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Justify Every Sentence: Laura van den Berg

Justify Every Sentence: Laura van den BergLaura van den Berg

photo by Miriam Berkley

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the 2009 Julia Peterkin Award, and the 2009-2010 Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg College. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Boston Review, American Short Fiction, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV: Best of the Small Presses, among others. Laura’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, October 2009), is the winner of the Dzanc Prize and was recently selected by Barnes & Noble for their “Discover Great New Writers” Program. Booklist’s starred review calls the collection “stunning.”

Michael Kimball: The first sentence of the first story mentions Bigfoot: “Some people dream of being chased by Bigfoot.” Other stories involve the Loch Ness Monster, the Mokele-mbembe, and a giant snake that may or may not be in Lake Michigan. Could you talk about creating characters that believe in these types of creatures?

Laura van den Berg: We all have to believe in something, don’t we? My characters tend not to believe in god or other people or even in themselves, but rather find more esoteric elements to place their conviction in. Also, I see these creatures as being, in part, a stand-in for the things that are ineffable to us, for all that is unknown and unreachable. There’s so much we will never know, will never understand, about ourselves and the people around us and the world at large, yet we keep trying to make it all make sense. To a large degree, I think my characters believe in things like the Loch Ness and Mokele-mbembe because they are trying to form a narrative that will make their own lives comprehensible; they want their lives to be about something.

Kimball: Characters wanting their lives to be meaningful, that makes me think of a recurring character in a bunch of your stories: the scientist/explorer. Sometimes this character is a professional, say, a primatologist, and sometimes an amateur, say, an orphaned little boy. Sometimes this character is alive, sometimes dead, but they are (or were) looking for something they cannot find-a type of monkey, a particular edition of a book, a tunnel to the other side of the world, love, understanding, attention. The searches that these characters undertake, that’s one of the things that makes your stories so compelling. Could you talk about the search, as a way to drive the narrative, as well as where you leave the characters (that is, having found or not found what they are looking for)?

van den Berg: I think we’re all looking for things we can’t find in our own particular ways; we always want to understand more about the world, I tend to believe, than we will ever be able to, so I feel as though the “un-findable” things my characters are perusing become emblematic of that larger abyss we all face. I think my characters also tend to feel that if they can achieve a particular goal (become a long distance swimmer, accurately interpret a disturbed child’s drawings) or find a particular thing (a rare flower, the Loch Ness), everything will come together for them; they’re always looking for ways to make it all make sense.

In terms of how these desires can be used to shape narrative, obsession is a wonderful storytelling tool. Right away, it offers an intensity, a sense of focus. I feel like many of these stories grew out of a character’s obsession, in that the obsession was the first element I knew and everything else kind of sprouted up around that element. However, the difficult thing about a story driven by, say, an obsessive quest for a particular object is: how do you end it in a way that’s not too neat or too open-ended, that’s enigmatic but still satisfying? Frankly, I’m not sure all my ending are successful; they were something I struggled with a lot in revision. My characters don’t find what they’re looking for and some stories do end with the characters being more lost than ever, while others end with them finding the things they actually needed the most-in the title story, for example, Celia doesn’t grow closer to her mother, but gains her independence; in “Where We Must Be,” Jean loses her job at the Bigfoot park and will, the story implies, soon lose Jimmy, but at the same time, she manages to pass this kind of fundamental human test in the final scene.

Kimball: I liked your endings a lot, especially since the one thing that seemed as if it couldn’t happen was that those characters find the thing they are looking for. I liked the various ways that you found to take those stories deeper into their emotional core (that is, somewhere beyond the surface obsession). But tell me about the struggles with those endings and how you finally settled on the endings that the stories have.

Justify Every Sentence: Laura van den Bergvan den Berg: Endings are always hard for me. You’re juggling a lot of different demands-how does this ending emerge from the character’s internal landscape? How does it bring, or not bring, the story’s thematic concerns and ideas to fruition? How can I create an arcing moment, a moment that the story has been building to from the start, surprising yet inevitable, to quote Flannery O’Connor, as opposed to just letting things trail off? I’m a big fan of the ending-with-an-image strategy-I’m with T.S. Eliot on that whole objective correlative thing-but it can’t just be any old image, of course; it has to have roots in the story, to carry a psychological weight and resonance. It has to somehow gesture toward what is at the heart of the story, but not too much. The worst thing in an ending for me is when the story is wrapped up too neatly; I much prefer the enigmatic. There’s a great quote-can’t recall who said it at the moment-about how an ending should be more of an “open window than a closed door,” or something along those lines, and that feels right to me. In terms of process, every story was different, but in general it always feels like messing around with a Rubik’s cube; I keep turning the story this way and that, hoping that everything will eventually line up.

Kimball: In another interview, you mention that one of the best pieces of advice you have ever been given came from Margot Livesey-the idea that a writer should be able to justify every sentence in a story or novel. Now here’s a the representative sentence from The Believer review. Please justify it.

van den Berg: I interpret those words as a call for a heightened awareness of language and what that language is communicating to the reader, a call for all the story’s elements to be in service of the larger enterprise. And I would like to think that I could, if pressed, talk about how most lines in my stories are contributing to that larger enterprise, but I know there are some lines that I feel are important, but would struggle to articulate why. For me, it’s not a bad thing to have a strand of the work elude me slightly, to sense that it is contributing something even if I couldn’t say exactly what. Which is all to say that I always hold that Margot Livesey-who is, by the way, a stellar teacher-quote in mind, even if I don’t take it completely literally.

But back to the quote from The Believer: this line comes at the end of the title story, when the narrator, Celia, has undergone a kind of coming of age-a sexual awakening, a desire for independence-which takes the form of her breaking away from her mother, a self-involved scientist who has dominated Celia’s life and decisions about how to live, and pursuing her dream of becoming a long distance swimmer. So the phrase “I couldn’t imagine ever making my way through the lanes of a swimming pool again” suggests Celia recognizes that she has been irrevocably changed, that things can never go back to the way they were. And the part about her having “grown used to the expanse of the ocean, that sensation that I could, at any moment, vanish within it” is connected to her desire for a bigger kind of life, so even though she’s leaving her mother in Madagascar in order to pursue a life of her own, she is in possession of her mother’s sense of adventure.

Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is now out in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).

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