Suspend Your Disbelief

Influence is Everywhere: An Interview with Laura van den Berg

"For the first time, I began to feel a sense of identity, a way of understanding myself and how I related to the world, as a person who read fiction and aspired to write it."


Interviews |

Influence is Everywhere: An Interview with Laura van den Berg

"I think influence is everywhere, right? We are influenced by places, people, what we overhear, what we see, what we do and what is done to us, various states of being."


I first noticed Laura van den Berg sitting a few seats ahead of me on an airplane en route to Asheville, North Carolina, though I had no idea who she was then. I had recently sent my family on their own summer adventures—my eleven-year-old son was at sleep away camp, my seventeen-year-old daughter was taking a course in urban studies in Chicago, my wife was with friends at the shore—and I was thrilled to be on my way to a ten-day writing residency as a fiction student in the Warren Wilson MFA program for writers. The young woman seated a few rows ahead of me, however, looked anything but thrilled; in fact, I first noticed her because she was visibly shaken by the turbulence on our short flight from Charlotte to Asheville, gripping the arms of her seat with each bump, her eyes seeking the flight attendants for reassurance each time the small airplane jerked and bounced. I wanted to give her a reassuring smile, but I could never seem to catch her eye.

Just a day later I would be paired with that frightened young woman as my final semester supervisor. Over the course of the next few months, as I sent her my work and received long, thoughtful letters in response, I would come to know Laura as not only incredibly smart, insightful, kind, and generous, but also, it seemed to me, as fierce and fearless. I, on the other hand, was beset by anxieties as I contemplated entering the world as a newly-minted MFA, and as a decidedly middle-aged “emerging” writer. Fortunately, Laura was always able to talk me down (her best trick: Google “crazy nastyass honey badger” on YouTube!).

Naturally, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Laura’s widely-acclaimed debut novel, Find Me (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), set in a dystopian near-future in which a memory-destroying and ultimately fatal illness has swept the nation. The novel’s young protagonist, Joy, is an orphan who grew up in foster care and group homes. She appears to have immunity to the disease, and joins a research study seeking a cure at a hospital (“the Hospital”) in Kansas. When the motives of those running the study become suspect, Joy escapes the Hospital and embarks on a surreal journey to Florida, where she hopes to find her mother.

In reading interviews associated with the launch of Find Me earlier this year, I was intrigued to learn that Laura’s own “emergence” as a writer was not as straightforward as I had assumed, given her youthful success with her first two short story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009) and Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). I didn’t know, for example, that Laura dropped out of high school, that she had never read fiction—or much of anything else—as a child, and that she didn’t aspire to write fiction before she stumbled into a fiction-writing workshop at Rollins College. She would eventually attend Emerson, where she received her MFA.

Interview:

Marta Rose: Among my friends who are middle-aged emerging writers, I have noticed that we tend to tell “coming out” stories as writers in the same way I remember doing as a newly out lesbian many years ago—these are the obstacles, risks, fears that got in my way; these are the family and friends who have or haven’t supported me; these are the costs to me and my family; these are the ways coming out has been life-saving. I have always assumed that this sort of “coming out” is a uniquely middle-aged emerging writer phenomenon, that among younger writers, the story is much more straightforward—oh, I was just always a writer! I started writing stories when I was a little girl; my nose was always in a book—that kind of thing. So I’ve been intrigued to learn recently that you weren’t actually that kid, that your path to becoming a writer was less simple than I, at least, assumed, given your age and your early success. Could you share your own “coming out” story as a writer?

Laura van den Berg: I do identify with that “coming out” as a writer narrative—I think in my case, I was just lead to that moment a bit earlier, when I was in college. And “led” is absolutely the appropriate word here: I kind of stumbled into a fiction workshop, hoping for an easy “A” (!), and then fell in love with what I read, the short fiction especially—and felt a pull toward writing as a result. For the first time, I began to feel a sense of identity, a way of understanding myself and how I related to the world, as a person who read fiction and aspired to write it. I was very lucky to have been led to that moment early on; it really saved me in many ways. But I was not a literary kid at all. I loved reading The National Inquirer and about Kurt Cobain and that was about it (though I did love Nancy Drew as a child—ah, mystery).

Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg – credit Paul Yoon

Could you talk any more about writing as identity? What made you believe you could be a writer at such a young age? Can you share what it was you needed saving from? And the ways writing saved you?

I think not knowing any better made me believe! I didn’t have big dreams about being published or anything—not at first, at least; again, I didn’t really know enough to imagine a life as a “professional” writer—but fiction was the first thing I ever felt real passion for and passion tends to give one focus. I had never much passion or focus before, so it seemed completely obvious to keep moving in that direction of reading and writing fiction, even though the exact path remained—and remains, at times—something of a mystery.

