Laura van den Berg’s first novel, “Find Me,” imagines a dystopian future in which a mysterious, fatal disease is wiping out people’s memories. Its narrator, Joy, is immune and finds herself in a hospital in Kansas, where doctors think she’d make an excellent guinea pig for a cure. Joy has other plans though, and soon we’re on the road with her as she searches for her long-lost mother.
Van den Berg, whose work has been compared with that of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, will be at Politics & Prose Friday night, where she will be interviewed by Elliott Holt.
In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this week, van den Berg talked about her new book and what inspired it. (The following responses have been edited for length and clarity. )
On the brooding, supernatural world of her work
“Find Me” I think, is brooding in a very literal sense of the world in that you have all of these sort of interior storm that’s growing within Joy over the course of the book and leading her to her moment. And certainly, I think there’s an aspect of the supernatural. In the second half of the novel, ghosts appear. In the literal sense. So to my mind, world is a very ghost-y one and a very haunted one — haunted by all the people who had died of this memory-destroying epidemic but also haunted by ghosts of Joy’s past.
I’ve never written a short story that was in the dystopic vein. So the fact that there is this illness that destroys memory, and we’re in this altered landscape, and a progressively surreal landscape, I think that’s a bigger departure from reality in some ways than you see in my story collections. So yeah, certainly in that way. And in some ways, I think that Joy does bear some resemblance to the narrators in my stories. She’s a young woman. She’s troubled. She’s lonely. The first-person narration — but I also think Joy in a lot of ways is very different than the narrators in my stories. And I would say this incarnation of a person cuts a lot deeper than many of the narrators in “The Isle of Youth.”
On a drug-dealing televangelist (really)
There’s all kinds of subplots and characters that were in the book at a certain point but were ultimately cut. There was a drug-dealing televangelist in earlier incarnations and some people have asked me, “Would you ever take that drug-dealing televangelist and write a story about him?”
I don’t know. It’s such an odd thing for me. It’s like, once those aspects were cut from the novel, they cease to exist in my imagination at all. Which I know how odd that must sound, but that’s just how it works for me. And the world of my stories and the world of the novel always seemed very different in certain ways to me. And so, it never — for some reason it never really felt natural to have that crossover.
On writing in the first person
I think for me, you know, I start a lot with voice. What that means for me is I’ll get a sentence sort of lodged in my imagination, and it won’t leave me alone. And I keep hearing that sentence and then, you know, often when I think in writing, it’s an attempt to answer the question inherent in that line: “Who is this person?” “Where are they speaking from?” and so on. And so, when I hear that line, when I hear that sort of line, it’s always an I voice. Almost always an I voice — I’ve written some stories in the third person. But it’s almost always an I voice, and it’s almost always a woman’s voice. Which is why I end up writing in the first person from the point of view of women so much. But it really is that kind of intuitive need for me. But that said, you know, I’m also sort of keenly aware — because I do write in the first person so much — that sometimes what’s comfortable to us can become a kind of crutch. Because it is what comes naturally and what feels the most intuitively comfortable, I often will rewrite things in the third person, just to be sure.
So I rewrote about 100 pages of “Find Me” in the third person, and I found it agonizing. It did not go well. So It was very clear to me in doing that that that was most definitely a first-person book.
And again, I just — I so admire the writers who can cross the boundaries of gender really fluidly. But it’s just not my gift as a writer. And I wager we have a vast amount of literature out there that tends to the stories of men, so I’ve never really worried too much about attending to stories of women.
I think my concern is I know my voice, and I know the kinds of landscapes that interest me, so my primary concern is doing the most I can with those voices and those landscapes.
On dystopian fiction
I mean, certainly there’s been a big wave of dystopian fiction that’s come out recently. I really enjoyed reading “Station Eleven,” for example, but of course I read that book long after “Find Me” was finished. I enjoyed tracking that trajectory, but I can’t say that the dystopian lit has had an effect on “Find Me” specifically.
But certainly dystopian fiction has a long and rich tradition, and a lot of the heroes of the tradition, like Margaret Atwood for example. But also, some of my favorite dystopian novels were actually books where the world as we know it was not completely disrupted. For example, one book that was really influential for me was a novel called “Last Last Chance” by Fiona Maazell. And you know, in that novel, there’s a killer plague, but at the same time, people are still like eating regular food and going to rehab and taking walks. And I actually find that sort of putting the mundane details of daily life and a cataclysmic event right alongside each other, I actually find those books much more troubling than novels that deal with the sort of scorched-earth apocalypse, which I think probably speaks to my sensibilities because I love those narratives that kind of sit in that place between the magical and the real, and I love sort of juxtapositions and contrasts. So another book that really spoke to me in a similar way was “The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus. Also Victor LaValle’s “Big Machine.” I don’t know if I would describe that as a dystopian novel, but certainly dystopic, supernatural things are happening in the world, yet real life is continuing in very immediate ways. And another novel, too, Grace Krilanovich’s “The Orange Eats Creeps” was also important to me while working on “Find Me.” Particularly when I was working on the second part.
