Memorious’s contributing editor Laura van den Berg has had an exciting few months. Her story collection The Isle of Youth, published in November by FSG, has been celebrated by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, O. Magazine, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines. Just last week, Laura was named the winner of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. And in other fantastic news, her story “Antarctica” from Isle of Youth has been included in both Best American Short Stories 2014 and Best American Mystery Stories 2014.
The Isle of Youth is a mesmerizing collection of stories that are wrapped in small and large mysteries. Van den Berg’s protagonists are often young women attempting to navigate the unknown in their everyday lives – from disappearing fathers and brothers to the disorientation of failing relationships. The stories take on the styles of noir, mystery, and detective fiction, but van den Berg always brings her own, unique and sympathetic lens to her characters’ lives. Laura was generous enough to answer some of our questions about her latest story collection.
Your stories travel to so many different settings—Patagonia, Paris, Missouri, Antarctica, and Florida. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between place and plot. Or, in other words, does place become a jumping off point for you as you start constructing your narratives?
I’m interested in the way landscapes can apply pressure to characters—and how, in turn, that pressure can crack open something inside and compel a character to action. All the narrators are outsiders in the landscapes you mention, and I think the pressure of that outsider-ness, the unfamiliarity, allows them to see their own inner faultlines with a sharper clarity, to feel their loneliness more acutely.
Since we’re talking about place, I know you have lived in many different places—Florida, Baltimore, Boston to name a few—but I imagine that you’ve never been to Antarctica. Can you tell us a bit about the role of research in your fiction?
My favorite way to research is to pick up a travel guide, like Lonely Planet, and read it cover-to-cover. I pretend like I am going away on a very long trip and trying to prepare. What will I need to know? What will I want to see? What is the weather like? The landscape? This is how I researched for “Antarctica.”
That said, I had been trying to write a story set in Antarctica for years—years!—and kept failing at it. And then, in 2012, I saw a news segment on the Comandante Ferraz research base in Admiralty Bay. There was an explosion; two men were killed. The story stayed with me, and as soon as I began work on this new version, the story felt different, for two reasons:
First, I had originally tried to write from the perspective of a research scientist, but now my narrator was an outsider in Antarctica. I no longer felt limited by all that I didn’t know—outsider, I understood. Second, part of the story is set in Cambridge, place I know intimately, and that familiarity became a counterpoint to the radical foreignness of Antarctica. So I learned that the choices I made in approach and technique are just as important, if not more important, than the research when it comes to crafting a convincing world and voice.
Many of your stories focus on passive characters who are thrust into adventure, chaos, conflict, etc. via outside forces. Can you talk about how passive characters make good protagonists?
I think the passive protagonist has the potential to be particularly observant about the world around her, a kind of seer if you will. But I also think the force of inaction is often undersold. Of course, the inaction has to be rooted in something truthful about that character’s inner life, but in the right context inaction—a character’s refusal to change course, speak up, run away—can in fact be as powerful and ruinous and brutal as action in the conventional sense; I would argue that, in the fact, inaction has the potential to be quite a radical form of action.
Your characters seem haunted in your stories — by absent parents or missing siblings or lost love. I know you’ve talked about the influence of noir and detective stories on your work, but is there a way we might see your narratives as ghost stories?
Interesting question! Yes, I think so—as you say all the characters are haunted by the missing, in one way or another, and the shadows of ghosts are hanging over them.
I know you’ve spent a bunch of time at residencies and conferences and that you keep in good touch with your friends and fellow writers from grad school. You’ve also been a contributing editor at Memorious. Can you talk a bit about the importance of community to you?
Writing can be a lonely job—you spend a lot of time working in solitude, in your own head—and so community is such an important reprieve from that isolation and I like the energy of being around people who are all engaged in their own art projects—the solidarity, the common pursuit of art, can be hopeful and motivating.
Are there some books you’ve read recently that you’ve found exciting, inspiring, challenging, and/or impressive that you’d like to share with other readers?
Yes! So many, but right now I’m reading J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence and it is insanely good—truly one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.
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