I needed saving from a lot of things, but namely from feeling unmoored and at a loss for how to process my experience of being in the world. Falling in love with reading was just as big a help in this regard as writing, if not more; gradually I began to feel less alone.

You strike me as so fearless and fierce! I know you are afraid of flying—what else scares you? Are there fears that ever get in the way of your writing? How do you face them down?

Oh my, I am afraid of many things—driving on highways, snakes, flying, sharks, house fires. Anxiety and doubt are among my biggest struggles as a writer. I am also really afraid of fear and the ways in which it can limit us, so I tend to persist even when I am scared. Which explains why I still fly—a lot, in fact—even though it’s super hard for me.

I think for many people who “come out” as writers in middle age, one of the fears that haunts us is that we’ll never be taken as seriously as we might have been if we’d started writing when we were younger. I’m going to air a little dirty laundry here, and confess that a lot of middle-aged emerging writers, including me, have been known to bristle (OK, in truth we’ve been known to wail and rage and stomp our feet) at the way “emerging” so often gets conflated with “young.” So many awards and contests for “emerging writers” are limited to writers under a certain age—thirty, thirty-five, forty.

First let me say that even though I have benefited from the age bias at times, I absolutely agree that age is overly fetishized in the publishing world. It’s great to have awards that honor younger writers, but there should be far more support for writers who are in a different place on the age spectrum. More of an even playing field in that regard. Publishing at a young age is not really an indicator of talent.

“Publishing at a young age is not really an indicator of talent.”

  

Are there any contemporary writers who began publishing after age forty who you especially admire?

I am an Edward P. Jones superfan, and I believe his debut collection, Lost in the City (William Morrow, 1992), came out when he was forty-one. Annie Proulx. Deborah Eisenberg. Helen DeWitt. I’m very excited to read a novel called The Only Ones, by Carola Dibbell (Two Dollar Radio, 2015)—Dibbell wrote about music for The Village Voice for thirty years, but this is her first novel. According a Q & A on the publisher’s website, the book will come out a month before her 70th birthday.

I think I came to this conversation with a thesis that I still find kind of fascinating, but which may be more interesting than true: I had this idea that maybe older emerging writers, like me, have a sort of outsider perspective on the current zeitgeist that maybe those emerging right into it might not have. The sort of insight that comes from both learning something new and being a bit of an outsider, at the same time. 

It’s possible there’s nothing to my theory specifically about older emerging writers, but I do believe that being an outsider can often lend a perspective that is useful in writing fiction. In a recent interview in the Paris Review, Amy Hempel was asked about her use of the “peripheral figure,” one the interviewer described as “commenting on the action between others and detached from the goings-on.” Hempel responded emphatically:

No, no—the peripheral figure is anything but detached. On the periphery you feel a little more because you’re on the edge. I remember going to these huge rock concerts in San Francisco in the seventies and I’d be on the edge, not watching the performer but the people watching the performer. Much more interesting.

I think that sort of outsider, peripheral status is often born of struggle or adversity of some sort. I think that for many writers emerging in middle age, there were huge hurdles that got in the way of our claiming our identity as “writer” earlier in life, but those same hurdles are what give us the sort of perspective that can fuel great fiction. 

Like Hempel, it seems to me that most of your protagonists are “outsiders” of some sort—certainly Joy, is, as an orphan. Can you talk about the ways you feel like an outsider, where that perspective comes from for you?

Oh, I think that sense of outsiderness is a very common feeling among writers. As for me, I was a lonely kid, with few close friends until I was an adult—even when I might have been perceived as being on the inside, I felt like I was on the outside, kind of like viewing the world through a sheet of glass. That feeling has eased a little in adulthood, but it’s still present for me and thus present in my fiction.

In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, you mentioned that unlike many other writers you know, you actively seek out and welcome the influence of other writers, even as you are in the thick of a project. For some reason, I was intrigued by this comment and wanted to know more, perhaps because I feel like I have the same relationship to influence. For example, recently I scoured the work of several writers I admire—you, Robin Black, Jenny Offill, Dorothy Baker, Catherine Lacey, Amelia Gray—looking specifically at the ways each writer manages the emotional register of her work. Not exactly in order to imitate anyone, but to look at a range of possibilities and then figure out my own approach. Can you talk more about the role of influence in your own work?

I think influence is everywhere, right? We are influenced by places, people, what we overhear, what we see, what we do and what is done to us, various states of being. I am an incorrigible eavesdropper, so I am very much influenced by what I hear. There is just no getting away from that, and I tend to regard literary influence with a similar embrace.