On the memory-eating illness in her new novel
For a while, I had Joy’s story and the sickness and for a while, I would say, the handling of it was more realistic — there’s sort of more like “Contagion” or something like that. But the longer I worked on the book, the more the sickness and the world at large began to tip in this more surreal direction. And then, you know, once I sort of stumbled upon the memory loss aspect, I finally understood how the larger story of the sickness and Joy’s story really locked together, because for a while it was like I intuitively felt that these two narratives belonged together, but I didn’t really understand why.
I was spending lots of time at different artists’ colonies and different sorts of residencies, and you know, I think that one big difference for me between working on short stories and working on novels, I discovered while writing “Find Me” was that with a short story, I can really work on it anywhere. I don’t need to leave my life to write a short story. I can write in little pockets of time that present themselves throughout the course of a regular day, and there’s, you know, there’s a good chance that it will add up to something. With the novel, I found that that incremental approach really didn’t work for me. And I really needed to kind of abandon my life, and I spent a lot of time at artists’ colonies and residencies where I could really be sort of submerged in the world of the book. And it was often in those places where I was kind of thinking about it constantly that those larger questions about the world were solved.
On finding titles
I’m normally a terrible titler, and my husband is a writer, and at a certain point, I’ll often go to him with a story or something and be like, “Please help me find a decent title for this thing.” And he’ll find something great.
But “Find Me” was actually the title from the beginning, and it seemed to perfectly suit the nature of Joy’s quest throughout the book. She’s looking for a particular person — she’s looking for her mother — but really, she’s looking for herself in some way.
On a supernatural encounter at a writers’ residency in Key West
I was there with three other artists. We were told no one had had these supernatural experiences before. A woman at the house next to mine– a painter — we were hearing the most terrifying noises at night.
There’s a lot of wildlife in Key West. There are rats that live in the mango trees. There are wild roosters. There’s also frankly just a lot of odd people in Key West. It’s like New Orleans — a place full of delightfully eccentric people. I was very open to a real-world, perfectly logical explanation.
But the longer this went on, the more it became clear we were not able to locate a practical explanation. And I think if it had just been me, I would have assumed there was some sort of practical explanation I wasn’t able to see at the time. But I think because it was a shared experience, you know, that sort of convinced me that maybe something supernatural was happening, and also, the other thing that convinced me was we held a casting-out spell.
We consulted someone who knows about such things and got instructions. And the main thing you have to do is ring a bell in every room, in the corner of every room that you believe to be haunted, and state an intention, like what you want the ghost to do, and then you sprinkle salt on all the thresholds, which is supposed to put out like a kind of barrier.
So, we did this — we felt absolutely ridiculous doing it. But we were desperate. Truly, we were desperate. This painter and I, we had not slept in probably weeks by that point. And it worked. We never heard another sound again. After that, I was like, “Okay, this might be something that could defy practical explanation.”
Ghosts were already in “Find Me,” but I do think — I wouldn’t say that they didn’t exist before I was at this haunted residency, but I do think that being in this vaguely supernatural space, I’m sure it drew out the ghostiness of the novel even more.
On the inherent surrealness of her home state
Florida is a very idiosyncratic place in a lot of ways. As are many parts of our fine country, but one could say Florida is particularly idiosyncratic. I spent part of my childhood on a lake. It was not at all unusual for us to find an alligator in our backyard. So what do you do when you find an alligator in your backyard? You call a hotline, and the acronym for this hotline is SNAP. S-N-A-P. It’s the most amazing detail ever, right? It’s the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, and the acronym for that organization is SNAP.
And so when I moved North, those sorts of details were totally ordinary to me, and then when they appeared in my stories, my classmates — none of whom were from Florida, or even from the South — I would get these margin notes like “How surreal!” “Is this really plausible?” And I was like, “Oh, I just thought this is perfectly ordinary to me.” So I would wager a lot of Floridian writers grew up in Florida being accustomed to a certain level of surrealness and then moving to other places and finding that the rest of the country doesn’t necessarily operate on Floridian terms.