by Aliza Sajjad
Last week I fangirled. And no, it was not over some dreamy boyband or a heartthrob with nicely parted hair. Recently that piercing, wide-eyed excitement has been reserved for only brilliant, fearless women writers. I have their books lined neatly on my desk, in reach. They are the books that have shaped my understanding of storytelling. They are books that are smart, provocative, and unapologetic. They are books that do not pander.
By the way, not one of these books have been listed on my syllabi this semester. Or last semester. Or during the four years I spent getting my bachelors degree in literature.
But, I found them. Thank goodness.
I first encountered Laura Van den Berg’s work on Bustle.com’s list of “15 Contemporary Short Story Collections By Women You Should Really Read,” and they weren’t kidding. If you haven’t yet read Van den Berg’s work, you really really should. She is the author of two acclaimed story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, and, The Isle of Youth. She also recently released her debut novel, Find Me. Van den Berg’s stories are gorgeous, her prose is sharp, and her characters always compel. They are, perhaps, best described by a line from her story Lessons: “Short answer: they are a group of people who are committed to making life as hard as possible.”
Aliza Sajjad: In your collection, “Isle of Youth,” many of the characters have unique lines of work—detectives, magicians, acrobats, etc. How did you land on these exploring these particular odd-jobs, and were they the impetus for the story?
Laura Van den Berg: I’m deeply interested in the intersection between the fantastic and the ordinary, and so perhaps jobs that lend themselves to strangeness are a means of accessing this middle zone. Also: it can be fun to write about characters who have unusual jobs! A sense of play is important when I’m writing and so messing around with, say, a magic routine can feel like play, at least initially. And I imagine these lines of work, because they are somewhat unusual, would tend to attract solitary and off-beat personalities, which corresponds with the isolation my characters are so often experiencing.
AS: The narrators in “Opa-Locka,” and “The Greatest Escape” have missing fathers, just as Joy in “Find Me” has a missing mother. In all three stories, the absence is a mystery begging to be solved. What is it about this particular plot device that intrigues you as a writer?
LVDB: You are absolutely right that “the absence is a mystery,” but of course none of those mysteries are solved wholly, though “The Greatest Escape” comes a bit closer. I’m interested in how that absence, even if never resolved, can become a source of energy. This structure is compelling to me because of how the external pressure of the unsolved mystery can cause all kinds of internal doors to crack open, and what is lurking behind those doors is most often where the real story exists.
AS: Aside from Crystal in “The Greatest Escape,” and the teens in “Lessons,” Joy is one of your youngest narrators, at nineteen years old. How do you choose the ages of your characters, and do youthful voices present unique challenges?
LVDB: I was often complimented, by adults, for being a very “adult” seeming child—code for a kid who is uneasy with her peers—so in my imagination these teenager characters are perhaps not as young, spiritually speaking, as they might appear. But youth is such a fascinating and volatile concoction of vulnerability, dependence, restlessness, relentlessness. You’re still learning the terms of the world and of the self, in a very immediate way.
Age is somewhat of an intuitive choice for me and in terms of challenges to younger characters don’t always have that sense of “roundness” that older characters can bring to the page, in that their perspective is more constricted—but I would argue they can bring other equally crucial ways of seeing to the table.
AS: Arguably, white men make up a substantial portion of literature syllabi, both in high school and college. What have your experiences been like in terms of how literature is taught?
LVDB: I’ve had a somewhat typical experience in that many of the contemporary writers I was exposed to early on were white and often male. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Cheever, Richard Brautigan, Stanley Elkin. Many of these writers have been and remain very very important to me, and I’m grateful to have been exposed to their work early on. I don’t see the push-back on the white men cannon as a suggestion that the work lacks value, but rather to insist that this model not continue be the dominant mode, to demand that literary representation—in syllabi and elsewhere—more closely resemble the country we actually live in, the world we actually live in.
Gradually—at conferences, at residences, at readings I wandered into, through writer friends, through social media, through magazines and bookstores and online—my personal cannon began to expand in crucial ways.
I am coming up on a decade of teaching, primarily fiction workshops, and in my own syllabi it has become very important to me to think of diversity as broadly and inclusively as possible: race, gender, sexuality, class, age, aesthetics, voice, world. I want voices that have been historically marginalized to not be marginalized here, in respect to space, but to be as visible—at least—as the white male cannon that’s been so dominant for so long. A single woman or a single writer of color on a reading list, for example, does not feel like meaningful diversity to me.
Also, I want realist stories that demonstrate how varied the spectrum of realism can be. I want to include formally experimental work alongside fairytales, flash fictions alongside novellas, stories by the masters alongside stories by authors who have yet to publish a book, classics of the America canon alongside literature in translation. One good thing that comes out of this approach, for me, is the push to be constantly reading in new directions.
This is an on-going process, to be sure, and I don’t want to suggest that I have figured anything out. I have so very much to learn—and as a result, I am, in syllabi and in life, revising and revising all the time. I also don’t believe there is any such thing as a “perfect” syllabus or that perfection is even a worthy goal here, and as I said above, my syllabi is forever a work-in-progress. But I have come to believe it is incredibly important to, at the very least, attempt to offer my students a reading list that aspires to reflect the range of voice and authorship and possibility happening in contemporary letters.
AS: Aimee Bender once said, “If you’re writing a novel-length piece about a person, you are friends with them. It may be a difficult friendship, but you are spending time with them and you have to like them to some degree.” What was most difficult about your friendship with Joy, and what was the quality you about her you liked most?
LVDB: There was much difficulty in getting Joy to reveal herself to me—or for me to understand what I needed to reveal within Joy. On the other hand, I love her love of repetition, of listing, and the keen eye for detail that kind of obsessiveness yields. She’s a good watcher.
AS: Who are your influences, and how were you introduced to them? In school? Elsewhere?
LVDB: My influences are wide-ranging and they are changing all the time. Early influences included Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Charles Baxter, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Denis Johnson—writers who are important to me still and who I discovered through my teachers. In graduate school, I took a class in the contemporary French novel, which was transformative: writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marie Ndiaye, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Jean Echenoz reconfigured my sense of the novel. At the moment, Joy Williams, Edouard Levé, Victor LaValle, Yoko Tawada, Jenny Erpenbeck, Han Kang, and Yoko Ogawa are among the writers especially important to me right now.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the novel Find Me, selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR and Tine Out New York, and longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize. She is also the author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, both finalists for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
Aliza Sajjad is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.