January is officially over, which means that the Nylon Book Club just finished reading Laura van den Berg’s short story collection The Isle of Youth. This also means it’s time for our wrap-up Q&A with last month’s author. Read on to find out if Laura’s art imitates her life, if her brain works like the series finale of Breaking Bad, and why girls rule her fiction.
A lot of people really wanted to know which aspects of the stories were drawn from real life, which isn’t something fiction writers always want to talk about. That said, do you have any examples of personal experiences that you spun into fiction?
Yeah, totally. My usual line is that the circumstances of a story and the action and events are totally fictitious. I don’t have a twin sister, I’ve never robbed a bank, etc. But the emotional autobiography is definitely present in the stories. That’s where you can kind of see my own life. I think particularly when I was younger, in my early twenties, I just remember feeling this sort of really profound disconnection from myself and not really understanding who I was, or why I was doing what I was doing, or why I was making the choices that I was making. I just remember feeling the worst kind of loneliness and so much mystery within myself. That was a psychological space that I returned to a lot when I was writing Isle.
So, did you ever see acrobats in Paris, for example? Or was that something that you completely came up with on your own?
Actually, I was living in rural North Carolina when I got the idea for that story [laughs], so I was very, very far away from Paris. I was having a really hard time writing, so I remember very clearly getting the first line of that story (“The day my husband left me I followed a trio of acrobats around the city of Paris.”). I was doing something totally mundane, like washing dishes or something like that. I don’t think I remember ever seeing acrobats in Paris. I didn’t really know anything about acrobats, so where that story came from is a mystery to me.
Another person was wondering about which aspect of your short stories tend to come to you first: the conflict or the twist? In the case of “Acrobat,” the conflict being the husband leaving and the twist being the protagonist following some acrobats around Paris.
I start with voice a lot, and what that means for me is I get that first line that I have sort of lodged into my brain, and it doesn’t let me go. But in hearing that first line, there’s absolutely a conflict, a situation with dramatic tension. And there’s also an element of the unexpected, since falling in with a troop of acrobats is, you know, not the first thing that might come to mind of you were left in a foreign city.
One reader wondered if you view your endings as matter of fact or open to interpretation.
I think they’re definitely open to interpretation. They’re open to interpretation to me, even, to a certain degree. I actually just came back from doing a university visit in Rhode Island, and someone had
asked me what happens at the end of Antarctica? What happens to Lee after she leaves Antarctica? And I was like, “I have absolutely no idea!” I’m thinking in terms of a character arc or an emotional arc, and once that arc ends for me, its sort of like the end of Breaking Bad, it just goes dark [laughs]. That’s what kind of happens in my brain, the screen goes dark. And I could offer a theory, but it would really be just that, a theory. I’m sort of a sucker for ending to provoke that sense of ambiguity and mystery.
Another reader wondered how you feel about writing male characters. Would you ever want to write a male protagonist?
You know, it’s so funny. I suck at writing men. I’m really not good at it. One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I’m really on the page with women. It’s a woman’s world. And the men are important to the story, but they’re really sort of on the periphery. I have to say that I feel completely fine with that. You know, there’s so much literature out there where women are on the periphery. I so admire writers who can cross gender and are so rich with imagination in that way that they can write anything, but that’s just not really what my artistic interest is. My artistic interest really lies in the lives of women.
So many of your stories feature out-there scenarios, but the characters still feel very real and believable. How do you balance those two things?
I think any time you’re dealing with elements of the unreal or the fantastic, there’s always the danger that it will be sort of a balloon floating away--interesting to watch, but it wont have any real human weight. I think that in any kind of fiction, the emotional reality is really important. I think a lot about the characters’ interior life and the interior questions that they’re grappling with, and then the interior really drives the exterior action and events. I love coming up with zany plots and that imaginative exploration, to me, is the great joy of fiction writing. At certain points in the revision process I have to check myself and ask, “Am I having this wacky thing happen because it’s speaking to the characters interior state or just because it’s a really neat idea that I’ve fallen in love with?” I’m absolutely capable of running down the path a little bit too far.
Can you tell us about the novel that you’re working on?
Sure, it’s about an epidemic that causes the loss of memory, and a young woman searching for her mother. In some ways, the voice of the narrator, a young woman named Joy, isn’t that far away from the voice that appears in a lot of my stories. But the slightly dystopian landscape is definitely a departure for me, and it’s been a huge challenge, but also really fun narrative element to work with. It will be out in March 2015.