To talk about Laura van den Berg requires a lot of space because of all her accolades! First there is all of this:
"As enchanting as fairy tales, as mysterious as dreams, these exquisitely composed fictions are as urgent and original as any being written today.” —Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend, winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction
One of Entertainment Weekly's 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2020 and 30 Hottest Summer Reads, one of O, the Oprah Magazine's 30 Most Anticipated Books of 2020, one of BuzzFeed's Most Anticipated Books of 2020 and 29 Summer Books You Won't Be Able to Put Down, one of Esquire's 20 Must-Read Books of Summer 2020, one of the BBC's Ten Books to Read in 2020, one of TIME's 12 New Books to Read in July one of ELLE's 30 Most Anticipated New Books of Summer 2020, one of Refinery29's 25 Books You'll Want to Read This Summer, one of Time's 45 New Books You Need to Read This Summer, one of Thrillist's 21 Books We Can't Wait to Read in 2020, one of Bustle's Most Anticipated Books of July 2020, one of LitHub's 2020 Summer Books, and one of The Millions Most Anticipated Books of the First Half of 2020
Next, we have this extraordinary bio:
Laura van den Berg is the author of two collections of stories, The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013) and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), and the novels Find Me (FSG, 2015) and The Third Hotel (FSG, 2018). The Third Hotel was a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award. The book was also an IndieNext Pick, a Powell’s Books Indispensable Pick, and named a “best book of 2018” by over a dozen publications, including The Boston Globe.
Laura’s honors include the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, and the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize, a $25,000 annual prize given to “a young writer of proven excellence in poetry or prose.” Her debut collection was selected for the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program, and she has twice been shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The Isle of Youth was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen outlets, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Find Me was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR and longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize.
Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review, BOMB, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, Freeman’s, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, and One Story, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her criticism and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, O, The Oprah Magazine, BOMB, and Vogue.com.
It seems particularly appropriate for me to ask what was haunting you when you started to write the absolutely haunting I Hold a Wolf by the Ears?
So many things, both in the self and in the world. Sickness and death within my own family; Florida; dreams; the daily, private ways white women uphold white patriarchal violence; spirit photography; impersonation; sisters; ghost stories of all sorts.
The stories are eerie and strange and unforgettably brilliant, many set in Florida, where you grew up. Written before the pandemic, they feel startlingly fresh because they are seeped in fears and violence and our terrible economics. Did you have an inking of some of the things that were coming (not the virus, of course)? And if you were writing these stories today, would they be different?
I wrote these stories alongside the feeling that we are in a place of deep emergency—and have been in a place of deep emergency. Covid-19 is a new crisis, but it’s also exposing the various crises that have been unfolding for a long time. Fantasy, willful ignorance and deception, are integral to the national narrative and consciousness—and this unwillingness to be honest about our own history can only continue to lead us in the direction of disaster.
I am sure these stories would be different if I were writing them today. Strangely enough my first novel, Find Me, was a dystopian novel that concerned a deadly virus—it’s been surreal to be talking about that book again in the context of Covid. Still, I’m sure that book would be very different too, were I to write it now. I tend to think that any major event in the world will shift something in our work—for me, it can also take a long time to understand what that change will look like.
The stories are women-centric and nothing is as it seems. How does one live in a world like that, without being hyperaware of the consequences?
Perhaps because I come from a big family I’ve always been aware that a person’s perceptions are usually a collision between some kind of loose, objective truth—i.e. we can all agree it’s raining outside—and our highly subjective inner worlds. In "Cult of Mary," for example, there is an awful man in a tour group in Italy. Near to the end, there is a revelation that things are not what they seemed to be in respect to his personal history. That shift is not intended to make him more sympathetic—I actually never think of characters this way, as “sympathetic” or “unsympathetic”—but to complicate his presence. He is in place of pain that’s real and/also he’s manipulating his pain to provide cover for toxic, misogynistic behavior; both things can be true at the same time. Also, many of the characters in these stories misperceive things in their worlds or perceive the necessary thing a bit too late. I’m interested in the consequence of those misperception and how they can destabilize one’s sense of reality.
The stories are so fantastic! People vanish or are decimated in some way, and yet there is a real edge of humor here. All this makes me want to ask you what your particular world view is outside of your writing.
It might not be apparent from the stories, but I think I’m actually fairly optimistic by nature. I believe in the possibility of change.
I know this is the question every writer is asked, but it’s one that I think matters, because art matters. Are you able to write now? How does it feel different?
I am. Focus is a struggle, so I’m moving back and forth between two possible projects, something I’ve never done before. I’m trying to stay oriented towards process—and story as a way of processing—and releasing any kind of concrete goals (i.e. I want to finish a draft in x months).
What’s obsessing you now other than the world situation, and why?
Boxing, one of my great loves. I watch a couple of old fights every week and study technique.
What question didn’t’ I ask that I should have?
What question didn’t’ I ask that I should have?
I think your questions were wonderful—thank you, Caroline!