Interview with Laura van den Berg
Author of Isle of Youth
Interview by Marc Dickinson
In your newest collection, Isle of Youth, loss seems to be a key thematic thread throughout the stories: loss of a love or loss of a loved one (sister, brother, father), both literally and metaphorically. How do you see this subject of disappearance, or absence, working in your fiction?
When working on the stories in Isle, I was interested in how an external loss can reveal the “white space” inside each of the narrators. What the external pressure of a literal loss can reveal in the internal landscape, what’s gone missing within.
Most of your narrators are female as well investigators into a mystery. How do you see gender and the female voice adding to the world of your story?
I often start with voice, and what I mean by that is a first line gets lodged in my head and it won’t leave me. That voice is always a woman’s voice, and so the choice in gender is more intuitive than strategic. That said, I am interested in women appearing where you might not expect to find them—as bank robbers, as private detectives.
You’ve said in previous interviews how noir was a large influence on this collection, especially films like Vertigo or L'avventura, which tend to focus on unsolved mysteries but shift their attention on the psychology of the mystery. So as you bend the genre, when do you know withholding helps the story vs when it undermines the center of the story’s main issue?
I think a film like L'avventura succeeds because the viewer’s attention is redirected away from the literal mystery—the disappearance of a woman on a yachting trip—and toward other internal and philosophical questions. This “redirection” is key in avoiding gimmickry. If an answer to a question is being withheld, something else, something equally interesting and compelling, must be offered in its place.
And often in noir, the “criminal” and “detective” are two sides to the same coin, they are shadows of one another. The detectives are anti-heroes and are successful because they have a bit of a criminal’s mind. And in the collection, you write from a criminal point of view (Lessons) as well as from a detective’s point of view (for example, Opa Locka). How do you decide from which POV to tell the story from, and how do you approach the writing in terms of character: complicating the detective? Humanizing the criminal?
I like the phrase “shadows of each other,” the idea that all these characters have a bit of the detective and a bit of the criminal within—or in some cases more than a bit! But I confess that I’m thinking less about complicating archetypes than seeking to understand why these women do what they do. That is key for me when it comes to characterization, to write from that perspective of wanting to understand.
Speaking of shadow selves, Doubling is a motif through your work: several twins siblings appear, there are characters who are mirrors of one another, parallel plot lines, all of which create a kind of echo effect in the stories and the collection as a whole. What is your vision in using this doubling in terms of voice, structure, character?
For these characters, I see the “doubles” as presenting an alternate version of themselves, a potential path they can reject or accept. The double is often a source of both attraction and resistance; I'm interested in that tension. As you’ve noted, there is a noir influence in Isle—I was drawn to worlds with that kind of spooky texture, where you’re right on the edge of the un-real, and the doubling contributes to that texture.
You are married to the fiction writer Paul Yoon, and both of you have also had a kind of doubling in your careers: both of you appeared in One Story, won awards for those stories, which then became the titles to your first collections, both of which were published around the same time, and now both of your second books have emerged simultaneously. How does the dynamic work in the marriage when it comes to the writing life?
I find the parallels in terms of our publication history to be totally improbable—a happy coincidence to be sure, but we’re also very different writers, with very different approaches and routines, so we’re as surprised as anyone by these parallels. We write apart and sometimes exchange work, but more than anything we talk about what we’re reading. That’s my favorite part, to have that shared passion as readers.
How has teaching helped your writing, in terms of challenges and inspiration? And a follow up: you’re currently teaching a course about how to edit or structure a collection of stories. What have you learned from preparing the class as well as what you’ve learned from students as the semester has progressed?
Teaching pushes me to better define what I believe to be true about fiction; I have to examine philosophies that might otherwise remain fuzzy in order to articulate them in a clear way to my students. In the case of the story collection class, I had to break down why I love the collections I do. What are the properties that make these collections exceptional? What are the principles of organization? Certainly my understanding of the collection as a form has been deepened.
And lastly, you were once a managing editor for Ploughshares--do you have any words of wisdom for writers in terms of process, as well as submitting their work?
Be patient and disciplined. Don’t rush to submit your stories. Make the work the best you can make it. Do your research, in terms of the magazines you’re approaching. And then be relentless—great stories often wrack up many rejections before they find a home. Not everyone has to love your work. At the end of the day, you just need that one alignment of vision, that one “yes.”
What do you believe is key in the writing process?
Endurance is key.
What is your favorite film that you tell people is your favorite film? But more truthfully, what is your guilty pleasure film?
I am a connoisseur of 80s/90s action movies and don’t feel a bit guilty about it.
What character in literature would you most like to meet at a party?
Most of the literary characters I love are people I’d probably like to avoid in real life.
What is a television show do you binge watch and obsess over?
Pretty Little Liars.
Where is the place you feel most safe in the world?
In art museums and on trains.