Laura van den Berg is the author of two short story collections. Her first, ‘What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us’, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her second collection ‘The Isle of Youth’ has just been published in the UK by Daunt Books. When published in the USA, it won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, The Bard Fiction Prize 2015, was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor and named ‘a Best Book of 2013’ by over a dozen outlets.
Laura’s short stories have appeared in two of the premier American annual anthologies and have been singled out as exemplars. ‘Antarctica’ is included in ‘The Best American Short Stories 2014′ edited by Jennifer Egan, an extract of which appears at the end of this interview. ‘Opa-locka’, about a pair of sisters who, down on their luck, hire themselves out as detectives, is among the 20 stories in ‘The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014′ (Anchor), edited by Laura Furman, and is one of three stories selected as a juror’s favourite: “It’s a deceptively skilled story, ambitious in a superbly sneaky way,”Joan Silber.
Laura recently judged The Story Prize (my next interview is with the winner Elizabeth McCracken). Her first novel ‘Find Me’ was on everyone’s ‘most anticipated’ lists for 2015 and since release has been received with great critical acclaim.
When you were putting Isle of Youth together how did you decide on the order and which would be the title of the collection?
Order in collections is really important. Kind of like in an album, the order has the power to enhance—or weaken—the whole. When I was finishing The Isle of Youth, I was living in Baltimore and had the good luck to spend time working in a friend’s empty apartment, where the luxury of space, the freedom of movement, turned out to be a wonderful asset. I lay each story on the floor, page by page; I taped first and last pages to the wall. In time, I started to notice echoes and eventually that led me to the final order. For example, the opening story I Looked For You, I Called Your Name, contains a last line that contains the word “evidence,” a natural lead-in to Opa-Locka, a story about two sisters working as private eyes. I Looked For You… and the title story worked as bookends for the others: they both begin with arrivals and the suggestion of danger (an emergency landing, a hurricane). In I Looked For You… the narrator has a twin that died at birth; in The Isle of Youth, the narrator has an adult twin who goes missing. Lessons, the only story in the third person, seemed to make sense midway through the collection as a kind of transition or turning point. And I also saw the echoes I wanted to mute—putting distance between the two stories with missing fathers, for instance.
As for the title, I wanted a title that captured the spirit of the book without feeling reductive—The Greatest Escape seemed too whimsical; Antarctica too severe—and The Isle of Youth ended up being the best title for the job.
I was talking to the great Australian short story writer Cate Kennedy about short story endings. Her endings are quite symbolic, a breath at the end to leave the reader something to think about. Does that resonate with you? Your endings are usually left open, is that the way your stories come out or is there a philosophy behind that?
Oh, I love that idea of a “breath at the end to leave the reader something to think about.” That’s something I appreciate about the way stories often move, the way they can create an expanse at the end that the reader is then invited to enter. Ultimately, though, I think a lot in terms of character arc, the emotional space a character is occupying at the outset and the space I want them to move into by the end of the story. Once the arc has been completed that usually feels like a natural destination for the story.
You’ve said one of your key subjects is emptiness. Why do you think you are drawn to that as a subject matter?
I’m drawn to characters that feel a kind of vacancy where most people might experience more easily-defined feelings—and how alienating that sensation can be, to feel out-of-step with how others react to the world. But perhaps “incomprehensible” is a more accurate term than “emptiness,” now that I’m thinking about it (though I know I’ve said “emptiness” before).
I’m not sure I could say exactly why I’m drawn to those types of characters, but I always have been as a reader. Murakami, Tom McCarthy, Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar (just to name a few) all come to mind as really compelling examples of writers making that sense of interior emptiness feel rich and electrifying. To me, that’s a deeply challenging but interesting and worthy aspiration.
Your characters are searching. For someone or some feeling that’s missing. Almost as though they think they should feel something and don’t. Is this what you have observed about the human condition? Is this what gives your characters that sense of disconnection and distance from their lives?
I’ve known a lot of people with what we could call “transformation hunger,” and fixating on exterior searches as a means of attempting to realign an interior state is a pretty common approach to sating that hunger—moving to the new place or getting the new job or falling into the new relationship—and one, in my experience, that rarely works. I do think experience has the power to change us in some ways (I’ve most definetly been changed by some of my experiences) but there are certain aspects of the self that seems to remain somewhat fixed, for better or for worse.
