I lived in Gettysburg, PA, for a year and once saw a civil war reenactor at the grocery store. I lived in Baltimore for three years and fell hard for that place. Baltimore has its issues, but art is everywhere. For a year, I taught fiction at an all-boys high school. The rest of the years, I taught fiction to college kids and to adults. I learned to throw a decent left hook. I leaned how to sleep on planes. I got married. I wrote another story collection and a novel and started another novel set in Cuba. I moved to Massachusetts. I have to say, it’s been a good stretch, these last four years.
You’re from Florida, but you’ve never written about Florida before The Isle of Youth. Why now?
The part of Florida I grew up in, Central Florida, seemed to me like the epicenter of suburban malaise, all golf courses and highways and theme parks. Boring, in other words. I still have a lot of family in Central Florida, so I go back a few times a year, and I needed enough time away from the Florida I had constructed for myself growing up in order for a different kind of Florida to emerge. I needed time away before I was able to see the odd details, to fully appreciate what a strange and singular place Florida is.
Have you ever seen an alligator before?
Yes! For a while, my family lived by a lake and sometimes they would crawl into our backyard.
In The Isle of Youth, I counted the following: 1 broken nose; 2 people shot; 1 explosion; 1 jump from a balcony; 2 people who disappear, never to be heard from again.
I have watched an unfortunate amount of action movies, I’m afraid. Does it get better than Die Hard? I don’t think so.
Also, I think there is sometimes this perception that short stories can only be containers for “small” actions. Those fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it revelations. The quiet moments. I have nothing against those kinds of stories—I love so many of them—but with ISLE I was striving to write stories that had a kind of expansiveness, where the events had the potential to be both literally and psychologically life-altering. I wanted to be quiet in some ways and loud in others.
What words do you overuse the most?
I’m guilty of overusing “literally” (see above). Also: “awesome.” How embarrassing.
Have you ever fired a gun before?
No. I have never even held a gun. I’m terrified of them.
How do you know when a new story is working?
When it is all I can do even when I’m not doing it.
How do you know when it’s failing?
When I’m bored.
Where do your stories come from?
Fear, joy, shame, rage, confusion, wonder.
What is the best thing about you?
Once I’m in your corner, I don’t leave it.
What is the worst thing about you?
When I get really into one thing I have the ability to un-see pretty much everything else but the project at hand. Great for the project, awful for everything else.
What might people be surprised to learn about you?
Well, I’ve already confessed that I love action movies. The more ridiculous and over-the-top the better. The eighties and nineties were the golden age for such films, in my opinion. They’re all a little too slick now. Anyway! What else? I’m petrified of the wilderness. No camping for me.
When was the last time you cried?
On the last day of July, on a plane from Key West to New York, after finding out one of my childhood dogs had just passed away.
What do you dream about?
I don’t usually remember my dreams, but when I do I’m almost always being chased.
Okay! What makes you laugh?
Reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm and my spirit animal, the Honey Badger. Works every time.
LAURA VAN DEN BERG’s debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves, was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth: Stories, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November. A Florida native, she currently lives in the Boston area.