In the olden days of February 2009 at AWP Chicago we hosted a panel called “Celebrating the Voices of American Short Fiction.” The following eleven words were on the lips of panelists Benjamin Percy and Don Lee: What The World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Those eleven words are perhaps the longest and most hauntingly strung title of a most haunting debut collection of short stories. So it was with great pleasure I recently discussed the collection with its maker, Laura van den Berg. And it is with even greater pleasure I bring that discussion to you today.
That’s not all. Ms. van den Berg will be stretching out as her collection’s title does, for rest of this week here at ASF blog. We invite you to stop in every day, talk with her about Steven Millhauser and “reality,” Italo Calvino and his “special halo,” Annie Dillard and “the worst part of being dead,” and more.
Until then, we hope you’ll stretch out with the following conversation between myself and Laura van den Berg on her first collection, what lurks beneath its surfaces, how her own life directs her characters, her steps for chucking the “city job,” and much, much more.
ASF‘s Stacy Muszynski: Laura, your first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, continues to be lauded, and rightfully so, for its precision and starkness and longing and beauty–not to mention its “buoyant humor.”
Much of the book’s beauty comes from what you’ve conjured up for its characters in your settings: they are steeped in humidity and rain and bodies of water around the world. In this way the book is obsessed not just with water but what lurks in it–“monsters” and their “strange liquid energy.” Can you speak to the draw for you? Why this particular conceit, water?
Laura van den Berg: I hadn’t realized water was a common link between the stories until after I assembled the collection, but, in hindsight, I think there’s a connection between the uncertainty that often plagues the characters’ emotional landscapes and the nature of water. Water is a lot of things all at once: it’s beautiful and deadly; it can feel intimate and it can feel like a massive, endless expanse. My characters often grapple with a kind of internal ambiguity: a sense of lost-ness, of wanting to be many things all at once and, in most cases, not quite making it. So in this way I think there’s some mirroring going on between water and the interior lives of the characters that populate the stories.
ASF: One of these moments happens in the collection’s concluding, title story when teenage Celia, all longing, recognizes open-water distance swimming as “openness, terrifying and intoxicating.” There’s also that lovely arc in the book itself from lostness to a sort of foundness–characters themselves to take up residence, in their way, in that expansive water. They’re primitive, endangered, appearing and vanishing. When you were constructing the title story did you have in mind this arc, this return to the beginning? Can you talk a bit about how you decided to order the stories?
LvdB: I think the ordering of stories in a collection is very important, which I didn’t really realize until I started putting together my own book and working on the ordering with my wonderful agent, Katherine Fausset. We both agreed that “Where We Must Be” should come first, since the opening is kind of zany and (hopefully) striking and that “What the World…” should be last. I liked the last time as a final note for the book, and since that story is the longest one, it somehow felt like a good anchor for the collection. Sorting out what came between was harder. I tried to stagger the two third person stories and to arrange the stories in a way that prevented them from becoming thematically redundant, which is a challenge in a collection where there’s a lot of thematic overlap in the stories.
ASF: In a recent conversation I had with writer Bonnie Jo Campbell, she mentioned that nothing in her own life directs the choices her characters make when the chips are completely down. She said, “I’m not much interested in my own self when I write. I’m interested in what I observe out there, what’s going on around me. I figure that I’m always going to be fine, one way or another, but I do worry about other people who have difficulty moving from one world to the next.”
What about your work, Laura? Your characters are not just stuck, but consumed, in the different worlds they occupy–their messy “real” world and the mysterious world of “powerful tides, strange shadows.” They are at once escaping and searching. Are you simply observing what’s “out there”? Or is there something you’ve come to understand about your own life that brings your characters to the choices they make?
LvdB: Great question! The following could just be a reflection of my own process and style, but I can’t quite wrap my head the notion that one can write fiction that is completely divorced from the self. After all, it comes from us, from our imaginations, from our consciousnesses and subconsciousness, so, I imagine, the self must, even in small ways, inform what ends up on the page. For me, writing fiction is very much about looking outwards and inwards at the same time. The emotions that can be found in some of the stories are familiar to me, but the characters’ situations, exterior lives, vocations, etc., almost never mirror my own. I tend to work best when I’m looking outside the world I know, into the unknown, into the “out there,” and also mining the emotions and ideas that rise from a more internal place.
