The celebrated author on the science fiction-y qualities of growing up in Florida, driving while daydreaming, and her brilliant, claustrophobic first novel.
Laura van den Berg and I talked by phone as she arrived in New York from Boston, hours before she was due to appear at a downtown bookstore for a discussion of her first novel, Find Me, published last week. The novel, van den Berg's third book, follows acclaimed and quirky story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (2009) and The Isle of Youth (2013). Her stories, like the novel, incorporate odd elements, even if something is just a little bit off, like somebody dressing up in a Bigfoot costume and scaring people for a living. Written in a stream of vignettes in clean, concise prose, Find Me features a woman named Joy, who has a Robitussin addiction and meanders into a hospital in Kansas amid an epidemic of a mysterious disease. Once there, she takes part in a bizarre quarantine that involves meditations pumped through crackly speakers, electroencephalograms, and personality tests of unknown purport. Then a whole bunch of other stuff happens in Book II, but we won't go there in case you'd like to read it (which you should).
We spoke about the science fiction-y qualities of growing up in Florida, about the hotline you have to call when an alligator rolls into your backyard (866-FWC-GATOR), blacking-out daydreaming, and all the champagne she's not drinking—along with much discussion of her brilliant and claustrophobic novel.
VICE: This book has elements of Amy Hempel's Tumble Home or even Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest mixed with more apocalyptic fiction. But it's not about people confined to a hospital for mental illness, and it's not specifically about an apocalyptic event. You've created different parameters entirely.
Laura van den Berg: There has been this new wave in the last year or two of dystopian fiction. The kind of dystopian books that I've always loved the most are the ones where you find yourself in a world that's less scorched-earth and instead a world that has just been made different. I've always admired Fiona Maazel's book Last Last Chance. There's a killer plague, but the characters are still going about daily life to a certain extent. They're going to rehab. The juxtaposition of this catastrophic event with the mundane details of life is really chilling. Or Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which has a world that is not so much apocalyptic but off-kilter.
Which is what you created. Off-kilter.
I'm such a first-person writer. There's a very specific, singular interiority in this book. Joy is a character who's constructed so many walls for herself and is moving through her life in this fuzzy cocoon of Robitussin. I needed something completely catastrophic for her to reach the emotion she reaches by the end of the book.
Did you know that was where she was headed the whole time?
Definitely not. It took me six years to write the book. I did a first draft in about six months, but then I went back and kept working. I also wrote The Isle of Youth in that time. If you asked me what I was doing all that time, at least in part, I was excavating Joy's character.
And this is your first novel.
I'd made a few half-hearted attempts where I got 50 pages in and got bored. I have no problem quitting things, because I have a horror of boredom. I'm not a good slogger. I approached this the same way I would approach a draft of a story. I vastly underestimated how overwhelming it would be to have a 300-page manuscript on your hands versus a 20-page draft.
Everyday life can be boring. Creating these new parameters offers a way for you to make up your own rules. Is this a reaction to daily life?
Fiction accesses a certain kind of truth through artifice. I love to create worlds that operate on their own terms. The experience of just being in the world can feel so deeply disorienting and so deeply strange. I feel that especially as a Floridian. The wonderful writer Jeff VanderMeer calls life in Florida "the daily contact with the surreal." I grew up there, and the surrealness shaped my sensibility as a writer. I also love the imaginative travel that comes in fiction, the freedom to go where you can't go in your actual lived life.
Do you do a lot of daydreaming?
This funny thing happens to me all the time when I'm in public, even when I'm in my own neighborhood, 100 percent not lost, where a complete stranger on the street or on the T will come up to me and be like, "Ma'am? Are you lost? Can I help you find something?" I can feel myself sort of disappearing, and I often come back with something that is pertinent to whatever fictional landscape I'm working on. So I am the world's most terrifying driver, because I do this all the time in the car. I zoned out for an hour last time I had a long car ride, came to, realized that I had missed my exit 20 miles ago, but came back with this important thing I had figured out about my new project. I was so excited that I almost ran off the road.
Do you like having weird experiences, as characters do in your writing, or is this only a fictional thing?
I'm not sure we need to go looking for weird experiences. They're pretty accessible. Growing up in Florida, we had alligators in our backyard on a semi-regular basis; if you get an alligator in your backyard, you have to call a hotline that comes and removes them, and the acronym for this hotline is SNAP [Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program]. This was quite normal when I was growing up. The weird is all around us. Anyone who is on public transportation knows this.
On a similar note, I'm not someone who believes that artists need to go looking for pain. Life will take care of that for you. Don't worry. I feel the same about strangeness. If we're paying attention and we're alert to the world, we can count on the weird to find us.
People can be bristly about the term "science fiction." I don't see your novel as so out there that it could be called such, but do you ever feel like embracing that more?