There are a lot of characters who wear masks and costumes throughout the collection – bank robbers, acrobats, snow gear, a sister dressing as her twin… is this linked to the sense of emptiness – adopting or trying on a persona in the absence of one?
I have a kind of mask fixation, there is no denying that: they appear in my first collection and in my novel, Find Me, as well. Perhaps the masks are connected to that “transformation hunger” I just mentioned, a desire to adopt a new persona with the hope that one will find themselves changed in a more lasting way.
You’re stories often not only launch the reader into the middle of the action but the premise itself is quite unusual or startling; a plane making an emergency landing, a woman following a group of acrobats around Paris, a sister in Antarctica to see the place her brother died in an explosion, for example. How important do you think the beginning of short story is? Do you have that in mind when sit down to write or is it something you go back later and insert?
I often have a clear sense of where I want to start from and a hazier sense of where I want to end up—an imagine or a particular kind of moment I feel I’m writing towards. The middles, on the other hand? Don’t even get me started on the terrible middles. They are the worst! But with openings it’s hard for me to move on if I don’t feel I’m starting from the ideal point in time/space, so it might be something I tinker with for a while, but one great piece of advice I got from a former teacher was: don’t horde your best ideas. Don’t automatically save that startling or unusual scene for the end (or use it to rescue yourself from the terrible middle). What if you started with a scene like that? Where you would have to go from there? How would you keep raising the stakes?
You talk about your eye being drawn to the idiosyncratic details of a space. Do you think that’s where a writer’s voice comes from – how they see the world?
Yes, I do think that’s a product of my natural sight, which was very much shaped by my childhood in Florida, a place where the peculiar abounds.
Florida is the setting of many of your stories. How much do you think where you grew up shapes your writing?
It’s shaped my writing a great deal, but in ways I only began to really understand somewhat recently. The Isle of Youth was the first time I wrote stories set in Florida, even though I lived there for over two decades. Florida wound its way into my novel as well (the last quarter or so of the book is set there). Certainly my attraction to the surreal, the extreme, and the idiosyncratic is connected to having grown up in Florida. But for a while I was very resistant to being a “Florida” writer or a “southern” writer. I had lived there for so long and by the time I left, I was really eager to shed my Floridian identify. That impulse softened in time, though, and eventually I was ready to revisit my home on the page.
Do you find you are drawn to a certain themes when you’re writing? I notice, for example, the women you write about are usually alone, or in a relationship that has died.
Definitely. I’m draw to questions of loneliness and mystery—those are threads that run through both collections and also my novel. I’m interested in how the pressure of isolation can impact characters.
Your stories seem cinematic and in ‘The Isle of Youth’ where the sister assumes the identity of her twin, I was reminded of Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. Is that a conscious process or is it more that influences emerge in a writer’s work?
It makes me so happy to hear you mention Vertigo! A lot of the initial inspiration for Isle actually came from film, the kind of “existential noir” of Hitchcock and Antonioni (The Passenger and L’avventura especially). I was interested in exploring what that kind of narrative shape—where questions are posed and go unanswered, allowing new questions to emerge—might look like in the context of a short story.
The characters are quick to lie and behave as though uncaring of consequence. Yet, somehow, they are begging for the attention of, and wanting to be stopped by, the very people they aren’t even sure they love. Like some cry for help they know is doomed to failure.
In fiction, I’m definetly drawn to characters who are difficult, complicated, and not so easy to understand or categorize—and those are the kinds of characters I aspire to write myself. Likeability has never been a big draw for me. I want to be surprised and challenged and devastated by the characters I encounter in fiction. I don’t want anyone to behave.
You can catch Laura van den Berg at London Short Story Festival on Saturday 20th June, making her UK reading debut alongside May-Lan Tan and Jon McGregor. She will also give a masterclass to 12 lucky students. Keep you eye out for details.
Antartica by Laura van den Berg. With thanks to Daunt Books.
IN ANTARCTICA, THERE WAS NOTHING TO identify because there was nothing left. The Brazilian station at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula had burned to the ground. All that remained of my brother was a stainless steel watch. It was returned to me in a sealed plastic bag, the inside smudged with soot. The rescue crew had also uncovered an unidentified tibia, which might or might not have belonged to him. This was explained in a cold, windowless room at Belgrano II, the Argentinian station that had taken in the survivors of the explosion. Luiz Cardoso, the head researcher at the Brazilian base, had touched my shoulder as he spoke about the bone, as though this was information intended to bring comfort.
