To Thicken and Complicate through Linear Time: A Conversation with Laura van den Berg

Kyle Minor

One thing I’ve long admired about Laura van den Berg is her careful attention to the complications of near-inarticulable meaning that begin to be made at the level of surfaces. Throughout her career these choices have been exercised through sentence-making, word choice, constellations of texture and color, all the sensory and syntactical registers that add up to the inflecting feeling we call tone.

 So it should have been no surprise that when I emailed her my questions in Cambria (clearly the wrong lettering scheme for a discussion like ours), although she did not rebuke my choice of font in her reply, she did quietly re-set everything in Garamond (just right.)

 The subject of our interview is The Third Hotel, which is already being regarded as her breakthrough novel only a few weeks into its release. It reads like an ungodly marriage of the prose sensibilities of Javier Marias and Pitch Dark-era Renata Adler, plus a little Guillermo del Toro making trouble in the nearby dimness.

 At my house, there is a shelf of New York Review Books Classics. Many of these books have a special quality that seems outside of time, and when this happens, it takes the reader a few hours to reorient himself in the ordinary world. That’s the way I felt finishing The Third Hotel, too, and it made me wonder how it’s possible that a writer who can do this can also be a person of my generation, breathing the same air, drinking the same water. When I was younger, I used to believe that literature was some kind of miracle, and for a couple of hours, reading Laura’s novel, I briefly believed again.

Kyle Minor: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “Research Notes and Acknowledgments” section quite like the one at the end of The Third Hotel. It is an extraordinary catalog of debts to literary and film sources, including Alejandro Brugués’s Juan de los Muertos, which you say is the inspiration for your own Revolución Zombi, not to mention all varieties of Cuban and Latin American and gender and genre cinema studies books, Zora Neale Hurston, John Berger, Mark Kurlansky, and most of all Jean Echenoz’s novel Piano and Cortazar’s story “Blow Up,” which itself has a long history of informing other works of narrative art. I was thinking about other books-made-of-books, such as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which don’t do this. I wondered about your choice, which seems at least a political choice and at most a moral reckoning with what it is novelists do.

Laura van den Berg: This is the longest research note I’ve ever written for a book, partly because The Third Hotel required more expansive research and partly because influence came from so many different and varied directions—other literary works; scholarly texts; films; lectures. I was seeking some of this material out, so I was tracking the accumulation of influence a little more consciously than I might otherwise. In some instances—with Juan de los Muertos or Carol Clover’s scholarship on horror films, say—the work of others left a visible handprint on my own pages. Which is to say that anyone who has seen Juan de los Muertos or read Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws is likely recognize the influence of that source material. As such, it would have felt strange, dishonest even, to not cite those more visible influences openly. Also, research notes for other writers’ novels have pushed me to seek out work I might not have otherwise—and I hope that might prove true for some readers of TTH. I love receiving and, in turn, offering reading/watching lists.

In other instances, the influences are more oblique—i.e. the idea of a camera lens revealing what is not visible to the naked eye, a plot point central to “Blow Up.” In its earliest stages, TTH was written as a call-and-response to Piano, which is in three parts, as is TTH, and concerns a French pianist who is killed in the first part; spends the second part in various stages of limbo; and then, in the third part, is repatriated by the higher-ups of the afterlife back to Paris. He has been made unrecognizable, so his sister passes right by him on the street, but there is exactly one person from his former life who does recognize him—which upsets the order of things terribly. I got the idea to write a related premise, but from the opposite point-of-view, from that of the living person who recognized the dead. In time, TTH evolved in radically different directions, took on a life of its own. I don’t even think readers familiar with Piano would detect trace elements of Echenoz’s book, which is to say that I didn’t feel I was under an ethical obligation to cite Piano. Nevertheless, it was partly because of Piano that I got the idea for TTH in the first place and that’s another role that acknowledgements and research notes can play—not just a citation of source material, but an opportunity to thank the artists, most of whom I will likely never meet, who helped me along the way.

