[From the Source] Laura van den Berg

 

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What was your experience like writing “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears?” Did you find it similar to your previous collections?

With the exception of “Volcano House,” written around 2011, all the other stories are more recent. A number of them were written at a writing residency in Italy called Civitella Ranieri in the summer of 2018. Four stories out of the eleven were written there. The others were written between 2016 and 2018, so were relatively new, which was a bit different from my previous collections, where the stories were written over a broader swath of time.

I think that for me, my novels are very different from one another, so I didn’t have a lot of anxiety about repeatedly writing the same book in the novel form—and I’m working on a novel now that is also very different from the previous two. But with stories, I didn’t want to write a collection that was a B-side to my previous one. I wanted to write a collection where I was attempting different things in the short form and creating a slightly different world than I did in my first collection.

There was a period of time where I just printed out every short story I had written since 2011 that wasn’t in my second collection, which came out to around 400 pages of stories—nobody wants that—but even more pressingly I knew that these stories didn’t belong in conversation with one another. They didn’t necessarily have natural synergy, so then I asked myself, what is this story that this collection is trying to tell, and what is that larger conversation, that larger landscape? At Civitella, the four stories that I wrote all dealt with ghosts and hauntedness in one way or another. That really dialed into focus that larger story or that larger conversation for the collection as a whole.

It sounds like you set out with a goal of writing these stories to enter into a conversation with each other.

Yes.

Some of the stories that spoke to me the most in the collection were these stories that had so many interesting, odd aspects, even just thinking about “Your Second Wife” and how strange this world is that the characters are operating in. In the collection there are many interesting relationships, especially of characters that think they understand something about someone else. “Your Second Wife” is an example as are “The Pitch” and “Karolina.” Was this an intentional thing or was it more organic?

I think that that was probably more organic. The sort of perception shift wasn’t a super conscious through line, but I do think hauntings are often about perception shifts, and a kind of recognition that reality, physics, time, is more capacious and more mysterious in some ways than we might have previously believed. And then I think there are also the more corporal perspective shifts in terms of how one character stands in relation to another, how one character understands another. I come from a large family—we are seven together—I think if you come from a large family you’re really used to situations in which we can experience the same event or the same conversation and walk away with really different interpretations. One thing that taught me early on is that in some ways perception is really just a collaboration between some kind of objective fact and our highly subjective inner worlds. So I think that that’s something that I’m always interested in writing into, how do characters misunderstand, misinterpret one another. What did they miss?

In an interview with PEN America you said, “I thought a lot about the supernatural as a means to explore the material that cannot be explained by corporal life.” That speaks to the collection and also to fiction as a whole. I’m curious if there is something in your mind about speculative fiction that helps people connect to the world.

I have many different potential answers to that question. I think for me that I’m always inclined to push back against the borders between genre or different types of fiction. I could think of some “realism” that belongs to another world, a world that’s distinct from my world, at least as much as a speculative story. Speculative fiction has been around for a long time, and I think that our world is increasingly speculative or dystopian feeling. I had taken my mother earlier to get a COVID vaccine, mid-plague, in a half-abandoned shopping mall that I used to frequent as a teenager—but for me that feels like a very superficial interpretation of what speculative fiction is maybe uniquely equipped to do. I think what speculative fiction does is that it helps us understand time in a fuller way.

I just want to pause and say that I also write stories that could be categorized as realism. There are many realist authors who I love and who have been deeply important to me, so it’s not that I think that realism can’t do that. Writers like Edward P. Jones and Alice Munro are some of the greatest writers of time’s great mystery, despite not often violating the laws of physics in the way a speculative author might.

There are no givens about time in speculative fiction. What we see in speculative fiction is the collision of many different types of time—the past, the present, and the future—but also the time that is housed in the imagination—the dreams, the imagined future, the imagined past, the premonition, the vision. In a really great speculative story working on that temporal canvas these different times open up to illuminate the mystery of time and allow us to experience a reality that is distinct to that form.

