Review: FIND ME by Laura van den Berg

61jMqLx1ofLWhen I first read What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us as a very young writer, it was hugely affecting and influential: with all its bizarre and beautiful stories of apocryphal monsters, new identities and unfamiliar landscapes, it was the perfect book for me at that time, and I couldn’t imagine this writer, Laura van den Berg, would ever produce anything else as good.

Jump forward a few years and van den Berg follows up that collection with The Isle of Youth, a marvelous collection that honed and built up the vision of What the World Will Look Like to provide stories that felt even tighter and showed off a writer totally comfortable taking her characters and their voices wherever they needed to go. It seemed like a magic trick: one snap of her fingers and here were these new, powerful stories—stylistically familiar but also fresh, new, striking in their differences.

And that brings us to now, hot off the heels of the release of Find Me, van den Berg’s debut novel. It’s hard for me not to think of it in relation to her previous work, simply because van den Berg is one of a few young writers I can think of whose voice, in everything she does, is so distinct, so unmistakably hers. Find Me feels like the logical culmination of the fiction van den Berg has been publishing the past few years. Her prose here is still unabashedly beautiful without being sentimental or cloying, straightforward and direct without feeling simplistic or dull. You never feel lost in a van den Berg story, which is probably good, because her characters, figuratively and literally, are.

And yet, Find Me also turns some of van den Berg’s tendencies on their heads. For example, at the outset of the novel, instead of finding (ha ha) ourselves in Scotland or Madagascar or Antarctica, those vast natural landscapes that van den Berg’s attention to place will conjure right outside our bedroom windows, we are in the blank, anonymous, sterile hallways of The Hospital, somewhere in an America ravaged by a mysterious illness. Don’t get me wrong. Place is still hugely important to the book, but the imaginative work feels immediately set apart: instead of depicting the world as is, in all its weirdness, van den Berg reinvents the world and puts its weirdness in a pandemic blender.

In her recent interview with us, she mentions how the two halves of the novel stand in opposition to each other. The first half follows Joy as a half-willing prisoner in The Hospital, while the second half sees her hitting the road. The movement of the two halves are certainly distinct, but the book as a whole, structurally, feels like one continuous spiraling outward in its imagining of the mysterious hospital and the devastated country. We start very small, very trapped, standing on a single spot looking out a single window, but with every page the universe expands around us. The the act of reading this book is like the act of unfolding a map, and that is one of its greatest pleasures: looking for what strange corner will be illuminated next.

It’s hard to discuss this book because I don’t want to give too much away. At every turn it is surprising and unpredictable, featuring unexplained magic, buried secrets, unseen pathologists, rabbit masks, angel wings, hallucinogenic tunnels and always more. Find Me privileges discovery over an action-packed plot and is all the better for it—we have plenty of those stories elsewhere. This, instead, is about a character and a world at a tipping point, searching for a place where healing can begin with all its unsightly scabs and haunting phantom pains. It is, ultimately, both a love letter and a scathing hate note for memory, the way we choose to memorialize our lives and our world, or the way we can’t ever choose, the way things we want to keep can vanish and things we want to escape track us down no matter where we go.

FOUND: The Laura van den Berg Interview

 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!

Laura van den BergOrigami 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.

61jMqLx1ofLOZP: 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.

Resurrect Your Darlings: Laura van den Berg

With a novel on the horizon, Laura van den Berg was an obvious choice for an installment of Resurrect Your Darlings, our feature that lets writers revive old drafts, alternate endings or deleted sections of their work that they just don’t want to let go of. Today, van den Berg offers up a sneak peek of what you won’t be seeing in Find Me, out February 17!

61jMqLx1ofLFor a long time, Find Me had a number of subplots, the most enduring of which involved a drug-dealing Televangelist (and an accordion filled with diamonds and a detective on his trail) who intersects with the novel’s narrator, a young woman named Joy. While most of the other subplots peeled away from the book in time, the Televangelist stuck around—it wasn’t until I was working on my final edits, months after the book was sold, that I finally let him go.

