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Laura van den Berg: The Short Form Interview

If I feel crowded by fact, my imagination tends to shut down.

Author of the story collections, The Isle of Youth and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

The Interview

First things first, let’s talk about Florida. Every week, there's some implausible story that’s now made the state a punch line, yet it's producing an incredible arsenal of writers such as yourself, Karen Russell, Lindsay Hunter, Kyle Minor, just off the top of my head. Speaking generally, Flordia also have a rich literary tradition; where previously it was a destination or outsiders settling in — Hemingway and Co. and then later McGuane and Brautigan, etc.) — now it's a point of origin for some really strong writing.  

After years of holding fast to insane gun laws and messing up national elections, I for one am glad to see a more positive trend emerging from the Sunshine State! But arguably it’s the strangeness of Florida that makes it a logical “origin point” for so many writers. It’s a really big state, so it’s full of tensions, contrasts; it’s eccentric and banal and surreal. I’m glad to be from there; the place definitely shaped my sensibility in a fundamental way.

Can you talk about the process of getting comfortable writing about Florida, or simply locations with which you are slightly more intimate? You visit your home state in this newest collection, which I'm not sure you've done before.

You’re right, the Florida stories in ISLE are the first time I’ve written about my homestate. I was born in central Florida, in Orlando, and lived there until I was twenty-two. When I left, I was really ready to go. I wanted to explore, both physically and imaginatively, not revisit where I was from. But time has a way of changing perspective, and I needed time for the vision of Florida I had constructed to fall away, for a new view of Florida to emerge. It took a long time for me to fully appreciate what a strange and singular place Florida is. I’m also just dispositionally drawn to “writing what I don’t know.” If a landscape is overly familiar, if I feel crowded by fact, my imagination tends to shut down. For example, I don’t think I could have set those stories in central Florida, the part of the state I am most familiar with—instead they are set in south Florida, a part of the state I am passingly familiar with and held a kind of mystique for me as a child.

What were some of the first stories or writers that gave you permission to get out of the Raymond Carver / MFA world and enter other worlds, if you will?

Jim Shepard, certainly. Murakmi’s collection After the Quake, my favorite book of his. Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Angela Carter, George Saunders. I still love many of the great realists, but at a certain point it was crucial for me to expand my sense of what a story could do and be.


The idea of withholding information is something I seem to keep coming back to because it's such a skill, and one that the more-determined writers — those really laboring in revision — have down. Perhaps it's not so vulgar as “withholding info”, but for an example in “The Greatest Escape” you ration out the facts of Crystal's life at the perfect pace so the reader might not even consider the mountain of lies that make up her history until nearly the end of the story. That this story is in first person does help, but I'm interested how an early draft compares to the final version. Do you have a good idea of the ending before you get there?

This was a particularly challenging story in that I knew the trajectory, that by the end of the story Crystal would understand that much of her history, or what she’s been told about her history, is a fiction, but for a long time I didn’t know what the nature of the central lie would be. I love Flannery O’Connor’s sentiment about an ending being “surprising yet inevitable,” and I was aspiring to pace the story in such a way that the main revelation would have a feeling of inevitability—i.e. the reader already suspects Crystal’s father is not in fact the Great Heraldo—but would also carry a measure of surprise. I tried to pace the reader’s understanding of Crystal alongside Crystal’s understanding of her self. 

A lot of the stories in this collection have a sense of community. Maybe not a large number of people, but rare is it when it's just one person's journey. There can be a clear protagonist, sure, but often they are telling more than their own story. You have the group of bank robbers, the sisters in Florida, sisters-in-law from “Antarctica”. It's an interesting strategy, and adds more weight to the stories. For example “Antarctica” could have been just about a sister going down to investigate a tragic death of her brother, but then there is a dissolve and you allow the sister-in-law's story to develop. Did you have all three characters in mind when you began writing "Antarctica"? Or did one plot come after the other?

That’s an interesting observation. With “Antarctica,” I aspired to explore a different perspective on crime, with Eve, the sister-in-law, who is a victim and later becomes a kind of perpetrator—or does she?—herself. And the narrator is a victim of Eve’s situation in a way, but also culpable, in terms of the secrets she chooses to keep, her inability to face her own role in what happens. From the start, I always had this triangle of intimacy and deception in mind, with a brother and sister and one other character, though of course the particulars evolved along the way.

“Lessons” also has the inevitable ending previously mentioned because as much as we fall for these kids and want them to succeed in their rebellious ways, the reader has no choice but to assume they aren't long for the road. But you don't actually take us there. The story leaves off with them still on the road, looking for that better world. Did you arrive at that ending initially, or was there temptation to continue on and see what happens with the kids? Similarly, a couple of your stories don't have clean conclusions. How do you, in general, know when a story is finished?

I tend to think in terms of character trajectories when I’m determining how much time a story will span. For Dana, I saw the trajectory as her coming into a new kind of self-knowledge, her running up against her own capacities as a person, and the moment in which that arc completed seemed like a natural destination for the story, even though the events could keep theoretically unfolding and unfolding.

You have a couple of really well received short story collections and now you're working on a novel. Though that is the accepted trajectory, we often see novelists that don't do short stories and vice versa, which affirms the idea that they are two separate skill sets. Out of pure curiosity, what was your motivattion to write a novel? 

