An Interview with Laura van den Berg

Susan Lundgren

Laura van den Berg
Laura van den Berg’s stories have appeared in an impressive list of literary publications including: Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003, Best New American Voices 2010 and The Pushcart Prize XXIV.

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.

Laura currently lives in Baltimore, where she is at work on new stories and a novel.

Switchback sat down with Laura prior to her reading at the Emerging Writers Festival at the University of San Francisco where she talked to us about her inspiration to write about Bigfoot, the importance of revision and following your own strangeness on the page.

Switchback:  Let’s start with the opening story of your collection. “Where We Might Be,” grabs the reader by the collar and pulls her right into the book.  In the very first paragraph the main character, Jean, takes a job as Bigfoot in Bigfoot Recreation Park after a summer of “failed casting calls” in L.A.  Can you tell us about the genesis for the story?

Laura van den Berg:  The idea came out of the clear blue sky. Sometimes stories start with a particular situation, sometimes with a place and sometimes stories start for me with just a first sentence and I guess by extension they start with a voice.  I was doing something utterly mundane, like folding laundry or washing dishes, and I was struck by this first line, “Some people dream of being chased by Bigfoot.”  Where this came from, I have no idea and it’s one of those moments as a writer where you start to wonder if you are going a little nuts, but I felt and heard that voice so strongly.  I went immediately to my desk and started writing and that first sentence led to another sentence, which led to another sentence.  I had to follow that voice to get a first draft down.  Of course, there were endless revisions and re-imaginings but it really began with Jean’s voice and that first line and then story and the idea for the Bigfoot park unfolded from there.

SB:  Many of the pieces in the collection have several different stories working together in concert.  Another way to say this is that each story has many layers.  How do you evaluate how far to develop the subplots so they remain in a supporting cast role and don’t overtake the main story?

LvdB:  To backtrack a little, I wrote the majority of this collection while doing my MFA at Emerson College in Boston, so most of these stories were workshopped. One problem that came up again and again was that the early drafts were overly full; they had too much going on.  I was trying to juggle too many balls and as a result I was dropping a few on my head. The reader’s attention was being spread too thin and as a result the story didn’t have a center or an emotional core that I think we really want from a story. One thing I learned over time is that if you are writing stories that have a lot of narrative elements it’s really crucial that they don’t all resonate at the same level. You have to make strategic choices within the revision process about what is the center of the story and what are the smaller things that can work to illuminate the center by existing in the background.  So a big part of my revision process is looking at all of the pieces and parts and trying to understand what is the emotional core and how can these other elements shine a light on that core rather than obscuring it.  One of my teachers, Margot Livesey, who is amazing, said once in an interview, that she would like to think, if pressed she would be able to justify every sentence in a story or a novel. There were times when I had a subplot that I was amused by but ultimately had to let it go because it was cluttering the stage instead of serving a useful purpose in the story.

SB:  How do you decide point of view (POV) when you have very strong secondary voices as you do in many of your stories?  For example, in the title story Cecil is our narrator but her mother, June, is a very strong voice.  Did June ever compete for the POV in this story?

LvdB:  For me, POV is very intuitive and sort of unbreakable once I’ve made the decision, and so many times the decision is being made for me because I’m hearing this particular voice.  There are a lot of things that I re-imagine or rewrite radically in revision, but POV tends to not be one of them because the story is so rooted to this particular character and voice.  And to be totally frank, I think POV is an area where I’m not as imaginative as some writers are.  Some writers do an amazing job of crossing gender, crossing race, crossing class, and I think my narrators tend to be close to me in a very literal sense, they are all woman, they are say under 40 and while their lives do not always resemble mine at all—I’ve never worked in a Bigfoot park, I’ve never been to Madagascar, I’ve never been a botanist—they are, in the basic demographic sense, close to me and that’s going back to that idea of voice. It’s the voice I hear.

SB:  You note you’ve never been a botanist.  That leads me to my next question.  Several of your stories have beautiful details of particular flora and fauna in remote places such as Madagascar and Brazil.  What type of research did you have to do to achieve a sense of place?

LvdB: I did definitely do some research, but not extensive research. I like to imagine that I’m going on a trip to this place.  I buy a bunch of travel guides; I love Lonely Planet, and I read them cover to cover. That gives me a sense of some of the basic facts:  demographics, landscape, topography, attractions, language, currency. Often buried in those guides you can find wonderful concrete details. 