ASF: It’s not just mythic “monsters” like Lock Ness Monster or Congo’s mokele-mbembe (“one who stops the flow of rivers”) your characters are driven to find or prove. It’s also endangered species they believe they’re trying to save–from Madagascar’s lemurs to the twinflower of Inverness, to their own selves outrunning–or trying to find her home inside–loneliness.
But your stories do not end happily ever after. The “monsters” remain unfound. The endangered species do not miraculously recover their numbers. And the humans’ struggle with loneliness. . . what are we to make of their chances for success with that battle?
LvdB: I didn’t so much intend to make hopeful or un-hopeful statements in my stories, but rather to represent the inconclusive way events and relationships can sometimes end. Most of [us] want to leave our experiences with a sense of closure, of quantifiable meaning, of there having been a purpose or a point or at least a concrete sense of what’s been gained or lost. If not a happy ending, we want the ending of Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray whispers something (presumably) profound in Scarlet Johansson’s ear and she walks away forever changed. And sometimes life deals that card (at the end of the title story, for example, the narrator, Celia, definitely walks away fundamentally altered), but just as often, it doesn’t and there’s no epiphany, no “ah-ha!” moment, no meaningful change.
ASF: Many of your people in WTWWLLWATWLU are staggering under the weight of recent death. What special knowledge or tools, what special strengths, do you believe this awareness gives them?
LvdB: I think grief has a way of sharpening and altering (sometimes to terrible effect) our way of seeing. All of the sudden, we start looking at the world and ourselves a little differently. The details, the small moments, start to seem more weighted. For my characters, I felt their losses pushed them to act more radically than they would have otherwise and to view the world in a darker, sharper, stranger way.
ASF: Going back for a moment to the thought of your characters’ “at once escaping and searching” reminds me of something you mentioned recently, about your experiences as a teacher for PEN Prison Writing Program. You’d said you felt in your work with inmates highlighted the connection between creative growth and personal-emotional growth. That “in every class, these [inmates] take huge risks, and the power and honesty in their voices makes their work feel urgently important.” It’s interesting because I can say the same for your work in this collection and the stories I’ve read elsewhere.
Can you speak to an example or effect of your PEN students’ showing you that connection between creative and personal-emotional growth? Of taking huge risk?
LvdB: One shift I observed in some of the inmates I worked with was that at a certain point, they would start to tell their own stories. Though the students I encountered were very supportive of each other, I still felt this was hugely brave and I hoped that it would lead them to a place of emotional growth, though I think it’s often hard to assess the long-term effect.
ASF: Any connection for you yourself regarding growth and risk?
LvdB: Absolutely. It was a great experience to enter into an environment that can seem threatening and then form these positive connections and rapports with the students. I also think that since the discourse about our prison systems are usually dominated by things like the death penalty, problems with our legal system, outcry over egregious violations of inmate rights, etc., it’s easy to forget about the day-to-day lives of inmates in America and all the moments that go un-chronicled, so to have a small window into that culture was both fascinating and sad. And for the students who did come to share their personal stories through their work, it often seemed that, from their perspective, it was a terrible mistake, or a series of terrible mistakes, that led to their imprisonment. I’m sure their situations were more complex than what could be represented in the classroom, not to mention the fact that we’re all capable of being less-than-reliable narrators when it comes to talking about our own lives, but there was something about that stark truth, that idea of the one catastrophically big mistake, that immediately made the gap between “us” and “them” seem a whole lot smaller.
ASF: There are so many terribly funny moments inside these devastating stories. One of my favorites happens in “Where We Must Be,” when Jean, in her Bigfoot costume, gets totally clobbered by the guy who’s fantasy it is to act out killing Bigfoot. And basically, he lives his fantasy, shooting her twice after she’s down and giving her a paintball goiter in her neck. Then her boss fires her because the customer complains that the experience, the kill, was ruined because Bigfoot “fell like a girl.” Then the blase way the boss says, “Maybe he hates women.” So simple and elegant, the pileup of painful reality, and the way our illusions–the demands we place on them–screw us time after time.
