In understated prose, Laura creates Joy’s distorted and strange world. As we enter into that fictional world, we see that it reflects, in many ways, the real world where we find ourselves today. And in Joy’s loneliness and desire to connect, we recognize ourselves.
I first met Laura two years ago when she accepted my invitation to read at Booklab, a literary salon I co-host in Boston. Her two story collections had been published and she was then at work on Find Me. Recently we met for coffee to talk about the novel.
KATHLEEN STONE: I’m going to single out a sentence from the book that particularly resonates with me: "Is there any greater mystery than the separateness of each person?" The theme of aloneness is something you explore through Joy, your protagonist. What is the interior place from which you draw in order to write about the separateness of human beings?
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Last October, The Millions published an essay about Natasha, the pet wolf my parents brought home to Florida when I was a child and who lived with us for about a year. I don’t write much nonfiction, but this essay was an important piece for me, since the influence of Natasha continues to be deeply felt, in odd, circuitous ways. I was very young when Natasha lived with us and so I don’t remember her with clarity — just in flashes — but the image that is embedded in my memory is her solitary, restless pacing and digging in the backyard. Whether those memories are real or imagined, I can’t say for sure, but they’re the ones that stuck. Sort of like a wolf in the tropics, I too felt out of place while growing up in Florida. As a teenager I struggled a lot, had several major depressive episodes, and ended up dropping out of high school and getting a GED. (This is around the time I feel compelled to say that I have been gifted with a caring and supportive family, unlike Joy, but when writing fiction I often take a seed of something I know really well, loneliness in this case, and exaggerate it, blow it up.) The loneliness and alienation I felt then continues, I think, to be very much the place from which I write, at least for now. And though I am a vastly happier adult, that loneliness has never fully left me. I suspect that’s a sentiment a lot of writers can relate to.
In the very first paragraph, you introduce the reader to the pilgrims, people who come to the hospital and stand outside, waving to the patients and sometimes singing. Why?
In the first half of the book, when the characters are confined to the hospital, the setting is relatively static, so the pilgrims create movement because they are on the outside, free to come and go. I think of them also as embodying the Outside World, all that is forbidden to the patients; they can watch the outside world, they can watch the pilgrims, but they cannot access any of it. When one pilgrim enters the hospital, toward the end of the first part of the book, it is a violation of the core tenets of the hospital — nothing from the outside comes in — and paves the way for what follows.
Dr. Bek, another of your characters, is head of the hospital. He and Joy butt heads, but there comes a time when he confides in her about an episode that involved his wife, one that forced him to define what kind of person he would be. A little while later Joy says to herself "[…] the truth is I’m still trying to understand what kind of person to be." For whom is she speaking?
In the context of the book, Joy is speaking for herself and to herself. But more broadly, she speaks for all of us. We’re all trying to figure out on a daily basis what kind of person to be, aren’t we? I am, at least. We might have a sense of who we want to be, but the gap between that and who we actually are can be oceanic. We make a million tiny moral choices throughout the day and all of those choices have something to say about our humanity — and not always what we wish to hear.
Why was it important for you to tell this story now?
Much has been written about the recent wave of dystopian fiction, but of course the dystopia has a long-running and rich tradition in literature. On the one hand, it might seem unique to see so many books operating in a dystopian vein being published now, but on the other it’s not really anything new. I think, from generation to generation, the world we live in can feel crazy and on the brink of ruin and so there’s a need to respond to that — hence the imagined dystopias. Given our current political, military, economic, social, and ecological moment, the America I live in often feels unbalanced and disaster-prone, so I was definitely responding to that atmosphere, especially in the last couple of years I worked on the book.
Interestingly, though, I started the novel in 2008, in the midst of the presidential elections, when I and many other Americans were feeling a renewed sense of hope. At the time, I was living in rural North Carolina with my husband, where we had holed up to get some writing done. In the midst of what was designed to be a kind of utopia for us, I began imagining a dystopia, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how my imagination works. It’s all too natural for me to picture the worst-case scenario.
Do you see Find Me fitting into the tradition of dystopian literature?
