An Interview with Laura van den Berg
Laura van den Berg’s chapbook There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights may be slight, but be assured it packs a punch. In a collection of short-short stories, van den Berg explores worlds diverse, intriguing and brimming with the peculiar. Cannibals, parakeets inclined towards French expletives, and a young girl attempting to communicate to the good people of Mars, are just some of the surprises you will find along the way. Each story is both familiar and startlingly foreign, and probes the reader to examine the world in a new light. I had the pleasure of interviewing van den Berg, and discovered that the author herself is equally as delightful as her work.
LAURA VAN DEN BERG’s stories have or will soon appear in One Story, Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV. Her debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble ‘Discover Great New Writers’ selection, longlisted for The Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. A second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, is forthcoming from FSG. She currently teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives in Baltimore.
AMB: Would you share with us about your history as a writer? Were you wielding a pen as a child, or is this an art form that you came to in later years?
LVDB: I didn’t start writing seriously—or reading, for that matter—until I was in college, at about nineteen or twenty.
AMB: Your recently published chapbook There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights is a thirty-six page collection of flash-fiction and short-short works. However, while your chapbook is small in size the economy of words by no means hinders the depth and profundity of the collection. I imagine this is the question everybody is asking, how did you write such thematically bold stories in such few words?
LVDB: Thank you so much for the kind words. Many of the stories in Good Nights were drafted in Pam Painter’s flash fiction workshop at Emerson College, during my M.F.A. Each week, Pam would give us a prompt and we’d have to write a corresponding short-short. And then in class, we would workshop them. The experience taught me a ton about the innate opportunities and challenges that exist within the form, and how freeing it can be to work within tight constraints. For me, that class really sparked an interest in the flash form that continued, even after I turned my attention to “regular-sized” stories and a novel project.
After working on some pretty long stories and a novel for a number of years, it felt so liberating to return to the realm of the short-short. What I love most about the form is shedding the burden of sustainability: it’s an entirely different thing to keep a premise afloat for three pages than it is to keep it going for twenty—or, god forbid, 200—pages.
AMB: You explore the fraught nature of communication. We see cannibals, unable to communicate in a common language with those in power; a child writing letters to the good people of Mars, in the hope of being rescued from her broken home life; a husband, who is unable to cope with the resentment he feels towards his unfaithful spouse, who finds a way of vicariously swearing at her through the parakeets he teaches French expletives. Each breakdown of communication is deeply unique, but one that touches on the desperation of all humans to speak and to be heard. Can you share with us about the power dynamics that render characters voiceless in your work?
LVDB: When something goes awry, I think it often boils down to a communicative breakdown. People are talking, but not—metaprohically and sometimes literally—in the same language. And the louder they speak, the less they are heard. I’m interested in exploring this kind of disconnect on the page.
AMB: Each of your stories are written from a female perspective. Apart from the simple fact that you are a woman, what is it that draws you to write from women's perspectives? Is there something unique about the female perspective that you wish to illuminate through your work?
LVDB: I often begin with voice and—so far, at least—I always hear a woman’s voice. It’s that simple.
AMB: “Amelia, my daughter, became obsessed with outer space the summer my husband and I separated, though her fascination didn't end when we got back together just after Labor Day, when we tore up the divorce papers and I promised to ignore his moods and he agreed to forget my fling with the man who delivered office supplies to my law firm.” What particularly moved me about your representation of mother and daughter relationships, is your ability to reveal so much love despite human brokenness. Can you talk about the mother and daughter dynamics within your stories?
LVDB: Thankfully I enjoy a good relationship with my own mother, but objectively I think parent-child relationships are inherently complicated and therefore inherently interesting territory to explore in fiction—any time there is an enormous capacity for closeness, there is an equally enormous capacity for harm; that combination of hope and danger can make for compelling material.
AMB: When I read the final work in your collection, Cannibal, I was reminded of the work of Karen Russell (a fellow native of Florida), most specifically her novel Swamplandia!, in which children are left to fend for themselves on a mythical island in Florida. Russell was drawn to writing about children with no parents on the scene, because she believes this is a unique space where anything can happen. If parents were responsible, in other words, there would be no story to tell. What specifically interested you about the space in which children are left to fend for themselves?
LVDB: I adore Karen’s work, so I’m thrilled to be mentioned in the same paragraph. I think there are always moments in childhood—no matter how wonderful one’s parents are—when children are left to fend for themselves and adult realities are glimpsed; the soul is changed a little, and we are a step closer to "growing up." Of course, Cannibals is an extreme vision of such a moment, but I’m interested in taking those nearly impreceptable shifts in person and maginifying them on the page.
AMB: What is equally interesting about Cannibal are the cannibals themselves. Writing about cannibals seems like a lot of fun, from their human flesh cookouts to their attempts to purchase goods with teeth as currency. I'd love to hear about what gave you the idea in the first place, and how you enjoyed the experience of working with cannibals.
LVDB: From 2010-2011, I had a fellowship at the Gilman School, an all boys private school in Baltimore. I taught one fiction worksop a semester to high school seniors and it was a great time. I always give my students an exercise called “ingredients,” which entails the following: write three seemingly unrelated story elements, or “ingredients,” on a notecard. The notecards are collected and shuffled. Students draw someone else’s card and write a story that contains, as seamlessly as possible, all three of the ingredients. In competitive cooking parlance, this is the “mystery box challenge.” When I assigned this exercise at Gilman, there was an exchange with the class that went something like this:
Class: What are your ingredients?
Laura: I don’t have ingredients. This exercise is for you.
Class: But you know how to do the exercise, right?
Laura: Sure. I guess.
Class: Then how come you’re not doing it?
Laura (sensing the potential for mutiny): Okay, fine. Give me three ingredients.
Class (after several minutues of maniacal whispering): cannibals, the suburbs, & classical music.
Laura: It’s on.
In short, this story was born of a desire to not embarrass myself in front of a group of high school students.
AMB: You have published a book of short stories, beautifully titled What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. I also believe you are now working on a novel. Could you share a little about the process of writing short fiction versus the more extensive challenge of writing a novel?
LVDB: The writing of a short story has never made me cry.
AMB: What are you reading right now? Can you share three great works that have inspired you as a writer?
LVDB: Right now, I’m reading Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith and The Middle Stories by Shelia Heti. I just finished How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak, which I adored.
AMB: In closing, can you share a few words of wisdom for any aspiring writers out there?
LVDB: I love Woody Allen’s line about how fifty perecent of success is showing. In the case of writers, that means showing up at the desk, but also showing up to read, showing up when opportunities come your way, and showing up for your own life, so you’re awake and present and alert to what's happening. Be ruthless about showing up. This probably accounts for more like ninety perfect of success than fifty.