The author talks “The Wire,” blizzard reports, Florida and why sometimes the most passive-seeming characters are the ones with the most tenacity.
by Joanna Demkiewicz
There’s been recent chatter that Laura van den Berg is the best young writer in America. Her debut novel Find Me, which was released February 17, has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and depicts a post-epidemic world with such originality, it’s simply haunting.
Van den Berg’s short story work has inspired applause in the past (her second collection The Isles of Youth was named a “Best Book of 2013” by NPR, The Boston Globe, and others), but this foray into novel writing proves the writer’s imagination is lush. She’s got a lot more for us, and thank goodness. I had the chance to discuss her upcoming projects, how the media sensationalizes tragedies, and what Find Me can teach us about survival.
Joanna Demkiewicz: I read in a recent Salon review that you are attracted to characters who are not rule followers, like Joy in your first novel, Find Me. Who are some characters outside of just the fiction world (but also the fiction world) that inspire you? I’m thinking of characters in movies, in fiction, but also in real life.
Laura van den Berg: I am inspired by surprise when it comes to characters—and that’s a very tricky balance to pull off, to create characters that don’t hew too closely to expectations, but at the same time remain emotionally credible. From the world of TV and film, the entire cast of The Wire comes to mind. I’m a big fan of [writer Michelangelo] Antonioni, especially L’Avventura and The Passenger. From the world of books, some of my all-time favorite rule-breaking characters include the narrators of Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, Alice from Joy Williams’s The Quick and the Dead and Ricky Rice from Victor LaValle’s Big Machine—just to name a few.
JD: Find Me is your first novel and (it) took you six years (on and off) to write. Why did you decide to write a novel? What can you achieve in novel writing that you can’t (or haven’t?) in short story writing?
LVDB: One thing I had very early on was the two-part structure—the idea that the first book would be set entirely in the hospital and the second entirely on the road. And I couldn’t imagine that shape in the context of a short story. Immediately it seemed to demand a larger canvas.
JD: In that same Salon article, I learned that you were semi-inspired to create Joy’s character because of a teenage therapy group you attended, where some of the young women had been victims of childhood trauma. What is the significance of Joy’s trauma (without giving too much away) in relation to the way the story unfolds? How do her sexual and psychological trauma from childhood influence who she is when we meet her? Was it your intention to write a story “about” sexual and psychological abuse?
LVDB: It’s interesting—I didn’t make the connection between witnessing the struggles of some of the young women I was in therapy with until after I had finished Find Me. So that time in my life wasn’t on my mind explicitly when I was working on the book, but was percolating at a subconscious level and, in hindsight, definitely accounts for some of Joy’s origins.
It wasn’t my intention to write a book about abuse and I can’t say that I see that narrative as being the center of Find Me, but I do think it’s very much a book about survival and reassembling the self after trauma, at a number of levels—the trauma of a damaging childhood, the trauma of a lonely life, the trauma of the damage done by the sickness.
JD: Joy encounters an old friend during her journey, a boy who wears a rabbit mask to hide his face. Tell us about how you created these ethereal characters – I’m thinking of the woman with the fairy wings, and the disappearing bus drivers, etc. Were the characters Joy encounters simply consequences of the post-epidemic nation? How did behaviors change, and did they change for good?
LVDB: My sight is naturally drawn to the off-kilter and the surreal—I blame this on having grown up in Florida! So, those ethereal details come naturally to me, but also I wanted the juxtaposition of the exterior reality disintegrating as Joy’s interior reality comes into focus.
JD: Media and news outlets are often referenced in Find Me, especially when Joy escapes the hospital and begins her cross-country journey to find her mother. The images Joy sees on news channels show the devastation the nation has endured after losing so many to a fast-killing disease with no cure. How does our media sensationalize tragedies, and how does it serve as the watchdog it was created to be?
LVDB: I absolutely do think media sensationalizes disaster or the potential for disaster—hello, blizzard reports—but nevertheless when a major disaster actually occurs, we can’t help but turn to the media for some sense of the big picture. Joy finds herself doing that, too—turning to the media for a sense of how the landscape around her is evolving.
JD: Our associate editor Kinzy also read your book and loved it. She has a couple questions for you. In one she references your website and how you were plagued by a maybe-ghost at an artists’ commune in Key West, and that you stopped sleeping because the noises were so troublesome. She’d like to know how this insomnia affected your writing. Did you write through the night? Or were you sapped of most of your energy to write? Did the “haunted” feeling start showing up on the page?
LVDB: I think the haunted feeling showed up on the page for sure—there are some serious ghosts in Book 2 especially. I’m normally a really good sleeper and need a lot of sleep to feel “normal,” but in Key West, when these weird occurrences were going on, I was too scared and wired to sleep at night, so I would just keep writing. I got mad, actually: if I can’t sleep, then fuck it, I’m going to do something useful with my time. The great thing about residences, though, is that they are protected spaces; it’s not real life. So it’s okay to slip into an altered state for a bit and I think feeling so displaced was actually helpful to my work on Find Me.
JD: Also referencing your website, Kinzy wonders how you decided to throw “the better part of your novel” away, and how does one do that in the digital age? Was it a flash of insight or did it happen more slowly? How did you know you were still writing the same story, not an altogether different one? Did you save pieces of the “old” version to harvest for other novels you might write in the future?
LVDB: Through the years, Find Me has gone through a lot of incarnations. If you compared the very first draft to the finished book, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single sentence that carries over. But in some ways Book One was a tiny bit easier to write because the setting of the hospital gave me some clear rules and parameters. In Book Two, quite literally anything could happen and it took me ages to figure out what the right sequence of events should be, so that was the part where I kept throwing it out and starting over. There were flashes of insight along the way—though sometimes those flashes turn out to be false—but it wasn’t until I was in Key West, actually, that I was really able to make the leaps I needed to. Sleep deprivation will make you ruthless.
JD: Describe Find Me in a tweet (140 characters or less).
LVDB: Lone woman journeys through weird, damaged America in search of so many things, doing battle with ghosts, real and imagined, along the way.
JD: What can we learn about memory from Joy and her story? What did you learn from Joy?
LVDB: I really admire Joy’s tenacity—in some ways, she might seem like a passive character, but simply “hanging in [there]” can, in certain contexts, be a radically tenacious act. When I have those moments where I need to dig deep, I sometimes think of Joy.
JD: What’s on your bedstand right now?
LVDB: At this very moment I’m reading a novel called I’m Gone by a writer I love named Jean Echenoz.
JD: This is a new question I’m trying: What are you obsessed with right now, media-wise? What current news stories compel you?
LVDB: I’m in the early stages of a new novel set in Havana, so I have been carefully following the recent news out of Cuba.
JD: What’s next for you? Any projects in the works?
LVDB: Yes! The novel project I mentioned above and also new stories. I recently finished one that’s partly about Iceland and volcanoes and one that concerns a haunted attic ceiling.
Joanna Demkiewicz is The Riveter‘s co-founder and features editor. Find her on Twitter at @yanna_dem.