The Televangelist was a thread of backstory, written with the hope that it would illuminate Joy’s interior life and the psychic state she was staggering out of at the start of the present story. Also, I’d recently read a couple of novels where past and present threads artfully gained momentum alongside each other and was interested in trying out that type of structure. There used to be nearly a hundred Televangelist pages, which I will most certainly not subject you to, but here are two paragraphs:

The Televangelist worked out of an old warehouse in Inman Square, long ago converted into offices. The studio was on the ground floor. He employed a cameraman who had been fired from a local news station after a string of DUI arrests. His hands shook and he was always breaking equipment. When I pointed this out to the Televangelist, he said Psalm instructed us to deliver the weak from the sinful hand and he intended to abide by the word of the Lord.

His Saturday morning program was called “The Fury of God.” From the cheap studio stage, he talked about Christ’s imminent return and how the Holy Spirit was going to send us all straight to the black lakes of hell. Whenever I watched him perform, loneliness flared inside me like a lit match.

The basic problem with the Televangelist sections was that they did not, in the end, have very much to say about Joy—apart from demonstrating that she was not always possessed of the greatest judgment and was very lonely, facts that were apparent to most readers pretty much right away. There was a lot of “action” and “plot” associated with the Televangelist, but ultimately those sections lacked conviction (ha) and all that event obscured Joy’s interior life as opposed to illuminating those corners in the way I’d hoped.

Axing the Televangelist still proved difficult, for two reasons: A. Who doesn’t like writing about Televangelists? Even the word is fun to say! I liked the idea, in short and B. I was hung up on what would occupy the space the Televangelist left behind. Where in the world would I find a replacement subplot? But when I finally worked up the nerve to cut the Televangelist, a funny thing happened: I realized that, in fact, no replacement subplot was needed. New threads of Joy’s history came onto the page, threads that would turn out to be vitally important, but they were more impressionistic in nature, privileging interior movement over exterior event. I could feel my draft getting tighter. I could feel Joy and her world coming into sharper focus. I could feel the white space speaking to me and I tried to listen to those gaps instead of being so anxious to pave them over.

I can still remember the rush of relief I felt when I went through my draft and deleted all the Televangelist sections. I did not save those parts; I just let them go. It was like jumping into a pool of cold water: a little bracing and then energizing. I hope never again to cling so hard to a part of a project that I know, deep down, doesn’t belong. These days, when I look at the finished book, it’s hard for me to believe that the Televangelist ever existed at all.

BOOK LAUNCH: Behind This Mirror by Lena Bertone

10176175_711748628507_6674278625277322789_nHappy chapbook release day! Behind This Mirror by Lena Bertone finally arrived at the Origami Zoo last week, and today is our official mondo celebratory launch day for this lovely, haunting, powerful set of stories.

Per the back cover: For her next trick, Lena Bertone will show you seven sisters each with their own particular beauty, a magician who demands you leave your wallet at the door, an angry appendage with a mind of its own, a woman who waxes and wanes, and a sad story that is exactly 69% true. The stories in Behind This Mirror flip the fables and fairy tales you remember on their heads. Here, the beautiful and the grotesque are one and the same, both a blessing and a curse. Bertone’s characters struggle with their bodily confines in a world that defines people based on appearances. These stories hold mirrors up to their most intimate truths, then shatter them.

You can snag yourself a copy here! Check out an interview with Bertone here if you want to know more.

Writer Crush 33: W. Todd Kaneko

DWECover-300-72To my excitement, I got quite a few books for Christmas (not like I needed any more, if you’ve seen the tower beside my bed), and the first one I read this past week was The Dead Wrestler Elegies by W. Todd Kaneko. At a glance, if you’re not into professional wrestling, you might be turned off by the conceit: each poem in this collection is based on a deceased professional wrestler, their entrance themes, monologues, signature moves and yes, sometimes deaths. But behind that mask is a powerful emotional core, one concerning the speaker of these poems and his relationship with his father and absent mother. The poems are gorgeous musings about masculinity and violence and the way fathers and sons deal with love and hurt (or, often, don’t deal with them at all). Though this may seem like a simple and easily exhaustible connection to make with pro wrestling, the poems never become repetitive—instead, they piledrive on top of one another, echoing and revising the ones that came before. The book becomes a fugue, each line coming back around to sucker punch you in the gut but always in a different spot, with a fist shaped different from the one before it.