I feel that my obligation to the story and to the reader is to do my utmost to createa vivid and continuous dream,” to quote John Gardner. I’m not particularly concerned with everything being literally accurate.  I’m much more concerned with emotional accuracy and also with knowing enough to avoid a mistake that’s going to break the dream for readers. For example, if I’m writing about Madagascar and I don’t know that Madagascar is an island that’s going to get in the way of the story. I have to do enough legwork that I have a sense of what might be plausible. After that, it’s all about what’s possible in that particular fictional world.  

SB:   Frank O’Connor wrote that we often find in the short story, unlike the novel, an “intense awareness of human loneliness.”  Your characters are often very lonely but trying to connect even if it’s a bit misguided.  Do you think loneliness is central to the short story?

LvdB:  That’s an interesting quote.  There is something about the compression of a short story that often plunges us into a world where these characters are in radical emotional states. The novel works on readers a little differently than a short story.  Sometimes reading a short story can be like holding your hand against a hot stove and in some novels it’s more of a slow burn.

In my case, I think the characters are lonely and looking for ways to connect.  I was looking at and continue to be very interested in the idea of emotional misdirection.  I think it’s something that we are all very familiar with.  How many times have we cut someone off in traffic because we had an argument with our spouse or bought something ridiculous because we were sad?  We see that emotional misdirection all the time in small ways. We react to the problem but we’re not dealing with it.  I think my characters, on an extreme scale, are absolutely misdirecting their emotions.  They are reacting to their own internal problems by taking far flung trips or trying to long distance swim off the coast of Madagascar or dressing up in a Bigfoot costume but they are not really confronting their problems. One of our hardest challenges in life is to really look inside ourselves and try and begin to deal with whatever it is that is in there. My characters want to be engaged in this process but don’t really know how.

SB:  Many of the stories in the collection appeared in literary journals first. Can you describe a change you made to one of the stories between when it was published in the literary journal and the final collection and why?

LvdB:  Oh, there were many changes.  I wrote these stories over a four-year period.  I wrote the first one, “Inverness,” right before I came to Emerson.  When I started revising the manuscript as a whole, I found a really big gap in the quality of craft in the earlier stories vs. the later stories.  Even though, “Inverness” had been published in Third Coast, when I re-read the story I was not happy with it at all.  The story meant a lot to me and I really wanted it to be in the collection but I made major structural revisions to it. I changed the ending. It just wasn’t working in the way I wanted it to.

SB:  That must have felt risky? 

LvdB:  Well, it took me a long time to figure out how to make the story work for me in a way that I was happy with and so that to me felt like the biggest risk.  I was down to the wire with “Inverness” and “We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life.”  That’s another story I did extensive revisions on between magazine and book publication.

With both those stories there came a point when I was beating my head against a wall and I just didn’t know if I could figure it out. I think that is one of the maddening things about process. The idea is that we are always moving forward and becoming better editors for ourselves, better readers, always pushing ourselves, so it would completely make sense that you would look back at older work and see things you weren’t able to see before.  So yes, it was really important for me to be open to changing the stories even though they had been published.  It is a very different thing for them to appear as a group in a book and I wanted to make sure that each story was as strong as I was capable of making it at that particular time.

Lorrie Moore has a quote that says something along the lines of, “Publishing is creating a public record of learning how to write.” I think that is absolutely true, especially when you start young, as I did with publishing stories in college. If you’ve given your book you’re absolute all, then you have to make peace with this a snapshot of where I was as a writer at the time.  It’s something to be proud of and also something to want to move past (artistically speaking).

Switchback: Last question about the collection.  You’ve said previously that you are a “book cover nerd.”  What was your vision for the cover of your book?

LvdB:  This is a part of the process of working with Dzanc that was really great.  It was very collaborative.  I spoke directly with the cover designer, Steven Seighman, and we exchanged images and ideas. Steven did a lot of different kinds of covers so I had a lot of options to choose from.  That part of the process was really fun because I am a book cover nerd. I fell in love with this image of a boardwalk leading into fog and it seemed to me to represent where the characters were going in terms of their own emotional trajectories.  They are striking out in a new direction, moving into unknown or “foggy” territory.  So my hope is that the image would be evocative and mysterious.  I think Steven did an amazing job of laying the book out.  So it was a very happy part of the publishing process. 