If someone wanted to call the novel science fiction, I wouldn't agree, but I wouldn't be offended. If you ask me what my book is about, I'll be like, "Some weirdo travels through a very weird America and there's an epidemic and rabbit masks and underground tunnels and lots of other stuff." The term I've always been most comfortable with for work that's not realism but at the same time isn't necessarily fulfilling the genre conventions of science fiction is speculative fiction. We're speculating on worlds that don't presently exist but could exist.
There's a lot of specific medical information in the book, like the Romberg, a real test that Joy thinks sounds like a dance move (it does!). How did you incorporate all of that?
I wanted to get a rough sense of how a plague would move, what the response would be, and what tests would be conducted. I read two books: Killer Germs and Flu. When I would read these books—it's great—no one wanted to sit next to me on the train.
In earlier incarnations of the book, the disease had a much more realistic treatment. It was more like what the Ebola outbreak might look like if it happened in the US. But then I moved into this more surreal territory. There were also two magazine pieces that were helpful. One was called "Invisible Child," a series that journalist Andrea Elliott did for the New York Times. The other one was a piece by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone called "Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch from America's Most Desperate Town." They were these incredibly disturbing, powerful examinations of the dystopia that actually exists right now in America.
I'm not the kind of person who reads the last page first, so I'm not going to talk to you much about the second half of the book.
Hopefully where it goes is a good surprise. Book I is definitely confined and has limited horizons. I am naturally more comfortable with writing movement than I am writing stasis, so it took me a long time to figure out the second part because I would get so excited. There was so much freedom that it was like Thelma & Louise—I kept driving off cliffs. There were some very unsuccessful incarnations of Book II that involved Montauk, New York; government conspiracy theories; ghost ships; and a drug-dealing televangelist. That's not any kind of exaggeration. I would just throw it away and start over and rewrite and try new directions until I found the one that felt right.
You've received a lot of accolades for this book. Have you allowed yourself some celebration, some champagne and caviar?
Here's my happiest moment with this book: I was staying in New York at my friend's apartment in Alphabet City, and my final edits were due. I read over the last couple of chapters for the last time by the dog run in Tompkins Square Park. I went back to the apartment, put in my last few changes, and sent it to my editor. Then I met a friend, and I just felt cracked out on euphoria. Nothing will ever touch that. That's the thing when you're writing a novel. You don't know if you'll finish it, you don't know if anyone will want to read it. That uncertainty being lifted was an incredible feeling. So—my champagne and caviar moment was when I turned the book in. Now it's certainly celebratory and exciting and nerve-racking, but I can feel the book moving farther and farther away from me.
Even as people are talking about it more. Salon gave you a nice hats-off last week, calling you the "best young writer in America."
I was very flattered, but obviously that is probably not meant to be taken literally. It's overstating a bit—there are about a hundred people I would put in front of myself. I was so excited that 31 is still a young writer. I was like, "Yes!"
Who would you put in front of yourself?
Helen Oyeyemi, Elliott Holt, Rivka Galchen, Mitchell S. Jackson, Porochista Khakpour, Catherine Lacey, Karen Russell, Lindsay Hunter, Amelia Gray, Kyle Minor, Nina McConigley, Shelly Oria, Heather Christle, Kiese Laymon, Jessica Anthony. Also, I hear this guy named Paul Yoon is pretty good. That's just off the top of my head. I could go on and on.
Paul Yoon happens to be your husband. What's it like to be married to another fiction writer?
The three things that I love the most about living with another writer: I love that we talk about books constantly. I love that if I'm going to leave for a month for a residency to do my edits, I don't have to explain why. And I don't think of myself as a very competitive person, but I am just competitive enough that if I can hear Paul typing and working in another room, it motivates me. It's like when I'm in a workout class—if that person beside me is going just a little bit faster, I can feel myself kicking it up a notch. If you're with someone who is engaged in their own practice with fiction, it reinforces your practice in turn.
And another writer knows that the act of writing doesn't always have to look a certain way.
Right. Sometimes it's thinking, sometimes it's spacing out, sometimes it's reading. It's a mysterious process. Being with another writer taught us both a valuable lesson early on. We met when I was 21 and Paul was a little older. We hadn't published or gotten agents or anything, or at least I hadn't. The crucial lesson, if you live with another artist, is that you have to stay in your own lane. If you're comparing yourself with their trajectory, you are going to drive your partner and yourself crazy. Particularly in the age of social media when we're very aware of what others are doing, it can be difficult to stay in your own lane, keep your head down, do your work. If you're hung up on what other people got that you didn't get, it will suck every ounce of joy from your soul. I've seen this happen to people. We're human, of course, but to the extent that we can, we both learned not to do that. Do your thing. Do you, as the kids say.
Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Bookforum, the Rumpus, and BOMB.