KM: At the beginning of the book, we get an important line the protagonist does not say, which is: “I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.” (This might well be an ars poetica for the collected works of Laura van den Berg.) In context, it initiates a kind of double-vision the novel undertakes for book-length. The protagonist has come to Havana as a proxy for a dead film professor husband, so the dislocation begins in time and space and existential separation, but as the novel moves along, it deepens in ways that mirror what the works of art in the book are doing. How do you think about a project like this, at the outset, and as you move through it? Do you have a theory of this kind of book which precedes its making, or is this a kind of weirdness you have to write your way into?

LvdB: I go in with ideas, such as writing a call-and-response to Piano, but those starting points almost always turn out to be scaffolding. They help the initial structure get built, but then it’s critical that the scaffolding be demolished. This book went through so many different incarnations and evolutions, like a snake shedding its skin, so virtually all the material that remains now I wrote my way into, discovered mid-journey or even-late journey. There were many instances where I was just as surprised by a turn in plot as Clare.

In practical terms, when I’m working on a novel I try and keep up as consistent a practice as possible—working every day ideally, though I take “working” to also mean thinking and making notes and reading connected material (or watching horror films!). I think it is critical to stay in close contact with the project, so I am putting new words down, progressing in that way, and also so that the subconscious stays activated, as the most important material, I find, rises from that more mysterious and submerged realm. There are whole sequences in the book that I dreamed, for example, but that’s a level of engagement that can’t be willed and  my mind won’t go there if I spend too much time away, disconnected from the fictive world.

There is also always material I am avoiding, but I don’t know that going in. The subplot concerning Clare’s father would be one such example. The father was like a grain of sand in the corner of my eye for a long time—I tried to ignore it until I couldn’t.

KM:  Did you visit Havana, or international film festivals?

LvdB: Yes. I went to Havana three times while working on the book. One of those trips was to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, the same festival that Clare travels to in the novel. I watched four or five movies a day and lurked around press events trying to look like I had a reason to be there. Tried to be a bit like Clare, in other words, though I have yet to lick a mural. Havana is a uniquely complicated city, and holds so many complicated histories, and I knew it would be a monumental challenge to set much of the story there—especially since I’ve never been anything else but a visitor, and consequently my perspective was always going to be incomplete and comprised. Much humility was in order, in short. In the end, my strategy was to focus on several small ecosystems within the larger landscape of Havana, places where I felt I had a point of entry—the film festival, the world of hotels. Also, I had never been to a film festival before, international or otherwise, and realized at a certain point that I had little idea of how to describe one. Many (if not most) of the descriptive details of the festival and the city itself came from things I saw or did or overheard during those three trips.

KM: In a book like this, surfaces and metaphor have a strange relationship. Necessarily, they intermingle. The reader is made to think, from very early on, about the appearance of the husband in the white linen suit, to the wife only five weeks bereaved, so that right away the book is working on us intellectually (look at what she’s doing with loss, love, and memory!) at the same time as we’re giving ourselves over to the convergences of the real and the surreal. There are even passages where the book explicitly engages some of these questions, as when the protagonist is reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January, which unsettles her because of “the hidden things she sensed quivering under the surface. Subtext, she supposed this was called, and she did not care for it.”

LvdB: The “the hidden things quivering under the surface” are central to the novel’s structure and movement, in a couple of different ways—there are certain realities Clare does not confront until late in the book, realities she has been avoiding strenuously. I was thinking too about surfaces in respect to both horror films and travel. Speaking generally, the way things appear to be versus the terrifying reality lying in wait just beneath the surface is often foundational to horror. And with travel, there is a chapter early in the novel that recounts Clare’s travels as a sales rep for elevator technologies. Many of the tactile details were pulled from my own travels—I was on the road a lot when I drafted that section—including finding a (fake) fingernail in a hotel room drawer, sitting pretty on top of a bible (!). Transient spaces like hotels and airplanes ask us to make a pact with surfaces, I think, to believe in the lie of them (the bedspread is clean; those “homey” touches actually feel something like home). Yet there are moments, such as the fingernail moment, where the surface falters and a whole little world of strange opens up.

KM: Along these lines, I was also thinking about how much the reading (and film watching) life informs the point of view of this book. This isn’t a thing we see as much in novels as I believe probably happens in the lives of people who read and write novels. I was thinking of the South African novelist Zoë Wicomb, who sometimes constructs the points of view of all her characters out of their reading habits, or of the Richard Powers story “To the Measures Fall,” in which a book changes over the course of a lifetime not because the book has changed, but rather because life has rung such changes on the reader.