SB:   I’d like to ask you a few questions about the craft of writing. How do you approach your writing?  Do you have a writing routine? 

LvdB:  I do have a routine.  When I am working on something, whether it is a story or the novel I’ve been working on for a few years, I always work in the morning. I should probably clarify that I’m not a morning person by nature so I should say that it is a generous boundary for “morning.”  I get my first cup of coffee and sit down and immediately start working.  For me just to immerse myself in whatever fictional world I’m working with feels much more natural before the clutter of the day has amassed in my brain.  I spend the rest of the day teaching if I have a class or doing school work or working on other projects or reading manuscripts but I’ve found that it’s a very helpful to go to my writing first thing in the morning. 

At the same time, I try not to be so attached to the routine that I can’t adapt to other circumstances.  If there are times when I’m traveling a lot, I always bring manuscript pages to read and edit on the airplane or train for example.  I push myself to work on planes, in hotel rooms, even when I’m a little frazzled or tired. You have to make the time.  

For me, it was important to identify ideal working circumstances and create them as often as possible, but equally important to be adaptable because it drives me crazy when I can’t work on something.  I don’t feel like myself. Yet, I love to be out in the world and traveling, away from my literal desk, so I had to find a way to stay with the work even if I’m not at home. 

SB:  How do you approach revision?  How do you push yourself to revise?

LvdB: I would say 90 percent of my writing process is rewriting. I’m a very revision heavy writer. I tend to write my first drafts quickly, which is good in the sense that you get something down, but also means my first drafts tend to be pretty abysmal, so really my entire process is re-imagining and rewriting what I’ve written.  It’s a day-in-and-day-out process.

SB:  Do you take a chunk and rewrite. Do you look at the page or re-write from memory?

LvdB:  It depends on the story.  If I look at a first draft and there is something that I like –a character or setting—but I’ve completely gone down the wrong path, I might just start over. Sometimes I keep the manuscript pages next to me if there are parts of the original version that I want to incorporate. In other cases, where I feel like the shape of the story, the structure, is moving in the right direction, I typically start by reading it through, marking it up, moving stuff around, cutting, adding, re-seeing.  Then I just do that again and again and again until I feel like things are starting to click into place.  At that point, I read aloud a lot and share the story with my readers.  I have a great group of readers and they often have great ideas for problems I’m stuck on or bring to my attention problems I haven’t seen before.  That’s really the process.  I have no short cuts or tricks; it’s the daily labor.  I’ve been revising a novel for a couple of years and that’s a really different process because the canvas is so big.  I won’t do one holistic revision of the novel at once, but tend to focus on one particular thing. For example, I am going to rewrite this 50 page passage or I’m working on tightening the first 25 pages.  I have to break it down into little parcels of revision.

SB:  What are you currently reading that speaks to you?

LvdB:  I just finished a novel by Tom Drury, The Driftless Area, which I adored.  Such an odd and beautiful book and surprising in all the ways that I appreciate in fiction.  I recently started Sara Levine’s new novel called Treasure Island!!!.  I love the voice and the tone.  I’m also reading Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia—both are dazzling.

SB:  Final question. Is there any advice you’ve received on writing that you’d like to pass on to Switchback readers, many of whom are emerging writers.

LvdB:  Yes.  I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a lot of advice that’s really helped me.  I think Margot’s quote that I mentioned earlier (“I would like to think, if pressed that I would be able to justify every sentence in a story or a novel.”) was really instructive to me, in terms of how I started thinking about my own fiction in the revision process. 

Jim Shepard, who I once had a workshop with, is one of my favorite writers, and a phenomenal teacher. He’s talked about the importance of looking for the strangeness in your own work. When you’re starting out, it’s so important to try to recognize what’s unique in your own work—or what could be.  What are you bringing to the table?  For example, when I started writing some of the stories in this book, I didn’t really know how to make sense of these voices, I didn’t really know how to make sense of these story premises; I worried that they would be wildly implausible.  There were times when I could feel myself backing away, thinking maybe I should I be writing different kinds of stories, tamer stories. I wondered, “Can I pull this off?” I should have been moving closer to the fear rather than backing away. We are all strange in our own kinds of ways so follow your own sort of strangeness on the page.