There are six sections, each loosely tied to a certain theme (love, death, etc., though of course there’s plenty of overlap), but my personal favorite was section three, wherein the poems begin with epigraphs from wrestlers’ hyperbolic boasts (as in, “Have you ever seen a man who can bend bolts?” or “I can be the guiding light!”) and the speaker takes on those personas, miming conventions from the trash-talking while simultaneously peeling back the layers, turning them on their heads. Another highlight is the poem “Selected Legends of Andre the Giant,” with numbered sections turning Andre mythic, legendary, Biblical, as in:

Andre the Giant wrestled the Earth
into a globe, carved his name into the ocean
floor with his pinky to remind the whales
who taught them to sing

Of course, the poems are really only half the story here: Kaneko also designed the book, doing all the incredible illustrations of dead-eyed wrestlers mugging for the camera. The poems would be great on their own, but they definitely gain something from having all the costumes and characters flexing beside their stories. For all the lovely words and the resurrected wrestler images, Kaneko is our Writer Crush this week!

An Interview with Lena Bertone, author of BEHIND THIS MIRROR

As runner-up of our chapbook contest (judged by Matt Bell!), Lena Bertone got a special tour of the Origami Zoo. We took her to the marsupial enclosure. Origami kangaroos opened their pouch folds to reveal baby origami kangaroos. Origami sugar gliders soared paper-thin on the wind. An origami koala bear spent an inordinate amount of time looking at its two-dimensional reflection in a pond. As we sat among these pouched and paper mammals, Lena Bertone answered questions about her forthcoming chapbook, her current reading list, and what she keeps behind her own mirrors.

lenabwOrigami Zoo Press: If you were an animal in the Origami Zoo, what origami animal would you be?

Lena Bertone: I’d want to be a cat that when you turned it around, it looked liked a chicken.

OZP: Congrats on being runner-up in our chapbook contest! Aside from this, what’s the coolest contest/raffle prize you’ve ever won?

LB: Definitely the best thing I’ve ever won was The Lit Pub’s prose contest, and Molly Gaudry is publishing Letters to the Devil as a result. It will be out super soon!!

OZP: Many of the stories in Behind This Mirror are obviously fairy tale influenced. What’s your relationship with fairy tales and how do they interact with your work? What other writing/writers do you feel influenced these stories?

LB: I have no idea how to answer this question. Looking at my stories, they are obviously fairy tale-influenced, but mostly I do not set out to write fairy tale-influenced stories. I think that often, when I wrote these stories, I was thinking about beauty and ugliness, deception and irony, love and darkness, all of which, of course, are fairy tale topics, but they’re also the topics of everything. I remember my dad telling me the story of Pinocchio over and over when I was a kid, and how it changed a little every time, and how dark and complex it was. I remember my mom telling me the story of Cinderella and very naturally adding the gory, bloody details of the version she knew from her childhood. These were stories of intrigue and magic and horror, not mere fairy tales.

Maybe another part of it was growing up in a two-language household. There’s this great ferocity to Italian/Sicilian; it’s so phonetic and perfectly structured, but idiomatically, it’s crazy violent and hilarious. My sister and I like to remember the things our relatives used to say to us as kids—which we never thought twice about then, the violence was so normalized. Sample: Vi pighiu a bastunati = I’m going to beat you both with clubs (which beating never actually occurred).

As an adult, I’ve read lots of versions of fairy tales and also read and loved authors who combine real and magical worlds; I also love the kind of poetic-puzzly prose that can be squeezed into short spaces, a la Lydia Davis.

Behind This MirrorOZP: What are you working on right now? Any exciting projects in the works? Any sneak peeks you can give us?

LB: I have a few things I’m working on. My Ettore Majorana stories that have been in Wigleaf, Hobart, and Nightblock are a continuing series that may turn into something bigger.

OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?

LB: I’m reading the new Grimm’s fairy tale book with the earliest renditions of the tales that the Grimm brothers wrote down. They’re gruesome and wonderful. I just got fellow ASU alum Todd Kaneko’s book The Dead Wrestler Elegies in the mail last week, and have been reading Bill Konigsberg’s first novel, Out of the Pocket. He’s also an ASU alum. It’s exciting when your friends have books! I’m lucky that I have a lot of friends with books these days.

OZP: Most of the stories in this chapbook are very short. Tell us a bit about that. How do you see a large number of very short stories interacting within a collection vs. fewer, longer short stories? What was sequencing this collection like? I have trouble putting ten stories in an order, so the task seems daunting. What do you like about the short-short form?

LB: I have a kick-ass writing partner, and we have been exchanging writing almost daily for a few years. We generate little bits of things, and sometimes they become stories, and sometimes they don’t. This process is a big part of why I’ve written many short pieces in the last several years; but honestly, I don’t think I’m very good at constructing the traditionally structured, “longer” short story, and even the longer stories in this collection are segmented and not-plotty.

One theme that runs through many of my stories is the idea that there’s often some confusion between the sleeping and waking states. I was thinking about that when I put the stories in the order they’re in now. This collection may represent one long sleep cycle.

BehindThisMirror_FPOZP: Is the Magician who appears in a couple of stories in this chapbook ever going to make a return appearance? What will his final trick be? Do you see any of the other stories as being interconnected/concerning the same characters?

LB: That magician is kind of a jerk. He’s also the most obvious performer of any of these characters, and I think the magician stories are a little Brechtian in their starkness and darkness. The magician might come back. He will definitely have a twirly mustache if he does.

There’s a smart-mouthed woman in one of the magician stories, and I see her as a sister to many of the other women in the collection—many of my women are a little rude, a little ugly, a little horrified, and a little horrifying.

OZP: If we were to break into your house while you weren’t home and look behind all your mirrors, what would we find?

LB: Dust? The inside-out of a potato-chip bag?

BEHIND THIS MIRROR by Lena Bertone is available for pre-order now! Make sure to check out all our great holiday deals, too: buy one, get one free, or five books for $20!

Holiday Sale at the Zoo

Origami Thanksgiving

Enjoy your turkey leftovers with some great literature!

To celebrate Thanksgiving and Lena Bertone’s forthcoming chapbook Behind This Mirror, we’re having a special sale. Preorder Lena’s book and get any other OZP title for free! Please note: purchasers of the two-for-one deal will receive their books in January when Behind This Mirror is released.

Title of 2nd Free Book

Want more OZP books for the upcoming holidays? We know you’ve got a lot of friends to shop for. Order any 5 OZP books for $20!

5 for $20: List 5 titles below

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the Zoo!


The Anne Valente Interview (pt. 2)

[This is the second part of a two-part interview. Check out the first part here!]

Anne ValenteOZP: There are multiple stories in the collection that deal with sexual violence (“By Light We Knew Our Names,” “Minivan,” and, on a somewhat smaller scale, “A Taste of Tea”). Tell me a little bit about what role that plays in your work. Notably, the latter two stories are narrated by men, and I want to know what led you to these stories, in which the narrators come to realizations about certain violences they have either committed or been complicit in. “Minivan,” for instance, could’ve easily been narrated by Jane, but it’d be a completely different story, of course. And in a perhaps unrelated, perhaps not, question, why did you decide to name the collection after “By Light We Knew Our Names”? It’s one of the darker stories in the collection, if not the darkest, but it also, to me, feels like the most important. I’m just curious about how you see it representing/interacting with the collection as a whole.

AV: While writing these stories, I think I was coming to terms with some of my own realizations about gender violence – five years ago, when these stories were written, I don’t know if the same conversations were happening about microaggressions and rape culture. I don’t know that I had the language to properly identify what I was experiencing while walking down the street or sitting in classrooms or even socializing at supposedly civilized dinner parties. Exploring this violence in part through male narrators felt like an exercise in understanding another side of this, but also perhaps in broadening the exploration of gender violence beyond the experience of women. Other violences appear in this book too – violence against animals, against the planet – and I don’t think these things are disconnected from one another. Some of these stories explore violence as a means of simply identifying it and naming it, and I think the collection’s title comes from this sense of self-identification, of finding a voice.

