TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 2

An Interview with Laura van den Berg

 · Nonfiction

By John Shortino and Samuel Price


Laura van den BergLaura van den Berg’s debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Conjunctions, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV. Laura lives in Baltimore, where she is completing a novel.


 
In an interview with Jim Shepard, you asked him what his “central writerly preoccupations” were. I’d like to pose that same question to you. Do you see these preoccupations as shifting or stagnant?

Often my characters misdirect their desire to connect in odd, esoteric directions, like looking for lemurs in Madagascar or long-distance swimming or searching for a perfect specimen of the twinflower. So I think that the idea of loneliness and misdirection, what the characters do with their loneliness, are definitely central preoccupations for me that have been pretty consistent. It’s hard to imagine them ever completely going away. But if you ask me again in twenty years, maybe I’ll have different answers, so it’s probably hard to say for sure. I do think the matter that is around those questions, the way I am exploring them, is absolutely shifting. I’m not writing stories that have monsters in them in the way that my collection does at the moment, for instance. The contexts, the frames, are ever-evolving.

At an AWP panel last year, you mentioned that during your M.F.A., you turned away from writing the types of conventional, realistic stories that are often prevalent in writing workshops. Do you think the focus in many writing programs on realism is limiting to young writers?

I do. Generally speaking, I think any time an institution is closing doors for people and saying you can’t do this, you can’t do this, whether it’s realism or fabulism or something else, I feel constitutionally opposed to that. A lot of writing instructors at the introductory level will say no vampire stories, no werewolf stories, we want you to write “literary fiction.” And there’s a really good reason for that, because we’ve seen so many terrible incarnations of certain kinds of stories and after a while it becomes difficult to take. Even so, I always tell students–even intro students–that if you can write an emotionally and psychologically complex story about werewolves, knock yourself out, I would love to see it.

I’m not a big believer in closing doors for people before they’ve had a chance to walk through them. But in my M.F.A. program, a lot of people were departing from realism and my teachers, by and large, were encouraging when I started to move in that direction. So I wasn’t necessarily experiencing external pressure to write in a more “realistic” mode. I think my problem was that I was just poorly read. I’d not really read anything at all until I started taking fiction classes in college; only then did I start reading contemporary fiction, for my workshops, and it was pretty much traditional realism: Raymond Carver, Charles Baxter, Alice Munro (all writers I love, by the way). That was simply all I knew. I didn’t know these other kinds of writing were out there, that they were possible.

You’ve written, “The first book, at least for me, is a tricky animal. For the first time, you’re getting your vision of the world down in a comprehensive way; you’re learning what you think and know and feel and see and what you don’t know and don’t think and don’t feel and fail to see.” Has it gotten any easier beyond the first book? And what does it mean for you to make progress in writing? Is it a wholly conscious thing or something in the subconscious?

Unfortunately, it’s only getting harder. You start to know yourself more. You can see when you’re letting yourself off the hook. I’m definitely more conscious of repeating themes or patterns than I was when I was writing my first book. I’ve turned into a much slower writer than I was when I first started out. Part of that is probably a function of not having to turn stories in for workshop. But one thing that is unique about writing as a craft is that if you’re, say, a chef, and you can make a really great crème brûlée, it stands to reason that you can use your skills to make a really great crème brûlée a hundred times in a row (or so I would imagine, anyway). And writing’s not like that at all. Just because you’ve written one really great story or twenty really great stories, it doesn’t necessarily mean that experience will help you write the thirtieth story or the fiftieth story or the hundredth story. It only gets harder and slower for me, I’m sorry to report.

On your question about progress, I just want my next book to be better than the first one, more ambitious, more fully-realized, more imaginative. And then if I’m fortunate enough to have multiple books, for the third one to be better than the second one, and so on. I don’t think writing is a linear thing, where you’re climbing a ladder in a consistently upward direction, but I think progress for me means that I’m pushing myself, I’m being brave, I’m taking risks and I’m not shying away from certain projects out of fear.

