After writing two extremely successful collections of short stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg published her first novel this month. In the world of Find Me, an Alzheimer’s-like disease sweeps the nation, making people forget their own names, where they come from, the faces of the people they love. But the protagonist, Joy, is somehow immune; she cannot forget the troubles of her past, as hard as she tries to move on and blur her brain with cough syrup. The Millions spoke to van den Berg on a bitterly cold winter day — similar to the weather in the first part of the book, which takes place in a sterile, former state psychiatric hospital in Kansas. There, Joy is a patient in a study run by the strict Dr. Bek, who is obsessed with trying to understand the sickness.
As the book progresses and more of her fellow patients succumb to the disease, Joy starts to seek out her memories rather than suppress them and eventually escapes the hospital. The second part of the book chronicles Joy’s journey south to Florida, where she hopes she can find her birth mother who abandoned her as a baby. She gets lost and again finds herself a prisoner of sorts; this time in a ghostly house lorded over by a young man named Nelson who thinks he has found a cure.
Van den Berg spoke to The Millions from Bard College, where she is a writer-in-residence this spring.
The Millions: You seem to be very interested in the idea of looking versus finding. The first story in your most recent story collection is called “I looked for You, I Called Your Name.” Now in Find Me, these two strategies of finding come up. Nelson says, “The trick to finding is to stop looking,” and Joy dismisses this idea as “bullshit.” So which one works? How do these two approaches bear on your writing?
Laura van den Berg: I think for Joy, she’s keenly aware of the force of looking, if that makes sense. From Joy’s perspective, certainly before the sickness and to a certain degree after the sickness, if she were to disappear off the face of the earth there would presumably be no one to look for her. There would be no one to put her face on a milk carton or put her flyer up in a subway station, and she’s sort of almost painfully aware of how if you have people in the world to whom you matter, if something happens to you, they will go looking for you, as she is going to look for her mother. Joy is driven to look and longs to be looked for. And in a more general way, and I think this is where the novel and the stories have some correspondence, we all look for things in life sort of consciously and unconsciously all the time but actually finding them and locating them in a concrete way is a much more complicated endeavor. I think looking is this activity that were all engaged in on a near daily basis, but how often do we actually find the things that we’re seeking?
TM: How does this relate to the process of writing? Is it an active search for something? Or is more about stumbling upon something? Or is it about being found?
LVDB: I think the writing process is definitely all of those thing. I can tell you I don’t outline; I don’t plan things in advance. When I was writing Find Me, I really only would know enough to write the next scene. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know how the book was going to end. And I wrote the first draft of the novel in 2008 and then turned in my final edits in May of 2014, and I wasn’t necessarily working on the book for all of the time in between, but I often was and if you were to ask me, what were you doing in the interim, I mean a lot of the work I was doing in terms of revising was sort of excavating the world of the book, excavating Joy’s character, excavating her interior life. So absolutely I was searching and often searching in the wrong direction. I had a couple of particularly difficult years working on Find Me when I might write for six months or in one case almost a year and realize that I needed to start over and go down a new path. So there’s a lot of looking, there’s a lot of searching, there’s stumbling, and you just have to trust that if you stay engaged long enough in that practice and your heart is really in the project then eventually you’ll find what you need to find. For me I feel like I don’t know what it is until I find it.
TM: So do you disagree with Nelson?
LVDB: I think when it comes to writing, I do think there is something to that. When I was most stuck on the book and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and roll up my sleeves and figure this out in a very conscious way,” it often had the effect of making me feel more blocked or more stuck and I found that when the right thought or the right gesture would bubble up to the surface it was often when I wasn’t at my desk. It was when I was taking a walk, when I was driving, when I was in the shower. So I do think it’s a tricky thing because I think for me if I’m working very hard on a project it is important for me to show up at my desk on a regular basis, but also a lot of the work is done at an unconscious level and you want to make sure you’re giving yourself space to do that.
TM: Speaking of tricky things, the idea of a memory trick comes up several times. In the first part of the book, Joy describes: “The opposite of a memory trick, when you are trying to remember what you don’t remember, not because you have forgotten, not because it has been hidden in some dark corner, but because it never happened. Remembering the false memory can make you feel like you are rewriting the past, reordering the laws of physics, which of course you are not. All you’re doing is telling yourself a story.” But in the second part, she asks, “What is a memory but the telling of a story?” All of this makes it difficult to determine which parts of the book are Joy’s memories and which parts are stories she’s telling herself. Is there a difference between memories and stories, and how does that speak to writing?
LVDB: I’m really interested in how memory operates, as evidenced in Find Me. I think memory and storytelling, I don’t think they’re the same thing, but I think they rise from very similar impulses. When we tell a story, even if we’re creating a world that is mysterious and incomprehensible, we’re still giving that world a shape, a structure, a trajectory. I do think in some ways storytelling is an attempt to bring order to the world and to bring order to our experience and to shape it in some kind of meaningful way, and I think memory rises from a similar impulse. The act of recalling and reserving memory is to some degree a way to self-narrate to shape our experience into some kind of story that’s comprehensible to us. And I think we all remember selectively, too. Anyone who has ever been part of a family knows that you can have six people in a room who remember the same argument and recall it in radically different ways. How do account for those disparities? There’s a huge selective component when it comes to memory.
TM: So then it’s not clear if storytelling is about remembering or forgetting? Is it a memory trick or the opposite of a memory trick?