OZP: I see place doing a lot of work very subtly in this collection—often it’s essential to the story (as in “By Light We Knew Our Names” or “Everything That Was Ours”), but a lot of times, while it doesn’t factor into the plot itself, it provides a lot of interesting and necessary texture, particularly in the natural landscapes that surround the characters. What role do you feel place plays in your stories?

AV: Place is essential to my fiction. I feel very tied to landscape as a human being, and by extension, I suppose my stories do too. Given the magic in some of these stories, I feel that there’s so much magic in nature – we have scientific explanations for why trees turn or why birds migrate, but I still feel like there’s some mystery in this. These things are nothing short of miraculous. Beyond the wondrous qualities of landscape and nature, I think rich description of place also connects to this line between the tangible and the intangible in fiction. In many cases, I believe that less description allows for the reader to fill in the details, and in the cases of horror or magic, to provide a far more imaginative reading or explanation than the author ever could. But in other cases, abundance of description can highlight and enhance the unknown. Setting and place work this way for me, as tangible markers of environment and landscape. We know exactly where we are – what kind of grass we’re sitting on, what kind of light streaks the sky – but we have no concrete explanation for why war occurs, why sexual violence exists, why a strange sound breaks through our windows every night. I appreciate the grounding presence of place in the face of the unknown.

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteOZP: I’m a big music collector—I think I’m one of the only five people left who still buys CDs—and I tend to think of collections of stories like albums in that I’m very interested in the sequencing of stories, what stories open and close the collection, what are the centerpieces (or “singles,” if you will). While they overlap somewhat in tone and ideas, your stories here are very different and follow very different people, and it seems like a different order could change how we read it entirely. How did you go about sequencing the stories in the collection? Was it easy to pick first and last stories? Were there stories you knew needed to be together (or, alternately, stories that needed to be spaced out)?

AV: I definitely thought hard about the order of these stories. Originally, the stories progressed from childhood to adulthood in terms of their narrators, settings and content. This order still prevails in the collection – we begin with the children in “Latchkey” and end with a middle-aged couple in “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” – but I thought much harder in finalizing the order about the particulars of this progression. For instance, “Until Our Shadows Claim Us” was originally placed near the beginning because it’s about a group of children who believe they’ve summoned a neighborhood phantom. In revising the collection’s order, however, I realized that this story is far more elegiac and not childlike at all. The collective narrators are retrospectively remembering their childhood from the vantage point of adulthood, and with great grief for what they’ve lost. For this reason, this story felt like it should come near the end. I made similar choices with other stories. Beyond large-scale concerns of narration and content, I also looked at the final lines of stories as they transitioned into the opening lines of the next, watching out for matches in the patterns, voice and sound of the language.

OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything you recommend?

AV: I just finished Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, which was haunting and devastating. I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one day, something I haven’t done in ages. I’m also reading John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van and Jac Jemc’s A Different Bed Every Time.

OZP:And finally, what have you got in the works? What’s next for Anne Valente? Do you have any new stories in lit mags we should check out?

AV: I’m currently working on a series of short stories about the city of St. Louis – reimaginings of the city’s history and major events, as well as continued focus on place through research into Missouri trees, birds, wildlife, weather. One of these stories just appeared in The Normal School, and another is forthcoming in One Story within the next few months. I also recently completed a novel about a series of mysterious house fires that erupt in a community after a school shooting. A brief excerpt of this is out in the newest issue of Threadcount.

The Anne Valente Interview (pt. 1)

To celebrate the release of Anne Valente’s debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, we sat down with Valente in the Origami Zoo to talk about the wonderful and wondrous stories populating her book. We conducted our interview at the overlook above the origami giraffe habitat. As the paper giraffes showed us how they endlessly unfold their necks to reach leaves on higher branches—and even all the way up to us, licking our faces—Valente told us about titling stories, blurring realities, and the role history and science play in her writing.

