For Laura Van Den Berg, the Fantastical Is the Best Way to Describe Reality

For Laura Van Den Berg, the Fantastical Is the Best Way to Describe Reality

Laura van den Berg’s latest novel, her fifth, State of Paradise, is set in a time and place both familiar and wildly unsettling: Florida during a period of pandemic and social unease. The unnamed narrator, a ghost-writer, weathers the pandemic at her mother’s house with her husband, a historian and avid runner. Her sister lives next door and spends hours each day plugged into a MIND’S EYE, a virtual reality device that seems to sometimes actually whisk its users into another world, and which may account for the rash of missing persons in the town. Other weird occurrences happen—at one point, a downpour begins that doesn’t let up for days, flooding the town. And the narrator discovers that, after recuperating from the pandemic virus, her belly button has expanded to become a secret space within her body, big enough to hide a tube of chapstick.

Anyone who has read van den Berg’s previous books—like her acclaimed short story collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, or her novel The Third Hotel, a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award—would be forgiven for thinking this kind of dreamlike, uncanny story sounds like peak van den Berg, eerie in the best of ways. But there’s a big difference with State of Paradise, in the profound and powerful passages in which the narrator remembers her teenage years at a place called The Institute, where she spent time in treatment for alcoholism and depression. This attention to mental health and memory feels new. And for fans who know something about van den Berg—that she’s from Florida, that she and her husband, writer Paul Yoon, hunkered down with van den Berg’s family during the pandemic—they may recognize the strong undertow of the personal in this story. They wouldn’t be wrong: State of Paradise has been described as “speculative autofiction,” an intriguing and apt oxymoron.

Over email, I spoke with van den Berg about this term, and writing through the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the time she spent in an institution as a teenager, and how that shaped her understanding of time and narrative.

Brian Gresko: The last time we spoke about your work over email like this was between February and April of 2020. A tense and scary time. At the end of that interview, when I asked about how the pandemic was affecting your creative life, you replied, “I’ve been trying to just remain alert to the bewildering present tense, which is evolving in frightening ways day to day.” 

I was struck by the similarity between that and this line from State of Paradise: “I start writing down one detail a day… Privately I begin to think of this project as my Florida Diary.” 

Can you tell me how this book grew out of your pandemic experiences? This is one of the first novels I’ve read that feels like it fully grapples with that time, not just the illness, but the overall sense of societal and personal unease, the shaky feeling everything might collapse.

Laura van den Berg: This is amazing synchronicity, Brian—it would have been right around then that I started writing down daily meditations in an attempt to “remain alert.” My husband, Paul, and I landed in Florida, where I’m from, during the pandemic. We were sharing space with my mom for much of that time and lived just down the street from my younger sister. I hadn’t lived in Florida since my early twenties. Now I was back, with no exit plan in sight. A lot of memory was activated. The kinds of conversations with my family that would never bubble up over short holiday visits were happening. There’s a line in State of Paradise where the narrator says, “I have, to my absolute horror, all my former selves for company.” That was exactly how I felt! I’d started the year intending to work on a different novel, but found myself unable to focus on that project. So I started writing these daily meditations on personal history, family, landscape, memory. It felt important to have a record of this period of time, but I never thought that it would become a book; it was just supposed to be for me. 

BG: That’s surprising to hear, because while much of the book is grounded in the narrator’s close observations, the narrative involves such fantastical, mythical elements, from the MIND’S EYE virtual reality device that whisks Floridians into a digital meditative state (and perhaps literally portals them away), to an unexplained weather event of Biblical proportion that floods the town. How did those speculative elements come into play? 

LvdB: “Other worlds” became a kind of governing philosophy. Certainly the pandemic dropped us all into a different world, where once mundane things like going to the grocery store suddenly seemed perilous. And since Florida didn’t employ the same restrictions as other states, I’d talk to friends in New York City or Los Angeles and our realities felt very “split screen.” 

