What the Brain Knows: An Interview with Laura van den Berg

Liz Wyckoff

In “The Isle of Youth”—the title story in Laura van den Berg’s thrilling, punch-in-the-gut new story collection—a character makes reference to the concept of inborn knowledge: “how we hold inside ourselves ideas and experiences that exist on a plane far above our conscious minds.” It’s a beautiful concept, and especially useful when attempting to explain how fiction writers do what they do: boldly inventing new worlds and fashioning characters that could believably inhabit this one. The idea certainly helps to explain van den Berg’s storytelling sorcery, her ability to highlight the magic of the everyday by creating characters and setting scenes that push reality to its limits.

In the eight spectacular stories that make up The Isle of Youth, a mother and daughter struggle to make ends meet as small-town magicians; an American woman reeling from the dissolution of her marriage befriends a group of French street acrobats; and a spunky group of home-schooled cousins run away to become gorilla-mask-donning bank robbers. Laura van den Berg’s tales offer an unnerving blend of the ordinary and the dreamlike—sometimes even the nightmarish, as when a deceitful sister holds her twin’s head under water, or a woman on her honeymoon surreptitiously stuffs her mouth full of sand. It’s a delicious type of fiction—stories that feel simultaneously far-fetched and dangerously, perhaps shamefully, close to home.

Liz Wyckoff: One of the things I’ve loved most about your two story collections is their cohesiveness. The stories just really feel like they make sense together. For example, the stories in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us revolve around explorers, monsters, and bodies of water. And almost every story in The Isle of Youth involves a crime and some sort of mysterious disappearance. How do you develop these themes?

Laura van den Berg: I definitely go through cycles with subject matter. I wrote the first draft of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us in graduate school. Early on, I was generating these stories about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster and mysterious holes in the earth, and at a certain point it seemed clear the consistency of these preoccupations could lead to a collection. After What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, however, I had gotten the monstrous—at least in the literal sense—out of my system, but my process for The Isle of Youth was similar in that I started generating a lot of stories that explored mystery and deception and crime, so I followed that impulse until a collection took shape.

I don’t mean for it all to sound accidental. If you’ve written, say, three stories in a row with mythical creatures or private detectives, you’d have to be pretty inattentive to not stand back and say, huh, something is going on HERE. But at the same time, it was crucial for me to not force the next story. With my first collection, each time I started a story with something like, boy, I could really use a story about the Yeti right about now in mind, the result was abysmal. Each story needed to bubble up in its own time, driven by its own urgency and need.

LW: I noticed, too, that you will be teaching a workshop at Grub Street this fall on “shaping story collections.” How (and when) do you begin shaping your stories into collections?

LvdB: When I’m drafting the stories, I don’t think about the collection as a whole; I’m just writing and then writing the next thing and so on. When I think I might have the right content—i.e. the collection is these seven or eight stories—is when I begin thinking of the stories as an interdependent group. I spread the stories out on the floor. I make lists of all the first and last lines, which helps me determine the order, the kind of story I hope to collectively tell. I go back to my favorite collections and examine how they are arranged. I cut and add. Eventually I hand the draft over to a few trusted readers and listen carefully to their feedback. I try to think about questions like: is each story taking the reader someplace new? Where do you get taken one too many times? What questions are these stories asking? When I reach the end, what am I left with?

LW: Was there any object or material that provided inspiration as you wrote a story (or multiple stories) in The Isle of Youth? Or, more broadly, any object that’s important to your writing life?

LvdB: If we can think of a place, the physicality of a place, as a kind of “material,” I would say the landscape of Florida in particular was especially important while writing Isle. As you know, there are a number of other non-Florida settings in the collection: Antarctica, Paris, Patagonia. Some of these places I’ve been to, some I have not (hello, Antarctica!), but out of all the landscapes, I am the most intimate with the “materials” of Florida, because I’m from there. So I thought a lot about the blue-black look of the sky when a storm is rolling in over the water, the feel of the heat in the summer, the palm fronds. Those kinds of materials.

Also, I keep a lot of talismans in my writing space, including a small collection of ceramic Loch Ness Monsters. My dad gave me these two. See the one on the left? The little hat comes off, and the body can be used to store whiskey. That’s my kind of monster.

LW: There’s a fair amount of violence in The Isle of Youth—shootings, explosions, characters leaping from third-floor balconies, black eyes, and oozing bullet wounds. Is it as hard to write these scenes as it is to read them?

LvdB: Yes and no. I mean, I love these characters, so it’s hard when bad things happen to them; I feel the pain of that acutely. And from a craft perspective, it can be easy to descend into cliché or melodrama when writing violence, so those scenes are a technical challenge as well.

But here is what complicates the above: I am terrified of guns—I’ve never fired one before—and it is that very fear, and ability of fiction to move you closer to your fear, that can make the writing of those scenes exhilarating. Culturally there is often the expectation that women should be repelled by anything too ugly, too violent. But the women I write about are often seduced by the ugliness and the danger, by the violence or the promise of it—and they often end up paying a steep price for that seduction, in that moment where the promise of violence falls away and the bare, brutal reality of it appears. When writing those scenes, I allow myself to become seduced too, and I emerge feeling like I have weathered something.

LW: When I read your fiction, I often find myself wondering (in amazement!): “How does she write so convincingly about X?” Take “Lessons”: I feel pretty confident in my assumption that you did not spend your teenage years robbing banks with your cousins. But that story’s incredible level of detail almost convinces me otherwise. Is this the result of research, or a vivid imagination? How do you write with such confidence about things far from your lived experience?