You can order By Light We Knew Our Names here, and if you want even more Anne Valente, we have an excellent chapbook of short-shorts for sale that we of course highly recommend.

Anne ValenteOrigami Zoo Press: The children in the opening story “Latchkey” are set apart from other children by their strange gifts—including a halo of planets, a fishbowl stomach and a tiny librarian, as well as the mysterious gift for Sasha, which she has not yet discovered. I’m curious about how the idea for all these gifts come about, but my real question is: What would your magical “Latchkey” gift be?

Anne Valente: I wrote this story at the beginning of my MFA program at Bowling Green State University, and at the time, I think the gifts seemed to come from other fascinations of mine: the solar system, my husband just beginning his career as a librarian. Looking back though, I can’t help but think that the gifts were also some expression of my awe at the talents of my classmates, and that I got to share a classroom with writers like Brandon Davis Jennings and Matt Bell. Everyone’s work blew me away. I had just started writing stories when I got to Bowling Green, and this story feels now like the latent hope that my gifts in writing could be just as magical as those of my peers. More tangibly speaking, if I had a magical gift that I could open, opening a package and finding a baby giraffe wouldn’t be far off the mark.

OZP: I really admire all of your titles. They’re usually extracted in some way from the story, but they’re rarely direct lines—you seem to be able to paraphrase in such a way that lends a grander feel to your titles. They have a weight to them, that a direct line lifted from the text might not, though they still seem to perfectly capture the heart of the story. How do you come up with titles? Do you begin with them? Or do they not come about until after the story is finished? Has a story ever been particularly challenging to title for you?

AV: Titles have always been difficult for me, so I’m glad to hear that these titles are succeeding in some way! My process is usually one of waiting until I’ve completed the story in order to see where it takes me, then going back through to find the sentences or brief moments of language that seem to encapsulate the story’s heart. I’ve been tempted before to pull phrases straight from the story, but then there’s the weird effect for the reader of reaching that passage and thinking, Oh, here’s the important passage. Here’s the story’s main theme. Other writers have pulled this off in smart ways, but when I’ve done this, I feel too obvious and too directive as an author. I do still go through and find the lines that seem to speak most to the story as a whole, but I usually alter them in some way. As for a particularly challenging story title, “Latchkey” was actually one of the hardest. The word appears nowhere in the story, and I’m still not sure if other people associate the word of this title with what I do: a group of kids being watched after school until their parents can pick them up. But something more direct felt too obvious and heavy-handed for this story, especially one that is fairly light in tone.

OZP: There’s a big tug-of-war between the fantastic and the real in this collection. There are a few stories that are outright realist or outright fabulist, but most leave the reader wondering: though we see ghosts and shaking mirrors and disappearing teabags, there’s always this lingering doubt—maybe those characters were imagining it, maybe the narrator is remembering this moment from their childhood wrong, etc. It works in reverse, too—for instance, I was totally willing to believe everything that happens in “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” was grounded in scientific fact. How do you view the relationship between the real and the fantastic in your stories and how do you hope readers will interpret these moments?

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteAV: I was just listening to a Radiolab podcast yesterday about a paranormal team investigating a haunted house, and I noticed that the more intangible the experience became – once flashlights started blinking, once spirits started communicating – the more technical and scientific the language became. A chemist was consulted to explain what happens inside a flashlight’s bulb, and how this reaction could cause what appears to be ghostly communication. In the end, this scientific explanation becomes one among many – it might explain what is happening, but it also might not. To some extent, I feel this way about the relationship between the real and the fantastic in my own writing: I love the informational excess of scientific explanation, and I love how its tangibility comes up against everything we can’t explain. The process of writing feels similar. I’m constantly using the tangibility of words and language to try to describe what can’t be contained. Language is always an asymptote. I don’t know that I look for a specific interpretation that readers should take away, but instead the experience of liminality, that multiple realities and a blurring between them might be at play.

