Laura van den Berg at Booklab

Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg was in my living room, and she seemed like one of the nicest people I’d ever met. She was effervescent, interested in other people and appreciative of the opportunity to talk about The Isle of Youth, her second collection of stories, with a small group of friends.  I wanted to ask: how could a nice girl like you write stories like this?

Her stories are told in the first person voice of a female narrator and it is tempting to think of Laura and the narrators as one and the same. Except that would be impossible. For one thing, she uses seven different narrators, one for each story, and right away that’s too many identities. More tellingly, each narrator is a little off, in a way Laura is not. One is a new wife, uncertain about her marriage. (Laura is happily married to another wonderful writer.) Others are a shady private detective, wobbling along the line of what’s legal and what’s not; a member of a girl gang of bank robbers; an estranged wife who falls in with a Parisian acrobatic troupe; the sister of a man killed in Antarctica; a magician’s assistant; a twin who assumes her sister’s identity and plays a part in a shady scheme of multiple dimensions. Every one of these characters lives, in her own way, in a world of uncertain and shifting identity.

Laura read aloud from Acrobat, one of my favorites in the collection. “The day my husband left me, I followed a trio of acrobats around the city of Paris,” it begins, and proceeds to trace the narrator’s day and evening with the acrobats, observing them from afar, moving in closer, following them to a restaurant, accompanying them to a party and, finally, being lifted up by one of them, along the banks of the Seine. Never do the acrobats remove their make-up or masks—that would be against their code—and that detail fuels the indeterminate sense of identity that pervades this and the companion stories.

Of course, asking how a nice woman can write about eccentric characters is not the question. Fiction writers plunge into worlds that are not their own all the time. When the imagined world rings true, it is because the writer has drawn on experience—a feeling, perhaps, or an event, a place, a human foible—and we, as readers, recognize its truth. We remember when an event thrust us into unknown territory and we began to see ourselves differently, or we discovered a secret about someone we were close to and realized the person was a stranger. Growing up, we tried out personality traits and tics before deciding what fit. We don’t need to have robbed a bank or done the other things Laura’s characters do in order to recognize the human experiences she mines for her material.

Imagination is a wonderful thing, and Laura, like many writers, exploits hers first thing in the morning, before the hum-drum of the day takes hold—a coffee and then to the work of imagining and thinking, writing and revising. She also teaches in the MFA program at Emerson College and her novel, Find Me, will be out in February 2015.

updated: 6 months ago