IN ONE OF the earlier sessions of Laura van den Berg’s Introduction to Short Fiction class, she walked to the chalkboard and drew crested ocean waves and a deep, sandy ocean floor far beneath. Toward the water’s surface she wrote the names of simpler elements of a story, things like “plot.” Going deeper the words got more complicated: “time,” “theme,” etc. At the bottom, where, following the pattern, I thought she was going to write some brilliant phrase that perfectly describes the thing that makes a short story a short story, she drew something that looked like a 2-D sketch of the terrifying anglerfish from Finding Nemo. She called it an “alien fish.” By deciding not to name what gives a story its essential itness, van den Berg claimed that there was always something beyond language in a story. You couldn’t quite describe these fish swimming beneath the surface, but you felt them, and each alien fish felt specific. To me, this registered as an act of incredible generosity: calling for an open-minded discovery, rather than a flattening interpretation, of our own work and the work of others. Ever since this class, I can’t think about art without thinking about its alien fish.
The notion of the alien fish reminds me of one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, David Berman’s “Self-Portrait at 28.” “I am trying to get at something / and I want to talk very plainly to you / so that we are both comforted by the honesty,” Berman writes. To bring some fish to light you need flights of the imagination, stylistic and structural daring. In other cases, as with Berman, you might call for plainspoken language. Either way, per van den Berg’s model, it’s about working to discover the alien fish lurking beneath the ocean surface of your story (or poem or play or film, etc.), and to be truthful to them.
In her recently published collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, van den Berg practices what she preaches. The collection is a masterclass in form serving content; the form of each story takes on the unique characteristics of the fish swimming underneath, however impossible to put to words. Many stories deal with what van den Berg called in a recent Books Are Magic reading “the presence of absence,” but from shifting vantages; shocking leaps in time, perspective, and tone keep this collection fresh. Funny, poignant, contemplative, and haunting, this collection delights and unsettles in equal measure. I can’t wait to reread it.
In this conversation held over email, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talk about van den Berg’s process, what it feels like to publish a book in the midst of a pandemic, and unconventional ghosts.
ELLIOT SCHIFF: You’re pretty far along in your career as a writer, having written two novels and now four short story collections. What did you want to be different about this collection?
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: I want each book I do to be different from what’s come before — that’s always been important to me. It seems boring to just write the same thing over and over again. I knew I didn’t want to put out a collection that just read like the B-side of The Isle of Youth. In terms of the individual stories, I wanted to write stories that were more compact and that cut through time in surprising ways. At a certain point, maybe in early 2018, I had a lot of stories — 300 or 350 pages’ worth. It took a while to figure out the book: the thematic through lines, the larger conversation I wanted the collection to have.
I’m glad you mentioned thematic through lines, because one of the most exciting things about reading Wolf was picking up on a theme, feeling like I had a handle on how it was working in the book, and then reading the next story — which would take whatever expectations I had and subvert them totally.
I felt this subversion most often with the collection’s representation of storytelling and truth. The relationship between displays of intense feeling, characters’ inner lives, what “happened,” and what characters choose to tell each other is unsteady and shifting in Wolf. I got the sense that if the collection has a truth claim, it’s the lack of a stable, centralized truth. What about the relationship between storytelling and truth did you hope to explore in this collection?
I come from a big family, so I’ve always been aware that a person’s perceptions are usually a collision between some kind of loose, objective truth — that is, we can all agree it’s raining outside — and our highly subjective inner worlds, that can illuminate and skew in equal measure. In “Cult of Mary,” the man’s revelation [that his wife is not really dead, she just left him] is not intended to make him more sympathetic — for what it’s worth I actually never think of characters this way, as “sympathetic” or “unsympathetic” — but just to complicate his presence. He is in a place of pain that’s real and he’s manipulating his pain to provide cover for toxic, misogynistic behavior; both things can be true at the same time. Also, many of the characters in these stories misperceive things in their worlds — like the narrator in “Slumberland” — or perceive the necessary thing a bit too late. I think the instability you’re speaking to rises from those acts of misperception as well.
So, yes, I do tend to think our inner realities are always shifting and that fluidity shows up in the character. As perhaps a kind of counterpoint or counter-consideration, I also felt it was important to not have ambiguity around some of the national events that are referenced. In “Lizards,” for example, the premise in some ways is to access “both sides,” given that story is told from both the husband’s and the wife’s point of view, but I think it’s pretty clear that the story itself doesn’t regard the husband’s perspective to be tenable.
I loved “Lizards” for what felt to me like a subtle takedown of the open-debate fantasy of “both sides,” satirizing that fantasy’s often true aim: to give a reprehensible point of view unfair due. As you said, if it hadn’t been clear that the story treats the wife’s perspective as the truth, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. To me, the story responded to national events — the Kavanaugh hearings — in a way that only fiction could. When in the collection did you know you wanted one particular truth to shine through, as in “Lizards”?