Well, I think “dystopian” often implies “post-apocalyptic” — i.e., The Road — where the earth as we know it has been completely wiped. In Find Me, the sickness is, to my eye, not The End but rather one disaster in a succession of disasters. The country recovers, but is wounded, and so it’s something that pushes us into an even more damaged and surreal space. But still there are buses and motels and gas stations, gestures toward normality.
Is there another book that particularly inspired you?
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich was definitely influential. It’s a novel about a band of “hobo vampire junkies” roaming the Pacific Northwest. It’s wild and surreal and even when I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, I was enthralled. I really admired the way Krilanovich let the characters go and the way nearly every scene surprised me and how the novel was so totally unafraid of risk. Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, and Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance were also on my mind.
The ending of the novel is not neatly wrapped up. How do you know when you’ve hit the right balance between wrapping things up and giving the reader space to imagine what might happen?
My favorite endings are the ones where the car skids right up to the edge of the cliff and we’re left peering over and wondering what’s down there. We have completed the arc of one journey and are left on the precipice of another. I wanted the ending of Find Me to have that quality. Also, I knew intuitively that I wanted the book to end on the water. I can’t really say why; the image of Joy on water was just one that was with me from the start. My biggest challenge was getting Joy to that moment. The second part of the novel went through many incarnations. I started to find my way when I ditched “plot” in the more conventional sense and embraced the weirdo American landscape and just let Joy move through it.
You use a first-person narrator. And in your two story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, you also use young women as first-person narrators. What appeals to you about this mode?
It’s an intuitive choice for me. I begin a lot with voice and more often than not, the voice I hear is an “I” voice. Since I write so much in the first person, I rewrote the entire book in the third person at one point, just to be sure — which was a disaster, but at least affirmed that it was indeed a first-person book. When I’m really in sync with a first-person project this weird and amazing thing starts happening where I begin thinking that character’s thoughts. I’ll see something out in the world, but through her eyes, informed by her observations — like it’s almost my own thoughts, but a degree or two removed. I love that.
A related question — why did you decide to use the present tense?
For a long time, the book was in the past tense, but then a few summers ago I was at a residency in Key West and scrapped a lot of the book — much of the first part and all of the second. When I started over, I was writing in the present tense and it felt right so I just kept going. First-person present tense is a really focused and constricted point of view, tunnel vision–like, but maybe that’s what the book needed. A lot of the bad subplots I had going naturally fell away in the present tense.
The tunnel image can also imply a forward momentum.
I do think the book gained more immediacy with the present tense, but even more than lending immediacy, I think the present tense actually slows time because every second, every step, every breath, can, theoretically, be accounted for. I mean, you can do that in the past tense too, but that chronicling of minutiae always feels more natural to me in the present. That slowing of time helped me with accessing Joy’s interior landscape in new and crucial ways.
You described your educational path as not being straightforward, but when you got to college you took a fiction workshop. What did that spark in you?
It was the first time I was exposed to contemporary literature. I found myself reading Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Edward P. Jones, Jim Shepard, Mary Gaitskill. The experience was incredibly powerful. It was the first time I’d read anything that felt urgent or relevant to my own existence. Right away I knew I wanted to keep reading these kinds of stories, which led me to trying to write.
Is there a passage in literature that inspires you?
So many! Endings, often, because they are so freaking hard to get right. The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, which ends with the narrator in a movie theater, revisiting her former self. I love the end of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Running Away, which is this crazy frenzied ending with two people swimming toward each other, on the heels of a woman riding a horse to a funeral. Both these endings leave the reader with the feeling of being on that precipice, in an amazing way. What else? The well scene in Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, which centers around a lake house in Brandenburg, as seen through the eyes of a dozen characters in different moments in time. One of the most powerful stories, “The Girl,” follows Doris, a 12-year-old girl who goes into hiding and is ultimately discovered by Nazis. What follows is a truly heroic act of imagination and language on Erpenbeck’s part.
What is next for you, now that your novel is out in the world?
I was lucky enough to have won the Bard Fiction Prize, so I will be at Bard College as a writer-in-residence this spring. I’ll be working on a new novel project, which at the moment is called Havana. And hopefully working on some new short stories too. I always try to work on stories.