OZP: You have quite a few stories where the fiction intersects with historical events (“Dear Amelia,” “Everything That Was Ours,” “Until Our Shadows Claim Us”). Tell us a little about that. What role does history play for you when writing fiction? What’s the importance of the historical interacting with the fictional (particularly in a story like “Dear Amelia,” where there are explicitly fantastical elements)? What was your research process for these stories like, and where/how did you decide when to take liberties?

AV: Much like the tangibility of scientific fact, which I love but which I feel only provides one answer among many, history seems very similar. I absolutely adore research out of sheer curiosity, and of trying to imagine a particular moment in history such as how young girls might have imagined Amelia Earhart at a time when a feat like hers was an anomaly among women. But like science, history is authoritative. It assumes a single, all-encompassing narrative. I like to reimagine history to some degree, to make sense of what we think we know through alternate perspectives. I’m less interested in historical fiction than in the possibility that history didn’t happen the way we were told it did.

The Anne Valente Interview will return… on Friday!

Review: BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES by Anne Valente

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteBy Light We Knew Our Names is the kind of book that reads like eating a five-course meal. It’s delicious, yes, and heavy, satisfying. It’s the kind of book you want to take with you to a deserted island or up in space or anywhere really. But more than anything, it’s the kind of book that makes me want to write, the kind that fills me up with ideas of my own, new universe spun into existence I just have to explore. I don’t know what it is about her work that does that. Maybe it’s because her stories ask tough questions with complicated (or unknowable) answers, and putting another story into the world seems like the only appropriate way to respond.

BLWKON is the debut collection of longtime Origami Zoo favorite Anne Valente, and it’s a thrilling one. It feels incredibly cohesive, like a great album, but all the stories feel totally distinct. They share similar concerns and Valente’s hypnotic prose, but they run the gamut in terms of tone, genre, and characters.

I’ve been a fan of Valente’s work since I read the title story in Hayden’s Ferry Review my first year of graduate school. It more or less defined the her work for me, as well as the journal itself. It also served as a kind of benchmark—I thought, if I could write a story half as good as this one during my time here, I’ll have made it. The story follows four teenage girls struggling to survive in a small town where rape and abuse are inescapable, coming from boyfriends and fathers and brothers and strangers. The grimness of the story is made readable only by the strength of Valente’s characters and of her prose, which often reads like incantations. Even in the most realist stories, the prose does magical things: “Then she punched, both hands clenched rigid—she punched so hard I felt what force was in her move through me, a kinetic quake, all the light she held inside her, some separate sun no one saw, eclipsed.” Valente piles on images in long sentences you hope never end.

Many of the stories are coming-of-age tales, but they are not cloying or precious as stories about adolescence can often be. Sometimes, they give us tiny librarians living in little girls’ pockets or ghosts of grandparents or mothers who transform into bears. Other stories are more grounded, but all of them are about growing up and venturing out into a world that is sad and unwelcoming and, particularly for young women, dangerous. And even in the world where mothers turn ursine, it’s our world still. Valente’s characters don’t grieve so much for lives lost as they do for the lives impossible for them to live.

Some of the strongest stories are the ones that expertly blur the lines between fantasy and reality. The penultimate piece, “Until Our Shadows Claim Us.” In it, a group of second graders believe they have summoned the Rosewood Phantom (a “Bloody Mary”-type specter), thus causing greater tragedies around the world (the Challenger explosion, Chernobyl), as well as the close-to-home disappearances of their classmates, one by one by one. Of course, for much of the story, we chalk the Rosewood Phantom up to childhood fears and superstition, but by the end, there are a few moments that leave this wonderful, terrifying sliver of doubt—and, in effect, we the readers become a part of that collective first-person narrator driving the story. We believe the impossible, the unbelievable.

And that’s what these stories do: they make us realize that the unbelievable is sometimes in our own backyard, under our very noses. Valente’s stories grab you by the ears and force you to look at some scary truths about our world, and that is important—but in equal measure, and sometimes in the same moment, they tilt your chin down and have you consider the beauty that is there, lighting up the dark.