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Why do you like to write about monsters so much?

I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this question so I can better understand my monster fixation myself. With the new film adaptation, I’ve been thinking a lot about Where The Wild Things Are, which was one of my most beloved books as a child. I loved the feelings of magic and fear that it evoked in me and I was also enamored with the idea of these creatures spiriting Max away to a different kind of world—a desire that is often found in the characters that populate What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

 

What’s the strangest place you’ve ever been?

My home state of Florida is pretty strange. We have hurricanes, swamps, alligators, heat that will melt you, a religious theme park called Holy Land, and, it seems, more than our fair share of serial killers.

 

Have you ever actually seen an alligator?

Yes! I’ve seen them in the wild—or what used to be the wild, which is one of the reasons they’re living in such close proximity to humans in the first place—and at Gatorland, a theme park in Orlando, where I’m from, devoted to alligators. There you can see things like the gator jumparoo show and gator wrestling.

 

If Florida is so strange and interesting, why are none of the stories in your collection set there?

Because I grew up in Florida, it took me a long time to get the distance I needed; in fact, I just wrote my first Florida story this year. For a while, I felt like I knew too much about the place. Whenever I thought of my hometown, there was too much mental clutter and I didn’t feel that freedom of imagination that I need to write.

 

What was the hardest story in your collection to write?

They were all hard in their own ways, but “Inverness” probably took the longest to get right. Between its original publication in Third Coast and the publication of the collection, the story went through many transformations—adding characters, taking out characters, re-writing the ending. There was a time when I was convinced I would never render the last few lines to my satisfaction, that I would probably have to drop the story from the collection, and then, one day, it clicked.

 

Which character from your collection haunts you the most and why?

All the women who narrate the stories in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us have stayed with me. I think of them from time to time, in the way one might periodically recall an old friend. But if I had to pick one, I would say Celia, the narrator of the title story. Maybe that’s because, out of all the characters, she’s the one I most closely identify with; also, because her future is more open and hopeful at the story’s end, I find myself thinking how things might have worked out for her.

 

Is it possible Celia could find her way into a novel?

I started a novel with an older version of Celia as a narrator, but the more I wrote, the more I realized I’d said all I had to say about her in “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us,” so that project was shelved.

 

Your collection contains many exotic settings (Scotland, Madagascar, etc)—which one did you enjoy writing about the most?

I really fell in love with Madagascar, the setting of the title story—or, to put it more precisely, my fictional idea of Madagascar. The red dirt, the sea, the lemurs. It seemed like the perfect place to bring the tensions between the characters to a crescendo. Even the sound of the word “Madagascar” sounds a little un-real, a little magical. Say it five times slowly and you will be enchanted.

 

What would be your ideal day job?

I would like to have a job that involves caring for animals. I tried to get a job as a dog walker when I was a graduate student in Boston, but no one would hire me. It was sad. I would also like to be an explorer of some kind, like some of the characters in my book—that is, if I wasn’t so afraid of large insects, small planes, reptiles, and sleeping on the ground.

 

What is your favorite kind of omelet?

An omelet with really good swiss, arugula, and oyster mushrooms is, in my opinion, about as good as it gets.

 

What is your favorite kind of short story?

Stories that have the scope of a novel. Stories with big, fancy, pyrotechnic plots. Stories where nothing happens, but you feel as though everything has happened. Stories with unlikable narrators. Stories in the first person. Stories that are lyric. Stories that are spare. Stories that are lush and messy. Stories that do curious things with time. Stories that become lodged in my mind like a recurring dream. Stories with imagery and metaphor. Stories set in interesting landscapes. Stories that make my heart hurt.

 

What advice should aspiring writers never take?

Sometimes there’s talk about how you need to go out into the world and live and have adventures before you can write anything interesting. I’m all for living a full and exciting life, but Flannery O’Connor said that “anyone who has survived childhood has enough to write about” and I think this is usually true.

Also, don’t listen to people who say “write what you know.”

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Laura van den Berg 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), recently received a starred review in Booklist and has been selected by Barnes & Noble for their Discover Great New Writers Program.

13 Responses to “Laura van den Berg: The TNB 
Self-Interview”

  1. Thanks so much for this, Laura! It was delightful working with you.

  2. LitPark says:

    We have the same taste in short stories, which means I’ll have to read this book!

  3. Thanks, Susan!

    And thanks to you, Gina, as well. I loved working with you too.

  4. A fantastic writer on a fantastic venue. If you haven’t already, run to your bookstore and pick up “What the World….”

  5. Megan DiLullo says:

    Laura, this is great. I’m looking forward to getting a copy of your book.

    I’ve never been to Florida and as you’ve described it, I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Holy Land? Really? That sounds fascinating and kind of makes me ill at the same time. I have to go see.

  6. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Gee, Florida sounds a lot like Louisiana. Amen to NOT writing what you know. Ponder, learn, discover…then write. Congratulations on your forthcoming book! Many good wishes for success!

  7. Zoe Brock says:

    Welcome to the madness, lady!

  8. This is lovely “Stories where nothing happens, but you feel as though everything has happened.” That’s my kind of story… I can hardly wait to read your book. Welcome to TNB…..

  9. I loved reading all of your wonderful reading recommendations on TNB 2.0, and I’m so glad to know that I can now recommend YOU!

    Also – you’re from Orlando? I’m from Clearwater! So many hot Floridians here on TNB, I can barely contain myself!

  10. Ack! So many books to get hold of now… oh, my poor Amazon account.

    OK. Oyster mushrooms. What are they? I have never heard that term before in my life.

    Also: welcome aboard!

  11. Hi, Simon, in case you’re still interested oyster mushrooms are like this: http://z.about.com/d/greekfood/1/0/_/O/oyster_mushrooms_499.jpg

    Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting!

  12. Don Mitchell says:

    Laura – I’m very late to the party here.

    I Just finished the stories today. Dynamite! I can’t think of one that didn’t get to me.

    It’s true that I was forced to read the first few while waiting for my car in a shop, Fox News (of course) on the TV, guy next to me eating a long breakfast. But they overpowered all that.

    You were right to put the Bigfoot one first. After that, I knew that Fox and the eater weren’t going to make any difference.

  13. […] to die.” But for the more discerning reader, one who identifies with and marvels over what Laura van den Berg has lauded as “stories that make my heart hurt,” Sarah/Sara will be an important—and […]

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