What does it mean for you to use the unknown as a way into reality, why balance the domestic with the exotic?

When I was writing and when I was in school, I found my way into that by accident. While my voice is not quite working in realism, I would not say I’m a fabulist or a magical realist in the tradition of, say, Karen Russell, whose work I adore; I am perhaps toeing the line between those worlds.

The big revelation for me was when I started reading work that represented a different kind of reality. This idea that you can write what you don’t know. That you can invent whatever kind of world you want. That was another significant problem for me early on, as a twenty-something, reading a lot of realism and thinking that you’re supposed to write only about what you have immediate experience with. Having grown up in the suburbs of central Florida, my immediate experience hadn’t been all that interesting, at least on the surface. So there were all these human concerns–fear and loneliness and misdirection–that I was interested in exploring, but when I tried to do it in familiar settings–in ordinary, domestic settings–those questions became stilted and dull on the page. When I figured out I could combine the exotic and the domestic, that was a magical moment for me. I learned that I had to write what I didn’t know to find out what I did.

What are some of the advantages and difficulties of developing a setting through a character viewing the locale as an outsider?

Over time, I have become more attuned to the difficulties of the outsider approach. When I was writing my collection, I had a laissez-faire attitude toward research. I certainly conducted some, but with an eye toward gleaning logistical information and textural details; I was definitely not seeking to become anything close to an expert. Since I hadn’t traveled to some of my story settings, the facts that I gathered were just a diving board for me to create imagined worlds. It’s difficult for me to write about places I know intimately. It’s only very recently that I’ve started to set stories in Florida, and it’s not even a part of Florida that I’m intensely familiar with. I need that imaginative freedom.

The central characters in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us are all American. Very American. Outsiders, as you said, foreigners in these particular locales. I think there is something about being an outsider that alters one’s perspective and pushes characters into spaces where they are more likely to take risks or be impulsive or act outside their comfort zone. As for difficulties, there are certainly particular concerns about just diving into an unfamiliar locale or culture; I would never want to employ exoticism for the sake of it, for example, or play to stereotypes about Americans abroad. So, in hindsight, I can see the pitfalls more clearly. But when it comes to questions of authenticity or literal accuracy, I still maintain that, as a fiction writer, if you can create a world the reader can believe in, you’ve done your job. In some ways, it really is as simple as that. If you can imagine it well enough, it can be.

How have your ambitions changed, specifically regarding audience and message–what it means for you to have an audience–since you’ve been publishing work?

Well, I’ll tell you, I am absolutely tickled pink to have an audience, period. So I’m just really happy to think I have a very small audience, an audience of any size, out there. When someone writes to you and says, “I read this story, I read your book, and it really meant something to me,” it’s an incredible feeling. There’s something about the artist’s life that can feel inward, even narcissistic at times, because you are logging too many hours in your own head, in your own world with your own ideas, which is of course necessary, but it’s also really gratifying to feel as though all this inward time has meant something to somebody, that you’ve connected. It would be really cool if those connections kept happening.

Your debut collection was published by Dzanc Books. Do you think smaller presses are a better fit for debut authors and writers publishing collections of short fiction?

When we have conversations about big houses versus small houses, indie writers versus the “big house writers,” there can be a tendency to break these things into two distinct groups, like, “These are apples and these are oranges,” but there’s so much variance under the umbrella of “big house”–for the houses themselves and also for the authors they publish. And there’s much variance under the umbrella of “indie house” as well.

There’s a multitude of factors for the writer to consider: does he or she want to go through the process of getting an agent and submitting in the traditional way; what are their goals; what appeals to them about particular houses. Both big houses and indie houses can be great venues for story collections. For the big houses, I think of Danielle Evans, Karen Russell, Miroslav Penkov, Kevin Wilson, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Lauren Groff, Robin Elizabeth Black, Suzanne Rivecca. For the indies, Matt Bell, Caitlin Horrocks, Belle Boggs, Alan Heathcock, Ethel Rohan, Robert Lopez, Roy Kesey, Tiphanie Yanique, Kyle Minor, Matthew Salesses, Mary Miller, Lucy Corin, Jennine Capó Crucet. Not to mention the authors that move between the two worlds. I could go on and on. There are so many terrific writers out there; it’s genuinely exciting. It all depends on finding the right house for that particular book and that particular author. Fortunately, Dzanc was a great fit for me.