I think about dimension a lot in fiction, and I’m always attempting to write into multidimensional experiences — which, in turn, often contain multiple, sometimes contradictory truths. I once heard Garth Greenwell, on a panel, say that he was only interested in fiction that disrupted foregone conclusions (I might be a little off on the wording, but that was the gist). That idea really resonates with me. If my own foregone conclusions aren’t disrupted at some point, then why write the story?
For “Lizards” specifically, I did indeed intend for the story, through the structure of the opening conversation between the husband and wife, to speak to the destructive fantasy of the “both sides” debate. I won’t say exactly what happens midway through … but a new trapdoor opens in the world and the story drops down into another kind of reality. As much as I find the husband’s views (and actions) reprehensible, I didn’t want the story to be flattened into a reductive, one-dimensional victim-abuser scenario. What the husband is doing to his wife is monstrous, and, on the other hand, there is a part of her that longs for the obliteration, the permission to look away. She is caught between a rage that is intense, yet also somewhat superficial, and this longing to just turn the world off. What would she be willing to change in her life, to give up, in order to help dismantle the structures that make someone like Kavanaugh possible? I’m not sure — and I don’t think she is, either. So she is a victim within her marriage and also complicit in the larger political reality.
It makes a lot of sense for me to be asking you this question, as your former student: the first story, “Last Night,” among other things, dramatizes teaching fiction writing. What interested you about fictionalizing the experience, or your experience, of being a creative writing professor? Also, earlier you mentioned the conversation you wanted the collection to have. Could you tell me more about that?
“Last Night” is written in more of an “autofiction” mode — which is to say it’s by far the most autobiographical story in the book, though there is some made-up stuff mixed in — so the tangential mentions of the narrator being a writer/a creative writing professor were just a natural extension of that voice (as opposed to my wanting to write into the experience of teaching specifically). Originally, I had that story last. I had been thinking about order very literally, as in: maybe the story titled “Last Night” should be … last. Then a very smart writer friend read the collection and reimagined the order for me, which was a huge act of generosity. She argued for putting “Last Night” first, with the idea that the collection should start with the immediacy of the very personal and then telescope out from there — kind of like dropping a stone into a lake, the way the initial plunge is followed by a series of expanding rings.
“Last Night” also seemed like a good opener for the larger conversation you were asking about. It was a story I’d tried to write many times before, though always with a lot more fiction, and I found, in the end, a certain bluntness in the voice was what was needed. So telling stories that are difficult to tell; coming at ghosts from unexpected angles, in this case being haunted by the survival-based choices we might make at certain points in our lives … these are dimensions of experience that “Last Night” deals with very directly and that appear, in different contexts, throughout the collection.
Could you tell me about your feelings toward the ghost story? I also know you taught a writing workshop on writing the supernatural this past fall. Did you learn anything about your relationship with the ghost story in the course of teaching this class?
By the time I taught the class — in fall 2019 — Wolf was finished, but I think my work on the collection (and also the book that came before, a novel called The Third Hotel) definitely helped shape the class. I had been thinking about the supernatural as a means to explore the material that cannot be contained by corporeal life: the unsayable secrets, the unexamined truths, the incomprehensible realities. In an NPR interview, Toni Morrison once said: “I think of ghosts and haunting as just being alert. If you are really alert, you see the life that exists beyond the life that’s on top.” What does this “life beyond” have to say about our world that cannot be conveyed through other channels? What does it mean to haunt? What does it mean to be haunted? We applied these questions to a really wide range of work, from Edith Wharton to Mariana Enríquez to Helen Oyeyemi. I think the ghost story is so enduring in part because it is so flexible and so varied.
These are such interesting questions to ask … Based on what you’re saying, and the wonderful Morrison quote, are you saying that supernatural elements allow you to bring those alien fish closer to the surface?
I think that any work of fiction needs multiple ways to communicate. What is going on in this story that can’t be bound by language? That’s an important question for me to ask and is related to the “alien fish” idea — I’m not sure the supernatural brings the alien fish closer to the surface as much as it gives us a way to make the deep dive.
What does it feel like to have a book release and press cycle in the middle of a pandemic?
This is a wild time to be doing, well, anything — including publishing a book. This is my first virtual tour, so a lot feels different. I’ll probably have more to say about this once I’m on the other side of the tour, but for now I almost feel like a publishing beginner again, which I have to say is kind of fun.
This is a gross, if helpful, oversimplification, but I feel like a trend both personally and socially is that the pandemic has revealed bare truths about our lives and the structures that make them up. Has this moment revealed anything to you about fiction’s role to the world and to you personally?
I do think that’s true, yes. For so many people, the pandemic has intensified the structural instabilities in their lives and communities. All of a sudden life goes from being barely sustainable to absolutely unsustainable. For others, the pandemic has made visible and real these instabilities for the first time (and of course it takes a lot of privilege to only now be becoming alert to them). I hope any lingering illusions about this country’s relationship to equality and justice have been shattered this year.
For me, fiction is so much about pulling back the surface layers and diving into those more submerged waters — and the supernatural in particular specializes in excavating matter that has been ignored, overlooked, buried, etc. I will always be drawn to fiction that chooses truth over illusion — even if it uses tricks of illusion to get there.