Our 2015 Fiction Prize Judge is Laura van den Berg, whose story “Where We Must Be” first appeared in Indiana Review 29.1 and was republished online at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. In this interview, she answers questions about her short story collection, The Isle of Youth, allergies to boredom, and what she might be looking for in the prize-winning entry.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the novel Find Me and the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. She is the recent recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize, and an O. Henry Award. She currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is at work on a new collection of stories and a novel.
1) When reading your short story collection, Isle of Youth, I was interested in what information was revealed and what was concealed. In “Opa-Locka,” for example— I’ll try to phrase this without revealing too much— we don’t learn the resolution to a mystery that drives most of the action. How do you decide what a reader does or doesn’t need to know by the end of any particular story?
For me, it comes down to what the story is about—what’s at the heart of the matter, for the central character or characters. Is it about the information that remains inaccessible, for example? Or an answer to a particular question? Or both? All this comes with the caveat that I hardly ever know what a story is about when I begin; the process of excavating that sense of “aboutness” is a long one.
2) I read in an interview that you’re allergic to boredom. What do the writing projects that keep you interested have in common?
If only I knew! I think it has something to do with voice: hearing lines in my head all the time, as I’m otherwise going about my life, is usually a good sign. But a project that is as theoretically interesting as the next might fail to keep my attention for who-knows-what-reason. For me attention in art is a little like love in that way: there is that quality of the ineffable.
3) Your work falls in between the real and the unreal. Have you always written in this space?
Not always. I was experimenting in all kinds of directions when I first started out, but once I started exploring that space between the real and the unreal I could feel myself stumbling closer to what felt like my own voice.
4) Part of what drew me into your stories was their distant-to-me locations. What’s your research process like when writing about places like Antarctica and Madagascar?
I love travel guides. I’ll buy a stack and read them for cover-to-cover. I’m looking for both practical information—weather, geography, etc—and also the unexpected nuggets of fact that deepen my own fictional approximation of the place. That research process gets more expansive for a novel, however. I’m currently working on a novel set in Cuba, and am immersed in a much more intensive research process.
5) Can you tell us anything else about what you might be looking for when reading for our contest?
First, I’m looking at the sentences. Are they precise? Stylistically engaging and urgent? Second, I’m looking for a sense of singularity. Does this voice—detail, place, character, and so on—feel like it could only belong to the world of this story? A distinct sensibility, in other words. Third, I’m looking for truth. It’s hard to be truthful, in both art and in life. I’m looking for the rare story that is.