What do you see as some of the major advantages of publishing with an “indie” press? Are there any significant disadvantages?

One of the main advantages was the level of attention. If you are only publishing one or two books a month, you are the October title. Smaller publishers don’t have to make decisions like, “We’re going to really push this title and let these ten others fall by the wayside.” The focus, that hands-on quality, is a great advantage. I wouldn’t know if this is true at indie houses in general, but at Dzanc the process was very collaborative. We discussed the look of the book, the cover, ideas for promotion, etc., extensively.

I do sense that because some (though certainly not all) of the indie houses are comparatively newer, they’re used to doing things in a more grassroots fashion and there’s a greater degree of flexibility, a willingness to experiment. I have heard from some authors at big houses that it can be a bit like, “This is the program, this is how we promote our books,” and there’s not always a lot of room for the author to come in and say, “Hey, what about this? What about this?”

On the other hand, I’ve also heard from many big house authors who found their publishers to be enormously game and inventive and from some indie authors who found their press to be overly set in their ways and disengaged. I know Dzanc was very open to ideas and that sense of innovation, of imagination and risk and passion, definitely distinguishes great publishers of all sizes and stripes.

Your first book received a lot of publicity. Did you find that a lot of the job of promoting the book fell to you as the author?

Dzanc worked super-hard for me, and my agent was incredibly helpful as well; I was lucky to have such good, smart people on my side. I also did a lot of legwork, everything from setting up events to contacting media to e-mailing book bloggers and asking if they wanted a galley. All kinds of stuff, trying to do what I could to help my collection make its way in the world. That said, I think the things that gave my book the biggest boost were out of my hands–more specifically, the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and the Frank O’Connor shortlist. Dzanc had to enter the collection for consideration for those honors, so they did their job by taking that step, but it’s kind of like winning the lottery, or seeing a unicorn. It’s random, a shot in the dark, and you have no control over the outcome, nor does your publisher.

It’s tempting to read the tea leaves in an attempt to discern in a definitive way what works and what doesn’t in publishing. But I still think it’s a bit of a mystery for a lot of us. As much concrete knowledge as I gained from having a book out there, a lot of it was blind luck–and I’m enormously grateful for the good fortune.

I think you have some control in that you have to write a good book first.

Well, hopefully. But there’s an awful lot of good books out there.

Will the changes in bookselling, such as Borders going out of business and a significant amount of sales moving online, make it more difficult for independently-published work to find this kind of exposure?

I don’t know. Someone who works in publishing would probably have a more sophisticated answer. Certainly the bigger houses have more money and larger infrastructures, which can benefit their authors in a number of ways. But at the same time, I think many indie houses have been really plugged into web culture from the beginning. Dzanc, quite literally, grew out of web culture, and I think they have been smart about using the web to cultivate a readership, as have many other small presses (the newish Red Lemonade immediately comes to mind). Maybe an increased movement toward the web will actually be a good thing for indie houses, or at least not a deterrent. Who knows.

In addition to writing fiction, you also conduct interviews with literary innovators, write guest blogs, and interact with writers and readers on Twitter. Do you think social media is an important tool for building and maintaining a literary community?

You should do what feels right to you, and do what you like. I’m an extrovert at heart, so I like being out in the world, like connecting with people and having conversations. I think it’s fun. So if it’s fun for you, then it can be a great way to build community, but if it’s not your thing, no one should feel it’s a “career killer” not to be engaged with social media. Forgive me for using a cliché here, but life’s too short to sweat the small stuff. And Twitter, as much as I love it, is small potatoes in the grand scheme. The work, on the other hand, is not.

 

Read Laura van den Berg’s story in this issue.
Photo of Laura van den Berg: Miriam Berkley


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