Laura van den Berg’s second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, will be remembered as the one that catapulted her from indie-press steerage to first-class cruising with contemporaries Karen Russell, Josh Weil, Alissa Nutting, and Adele Waldman. Not that her first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was overlooked; it was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, longlisted for The Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. The Florida-born van den Berg, who spent several years teaching in Baltimore before moving to Boston with novelist and husband Paul Yoon earlier this year, is returning to the Charm City to read from Isle with novelist Katharine Noel on January 7th. Jen Michalski, host of Starts Here! (the new Ivy Bookshop reading series held at Artifact Coffee), interviewed van den Berg about the rather-human islands that populate her work.–van den Berg reads with Katharine Noel at the Artifact Coffee, Tuesday, January 7th at 7 p.m.–visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website for more information.
Jen Michalski: Your second collection, The Isle of Youth, just out this winter from FSG, has been heralded everywhere from The New York Times to NPR to The New Republic. As someone who started in the indie community (your first collection was published by indie big-shot Dzanc Books), what’s the secret of your success?
Laura van den Berg: I wish there was a secret! In terms of the publication process, there are so many factors that are so far beyond the author’s control–in addition to you writing the best book you can write and your publisher doing everything they can to support it, so much seems about being in the right place at the right time. Luck, essentially. I happily do everything that my publisher thinks is a good idea in terms of promotion, but that whole publishing landscape, what works and what doesn’t, still feels pretty mysterious to me, frankly. And I think that’s okay. In the long run, keeping our heads down and our eyes on the work is the thing that will carry us all through.
To speak to working with FSG specifically, one thing that’s been really cool is being part of a new-ish imprint at FSG called FSG Originals. Their list includes other writers who also began in the indie community, like Lindsay Hunter and Amelia Gray, and my editor pays close attention to what’s happening in the indie landscape–we love a lot of the same presses and writers. FSG also distributes the very wonderful Graywolf. It’s heartening to be at a house where innovative literature and independent publishing is valued.
JM: The exotic landscapes in your stories, which began in your first collection and continue through The Isle of Youth with Patagonia, Paris, and Antarctica–stand in stark contrast to the “dirty realist” writers of the seventies, like Raymond Carver and Jayne Anne Phillips, who wrote about domestic paralysis in very ordinary, everyman settings. Yet, your emotional power–the aching, modern isolation of your characters–is very similar to those writers. Who were your primary influences in finding your way as a short story writer?
LvdB: Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Joy Williams, and Jim Shepard have all been super important. As you point out, the emotional centers of the stories are often domestic in nature, and I love the way at the core of a Jim Shepard story set on, say, the Hindenburg, you find these fundamental human pains. A Murakami collection, After the Quake, was another important book for me; the stories all, in ways large and small, involve the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and examine this disaster in six radically different contexts. That question of context is always interesting to me. I like the idea of nesting a somewhat familiar emotional predicament in a surprising context.
JM: You grew up in Florida, and actually, it is referenced quite frequently in your work. Of course, Baltimore writers get a lot of questions about how this small, quixotic, northern-southern city informs our work. What does Florida mean for you, other than a destination?
LvdB: The Florida stories in Isle are the first time I’ve ever written about Florida, so it was like going home in a way. And it means a sensibility too; there’s quirkiness and surrealness to Florida, with the heat, the storms, the reptiles. I grew up going to GATORLAND, which is exactly what it sounds like; it wasn’t until I went north that I realized a theme park built around alligators might be considered a little weird.
JM: Two stories in The Isle of Youth feature a scene in a morgue. I know twice is a coincidence, not a pattern, but in a small volume of seven stories, what’s the story here?
LvdB: Yikes, good question! A lot of the stories have parallels and echoes, and I was conscious of drawing those out when revising the collection as a whole–for example, there are two stories with missing fathers; the first and last story both begin with an arrival and the threat of bodily harm (an emergency landing, a hurricane). In the first story, the narrator has a dead twin; in the last story, the narrator has a twin sister who is very much alive and well. So the dual morgue scenes strike me as another one of those parallels, though I confess I wasn’t conscious of that one until you asked!
JM: Another thread that runs through the stories is the painful isolation of first-person, female narrators, who are young, who feel they have made a mistake (or are careening toward catastrophe), and who verge on the self-destructive (bank robbers, semi-alcoholic magicians, private investigators with dubious credentials). Where does that come from?
LvdB: To me, the worst kind of disconnection is disconnection from yourself. When you look inside and feel confounded by what you see, moving through the world is tough. I’ve been there before, and I returned to that place a lot when working on Isle.
JM: What is your isle of youth?
LvdB: A place where Law & Order is on every single channel day and night and where there is an infinite supply of red wine and gourmet tacos and good, weird books.
I actually think each story is its own kind of “isle”–a place where I go to at once get away from something and to discover something that surprises me.
Don’t forget: Laura van den Berg and Katharine Noel will be reading and signing copies of their books on Tuesday, January 7th, 2014 at Artifact Coffee at 7 pm. For information, visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website.