Find Me, Laura van den Berg’s debut novel will go on sale 2-17-15, and as a kind of warm up for our readers I thought it only fair that she answer a few of my questions. You should run out and pick up a copy of her fist collection, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves us, or her second, The Isle of Youth. I have gotten a little Annie Wilkes over these stories, and I bet once start reading them you will feel the same.
JR: Did you grow up around books? Were you a big reader as a kid? Can you talk a little about your education? How did you come to writing?
LVDB: Not at all. I never thought I’d be a writer. I read Nancy Drew when I was younger, but my literary interests went into hibernation after that. I was a poor student, didn’t finish high school, got a GED, and later enrolled in the night school division of a college. There, somewhat by accident, I took a fiction workshop and read, for the first time, the contemporary short story. Jim Shepard, Edward P. Jones, Charles Baxter, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel—just to name a few—and it was life-altering. For the first time, literature felt relevant and urgent and alive to me. I knew I wanted to keep reading these stories and, eventually, wanted to try writing stories of my own.
JR: I found your stories late, long after the fine folks at FSG sent me The Isle of Youth. It was when Jennifer Egan picked Antarctica for the Best Of 2014 Short Stories collection that I immediately backtracked and picked up The Isle of Youth. I must know more about the tone of your work, the smoothness, texture and chiseled structures of these places, and the people that inhabit them. You look at your characters with a cool and chilly perspective, which makes me wonder how you inhabit them so easily?
LVDB: I’ve heard people describe my fiction as “chilly” or “cool” before, which I don’t mind a bit (frankly it’s pretty exciting to hear anyone talk about stuff I’ve written at all), and I totally understand that descriptor, but it’s more a product of my natural sight as opposed to a conscious stylistic choice. I think of myself as a friendly person, or at least someone who aspires to be a friendly person, but I also have a lot of walls and it takes a long while to get to know me in a full way. Of course, this is true for a lot of people, but especially artists, as that detached perspective is part of what allows them to see what they need to see. I think a lot of my narrators have walls too, usually walls that are more solidly in place than my own, and part of the story’s job is to dismantle the walls for the reader, so she is able to perceive what no one else in the narrator’s life can.
JR: FSG is about to publish your debut novel, Find Me. You thrust your heroine into a dystopian landscape that is a little bleak but mostly safe, as she resides in a hospital where she is immune from disease that has decimated the country. Were you a little worried that The Road had basically put the literary dystopian novel to bed, at least from a “this is what will happen next, to all of us” storyline. What was your preparation for writing your novel?
LVDB: I admire Cormac McCarthy tremendously, but I can’t say The Road was a novel that was on my mind while I was working on Find Me. Some books that were important to me include Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. The Flame Alphabet is a dystopian landscape and one could argue that The Orange Eats Creeps is as well, even if the dystopia is playing out on a more internal plane, and then the landscape of Big Machine is off-kilter in an entirely different way. I was less interested in a scorched-earth apocalyptic setting than creating a world that is surreal and terribly unbalanced and, at the same time, not entirely unlike the world we live in now. The greater draw for me was a world on the edge of The Final Thing as opposed to imagining what remains after that Final Thing has happened.
JR: The novel revision process has always been my main struggle as a writer, but that’s where you make the connections, and hone the story. Craig Nova was not the first to say, “there is no good writing, just good re-writing” but he said it to me, and he is so right. Do you read your work aloud after it’s done? Who are your trusted readers? When do you say, “this is done?” Zadie Smith talked about still editing her published book while standing on the podium about to read from it, a terrifying prospect but one that happens quite often, I’m sure.
LVDB: Oh man, my process is almost entirely rewriting. It was through revision after revision, year after year, that I excavated Joy and the arc of her story. I do share my work with readers—my husband, who is also a fiction writer, and a few close writer friends—and read my work aloud, which is one of the very best ways to line edit, but I try to avoid that until the later stages, to make sure I’m not tinkering when I need to be demolishing and rebuilding.
As for that question of “doneness,” I see a published book as an artifact of how we are as a writer at that particular time. In time, as who I am as a writer continues to evolve, I might look back at Find Me and Isle and feel they’re not done at all. I do feel somewhat that way with my first collection, which came out in 2009, and that only seems natural—I’ve changed a lot since I wrote and published that book. But I also take comfort in knowing that I took those three projects as far as I could at that time, and that my job with the next thing is to figure out how to take it farther.
JR: Cheever, Updike, Carver, have captured life in the suburbs, even writers like Kevin Canty, and Dan Chaon, A.M. Homes, Zoe Heller, seem to be in the same neighborhood, just in different ranch houses. Nevermind Edward St. Auybn who is a cocktail party that never ends. Is there room on publishers lists for more writing about America and the true experiences of white man/woman in these United States? I suppose you need to look at the audience reading literary fiction in America for your answer. Or can we turn to writers like Phil Klay, Jenny Offill, and Elliott Holt for new perspectives?
LVDB: I think the question of the canvas is crucial here. Phil Klay, Jenny Offill, and Elliott Holt all, in very different ways, have a lot of say about our current moment, the way we live now, and the work of Klay and Holt in particular concern landscapes beyond the American domestic. It’s true that Dan Chaon and Kevin Canty and A.M. Homes could be in the same neighborhood, but “Big Me” has unmistakably singular things about trauma and memory. Regardless of the milieu, that’s something I always look for in fiction, that complexity of scope.
JR: If you could travel in time, either direction, where would you go, and why?
LVDB: I would go to the future, because I am curious, and I would be very, very scared.