Laura van den Berg had to completely immerse herself in the world of Find Me in order for it to come to fruition. This meant putting off writing until she had large chunks of time to work on it and spending many key novel-writing hours in the Writers’ Room, a Boston nonprofit that secures affordable workspaces for writers. Here, she’s away from all the distractions she’ll find at home: Wi-Fi, email, a new puppy and her husband.
Van den Berg, who earned her MFA at Emerson College, was known first for her short stories, which have been anthologized in numerous publications, including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize XXIV. Her two short story collections, The Isle of Youth and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, received great acclaim.
Find Me, her debut novel, was an entirely different beast.
“When I’m working on a short story, I can work on it anywhere and in small pockets of time. I’ve found that with a novel, though, that’s not the best way,” van den Berg said. “What I needed from the world when I was writing this book was very different from what I needed when I was writing my short stories. … The big difference: When you have a 20-page mess on your hands, it’s less daunting than having a 300-page mess.”
Find Me follows a woman named Joy, a patient quarantined in a Kansas hospital. She’s being studied for her resistance to a disease sweeping the country, whose side effects include profound memory loss and silvery skin blisters, followed by neurological collapse and death. Most patients threaten to revolt, but Joy, who grew up in foster homes, has nothing to go home to — until, by chance, she discovers her biological mother is working as an underwater archaeologist in Florida. She resolves to escape and track her down.
Its structure is in two parts — the hospital world, and then the rest of the world during Joy’s escape — and it took a great deal of maneuvering to get it just right. At one point, van den Berg rewrote 100 pages in third person to make sure first person was the right way to go.
“I write in first person a lot, so it’s certainly what’s most familiar to me. The reason why, I think, is because I start with voice a lot, and the voice I tend to hear is my own voice. But when you do a particular thing in fiction a lot, you need to make sure it doesn’t serve as a crutch,” van den Berg said. “When I push myself to write in a different direction, it’s to make sure I’m doing the best thing for the book and not because it’s my most familiar mode.”
The book was published Feb. 17, and at the time of her interview, van den Berg was in the midst of a book tour. She stopped at RiverRun Bookstore Feb. 26, and she visits and speaks at the New Hampshire Institute of Art on St. Patrick’s Day. During her time in Manchester, she’ll also visit a few classrooms.
What she wished she knew as an undergrad: “I think sometimes we’re not receptive to outside feedback because we’re scared. Scared of making that particular leap or scared of the amount of work such a leap might entail,” she said. “It took me a while to sort of fully appreciate the importance of not not making an artistic choice because of fear or apprehension or nervousness about our limits.”
As seen in the March 5, 2015 issue of the Hippo.