LvdB: With a story like “Lessons,” it’s all about the voice for me. Once I had that first line, once I had the voice, the world, and its details, started to reveal themselves. Kind of like that thing about inborn knowledge in the title story; it’s astounding what the brain knows that you don’t know the brain knows.

Apart from looking up a few places on a map, I did very little research for “Lessons.” Some of the stories in Isle required more research, however. For “Antarctica,” there were a lot of practical details—How on earth do you get to Antarctica? What do people wear?—that I needed to know.

Perspective matters, too. I bet a seasoned bank robber could find fault in the verisimilitude of “Lessons,” but these characters are, at the end of the day, teenagers trying to survive the path they’ve chosen. It would be hard for me to imagine the life of a criminal mastermind, which these characters are assuredly not, but I can certainly imagine young people making one dumb, desperate mistake after another (and I did, in fact, spend most of my teenage years doing just that, even if no banks were robbed in the process). Along similar lines, with “Antarctica,” the narrator is an outsider; she has never been to Antarctica before. If the story were told from the perspective of a scientist who had lived on a research base for many months, a different, more rigorous level of verisimilitude would probably be required. My characters are almost always outsiders, so that helps.

LW: You recently wrote an interesting piece for your blog about residencies—how you used to think they were “too precious,” but have since changed your tune. And I remember hearing that you and Paul Yoon once both quit your day jobs to move to North Carolina and devote yourselves to writing projects for a year. (Is this true?) My question, I guess, is about making time for writing. Have you ever found it difficult to make the decision to prioritize writing in your life? And what have been the benefits, in your experience?

LvdB: The difficulties are all practical. You make a decision that gives you time, but comes with the practical worries many writers face on a regular basis: health insurance; short and long term security; finding work for the next semester or the next academic year. Generally speaking, we have been really lucky with employment, but the flux does wear on you after a while.

On a personal level, though, it never felt difficult to prioritize writing. Ever since I started writing in college I have, save for a few short breaks here and there, been working away on something. I love it, I need it, and so it never occurred to me to put writing on the backburner.

The couple of times I’ve made a decision—the temporary/more writing-friendly job vs. the secure/less writing-friendly one, for example—that was artistically smart but practically dumb, it turned up the heat a little, like you better really work hard because you’re gambling here. The temporary work might fall through, it might be a long time before you see the more stable job again, you might have made a terrible miscalculation so you should at least have something to show for it on the page.

And yes, we did do that year in North Carolina, in the mountains, which was magical in many ways, but when it was over I was more than ready to rejoin the world. I was glad to have done it and I wrote a ton, but I’ve never been attracted to the idea of a writer existing in a bubble. Getting out in the world and mixing it up feels integral to writing, as opposed to something that impedes writing. Actually, we were in North Carolina during the 2008 elections and I got involved with the local Obama campaign. I was an Obama supporter and wanted him to win (and NC was a battleground state), but my motivations were not 100% altruistic, as I was also really starved for social interaction. I remember being especially excited to canvas because it meant I got to have conversations with people! I mean, I was getting desperate.

LW: Speaking of your early writing days, what do you remember about your first publication? Has the process of submitting stories to literary journals changed for you over time?

LvdB: I’m not sure if this was literally my first publication, but the one I remember as my first was a short-short called “Girl Talk” that was in StoryQuarterly (back when M.M.M. Hayes was editing it). This was probably in 2004. I had an AOL account. I think I was in a motel in north Florida when I got the acceptance, for reasons I can’t recall, but I do very clearly remember logging on to what would now be an archaic-looking e-mail account, opening the message from StoryQuarterly, and nearly fainting with joy. I was still in college, and that early vote of confidence meant a lot.

I’m not sure my submission process has really changed over time. Certainly I revise more before submitting than I did when I was first starting out. And now, with a new story, my wonderful agent will usually send it to the places that make sense for an agent to send to, and if nothing happens on that front the story usually comes back to me. That’s probably the biggest difference.

LW: And now, how does working on a novel compare to working on short stories?

LvdB: For me, stories are more compatible with being a person in the world. I can happily—or unhappily, depending—chip away for a few hours a day and feel like I’m really getting somewhere. And I often find thinking about the architecture of a story, puzzling over a particular question of structure or character, weirdly calming. With the novel, the expanded scale is a very exciting challenge, but I also feel the need to maintain a certain level of immersion. If I leave the fictional world for too long, it’s a bit like stepping through a portal, entering another reality, and then not knowing how to get back to where you were before. But my least favorite moments—when you just know you can write something better and more interesting but seem plainly unable to at that given time, for some reason—and my most favorite moments—when you write something that surprises the hell out of you, in a good way—are the same for both forms.

Also, if writing a novel has taught me anything it has taught me this: I will never again say “I am finishing a novel” or I’m almost done with my novel” or “This is it! The last draft!” or “I’m getting really close!” Every time I have ever said, or even thought, any of those things the endpoint has almost immediately receded before me, mirage-like. I am much more comfortable saying that I’m “almost finished” with a short story.

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, longlisted for The Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November 2013. Laura lives in the Boston area and is at work on a novel.

Liz Wyckoff’s short fiction has been published in Annalemma, The Collagist, and fwriction : review, and her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Slice magazine and The Lit Pub. She currently does book publicity for A Strange Object, Barrelhouse, and Penn State Press.