Many characters in the collection are in some way haunted by a dark past. When we read stories there is sometimes a hyperfixation on maybe place or character, something singular, and of all things, time is frequently left out.

Time in fiction is one of my obsessions. I could talk about it endlessly.

If you’re sitting down to write a story and you’re thinking of craft elements, is time one of your frameworks or ideas that you’re setting out with?

It definitely is, but I don’t really think about craft when I’m writing an early draft. I’m responding to much more intuitive impulses. I’m responding to an idea that’s spun out into something bigger; I’m responding to emotion; I’m not yet in that more intellectualized space of craft. Of course, I am making craft choices intuitively, so it’s not like choices aren’t being made, but it’s not the primary space that I’m working or thinking or feeling from. Certainly in later drafts, and especially when I know that there’s a fundamental misalignment in a story’s architecture, I know that there’s something really foundational, the kind of thing that when I figure it out will necessitate rewriting the entire thing, but I need to go through that process in order for the story to say what I want and need for it to say. But time is always the question I go back to, and often that’s where I find the fundamental misalignment is—I haven’t figured out the right time frame or timeline for the story.

You had mentioned “Your Second Wife,” and just to give a concrete example of this, in early drafts I had tried to write the story in a much more linear way. I began the story with the narrator’s first “job” impersonating a man’s deceased wife, which is totally logical, right? It makes sense to introduce a reader to that world in that world. We will as readers, enter this world with the character and thus we will all learn the rules of it simultaneously. The problem was that I kept getting bogged down in the world building and the ins and outs of this particular vocation. The opening scenes were so swollen with exposition that it was clunky, so when I went back to that first draft to figure out what the problem was I realized that time was the central question.

How would it change the story if it wasn’t linear, if it wasn’t written in conventional long scenes? How would it change the story if it was more fragmented and non-linear? Instead of beginning the story at the beginning, I began in the midst. Then when I realized I needed to begin in the midst, I realized that something new needed to be the beginning in the story because otherwise why was I starting there? I came to the conclusion that the “first” that this character is beginning is the first meeting with the bereaved husband who ends up kidnapping her. That would be an example of how making different choices in time can completely change a story and what is possible.

The thing about time is that obviously time is fundamental to a story’s architecture, but time touches all things, you know? Time touches character, place, and point of view. I had mentioned a big family earlier and one thing that’s unique about my family is that all my siblings and I have the same father, but we have different mothers. I have one “full” sister that is younger than me, and all my other siblings are older, in some cases significantly older. Part of the reason why our memories and interpretations can be different is because of time. We knew our father at different points in his life and we’re all different characters in the larger story of our family because our relationship to time is different.

To put that in the context of a story, there’s the story “Hill of Hell.” The opening scene—the conversation on the train—was based on a conversation that I had with a former colleague after I had visited his class at Bard. I had taken the train back into the city with him but there was this odd loophole of this train that for whatever reason, the cafe car was not in service, so if you had the foresight to pack your own food and alcohol you were free to imbibe. The colleague I was with taught in the Hudson Valley and had taken this route for like fifteen years and had this down to a science. He opened an amazing, deep briefcase that all day I had been wondering what was inside. It was filled with delicious tea sandwiches that were wrapped in wax paper and two bottles of wine. We had a really long, deep, intense conversation. We both had sustained some recent loss in our families, and it was one of those blood and guts kinds of talks. I really wanted to write a story that captured the essence of it, and I had what at the time was a perfectly logical idea of a story that was set entirely on the train. If it was meaningful to experience in life, surely it would be meaningful in fiction, but it turned out that it wasn’t meaningful at all. It was this really stilted conversation between two characters that didn’t have a lot of dimension and it read like a not very good imitation of one of Hemingway’s more dialogue driven stories. Again I realized that I had to unlock these two characters and their relationship to one another and their relationship to the world at large. I needed to work on a different temporal canvas. I needed to break from that very contained scene on the train and go way into the future, multiple leaps in the future, and also to experiences that took the story further away from myself.

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