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose has this wonderful passage on the relationship between reading and writing: “It’s like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps.” This strikes me as lovely and true. We hear writers talk about “finding your voice,” but once that voice has been located it’s crucially important that it evolve through the years, that we try out new steps. When I read something really striking, sometimes I’m moved to try out a few of those writer’s steps—maybe they eventually morph into my own steps, maybe they will be discarded, but the imitative gesture can be an important way to learn and to stretch, especially when we’re first starting out, but even later on.

Some writers might think, “Oh, but what if I end up writing a book that’s just a knock-off of so-and-so?” But that was never been a huge concern for me. I suspect this is because my voice is kind of narrow and specific; I don’t know how to not write in it. I was always terrible at those imitation exercises my teachers would have us do in workshops! For a more chameleon-like writer, who is more elastic in terms of voice, being overly influenced might be more of a legitimate concern.

Who are some of the writers who have influenced your own voice? Can you give an example of a “dance move” you saw in another writer’s work and then tried out in your own work?

In graduate school, I took a class in the contemporary French novel and the reading list was a revelation for me. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marie NDiaye, Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint—I’m not sure how apparent it is, but I have been practicing some of their dance moves, or haplessly trying at least, ever since.

In my experience, influence often flows two ways, the most obvious being from teacher to student (mentor to mentee, experienced writer to emerging writer), but if we’re open to it, from student to teacher as well. I know you have been a teacher pretty much as long as you have been a writer. How have your teaching and your students influenced you as a writer?

Find MeOh, in all kinds of ways. One thing that I love about teaching is the way I’m nudged to define my own aesthetic and what I believe to be true about fiction in sharper, clearer terms. I can’t simply say, “Oh, this is a really good story” or “Hmm, I’m not sure that last scene works”—I need to be able to articulate the how and the why, and the process of figuring all that out how has, over the years, been very influential. Also, students are always introducing me to new things (books, movies, bands, etc) and I love that.

I’ve been trying to distill what I sense is uniquely of-your-time in your work, and I think maybe it’s this: your protagonists do not approach the world as a problem to be solved, they are not on a crusade to “save the world,” they don’t view suffering as a project. In the first half of Find Me, Joy volunteers for a research project seeking to find a cure for the epidemic that has swept the nation. But it seems that Joy goes to the Hospital more out of boredom than out of some deep desire to be part of finding a cure. As several reviewers of Find Me have noted, the viral outbreak that is the “apocalyptic” or “dystopian” part of your novel is really just a backdrop, not the central question or conflict of your novel. In Find Me, the surreal, dreamlike weirdness of the world is just a given, not a project; Joy takes a literal road trip through this world, but the real road trip is an internal one. Maybe another way of saying this is that Find Me sets up some of the conventions and expectations of the big social novel but then surprises us by being, in some ways, a quiet domestic story about a daughter and a mother. And I just LOVE that juxtaposition, because to me those seem like two very distinct kinds of work, and the way you put them together so naturally and so effortlessly strikes me as possibly stemming from a worldview that for you and your generation is just sort of the air you breath.

Thoughts?

Oh, wow! Well, first, Marta, thank you for all the kind words imbedded in this question; it means a great deal.

I love work that has a genre-bending quality, but I don’t think that’s at all generational. Many of the writers I love for the way they incorporate genre and mess with genre conventions in interesting ways—Robbe-Grillet!—belong to generations much older than my own. There might be new-seeming waves in terms of what’s fashionable and what’s being talked about, but that impulse, in a broad sense, has been around for a very long time.

I do think you might be on to something with the boredom component, however, when you say Joy goes to the Hospital “more out of boredom than out of some deep desire to be part of finding a cure.” Writers of my generation have done a lot of interesting work around boredom and disconnection: Tao Lin’s Taipei, which features a narrator that equates himself to a “bored robot”; Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing; Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (though I think Lerner might technically be Gen X); Juliet Escoria’s Black Cloud; poet Elisa Gabbert. I actually find boredom to be really interesting. From such a slack and apathetic mode, it can really push people into frightening and interesting actions and states of being. Think of all that is done, in life and on the page, out of boredom.


Contributor

Marta Rose

Marta Rose lives in Philadelphia with her wife Julie and their two children. A recent graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she teaches writing at Philadelphia University and is working on a novel set in the Germantown and Kensington neighborhoods of Philadelphia.


Join the Discussion

  • Christina Garofalo

    Great read! Inspiring to hear such a talented writer say that being published at a young age is not an indicator of talent. It’s easy to get caught up setting deadlines for yourself: “If I don’t publish anything before I’m 30, I should give up.” That sort of thinking is toxic to the creative process. Thank you for my morning inspiration :)

Literary Partners