LVDB: I think in order to remember — we’re about to get real circular here — I think in order to remember in some ways you have to forget. Because I tell you a story about what happened to me yesterday afternoon, I’m not literally remembering everything. I might leave out what I ate for lunch, what the sky looked like, what a person said to me on the street. I think the act of memory implies selection; you are selecting certain details that serve your story. So in order to preserve that memory, you actually have to do some forgetting; you have to dispense with some of the details. We tend to think of remembering and forgetting of being on opposite ends of a continuum, and I actually would argue that they’re closer together than they might at first appear.
TM: How did you get preoccupied with interrogating memory?
LVDB: It’s not something I can trace back to a single moment. When I first started writing this book, Joy was always the narrator; it was always her story. But in the earlier incarnations of the novel, the sickness got a much more realistic treatment. It was more like Contagion. And some early readers were like, “Well, I like the sickness and I like Joy, but I don’t really understand what one has to do with the other.” And the truth was I didn’t really understand either. I felt intuitively that they belonged together but I hadn’t really figured out how or why, and then the more I worked on the book, the more the sickness started to tip into this surreal direction, which felt right for this tilted world that I was trying to capture. Then when the memory loss component came into play, I began to understand at long last how Joy’s story and the sickness locked together. But that was a very long process. And when I mentioned the idea of excavating earlier that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. I didn’t have all the pieces on the board to start with, it was this slow process of discovery.
TM: There are certain parts of the book where forgetting is a cure, like when Joy takes Robitussin. But in other parts when remembering is the cure, when the desire to remember keeps us alive. I think in the same way that remembering and forgetting are closer than we might think, maybe this idea of a cure and a sickness are closer than we might think?
LVDB: Yeah, definitely. I did do some reading around psychosomatic medicine. With illness, there is sometimes an unconscious component and how much does the mental landscape affect the physical?…For example, people who have anxiety, people who have depression — I’ve suffered from depression at various points in my life — and there are very real tangible, physical symptoms that go along with that, but the origin is in the mind. So I think the mind/body connection is always very interesting to me.
We see this in medicine all the time that sometimes this thing that will cure you, if you get too much of it, it will kill you. A lot of the drugs used to treat depression, for example, so much of that relies on getting the right drug, the right dose, etc. and if you’re a little bit off on that, if the dose is a little too low or a little too high, it can have devastating ramifications. I think sickness and cure are closer together on the spectrum than we might initially think. But I think for Joy, it really comes down to the question of how to live. Because if Joy is satisfied to go through life in a haze of Robitussin, drifting along, falling asleep on buses, waking up and not knowing where she is, then forgetting is working really well for her. But I think what happens to Joy, particularly in the second half of the book, when those familiar cooping mechanisms are stripped away, is that she starts to want something more and she wants to be engaged in the world, be present in the world. And then there’s this sense that in order to do that, she must remember and confront the damaged parts of her sickness.
TM: Ghosts seem to be present at times in the book. Do you believe in ghosts? Are these ghosts real? And why are we telling ourselves these ghost stories?
LVDB: They’re real to Joy, and they’re real to the world and, as a writer, to me that’s more important than are they real in the more objective sense. Are they forces in the world that can help move Joy to a particular point that she needs to get to by the end of the book? However, you’re right; ghosts do appear in a literal way in the second part of the novel, and I very intentionally open certain windows in terms of the level of ambiguity that exists in the book. I don’t want to speak too specifically in case people are reading this that haven’t read the novel. It’s sort of a question of has Joy invented or conjured certain people or forces that will help her make it through this very strange, damaged, alarming world. That’s a very tricky balance because you don’t want to leave the reader entirely baffled. I didn’t want to have one of these endings where you go to the end and it’s like: “Haha! This isn’t real.” Or the bad workshop story that you see if you teach a lot when someone wakes up at the end of the story and it’s all a dream. My favorite writing that deals with the magical takes the magical very, very seriously; it’s as serious and as consequential as the objectively real world and so I wanted to treat it with that respect and weight, that whether its real in the literal sense it’s nevertheless a meaningful force in the world.
TM: Magic, mystery, secrets come up in a lot of your writing. One secret that comes up in the book, is delivered by Mr. Carroll, one of Joy’s foster parents and a guard at an art museum: “The secret to life, is to do whatever stupid ass thing you want and call it art.” Do you agree?
LVDB: No, I don’t agree with that. [Laughing.] I think that’s an overheard line of dialogue that I heard in a museum. I’m an incorrigible eavesdropper and I absolutely overhear dialogue and it often ends up bubbling up and working its way into fiction…that seemed to me something that a jaded museum guard might say…I do think there’s a lot of freedom if you’re an artist, I can theoretically write about whatever I want, or if you’re a sculptor or a painter you can sculpt whatever you want, paint whatever you want. So the choices we make might seem dumb or baffling to some readers or viewers. I’ve certainly had the experience of going to a museum and being like, “Really, you devoted your entire life to this string?” But no art is for everyone, and that’s the beauty of the field. It does not have to speak to everyone; it just has to speak to whom it speaks to.
TM: What are you working on now that you’ve finished your first novel?
LVDB: I’m working on new stories, and I’m also in the very early stages of a novel project set in Cuba. I think of it as a ghost story, so ghosts remain a thing. I think the story-novel rhythm is good for me. I hate feeling too confined, so sometimes when I’m working on a long project, I need to go do other things for a while and then circle back to it.