Meanwhile, something that started coming up when I was writing those daily meditations was the many months I spent in an in-patient treatment center as a teenanger (State of Paradise is a novel but the narrator’s experience at The Institute closely resembles my own history). Looking back, I think being yanked out of the familiar world at such a malleable age totally reshaped my sense of reality. Reality became a continuum, as opposed to a fixed point; we move up and down that continuum throughout our lives, sometimes in ways that feel shocking. As a young person, I was so disconnected from the familiar world that I might as well have been in outer space. And even when I did eventually find my way back the familiar world didn’t look and feel the same as it did before. I had a hard time trusting it, believing that it was real. 

This personal history was not something I’ve written about directly before, but in Florida doing so started to feel unavoidable. I think the whole process really clarified why I’m drawn to the speculative in the first place. In State of Paradise I could literally manifest “other worlds” through MIND’S EYE and also write about “other worlds” from a place of deep personal experience. 

BG: It’s while at The Institute that the narrator decides to be a writer. In fact, she describes playing a game with an orderly in which she gives him a word each day that he must use in a sentence as the way she came to understand the flexibility of language. “Fuck the rules, language said to me, and find the truth.” 

Can you help me understand this in terms of your origin story as a writer? You’ve described how you enrolled in a fiction workshop when you were almost flunking out of college, hoping for an easy A, and that’s where you fell in love with short stories. Was this before or after your time at the in-person treatment center?

LvdB: College came several years after. After I was discharged from the in-patient treatment center, I got my GED—I’d left high school—and later enrolled in college. I had no notion that I wanted to be a writer until I did. 

After I was discharged, there was a period of time where I’d bump into a classmate from high school and they were kind of like what happened? I would either downplay things or polish a detail or two into an outlandish anecdote. Certainly this was one way of dealing with the shame and the awkwardness; the performance became a kind of armor. But I can also see that younger version of myself grasping for a way to narrate her own experiences. The facts, somehow, did not seem to adequately capture the emotional reality. 

Also, this period of my life really broke my sense of time in a way that has never been fully restored. There is a three year period, from 15-17, where there are significant gaps in what I remember; part of it was feeling so eaten alive by my own interiority that my sense of the outside world was constricted. I have a lot of vivid memories from that time, many of which are in State of Paradise, but it’s hard for me to put them in sequence and there’s a lot I don’t remember well or at all. And now time in fiction is something that is of endless interest. I love to talk about it, think about it, write about it. It wasn’t until I was working on this novel that I made the connection between working with fictional temporalities and an unarticulated desire to restore my own understanding of time—which is probably beyond the capacities of fiction, but I actually think fiction has given me something even more powerful. Which is to expand my understanding of what and how time is, so instead of seeing my own timeline as a straight line marred by holes that needed to be filled I could imagine a more capacious temporal landscape that allows for these kinds of gaps. 

BG: Could what you said about facts vs. emotional reality be applied to understanding the two versions of the story that the narrator tells about her relationship with the orderly and how it came to an end? That was such a bold and fascinating decision, one that defied linear logic and yet felt right. Can you unpack that for me?

LvdB: There’s a line where the narrator talks about how she’s been telling different versions of this story for years, searching for the one that could “match what it felt like to live it.” I think that’s the quest of the fiction writer, which is also of concern to the narrator, who longs to be a “real writer” (as opposed to a ghost writer) herself–and sometimes that means departing wildly from those facts. I wanted the novel’s structure to actually embody that quest, as opposed to just discussing it. 

BG: What are some of your favorite novels that play with time? And what novels in particular inspired or influenced State of Paradise? (I noticed the word annihilation in the text a couple of times and thought immediately of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, also set in Florida.)

My younger version of myself grasping for a way to narrate her own experiences.

LvdB: I’m a huge Jeff VanderMeer fan and I love Annihilation in particular. In the short form, Cortázar and Borges are two of my favorite time-bending writers. And I’m obsessed with Marie NDiaye—Ladivine is my favorite with hers, and I also loved Vengance Is Mine, the latest to be translated into English (by Jordan Stump). NDiaye distorts and twists time in surprising and deeply unsettling ways; the familiar world is always just a mask. 

