In her new short story collection, The Isle of Youth (one of our Best of the Month picks for November), Laura van den Berg explores the lives of young women in search of something missing in their lives. The result is seven extraordinary short stories that are strange and heartfelt.
Author Lauren Groff (Arcadia) spoke with van den Berg about where stories come from, writing in first-person, and the stories that inspire her.
Lauren Groff: How do stories arrive for you: do they sneak up on you in the night, or do varied threads of your life suddenly weave together, and voila, here's a story?
Laura van den Berg: I've experienced both. I have come to recognize the feeling of a story percolating -- maybe I have an idea or a premise in mind, but I'm still searching for the internal story, or whatever element I need to begin. I love that state of being. I've also had a story fall out of the clear blue. With "Acrobat" I was doing the dishes when the first line, "The day my husband left me, I followed a trio of acrobats around the city of Paris," came out of nowhere. Either way, my first drafts are always a hot mess, and I excavate the real story in revision.
LG: To call a book of stories a "collection" has always seemed like the perfect descriptor to me because people generally write them over a long period of time: they collect, like rain in a barrel or philately, until one day you understand that you have a finished set. Describe how this collection began taking shape and when you knew you had finished it.
Laura van den Berg
I wrote the first story in 2008 and finished the collection in the summer of 2013, so about four and a half years of "collecting." The first three stories were all written within a year of each other, and I recognized a shared sensibility and wanted to continue in that vein. In terms of knowing when I was finished, I had to be convinced! I kept tinkering with the order; I worried I needed another story. Finally I gave the collection to the two smartest, most curmudgeonly readers I know. Once they said The Isle of Youth
was ready, I got with the program.
LG: I know you're finishing a novel right now. How do you see novel-writing in comparison to story-writing? Which do you prefer and why?
LvdB: For me, stories are more compatible with being a person in the world. I can work for a few hours a morning and pick it back up during whatever small patches of time present themselves -- on the train, etc. -- and feel good about my progress. With the novel, the larger scale is a special and exciting challenge, but it's also harder to step away. I need to maintain a certain level of immersion, which can feel less compatible with living my non-imaginary life. But I can't help but feel that it's an enormous privilege to be thinking about a story at all. All I ever wanted to do was find something I loved and then do that, but for a long time I didn't know what that thing was and I felt like that was so awful, to not know what you love. I always remember that when I'm feeling beleaguered.
LG: The stories in The Isle of Youth take place all over the world -- in Patagonia and Paris and Antarctica, as well as in South Florida -- yet the collection feels cohesive to me. Tell me how these stories are having a conversation with one another.
LvdB: On the surface, the stories are connected by subject matter: private eyes working a baffling case; a teenage magician's assistant who steals from her audiences; twin sisters who swap identities and become ensnared in the Miami underworld. A lot of crime and deception happening! I joke that this is the book where I worked out all my illegal impulses. The stories are connected by the interior landscapes as well. These narrators -- all women -- are struggling with a common loneliness. Who am I? Why am I doing what I'm doing? I also wanted to explore certain questions around family, how even the people closest to us can remain deeply mysterious.
LG: In almost all of these stories, Laura, the main characters nurse a sense of alienation from a loved one: a husband or mother or sister, someone from whom the characters all expect intimacy. I wouldn't dare to delve into the realm of therapy, here, but why is this longing for intimacy such a rich source of dramatic tension for you?
LvdB: In my experience, the worst disconnection is not disconnection from other people but disconnection from yourself. When you look inside and feel confounded by what you see, connecting with other people is tough. I've been there before, and I returned to that place a lot when working on The Isle of Youth.
LG: The Isle of Youth is your title story, named after a disappointing island the main character's sister visits. [I also noticed that you dedicated this book to your husband, Paul, by calling him your "isle"]. Does the collection's title have a larger, metaphorical meaning for you?
LvdB: It does. I think of these characters as being their own little islands, in terms of the isolation they're experiencing: the people in their lives might as well be an ocean away. On the flipside, relationships can become a kind of island precisely because of the intimacy—you develop your own language, your own patterns, your own rules. Our household often feels isle -- like in the loveliest sense, a haven from the outside world.
LG: Every story in this collection, save "Lessons," is a first-person story. What draws you to the first person narrator?
LvdB: Initially it's an intuitive choice. I often begin stories with a voice: a first line gets stuck in my head and I can't shake it (as was the case with "Acrobat"). The voice is always a woman's voice and eighty percent of the time, it is an "I" voice. I follow that lead in the first draft, though in revision I often make myself re-write in the third person as an exercise, just to be sure.
LG: There is a sense of doubling in these stories, sisters who take after one another in an uncanny way ("The Isle of Youth"), a daughter who is her mother's magician's assistant ("The Greatest Escape"), siblings who go into detective work together ("Opa-Locka"), a band of child bank-robbers mirrored by another band of young bank-robbers ("Lessons"). Tell me why the dramatic double is so important to you in your storytelling.
LvdB: For these characters, the double presents an alternate version of themselves, a potential path they can reject or accept. The presence of the double is a source of both attraction and resistance, and I'm interested in that tension. Also, I was definitely operating under the influence of noir—I'm thinking more "existential noir" like the films The Passenger and L'Avventura or David Lynch than noir in the most traditional sense—when working on Isle. I was drawn to worlds with that kind of spooky texture, where you haven't left reality, but you feel right on the edge of something darkly magical; the doubling contributes to that texture.
LG: In your previous book, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, your characters are haunted by the idea of the monstrous, Bigfoot and Moby-Dick and the Loch Ness Monster, the mokele-mbembe in Congo, the Mishegenabeg in Lake Michigan. Has your interest in the monstrous flagged, or has it been channeled into different ideas about monstrousness?
LvdB: A bit of both. It's interesting how personality can impact process. I am the kind of person who could eat a green apple every morning for breakfast and then wake up one day and say, never again will I eat a green apple. That personality trait is reflected in the way I work, in that I tend to go through cycles with subject matter. By the time I finished WHAT THE WORLD WILL LOOK LIKE WHEN ALL THE WATER LEAVES US, dealing with the monstrous in such an explicitly way—i.e. Bigfoot—was out of my system. But I also respond to the idea of the monstrous being explored in a different context in The Isle of Youth, as these women are wrestling with some hardcore inner demons.
LG: What are the short stories and who are the writers you return to over and over again for inspiration?
LvdB: Always changing, but some of my most steadfast loves include: "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" by Amy Hempel. "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin. "Superfrog Saves Tokyo" by Haruki Murakami. "Escapes" by Joy Williams. "Do Not Disturb" by A.M. Holmes. "You're Ugly, Too" by Lorrie Moore. Any story in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.
The Isle of Youth is available November 5.