JI: Your stories from your debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, seem to all deal with loss of some sort, on some level—a woman dating a man with a terminal disease, kids left to fend for themselves after the mysterious and simultaneous death of both parents, lost relationships. And the title of the book, of course, incorporates the word leave. Did this theme in these stories coalesce organically, or were you writing lots of stories, and you chose those that most appropriately made a book?
LvdB: It emerged organically. I am always writing about loss in one way or another, it seems, which hasn’t changed with newer work. That said, I did absolutely revise the collection as a whole once I had a draft: cutting a story here (I had nine at one point), adding a story there, endlessly tinkering with the order.
JI: Would you say, since you’re always writing about loss, that among the first things that come to you as a writer are characters, and what those characters might have lost? What triggers your fiction?
LvdB: I rarely start with a character and their emotional predicament, oddly enough. Some stories begin with voice, in the form of a first line, or with an image. Or a situation or a place or a job. A big part of my revision process is excavating who the narrator is, coming to understand their story.
JI: Feels like, especially with your first book, setting seems very important.
LvdB: Place is really important to me as a writer. I rarely write about places I know very well (“Goodbye My Loveds” is something of an exception, as it’s partially set in Boston, where I used to live, though I have never been to the Amazon). I love knowing a little bit about a place and using that as an imaginative platform. In the end, place is for me much more about an evocation of tone and emotional texture than it is about the literal setting.
JI: There are a lot of academically-oriented characters in your stories: children of geographers and biologists, etymology professors, botanists, etc. It sounds like the missing mother in “Montauk” is also an academe in some way. What moves you to write about such people?
LvdB: The missing mother is actually a ship detective, the person who would investigate when a ship goes missing in the Bermuda Triangle, for example. But she is connected to the academic types in What the World… by her compulsion to search and also by her process—her equipment, her training—never quite taking her in the right direction when it matters most, forcing her to reach beyond those practical methods.
The scientists and academics I’m drawn to writing about are definitely not characters that reflect the realities of those jobs. When I think of a scientist, I think of Cousteau. When I think of an academic researcher, I think of Bill Murray’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums. So it’s definitely a romanticized, adventuring, hapless, madcap version of those vocations. But that’s the fun thing about fiction: it doesn’t have to reflect reality; it can reflect something else altogether.
JI: Similar, but perhaps different to the question above, regarding loss and character: what’s your writing process like? Since you’re drawn to these fictionalized scientists, in order to authenticate them in some ways, I imagine that you must incorporate a ton of research (I know I would). I.e., I have no idea about lemurs, or about what it’s like to be a ship detective. How much time do you spend getting details to flesh out your ideas, and how much do you internalize? Or do you draft out these characters first, not caring whether or not you’ve got the details right, and fill in later in revisions?
LvdB: I do research before starting and while revising. The pre-writing research is to get a basic grasp of the subject and to help the imaginative wheels start turning. The revision research is often filling in questions that have come up while writing the story. But for me, tonal accuracy is way more important than literal accuracy. To use Bill Murray in Tenenbaums as an example again, the viewer is not convinced of his character because he accurately resembles a researcher, but because the details of his character are so richly imagined and are perfectly in sync with the tone of the world. So, in the end, while I do certainly do research, I probably spend more time trying to hit the right tone.
JI: Here’s a favorite bit: “the open wound of a construction site”. Got any favorite bits from your own writing? Why do you love those?
LvdB: Oh, man. Probably depends on the day. As I imagine most of us are, I’m constantly anxious about my work. It’s like a never-ending hamster wheel of hope and utter despair. So, depending on where I am on the wheel, it can be hard to see what’s love-able.
Recently I sent some thoughts on my revision process to my friend—and amazing writer—Matthew Salesses, for a thing he’s doing on Necessary Fiction. I was saying that the core of my revision process has become concerned with trying to identify where a story is letting the characters down by reaching for the easy and the false instead of pushing for something truer. So a moment in a story where I feel I’ve reached a place of genuine human insight is maybe the thing I love most. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen that often!
Something else: I freaking love coming up with zany plots. Here are a few from my new collection, The Isle of Youth: yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, twin sisters who trade identities and become ensnared in the underworld of Miami. We have to do something to fight against the hamster wheel of despair, right?
