Sarah Anne Johnson

Between the Real and the Unreal: An Interview with Laura Van Den Berg February 18, 2012

Author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us takes a few minutes to talk about writing fiction.


How does a story come to you, an image, a voice, a character?

For me, it’s usually either an image or a first line, which is related to voice. More often than not, though, it’s an image, usually an idea for an ending image. I always have no clue how I might get to that image and typically it ends up being cut or changed in revision, but during the first draft, that’s often what I’m following.

Some writers work line by line, getting each paragraph right before they go on, while others get a whole story down and then go back and revise, revise, revise. What is your process like for developing a story?

I’m definitely a reviser. I tend to blow through first drafts, so the initial attempt is often really messy and haphazard, and then in revision I fuss over every line.

The stories in your collection explore the intersection of the ordinary and the fantastical. What draws you to this contradiction?

I love the zone between the real and the un-real—or, more accurately, the gap between traditional realism and magical realism or whatever you want to call it. As a reader, I love all kinds of fiction, but as a writer, that in-between zone is what I’m most drawn to.


Your characters believe in creatures like Big Foot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Mokele-mbembe. How do these beliefs shape character?

I see these creatures as being, in part, a stand-in for the things that are ineffable to us, for all that is unknown and unreachable. There’s so much we will never know, will never understand, about ourselves and the people around us and the world at large, yet we keep trying to make it all make sense. My characters believe in things like the Loch Ness and Mokele-mbembe because they are trying to form a narrative that will make their own lives comprehensible; they want their lives to be about something. Their desires and obsessions often drive the stories and are  fundamental to who they are.

How do you get to know your characters deeper as you write your way into a story? Do you have any strategies that help you if you get stuck?

My sense of a character’s interior life is often hazy when I start out; they definitely don’t arrive fully-formed for me. Just going through the story time after time gradually builds my understanding of a character, as does working on creating the concrete landscapes of their life—jobs, setting, personal ticks, etc. Sometimes finding the right details or habits can really help dial a character’s interior life into focus.

In terms of getting stuck, I unfortunately haven’t found any magical tricks or remedies. I just have to keep dwelling on the problem and something either comes to me or it doesn’t.

You’ve talked about the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given. It came from Margot Livesey-the idea that a writer should be able to justify every sentence in a story or novel. How does this statement inform your work?

To me, it just means that you have to be a ruthless editor; don’t be soft on your work when you’re revising and take the time to question and consider the choices you’re making. I don’t take this saying totally literally, but I always try to hold the spirit of Livesey’s words in mind when I’m revising.

Do the stories change when you begin to look at them as a collection? How do you go about ordering and editing stories for a book?

I think you become more aware of redundancies, of not wanting to repeat yourself too much—which is certainly a potential pitfall when your collection has a lot of thematic overlap. So when revising the manuscript I wasn’t only thinking of each story but also of the larger enterprise.

With the order, the first and the last stories were relatively easy to choose, but what came between was harder. With an eye toward wanting to avoid redundancy, I separated stories that had more common ground and also staggered my two third person stories.

How has your work as editor for publications such as Redivider,Ploughshares, and Memorius influenced your writing or your creative process?

I really enjoy my editorial work, but it feels very separate from my writing. My editorial work feels like much more of a readerly connection than a writerly one—although you can learn a lot from reading the slush pile.

What would you say to new writers working on their first stories?

Read, read, read! Try to find authors who are doing what you’d like to do and study them. Also, support the community you’d like to be a part of: show up for readings, subscribe to literary magazines, and buy the books you love. If we don’t support our arts communities, they’re not likely to survive.


Between the Real and the Unreal: An Interview with Laura Van Den Berg

Leave a Reply

Sarah Anne Johnson

Sarah is the author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife (Sourcebooks), The Very Telling, The Art of the Author Interview, and Conversations with American Women Writers, all published by the University Press of New England. Her interviews appear in The Writer’s Chronicle, Glimmertrain Stories, Provincetown Arts, and The Writer where she is a contributing editor. Her fiction has appeared in Other Voices, and she is the recipient of residencies in fiction from Jentel Artists’ Residency Program and Vermont Studio Center. She has taught the Art of the Author Interview Workshop at Bennington College Writing Seminars MFA Program, Leseley University MFA Program, and at literary conferences.

Between the Real and the Unreal: An Interview with Laura Van Den Berg February 18, 2012