They are absolutely unique skill sets. Apart from both falling under the general umbrella of “fiction,” the novel and the short story really have very little to do with each other. With the novel, I became obsessed with a story and a character and the scope of that story immediately suggested a larger canvas; that was the motivation. Because the forms are so different, I find it hard to make direct comparisons, but I do find both to be deeply rewarding in their own distinct ways and also massively challenging.

Tell us a little about the stories you've recommended for our readers.

“Pet” by Deb Olin Unferth: Unferth takes something as seemingly banal as pet turtles and transforms it into a ferocious, hilarious, heartbreaking story.

“Escapes” by Joy Williams: Strange, dark, exquisite. Vintage Williams, in other words, with one of my favorite last lines in short-story history.

“Superfrog Saves Tokyo” by Haruki Murakami: I love how Murkami challenges the reader’s expectations in this story. Initially we anticipate a kind of super hero narrative, with the everyman narrator and the titular Superfrog banding together to save Tokyo, but soon Murkami redirects the reader’s attention to more esoteric, interesting, and dangerous territory—where our narrator is the one in the most urgent need of saving.

“Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes: “My wife, the doctor, is not well.” And so begins one of the most brutal and true portraits of marriage and mortality I have ever encounter on the page.

“The Hot War” by Tom Paine: I read this story in a recent issue of Zoetrope, on flight that was experiencing violent turbulence. A few paragraphs in, I had forgotten all about the turbulence.

Recommended by Laura van den Berg

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo
Excerpt

Frog tilted back his head and flexed the muscles of his huge throat. Ribit. Ri-i-i-bit. Ribit ribit ribit. Ribit. Ribit. Ri-i-i bit. His gigantic croaks rattled the pictures hanging on the walls.

"Fine, I see, I see!" Katagiri said, worried about the thin walls of the cheap apartment house in which he lived. "That's great. You are, without question, a real frog."

"One might also say that I am the sum total of all frogs. Nonetheless, this does nothing to change the fact that I am a frog. Anyone claiming that I am not a frog would be a dirty liar. I would smash such a person to bits!"

Katagiri nodded. Hoping to calm himself, he picked up his cup and swallowed a mouthful of tea. "You said before that you have come here to save Tokyo from destruction?"

"That is what I said."

"What kind of destruction?"

"Earthquake," Frog said with the utmost gravity.

Mouth dropping open, Katagiri looked at Frog. And Frog, saying nothing, looked at Katagiri. They went on staring at each other like this for some time. Next it was Frog's turn to open his mouth.

Read More http://www.gq.com/entertainment/books/200206/haruki-murakami-super-frog-saves-tokyo-full-story#ixzz2jdVuNLdD

We read it in After the Quake.

Originally published in GQ: June 2002.

The Hot War
Excerpt

Halogens bathed the scene in a razor light. My great-grandfather had built the farmhouse and dug the pond and we Addisons had skated safely here in December for a hundred years. There was plenty of ice. There was no way it cracked but it cracked. I stumbled in my hockey skates with Chloe in my arms across the snow. Ten miles out of Whitefish in the woods, I wasn't waiting for an ambulance. She had a wavering pulse at her carotid, and I gave her mouth-to-mouth with her head in my lap while bombing at eighty over the frozen washboard roads. I'd never kissed her on the lips. Her eyes were wide open and dilated. She gagged up a pink, frothy spittle, and I was so excited I sideswiped a snowbank. On impact, she slid to the floor of the passenger seat. There was nothing to do but pull her up by her hair and keep driving and pumping her full of breath.

Do Not Disturb
Excerpt

I am not going to be able to leave the woman with cancer. I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer, but I don't know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch. Do you hope that the cancer prompts the woman to reevaluate herself, to take it as an opportunity, a signal for change? As far as she's concerned there is no such thing as the mind-body connection; there is science and there is law. There is fact and everything else is bullshit.

We read it in Things You Should Know.

Pet
Excerpt

Somehow they have wound up with these two turtles. The woman says she saved them. Her son says all she did is move them from one place to another–from the basement of her sister’s house to their apartment (also a basement)–and the turtles’ lives are no better than they had been before, and her own life is significantly worse, since now she has to take care of them.

Well, the woman and her son will take care of them together.

Not him. He’s not the one who took them. He doesn’t even know why she did it–making off with somebody’s pets? That’s weird.

Those turtles would have died down there in the dark, like all the other pets in her sister’s life. It was a philanthropic moment, taking them. It’s called philanthropy. Does he even know what that is. She wonders.

We read it in The Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses.

Originally published in Noon: 2009.

Escapes
Excerpt

I wanted to know more about Houdini. Was Houdini in love, did Houdini love someone? I asked.

“Rosabelle,” my mother said. “He loved his wife, Rosabelle.”

I went and got a glass and poured some ginger ale in it and I sipped my ginger ale slowly in the way that I had seen my mother sip her drink many, many times. Even then, I had the gestures down. I sat opposite her, very still and quiet, pretending.

But then I wanted to know was there magic in the way he loved her? Could he make her disappear? Could he make both of them disappear was the way I put my question.

“Rosabelle,” my mother said. “No one knew anything about Rosabelle except that Houdini loved her. He never turned their love into loneliness which would have been beneath him of course.”

We ate our supper and after supper my mother would have another little bit to drink. Then she would read articles from the newspaper aloud to me.

We read it in Escape.