Other explanations followed, less about the explosion and more about the land itself. Antarctica was a desert. There was little snowfall or rain. Much of it was still unexplored. There were no cities. The continent was ruled by no one; rather, it was an international research zone. My brother had been visiting from McMurdo, an American base on Ross Island, but since it was a Brazilian station that had exploded, the situation would be investigated according to their laws.
‘Where is the bone now? The tibia?’ I’d lost track of how long it had been since I’d slept, or what time zone I was in. It felt very strange to not know where I was in time.
‘In Brazil.’ His English was accented, but clear. It had been less than a week since the explosion. ‘It’s not as though you could have recognised it.’
We stood next to an aluminium table and two chairs. The space reminded me of an interrogation room. I hadn’t wanted to sit down. I had never been to South America before, and as Luiz spoke, I pictured steamy Amazonian rivers and graveyards with huge stone crosses. It was hard to imagine their laws having sway over all this ice. It was equally hard to believe a place this big – an entire fucking continent, after all – had no ruler. I felt certain that it would only be a matter of time before there was a war over Antarctica.
‘It’s lucky the explosion happened in March.’ Luiz was tall with deep-set eyes and the rough beginnings of a beard, a few clicks shy of handsome.
‘How’s that?’ My brother was dead. Nothing about this situation seemed lucky.
‘Soon it will be winter,’ he said. ‘It’s dark all the time. It would have been impossible for you to come.’
‘I don’t know how you stand it.’ The spaces underneath my eyes ached.
My husband hadn’t wanted me to come to Antarctica at all, and when our son saw where I was going on a map, he had cried. My husband had tried to convince me everything could be handled from afar. You’re a wife, he’d reminded me as I packed. A mother, too.
‘Did you know about your brother’s work?’ Luiz said. ‘With the seismograph?’
‘Of course.’ I listened to wind batter the building. ‘We were very close.’
I couldn’t stop thinking about him as a boy, many years before everything went wrong: tending to his ant farms and catching snowflakes in his mouth during winter. Peering into a telescope and quizzing me on the stars. Saying tongue twisters – I wish to wish the wish you wish to wish – to help his stutter. We had not spoken in over a year.
Luiz clapped his hands lightly. Even though we were indoors, he’d kept his gloves on. I had drifted away and was surprised to find myself still in the room.
‘You have collected your brother’s things, such as they are. There will be an official inquiry, but you shouldn’t trouble yourself with that.’
‘I’m booked on a flight that leaves in a week. I plan to stay until then.’
‘The explosion was an accident,’ he said. ‘A leak in the machine room.’
‘I get it.’ Exhaustion was sinking into me. My voice sounded like it was coming from underwater. ‘Nobody’s fault.’
I had flown from JFK to New Zealand, where I picked up a charter plane to an airstrip in Coats Land. There had been gut-popping turbulence, and from the window I could see nothing but ice. Luiz had been the one to meet me on the tarmac and drive me to Belgrano II in a red snow tractor. I’d packed in a hurry and brought what would get me through winter in New Hampshire: a puffy coat that reached my knees, a knit hat with a tassel, leather gloves, suede hiking boots. I’d had to lobby hard to come to Antarctica; the stations weren’t keen on civilians hanging around. When I spoke with the director of McMurdo, I’d threatened to release a letter that said details of the explosion, the very information needed to properly grieve, were being kept from the victims’ families. I knew Luiz was looking me over and thinking that the best thing I could do for everyone, including my brother, including myself, was to just go on home.
‘Are there polar bears here?’ I felt oddly comforted by the idea of a white bear lumbering across the ice.
‘A common mistake.’ He drummed his fingers against the table. He had a little grey in his eyebrows and around his temples. ‘Polar bears are in the north pole.’
‘My brother and I were very close,’ I said again.
There was a time when that statement would have been true. We had been close once. During our junior year of college, we rented a house in Davis Square, a blue two- storey with a white front porch. Our parents had died in a car accident when we were in middle school – a late spring snowstorm, a collision on a bridge – leaving behind the grandparents who raised us and an inheritance. My brother was in the earth sciences department at MIT; I was studying astronomy at UMass Boston (I was a year older, but he was on an accelerated track). Back then I thought I would never grow tired of looking at the sky.