Long story short: Do you layer your stories, building in your jokes at the perfect moment as rises in the deeply emotional terrain, or do they come to you as you create? Do you have any rules of thumb for yourself for what makes a successful story, like I must make myself laugh once and cry once?
LvdB: I don’t have any rules of thumb, except to just write what I feel passionately about. I do love fiction that combines dark humor with high-voltage emotional distress, like Lorrie Moore and Joy Williams, and when moments of dark humor pop up in my own work, I’m always happily surprised. I don’t think of my work as being funny and I didn’t even realize “Where We Must Be” had funny moments until I read part of the story aloud and people laughed. No one had ever laughed at anything I’d read in public before, so at first, I was a little concerned.
ASF: What has been the hardest lesson–or the best–for you to learn in your writing life?
LvdB: I would imagine that the “best lesson” is radically different for every writer, but for me, I’m always trying to learn how to keep the self-doubt under control. I tend to imagine the worst case scenario. After finishing a new story or a book, I immediately think: what if this is the last thing I ever write? What if this is it? These questions are not especially useful, so I would love to learn how to squash them for good (please feel free to send me your tips!), but I have a feeling it’s going to be an ongoing lesson.
One lesson that I did actually learn that has been really important for me is: don’t be afraid to organize your life around your work. Sometimes I feel a little petrified that I’ve put all my eggs so completely in one basket, but we’ve all got to do what we love.
ASF: It’s true. I mean, our engineer, cop, medical practitioner friends may love their work as much as you or I do, but they aren’t complaining (at least to me) about internal critics, their one basket of eggs, or simply, desperately, “finding time to work.” The social system is built around what they do for a living. Then there’s that weirdo, the writer. . . many of whom likely don’t know how to make this sanity-saving change. How’d you do it? And did a particular event, exhaustion or a break in the system cause you to finally rearrange?
LvdB: I think it was just living and working in a city for a while and realizing that we didn’t want to get stuck in a rut. There’s a certain post-MFA stasis that I’d seen some people fall into and I wanted to avoid that. A good day job, or even a crappy one, can be a huge gift for writers, but for me something about doing the same thing day-in-and-day-out for too long can have a kind of anesthetizing effect, so both my partner, Paul, who is also a fiction writer, and I decided about two years ago to chuck our city jobs and go live in a cabin in North Carolina and write for 10 months. After that, I took a one year gig at Gettysburg College, where I am now, and after this year, who knows. We’d both like to have another patch of unemployed writing time, whether it comes in the form of a fellowship or residency or something we do on our own. We’ll housesit, we’ll live in random places, burn through savings at an alarming rate. The trade-off is that you never know what you’re doing from one year to the next, so it’s hard to feel settled both logistically and financially, which can be a little scary sometimes, but I don’t mind the moving around very much and having each year be something of a gamble, which has surprised me. So it’s not a perfect system by any means, but I’m so glad we took the risk of leaving the security of our lives in Boston and going to NC. I was terrified, and it ended up being a great experience, something that was very good for me both personally and artistically.
ASF: So what amazing thing are you working on now, and will it contain more wet climes, and when can we get our muddy paws on it?
LvdB: I’m working on new stories and a novel. Hopefully the stories will find homes before too long and as for the novel, who knows. I’ll probably be a while.
ASF: Before I say thank you, Laura, very much, and leave our readers to your guest blog spots over the next three days, what else would you like us to know? (It can even be a secret. We will keep it between us.)
LvdB: Hmmm…what else can I tell you? I’m originally from Florida. I have a horse named Art. I hate cooking and reptiles, especially snakes. I think everyone should read The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. Lately I’ve been giving serious thought to moving to Uruguay. I’m nearing the end of a long semester and my brain is running on fumes, but hopefully I’ll have enough juice to turn out some good guest blogs for ASF, which is one of the very best literary journals around.