The PEN Ten: An Interview with Laura van den Berg
1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
There are some human truths and experiences that require the tools of fiction. 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. This is a collision that I think fiction is especially adept at rendering. Many of the characters in these stories misperceive things in their worlds or perceive the necessary thing a bit too late. The consequences of those misperceptions, the way they can destabilize one’s sense of reality, how to proceed when one truth opposes another—these are all experiences that I’m interested in.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
Focus has been a struggle this year, so I’m moving back and forth between two possible projects, something I’ve never done before. I’m trying to stay oriented toward 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). Reading is, eternally, the most reliable source of inspiration and nourishment for me. I’m nearly always reading a couple of books at the same time.
“There are some human truths and experiences that require the tools of fiction. . . I’ve always been aware that a person’s perceptions are usually a collision between some kind of loose, objective truth. . . and our highly subjective inner worlds. This is a collision that I think fiction is especially adept at rendering.”
3. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada is one of my favorite contemporary novels and one I love recommending. A lot of people have told me later that they found their experience with the novel to be profoundly liberating.
4. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I recently finished a novel called Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, which was incredible and devastating. I’m now rereading The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald and also Crime and Punishment for a book club I’m doing with two friends. And I’ve just started Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe by Mario Alejandro Ariza. I’m pretty sure that last one is going to give me nightmares.
5. What advice do you have for young writers?
About two or so years ago, I took up boxing, and this practice has now reshaped my life in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined. I think it can be really useful—maybe even essential—to have another way to be in the world, another space to step into. Of course, that can take so many different shapes, but before boxing, nearly everything in my life was connected to writing in one way or another, and for me, cultivating practices that are not at all writing-related has been really, really healthy.
“Story gives us a way to process and inhabit human experience, to feel things through language that we might be less willing to feel in our own lives. Story also gives us a path to imagine new realities, new worlds, new possibilities.”
6. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
Since this is the PEN Ten interview, I’ll list 10—Marie Ndiaye, Jenny Erpenbek, Yoko Tawada, Michael Ondaatje, Joy Williams, Mariana Enriquez, Miriam Toews, Valeria Luiselli, Hiroko Oyamada, and Helen Oyeyemi.
7. Why do you think people need stories?
Story gives us a way to process and inhabit human experience, to feel things through language that we might be less willing to feel in our own lives. Story also gives us a path to imagine new realities, new worlds, new possibilities. Few things have challenged me and deepened my relationship to the world more than stories have.
8. Following two consecutive novels, you return to the short story with your new book I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. Do you have a preference between the short story and the novel? What do you consider the defining aspects of the short story, what it can achieve and how it reflects reality, that set it apart from the novel?
For me, the two forms are so different that comparisons are difficult, but I think the short story form can be a bit like putting a grain of sand under a microscope: The form’s compression intensifies whatever it is we’re encountering, allowing us to perceive the world in a new way.
“I thought a lot about the supernatural as a means to explore the material that cannot be contained by corporal life: the unsayable secrets, the unexamined truths, the incomprehensible realities. . . What does it mean to haunt? What does it mean to be haunted?”
9. The stories in this collection are haunting, and this also includes the stunning cover art. Whether it’s a woman who works as grief freelancer playing the roles of widowers’ dead wives or a woman pretending to be her missing sister, the stories speak to each other in unearthly ways. Can you speak about the subversive nature of ghosts that permeate the collection—when you realized this was a connective tissue while writing the stories and how it operates in the book, as well as our lives?
The cover was designed by Na Kim, who is a genius. I think it captures the spirit of the collection beautifully. In terms of the thematic through lines, I thought a lot about the supernatural as a means to explore the material that cannot be contained by corporal life: the unsayable secrets, the unexamined truths, the incomprehensible realities. In an NPR interview, Toni Morrison once said that “if you are really alert, then you can see the life that exists beyond the life that exists on top.” What does this “life beyond” have to say about our world that cannot be conveyed through other channels? What does it mean to haunt? What does it mean to be haunted? All these questions were important guides, though it took some time to recognize the supernatural as a thematic link. For a while, I had a lot of stories—maybe 350 pages worth—but I was struggling to find the book. Once I started letting the spectral guide me, a shape began to emerge.
10. Each story in this collection does the nuanced work of presenting conflicts and problems, but without presenting a precise solution. You provide space for the reader in the same way the women in these stories have space to navigate their situations. How did you approach shaping these stories? As a collection, what would you say is its thesis?
I don’t know that I’d use the word “thesis,” which to me implies a definitive statement—I think more in terms of central questions, interests. In addition to the questions about hauntedness posed above, I thought a lot about how many of these women have arrived at moments in their lives where their usual coping mechanisms/narratives/frameworks for living are breaking down—and they are being challenged to find new ways to think and be, new paths. For me, I think this space of precipice has a lot of natural tension and interest, and so, it’s a space I kept coming back to.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, and the novels Find Me and The Third Hotel, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and named a Best Book of 2018 by over a dozen publications. She is the recipient of a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and is a two-time finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Born and raised in Florida, van den Berg splits her time between the Boston area and Central Florida, with her husband and dog.