In Conversation with Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me: A Novel

Over the Halloween season, I sat with critically acclaimed author, Laura van den Berg, to discuss her debut novel, Find Me, a surrealist, dystopian investigation on the fragility of memory. Van den berg’s protagonist, Joy, is a survivor of neglect with only fragments of her childhood left to piece together. While Joy struggles with her own past, an epidemic causes widespread amnesia, leaving the world blank, without discernible identity.61jMqLx1ofL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
Halloween seemed a perfect time to interview van den Berg, whose universe is populated with characters wearing costumes; one shy man wears a plastic mask to hide his scarred face, while a woman sports angel wings to absolve herself of her many flaws. But alongside these fantastic elements lies a recognizable universe punctuated by humdrum jobs and run-down gas stations. Van den Berg’s talent is twofold: she unmasks what we interpret as surreal in order to show its mundane under-stitching, while she transforms the mundane qualities of daily life in order to reveal some devastating, strange truth.
Interviewing van den Berg was a pleasure, and as we met at a busy café in Brooklyn, near where she lives temporarily while she guest lectures at Columbia’s MFA program, I was pleased to find that, while she wasn’t wearing the Halloween mask traditional of her character, she was every bit as eccentric and eloquent as her writing lets on.

Interview of Laura van den Berg by Rebecca Bell, October 26th, 2015, Brooklyn, NY.

RB:
So much of your novel has to do with memory and the memories, which build an identity, and you nicely parallel this with the epidemic of disease, which makes the sufferer forget. How did you come to this dystopic universe? Did the themes rise naturally out of the setting you chose or was your setting constructed by the notion of forgetting?

VDB:
I’m a voice-oriented writer, so I will get a line or collection of lines embedded in my imagination, and they won’t leave me alone. The novel really began with Joy’s voice, and her trajectory was always the center of the book, she was always the narrator. Sometimes readers think that if your project is conceptual in the sense that it’s driven by a premise, or in this case the dystopian premise of an epidemic that destroys people’s memories, that it must have been the starting point. For me, it was actually the inverse, where Joy was the starting point, and the present world of the epidemic mushroomed up around her character over time. It certainly was part of my intent to have the macro-issue of the epidemic that destroys memory speak back to the challenges that Joy was having with her own memory, especially in the sense that she’s immune to the disease, but she has so much she’d like to forget. In my mind, it was more about Joy’s internal struggle with her own memory than it was the ethical realities of an epidemic; the micro-narrative is the one that takes over.

RB:
Seeing that you wrote the epidemic narrative partially to mirror Joy’s, it would make sense that this narrative of forgetting also mirrors aspects of fiction. What role is it that you feel amnesia plays in fiction?

VDB:
What really interests me about memory is the idea of how we construct it. Memory is evidence of a thing that happens to us, but it’s also how we self-narratize what happens to us. We see this if you have siblings, or with friends, or even parents, where everyone might experience the same thing, and ten years later, you could be recounting it, and the stories are completely different, yet no one is actually lying. They believe their version, they believe they are telling a true story, but if you are standing outside of that, it seems clear they’ve crafted a story that maybe isn’t untrue, but is also in service of their psychological needs. So that’s what really interests me about memory—how we shape it into a narrative that we can live with, and that some people can’t shape it into a narrative to live with, maybe because a piece of memory is actually missing, or maybe because they’ve had some sort of amnesiac response to trauma. Then, I think it’s really disconcerting in the sense that you feel unmoored as a person because you can’t complete your own story. In terms of fiction and in writing that’s really what I’m fascinated by.

RB:
It seems like so much of this work is trauma informed—the way we decide which memories to keep and which to glaze over or repress, and I think that has a huge impact on the way your characters are presented. In a way, because it’s so unconscious there isn’t a choice in how memory is accessed, and so throughout, Joy is very frustrated because she doesn’t remember, which seems to drive her. I found myself relating to Joy so much, even though I myself have never been an orphan in the midst of an epidemic of forgetting. I wondered why specifically, as someone who both wants to find herself and doesn’t, Joy is so relatable, both to writers who must construct their own stories, and the readers who take them in.

VDB:
Joy is very dear to my heart. It’s been really interesting to hear how people respond to her. Some find her relatable and some find her totally alien and weird. I find Joy relatable in the sense that even though I’m not a trauma survivor in the obvious way Joy is, I do think on our own scale, everyone knows what it’s like to struggle with history, memory, to try to understand or complete our own story. I do think we arrive at moments in life where we are given a kind of choice to confront something about ourselves or something in our past, and we have to decide whether we move into that or away from it, and what are the consequences of whatever we choice. And I think this psychology is something everyone struggles with, whether or not they’re cognizant of it. But that, to me, is the most relatable part of Joy.

I’m also interested in boredom as a subject and the way boredom can actually be a weird source of energy. I think maybe that’s because I remember as a young person feeling as though I was so phenomenally bored all the time. Joy too is often restless and in situations where she is constantly looking for ways to pass the time and make it more dynamic, and I remember feeling so much of that as a young person. That’s another piece of her I find so relatable.

RB:
It’s gratifying to hear you say that you remember being so vividly bored as a young person because I think the way we choose to remember things glazes over these periods of nothingness, and so it’s great that you ended up including these mundane periods in a novel about memory. Just the way you describe the hospital, there’s this void, void of time and presence of extreme boredom. Do you feel like the apprehension of boredom affects the way you construct worlds? Would you say that you necessarily write towards the surreal?

VDB:
What I’m fascinated by is where the real and surreal intersect. The middle zone is where this interest resides, and when I think about the books that were most influential for Find Me they were novels that were, at least in part, driven by the juxtaposition between the catastrophic and utterly mundane. One was Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel and another is The Orange Eats Creeps by a writer named Grace Krilanovich. In Fiona’s novel there’s a super virus that’s released, but during that, families are still going on walks and having squabbles and chicken farms, and so there’s a sense that the world is being redefined, yet regular life continues on. Also, both of these books are deeply internal, which definitely served as inspiration for Find Me. In The Orange Eats Creeps especially, you don’t know whether the world is collapsing in a literal way, or whether it’s the character’s psyche that’s disintegrating. I think that particularly, in the second part of Find Me, what happens is not literally a dream, but operating on a kind of dream logic that speaks back to the more conventional structure of the first part in the hospital.

RB:
You already spoke to this a little bit, but in terms of setting, what makes you write so particularly about certain places and then, explore the unfamiliar. So do you have a solid understanding for yourself for how the world differs from our own? Are there specific rules?

VDB:
I think taking a place like Tennessee or Boston that we all know to some degree and have certain associations with, and then having things happen in that space that we might not anticipate, is aesthetically interesting and also comes naturally for me. Place is really important to me as a writer. If you’re going to have magical things happen, you can invent a country or city or space that doesn’t have preordained conventions associated with it; but I didn’t want that, partly because setting is necessary to me as a writer, probably because I grew up in Florida, which has a really pronounced sense of place. The surreal and the mundane exists in Florida in a genuine fashion, so I think the landscape of my childhood influenced me hugely in that regard, where surrealism doesn’t feel like a peculiar, offsetting choice, rather it feels very natural. I grew up in a sort of typical suburban neighborhood, but then we lived on a lake that was just filled with alligators and they come out in the summer and are able to run and climb! Florida is a place of extremes—the politics, the weather, the wildlife, so I think that sort of extremity and jarring contrast feels normal, and I’m drawn to these settings in my writing as a result. Going to the Northeast for grad school, I always thought of myself as more of a realist, but then I would turn in these stories, and they’d be like ‘oh my god, you’re totally in surrealandia!’ but not in a bad way.

RB:
I thought it was interesting that you have the first half in the hospital, and that we as readers are sort of forced to confront this empty space and have Joy fill in the gaps. I thought that was really impressive as a writer, because I think it’s really hard to sort of plot that out, and then you brought us on this journey.  I was just wondering how you keep your readers along for the ride?  It’s your first novel, so how did you make that decision comfortably—what do you think it added to the overall structure of the novel?

VDB:
The two-part structure was always part of the original version of the narrative. I knew I was writing a novel when I started thinking about the two-part structure because I couldn’t imagine what that would look like in the context of a short story. Just the idea of that architecture suggested to me that a larger canvas was needed. I was really interested in the idea of a couple of things— working with genre in a more specific way, but then dismantling genre conditions and expectations. I was also interested in the idea of having two different kinds of extremities; the first part in the hospital is enclosed and cold because it’s winter and the palette is lots of whites and silvers and grays, as well as a lot of repetitive movement because of the nature of the environment. Joy, in terms of her internal landscape, is much more restrained in the first part, and so, I see the second part as a response to that, as well as a thawing in that winter is fading and she’s moving south. The idea was that the two parts would contrast each other pretty sharply so the second part was all about movement, moving south, toward warmth, but also a thawing for Joy where she is able to access parts of herself that she wasn’t able to access previously. Things in Joy’s world and inner life began moving. I was also interested in how the two parts could mirror each other. I think I wanted to show how the second part in the Mansion was sort of a ‘through the looking glass’ version of the hospital.

RB:
It was interesting that Joy ended up in the Mansion out of choice because she tried so hard to get out of the hospital.

VDB:
Yeah, and I think there’s a line about it in the book, sort of about how people keep setting their own traps for themselves, which is something Joy does as well. I think Joy is a character who, on the outside, is so frozen that it would take a cataclysmic event to create some kind of change in her. But in the end, it’s not like everything is fixed and all is well. I do think, however, she has stepped into a place of self-actualization. The last paragraph is all directives and Joy’s the one giving the orders, rather than the authority figures from her present or past.

RB:
Something I wanted to ask you, because it’s something I’ve noticed a lot of writers, both male and female, struggle with is how to write meaningful, true female characters who experience disassociation or depression without them reading like wilting flowers. How do you go about writing female characters in a way that remains true to their traumas but also empowers them?

VDB:
Character development for me is always a long excavation process, so nothing is really right or solid at the outset. Bit by bit, I find little pieces that feel true or interesting, but I tend not to think in broad, political terms. When you feel like characters are victims in a way where they feel flat or completely defined by political principals, it’s not compelling. The fact is that no one is wholly defined by one thing. But I like to approach developing my character from a human place and letting the political landscape emerge in their navigation. There’s tremendous power in giving a characters something to do and giving them space to react in different ways. Often because of the nature of her world, Joy is funneled into situations where she has to react. That’s what she needed as a character; she needed the world to challenge her. Giving characters space to act and react is really important. And when we encounter a character that is sort of wholly a victim in a way that doesn’t feel true, it’s so often the world of the work hasn’t challenged them sufficiently or hasn’t given them space to react in interesting ways. When that happens, we feel like the world is sort of imposed upon them, and they have no agency in it.

RB:
You’ve talked about memory and character, but what role do you feel readers fill while they’re consuming stories? Do you think it’s more the amnesiac immune to remembering, and therefore forgetting, or the person that slowly forgets and becomes amnesiac? I like to think that when you’re reading you have this escapism, in a way, this forgetting, or suspension of reality, but at the same time, there’s a telling way in which your own life interacts with the work.

VDB
For me, reading a work of fiction that I find really compelling is sort of paradoxical because it takes me out of my self and out of my immediate world but it also makes me feel more deeply engaged with the world around me. I totally know what you mean by escapism. I don’t think I would necessarily describe it in those terms because for me, escapism is something that’s sort of a superficial, not thinking about anything sort of thing. But it is possible, I think, to read and forget where you are, but at the same time, when I read I feel so deeply engaged with the world. To me that’s the ideal reading experience: a work that’s totally transportive, but one that also makes me consider the world in new ways I hadn’t yet before.

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