones who get the big moments—with the men in the background. And I feel A-OK about that.

“I loved that sense of the uncanny, the doubles and the shifting realities, realities that are made, unmade and remade.”

Guernica: You mentioned the noir sensibility that carries through this collection, and I wondered which noir stories helped you develop your approach? You’re doing something personal and unusual with the genre.

Laura van den Berg: I have a lot of literary influences for these stories, but really the first influences were film. There were two Antonioni films in particular—l’Avventura and The Passenger—that aren’t traditional noirs, but are sort of existential noirs. They have a concrete mystery—traded identities or a missing woman—but the viewer’s attention is directed to more internal questions about the world and our sense of reality. I was really interested in that formal idea—what does a mystery look like if the mystery is never solved? Hitchcock was another influential person at the time, particularly Vertigo. I loved that sense of the uncanny, the doubles and the shifting realities, realities that are made, unmade and remade. I liked the idea of combining this idea of “existential noir” and the more traditional noir tropes—private eyes, twinning, mistaken identities.

Guernica: I was struck by the open-ended quality in these stories. It comes from the unsolved mysteries, but also the writing style. The character development, for example, often seemed to me as big and open as you would see in a novel. I know you’re finishing up a novel now—did you feel like you were handling a similar form?

Laura van den Berg: The main difference is the scale. It’s like building a ship in a bottle versus building a cruise liner. My novel isn’t a doorstopper, but the scale still feels radically different. With both forms, I’m figuring out where to begin and end a story by looking at character arc, but with a novel, the arc is so much bigger and it has to be sustained for such a long time. I’ve been working on this novel since 2008, and it took me a long time to learn how to manage that kind of arc—to manage the tension and the feeling of increasing complexity—over 200 pages. It’s just a different process. I can work on a short story anywhere—the train, at school, wherever—once I have that first line. With a novel, I have to disappear from the world.

Guernica: Your story collections have overarching themes. With What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, the stories were filled with monsters and creatures. With The Isle of Youth, there are disappearances, detectives, mysteries. Do you settle on a theme first and go about writing the stories, or are the themes pieced together later?

Laura van den Berg: The subject matter sort of chooses me. I get obsessed with certain voices and worlds, and I work out those obsessions out over the span of a couple years. With both books, I wrote two or three stories before I was really cognizant of the overlapping themes. But at a certain point, you can’t help but step back and see the repetition—hey, I’ve got three stories about disappearances! Something is going on! The danger with any collection that’s thematically linked is that after you’ve recognized the links, you might be tempted to write to try and fill in the gaps. For example, in my first collection, I really wanted to write a story about a certain kind of monster—a chupacabra—but the stories I tried just came out terribly and that was because I was trying to will an objectively interesting subject into a story, and that’s not how fiction works for me. I do my best work when I’m writing from a place of personal urgency, when the material takes on a certain internal propulsion.

Guernica: I’m always curious about that one story in a collection that just won’t come. Was there one in the new collection that gave you a particular problem?

Laura van den Berg: For The Isle of Youth, “Antarctica” was probably the most difficult. That continent is one of my many casual obsessions, and I’d been trying to write a story set there, for seven or eight years, told from the perspective of a research scientist. But I’m not a scientist—I mean I’m really not a scientist, I don’t even know elements on the periodic table. And I’ve never been to Antarctica. So there was just too wide a gap in knowledge to write the story that way. I was coming up against the limits of what I could imagine, and I’m not a writer who’s particularly interested doing years of research. But then I figured two things out that finally let the story come to me. One—the narrator is a visitor to Antarctica, not a scientist stationed there. She’s not an expert. She’s only someone who has to register this world in a vivid way. Two—half of the story is set in Cambridge, which is a part of the world I know intimately. It was that balance between the intimately familiar and the radically unfamiliar that finally helped me see that story through.

“I would get up in the morning and walk over to this raw space with no furniture and lay out every page of every story. It became very physical. I kneeled, I paced, I leaned, I had pages taped to the wall.”

Guernica: The arrangement of the stories in The Isle of Youth and the transitions between them feel very meaningful and deliberate. Is that something you work at with a collection?

Laura van den Berg: I see a collection as a chance to create a universe, and I think of the characters in my stories as moving through this same universe, and even though their paths don’t overlap, they sometimes call out to one another, or there are echoes between them. It’s always important, though, to realize which echoes are useful and which aren’t. At one point, the book had a lot of characters who were from D.C. or who were forensic accountants for no good reason—just sheer imaginative laziness. I tried to weed out the echoes that weren’t contributing to the larger aims of the book and to keep the useful echoes.

Guernica: What was the assembly process for this book?

Laura van den Berg: I had these eight stories—this was the summer of 2012—and I wanted to start thinking about them as a book. My husband and I were living in a small apartment in Baltimore, both of us writing, and one day we received a notice, slipped under the door, informing us that there would be major renovations in our building that involved construction works drilling holes in our bedroom closet. It was a noisy, dusty mess. But fortunately, I had friends who were moving a few weeks before their lease was up and they let me work in their empty apartment—an extraordinary gift, it turned out. I would get up in the morning and walk over to this raw space with no furniture and lay out every page of every story. It became very physical. I kneeled, I paced, I leaned, I had pages taped to the wall. Soon the apartment looked like that moment in a movie where the serial killer’s lair is uncovered. But that got me looking at things in a new way. For example, I noticed how the last line of “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name” contains the word evidence, and that seemed like a natural transition into “Opa-Locka,” which is about two sisters who are private eyes. And I saw that the story “Acrobat,” which has a lighter mood, should be right next to “Antarctica,” which is one of the darker stories in the book.

Guernica: You said before that the subject matter of these stories chooses you. How does it usually come? Is it a middle of the night thing?

Laura van den Berg: I start with first lines—or with voice, I guess you could say. I get a line lodged in my head and it won’t leave. I’ll be doing something mundane and one of these sentences will just move through my mind like a ticker tape. When one of those lines comes, I’m kind of helpless in the face of it. I’m not making strategic decisions about voice or tone. I am writing in search of answers to the questions inherent in that first line. I am speaking back to that voice.

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