When it was just the two of us, we did not rely on language. He would see me cleaning chicken breasts in the sink, and take out breadcrumbs and butter for chicken Kiev, our grandmother’s recipe. After dinner, we watched whatever movie was on TV. E.T. played two nights in a row and maybe it was an iguana became something we said when we didn’t know what else to do, because even though we had been close, we never really learned how to talk to each other. Sometimes we didn’t bother with clearing the table or washing dishes until morning. We went weeks without doing laundry. My brother wore the same striped polos and rumpled khakis. I showed up for class with unwashed hair and dirty socks. His interest in seismology was taking hold. He started talking about P- waves and S-waves. Fault lines and ruptures. He read biographies on Giuseppe Mercalli, who invented a scale for measuring volcanoes, and Frank Press, who had land named after him in Antarctica, a peak in the Ellsworth Mountains.
It was at MIT that he met Eve. She was a theatre arts major. They dated for a semester and wed the same week they graduated, in the Somerville courthouse. I was their only guest. Eve wore a tea-length white dress and a daffodil behind her ear. She was lithe and elegant, with straight blond hair and freckles on the bridge of her nose. When the justice of the peace said ‘man and wife’, she had called out ‘wife and man!’ and laughed and then everyone started laughing, even the justice. I wasn’t sure why we were laughing, but I was glad that we were.
There were three bedrooms in the house. It might have seemed strange, brother and sister and his new wife all living together, but it felt like the most natural thing. Our first summer, we painted the walls colours called Muslin and Stonebriar and bought rocking chairs for the porch. We pulled the weeds that had sprung up around the front steps. All the bedrooms were upstairs. When I was alone in my room, I played music to give them privacy. At dinner, I would watch my brother and Eve – their fingers inter- twined under the table, oblivious – and wonder how long it would take them to have children. I liked the idea of the house slowly filling with people.
That fall, my brother started his earth sciences PhD at MIT. He kept long hours in the labs, and when he was home, he was engrossed in textbooks. Eve and I spent more time together. She lived her life like an aria – jazz so loud, I could hear it from the sidewalk; phone conversations that sprawled on for hours, during which she often spoke different languages; heels and silk dresses to the weekend farmers’ market. She always wore a gold bracelet with a locket. I would stare at the oval dangling from her wrist and wonder if there was a photo inside. I helped her rehearse for auditions in the living room, standing on a threadbare oriental rug. I got to be Williams’s Stanley Kowalski and Pinter’s Max, violent and dangerous men. I started carrying slim plays around in my purse, like Eve did, even though I had no plans to write or perform; the act alone felt purposeful. I learned that her father was an economics professor and she had majored in theatre to enrage him, only to discover that she loved the stage. I’d never met anyone from her family before.
One afternoon I went to see her perform in The Tempest at a community theatre in Medford. My brother had been too busy to come. She was cast as Miranda. On-stage she wore a blue silk dress with long sleeves and gold slippers. In one scene, Miranda argued with her father during a storm; somewhere a sound machine simulated thunder. Everything about her carriage and voice worked to convey rage – ‘Had I been any great god of power, I would have sunk the sea within the earth . . .’ – but for the first time, I noticed something was wrong with her eyes. Under the lights, they looked more grey than blue, and her gaze was cold and flat.
Afterward, we drank at the Burren. The bar was bright and crowded. A band was unpacking instruments from black cases. We jammed ourselves into a small table in the back with glasses of red wine. Eve was depressed about the production: the turnout, the quality of the lighting and the costumes.
‘And the guy who played Prospero,’ she moaned. She had left a perfect lip print on the rim of her wineglass. ‘I would’ve rather had my own father up there.’
When the waitress came around, she ordered another drink, a martini this time. She took an eyebrow pencil out of her purse and drew hearts on a cocktail napkin.
‘What do squirrels give for Valentine’s Day?’ she asked.
I shook my head. My hands were wrapped around the stem of my glass.
‘Forget-me-nuts.’ She twirled the pencil in her fingers and laughed the way she had during her wedding, only this time I caught the sadness in her voice that I’d missed before.
She put down the pencil and leaned closer. At the table next to ours, a couple was arguing. The band tuned their guitars. When she spoke, her voice was syrupy and low.
‘Lee,’ she said. ‘I have a secret.’
End of Extract.