BG: One image that recurs in the book is that of a hole. Literal sinkholes, and figuratively there are holes in the narrator’s knowledge of her family history, and holes around which the family speaks, and then, most fascinating to me, the hole that her belly button becomes after she is sick with the pandemic virus. Even the portal of the MIND’S EYE device is a kind of hole! I’d love to know how you settled on that theme. 

LvdB: Early on, in those daily meditations, certain words kept coming up—including holes, sinkholes, etc. I actually hung these little scraps of prose on a wall and highlighted words that recurred and then built off of those repetitions. How many things can I say about a sinkhole? What surfaces in the imagination and in memory if I think about this word for long enough? That was the process I followed for writing the first 50 or so pages. Later on, I was able to give more concentrated thought to the thematic implications and undercurrents of certain words. I was really interested in the idea of “word as portal.” How can one word, looked at from a variety of different angles, transport us to another place? 

BG: Interesting, because especially early on there is a weaving quality to the narrative, as certain images repeat and recur, like holes, cats, runners, and knives. The narrative feels driven by images, like a poem, or a dream, and that made me think of the comparison between your work and David Lynch’s that I’ve sometimes seen, because there are moments in movies like Mulhalland Drive or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me that feel uncanny in the same way. Do you like that comparison to Lynch, or think it a helpful one in getting across to readers the vibe of your narratives? Are there other filmmakers you feel have influenced your narrative decisions in State of Paradise or in general?

LvdB: I think David Lynch’s worlds, like Mulhalland Drive, descend into outright nightmare in a way that feels different from trajectory of State of Paradise, but the aesthetic of being in a world where something is deeply off—that’s where I see the connection. Like you are in a place that appears familiar but feels deeply uncomfortable. In different ways, I think Karyn Kusama and Jane Campion are gifted at placing viewers in a familiar-feeling place and then eroding that familiarity. 

As you know from our past conversation, I spent a lot of time watching horror films when I was working on The Third Hotel and a lot of horror is very image driven, with momentum coming from the repetition of certain images and how those repetitions mutate. When I think of The Shining, for example, it’s the images that come to mind first: the twins, the blood gushing from the elevator. I’m always interested in the visual languages that films locate, and though State of Paradise doesn’t belong to that genre maybe some of the imagistic language was still with me—the tides of images that roll in and out, and reshape the landscape in the process. 

BG: I saw the term “speculative autofiction” used both in the publisher’s marketplace synopsis and the book’s Kirkus review. Was that a term used to describe the book after it was complete, or was that a helpful concept for you when writing it?

‘Speculative memoir’ can use clearly made-up elements to hold all kinds of difficult human things.

LvdB: It was a helpful concept in the writing. Early on I became really interested in the genre of “speculative memoir,” and how that form can use clearly made-up elements to hold all kinds of difficult human things. Sofia Samatar has said in an interview: “it’s precisely the tropes of fantasy and science fiction that are capable of expressing trauma, it’s the impossible that conveys emotional reality, it’s the rush of imagined material that’s the actual ‘me’ of me.” Samatar’s ideas were an essential lighthouse when I was working on the book—how and why I needed the “impossible” to write into things that had actually happened. I joked for a while that State of Paradise was my “science fiction memoir,” but at the same time I am a fiction writer, that is the grammar that is most available to me, so speculative autofiction” is more accurate. 

BG: State of Paradise seems to suggest that we’re all experiencing a different truth, a unique reality, though the unifying factor is that we are all traumatized by it. Emotionally, what was it like to work on State of Paradise? Was it different from or similar to your experience with your previous novels?

LvdB: It was definitely different. My other novels have taken a lot longer to write. This one came out quickly by comparison.There was definitely an emotional rawness but also a lot of joy. I think the book is pretty funny and so a lot of play was happening in the writing. This might sound strange, but I turned in the final version the year I turned 40 and I had this feeling of—I’ve finally put down what I’ve always needed to put down and now I can really move on. I have never in my life thought of writing fiction as therapeutic but in this case there was a discernible feeling of resolution and maybe even catharsis which was a new experience for me. 

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