LvdB: In my most powerful reading and viewing experiences, I felt like I was being consumed by the page or screen, that my own self was collapsing into that of the book or film, that I was outside of time. I love Yoko Tawada’s work and The Naked Eye is my favorite of her books. In that novel, the narrator travels to Germany for a youth conference, and is promptly kidnapped and held in captivity by a German man. In the aftermath, she becomes obsessed with Catherine Deneuve films; eventually, the stories unfolding on the screen and the narrator’s inner reality collapse into one. The corporal fades and the fictional takes over. I find that movement so compelling in The Naked Eye and had that novel in mind as I worked on The Third Hotel. There is the film Clare travels to the festival to see; there is the film reel of memory; there are several films being made in secret. I was interested in what might happen if the real-real bled into these various “screens.” And horror tends to be a very self-referential genre (even the title of Juan de los Muertos is rich with reference to other zombie films), so in that spirit it was fun to imbed references to certain films and books that were influential.

 KM: I was thinking about the mysterious qualities that attach to numbers. I don’t know anything about hotels in Havana, or if there is a Third Hotel in Havana. But the name itself, and the way it manifests in the title, already presents a power akin to what Graham Greene offered with The Third Man, or to Room 237 in The Shining.

LvdB: Yes! I was definitely thinking about the uncanny power of numbers in horror films, and of The Third Hotel as both a literal place and also as a state of mind. Clare refers to TTH as such because she gets lost and asks for directions at two other hotels before she finds her intended destination, so her serpentine path to reach the hotel is, to my mind, an early marker of her bewilderment and of the unexpected twists and turns her journey will take, both externally and internally. I based the descriptions of the TTH on a casa (a privately owned home or bed & breakfast) that I stayed in the first time I went to Havana. The casa was at the top of a street right by the University; if you climbed up to the roof you could see straight down to the sea.

KM: The novel has a very interesting relationship with time. There is a chronologically linear throughline, but there is also great freedom with memory time, film time, something akin to dreamtime. Over the course of the novel, this thicket of time and memory seems to grow more dense, and the substance of the density increasingly seems to be the stuff of the marriage.

LvdB: In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter makes a case for how drama in fiction does not rise from the event itself, but from the material surrounding the event. In respect to time, my ambition was to hold the novel to a tight clock in the immediate, and then to allow that “surrounding material” to thicken and complicate as Clare moved through linear time. Also, time can become very dense and winding when one is traveling alone. Whether I’m out of the country solo or just on a bus or a train for a few hours, thoughts tend to float up to the surface that simply would not have had the space to emerge had I been in the company of others. Your usual defenses are more porous, and so feeling unmoored, like you really can’t find your bearings, can be a little more unsettling.

KM: There is an implicit geographical-historical layer to the novel that is made explicit late in the book, with the news delivered off-hand that “in the 1700s the British had traded Havana to the Spanish, who had lost control of the capital during the Seven Years’ War, in exchange for Florida—an entire state for a single city.”

LvdB: TTH is set in 2015, at a time where Havana was freshly popular with American tourist markets, and that got me thinking about circularity, given that Havana has been popular with American tourists at a number of different moments in history, as far back as the early 1900s (a trend connected to the US occupation). So the way patterns repeat—for international relations, for countries, for individuals, for art forms—was definitely on the brain.

KM: I wanted to ask you about the novel’s last line, which is among the most striking last lines I’ve ever read: “That night the moon looked like it was going to kill them all.”

LvdB: I knew early on that line would be the closer (it came to me while I was staring up at a giant crimson moon that appeared to be getting bigger and bigger the longer I looked at it) but I had no idea why or how or anything. I told a few people that would be my last line and they asked How do you figure? and I could not make a “logical” case for the line at all. No one could have talked me out of it, either. I just had a feeling. Actually this gets at one of the hardest things about teaching, I think, encouraging students to hone and honor their intuition, even while knowing that their intuition will mislead them at times. But sometimes you really do just know. With writing, I find moments of blazing certainty to be so exceedingly rare that when they do happen I don’t ask too many questions, I just hang on.

Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk.