With Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me seemingly taking over the internet, we wanted to celebrate with the author herself, so we brought her back for an interview at the Origami Zoo. We visited a new enclosure, the Post-Apocalypse Exhibit, which featured all manner of Origami arthropods and birds and rodents who will surely survive any world-ending event. Together, we watched the mutated origami chipmunks scuttle around, storing paper nuts and berries in their two-dimensional cheeks, and van den Berg told us about place, genre and lists.
You can order Find Me here, and if you want even more Laura van den Berg, we are happy to supply you with There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights, now only $6!
Origami Zoo Press: So, Find Me is your debut novel after two collections of stories (and one chapbook from a really excellent small press, I hear). How does the experience differ? Did Find Me begin as a story and simply blow up or did you always envision it as a novel? Did you feel working on short stories helped you in moving to a novel or was it hard to get out of the short story mode? And finally, this is your first published novel, but is it your first novel ever? I feel like so many writers say they have to write one novel that they put away forever before getting to what becomes the first published novel.
Laura van den Berg: It was a big transition for me. The difference in scale, of course, but also in process: when I’m working on a short story, I can work in small increments, in the course of daily life, and actually have it add up to something. With Find Me, I found that incremental approach didn’t work at all. I ended up taking a lot of long break and doing the most crucial work at residencies, where I could disappear from my life and into the world of the book. I agree that a lot of writers typically have a few novels in the drawer but Find Me is the first novel I saw through to the end. I have a handful of novel openings in the drawer, but I never made it past seventy or so pages before losing interest.
OZP: At the outset of the novel, we find ourselves in a relatively familiar genre setting: post-pandemic hospital quarantine. Did you enjoy playing around with this genre? What were the challenges that came with it, especially given the popularity of collapse-of-society stories lately? (I feel like certain tropes quickly become very distinct or subverted as the novel progresses, which was fun and exciting to read.)
LVDB: I love playing with genre. I’m naturally drawn to quixotic and idiosyncratic characters, and genre can be a way of helping their story to find a solid shape. It can be fun to nod to certain tropes and equally fun to mess with them. The novel is divided into two parts and while the first part is set entirely in the hospital, the second place takes place on the open road, where the more traditional dystopian elements fall away and a slightly more tilted narrative emerges. I love books that change the rules on the reader. It can be a lot to ask of a reader, to make that leap with you, but that’s what I aspired to do with Find Me.
OZP: Place has always been hugely important to your work in my mind. What stays with me the most from Isle of Youth are all the ever-shifting landscapes and locales the stories take us too. At the beginning of Find Me, place works really different–in a way, there’s a lack of place, given the blankness of the hospital, the limited access to what’s going on in the outside world and of course the fact that the outside world has drastically changed from the one the patients used to know. Did you go in with certain goals or ideas for the use of place in your novel? Or did it just arise naturally? How did you negotiate the strange confining space the characters inhabit in comparison to the characters in your stories, who are often explorers or wanders in sprawling natural landscapes?
LVDB: In many ways, the two books [of the novel] stand in opposition to each other tonally: the cold of winter vs. a movement toward warmth (Joy is journeying toward Florida); landlocked vs. coast; stasis vs. movement; coolness vs. heat, in both place and in Joy’s voice. I was interested in how these two settings might contrast each other, though there are some mirrors as well. The stasis of the hospital was a challenge and the pilgrims that appear in the beginning of the book and recur later on initially were an attempt to address that challenge; I needed something alive in the landscape, an exterior narrative that Joy can track.
OZP: I love lists. Find Me is more or less structured around the lists our narrator Joy makes in her head, for pretty much everything. They work in part as memory exercises as prescribed by the hospital, but it also seems Joy has been making lists for longer than that. How did you arrive at lists for this kind of scaffolding? Did it lead you anywhere surprising? Was it difficult to sustain? I think Find Me‘s use of these lists is fantastic, but I can also imagine a novel that might not employ them as well, where they may become exhausting to read or too repetitive or simply not interesting. Was there anything you consciously did to make sure that didn’t happen here?
LVDB: At a certain point, I knew there were layers of Joy’s character that I had not yet accessed and that I needed to find a way to get there. The lists began as a kind of exercise, a way to access those deeper layers, but then they ended up becoming absorbed into the book and became pretty integral to the structure. It made perfect sense for Joy’s character, given her desire to order the world.
With any kind of structuring device, repetition can be a real risk, so I wanted to make sure the lists evolved. As we near the end, they become progressively more abstract, whereas the earlier ones are more practical. A list of facts about Kansas or the rules of the hospital vs. a list of things that live forever, for example. That evolution reflects Joy’s shifting relationship to the world.
OZP: Joy’s relationship (or lack thereof) with her mother and her attempts to reconcile her abandonment with her love/need for this person are big driving forces in this novel. There’s no dearth of father/son relationships in all genres of fictional media, but I feel like there are fewer analogous mother/daughter stories (some come to mind in books, like Swamplandia! and No One is Here Except All of Us, but the TV/movie landscape seems pretty barren or, when there are these relationships, they are often secondary or even tertiary). Am I not looking in the right places or do you find this to be the case too? I’m not sure there’s more to it than the obvious sexism/marginalization at play here, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on all that in relation to Find Me and your other work.
LVDB: Interesting! Well, I love the mother/daughter relationships in Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows and Barbara Comyn’s The Vet’s Daughter and Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers and Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them. I wouldn’t say any of these books are “about” mothers and daughters, but those bonds are certainly important. Sometimes people do ask me why I write so much from the point-of-view of women and my answer is: voice. I start a lot with voice, and the voice is always a woman’s voice, and so that’s that. I really admire authors who can seamlessly cross the boundaries of gender, but I’m not particularly stressed about not being in possession of that gift. There so many narratives that attend to the stories of men, and I’m happy to attend to the stories of women for as long as those voices grab me.
OZP: What are you reading right now? Any recommendations? Any books coming out this year you’re super excited about?
LVDB: I’ve just started Satin Island by Tom McCarthy—I love his work, so I’m very excited for this book—and I am anxiously awaiting Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Also Tania James’s The Tusk That Did the Damage and James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods.
OZP: And finally, what’s next for you, writing-wise? Have you got another project (or projects) in the works yet or are you just focusing on the release of Find Me at the moment?
LVDB: I’m making creeping progress on a new novel, set in Havana, and I’m also working on some new stories.