JI: I like your “hamster wheel of despair and hope” metaphor, which is of course exactly what it feels like. One day I’m lifted by what I felt like I achieved in my work, or maybe a great review of one of my books comes through. Then, I get a rejection from somewhere, or I go back and reread some material I’m working on only to find out how terrible the great thing I wrote really is. What keeps you going? Why stay on the wheel?
LvdB: Bizarrely, I think the only thing that makes you feel better about the wheel is the wheel itself. Meaning that when I’m in a low place with my work, the only thing that helps in a lasting way is writing more.
JI: Based on the short excerpt you’ve shared with us, Find Me sounds riveting, scary, beautiful. We have what appears to resemble a post-apocalyptic—perhaps mid-apocalypse—setting. How did you arrive here? What stories, if any, have you read that impressed you and included post-apocalypse settings?
LvdB: So I’ll backtrack a little here to talk about the general plot of the novel, Find Me, that this excerpt comes from. The novel is divided into two parts. In Part 1, an epidemic has descended upon our fair nation, messed stuff up pretty badly, and then vanished. The narrator, Joy, spends all of Part 1 sequestered in a creepy hospital on the Kansas plains, in winter. In Part 2, she escapes the hospital and travels to Montauk, where she hopes to find her long-absent mother. “Montauk” is the first two chapters from Part 2.
I was interested in rendering an alternate version of America, one that had been seriously damaged, but was also in the nascent stages of recovery. Early on, I made the decision to stay away from full-on apocalyptic. I was less interested in working out how Joy would, say, kill and roast squirrels for dinner (because, being apocalyptic and all, there might not be any food!). I wanted the world to be semi-functional, partly for practical reasons and partly because I envisioned the epidemic and its consequences as existing in the atmosphere, as opposed to occupying center stage.
So, to loop back to your question, I loved Victor Lavalle’s novel Big Machine; that was a big influence. In many ways, the world Lavalle creates resembles the one we live in, but then there’s all this crazy, supernatural, end-times stuff existing in the same space. I am deeply interested in work that can negotiate that kind of tonal high-wire act. I recently finished Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, which exquisitely moves the reader through cycles of utopia and inevitable disintegration, including some apocalyptic gestures near the end. Also Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin, who creates a world so warped, it feels apocalyptic, even though it’s not in the literal sense (the novel follows a new recruit in the Soviet space program); rather, Pelevin creates that sensation through tone and style and the narrator’s profound disorientation. Also Piano by Jean Echenoz, which chronicles a kind of personal apocalypse for the narrator. All these books have worlds that feel singular, so in that way they were very inspiring.
And then there’s of course the world. Avian flu, H1N1, a myriad of dire environmental problems, face-eating (turns out bath salts weren’t to blame after all! Zombie apocalypse, anyone?). It feels natural, at least to me, to imagine what the world might look like if one of these things spun a little farther out of control.
JI: I don’t want to be a spoiler for this novel, so answer as you see fit, but with Marcus and the narrator together here, perhaps without the same level of hilarity, but I’m feeling a very Twain-ish kind of feeling when reading this, a very dark Huck Finnish sort of feeling. What are your thoughts?
LvdB: I hadn’t thought of Joy and Marcus as Huck Finnish before, but I love that idea, Jamie. Thank you! Marcus is a childhood friend of Joy’s and is also endowed with some psychic gifts (speaking of zany plots…). When they reunite in Montauk, after many years apart, they do slip into a kind of child-like state of curiosity. They imagine, they explore, they begin to embrace the world. And they have adventures, as they search for Joy’s mother and also as some dangers from Joy’s past reemerge.
JI: So, I know that you’re in the midst of revisions of this novel, and you’re likely very busy with that work, but do you have other things cooking up? What might be down the road?
LvdB: I very recently finished the novel revision and the second collection of stories. I was deep into both those projects for quite a while, so it’s great to be thinking about other things. I am working on some new stories now. In some ways, I feel more possibility in the short form than I do in the novel. I am actually answering these questions from a residency in Illinois, where I can see deer and prairie from my window. I have come here to write a story about a weather woman who can never get the forecast right. I never “got” residencies until I did my first one last summer. And now, of course, I am hooked.