Laura van den Berg is the best young writer in America

Laura van den Berg's debut novel "Find Me" is earning deserved comparisons to Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro

Published February 17, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

Laura van den Berg
Laura van den Berg

In “Poetics,” Aristotle says that the best endings are surprising, yet inevitable. Can the same be said for a character? Joy Jones, the narrator of Laura van den Berg’s first novel, “Find Me,” is full of surprises. Joy drinks cough syrup to get stoned, writes lists to makes sense of the world and wears gardening gloves to stay warm. But van den Berg holds her in balance with a steady hand. By the end, Joy comes to land on an exact and inevitable point. It’s incredibly precise.

Told through Joy’s eyes, “Find Me” is an internal look at what it takes to survive. A disease is sweeping across the country that starts with memory loss and ends in death. When it’s discovered that Joy is immune, she joins a study that involves a long hospital stay in Kansas. Kept company by her roommate and the twins next door, Joy soon realizes that the hospital is more like a prison and it’s her past that holds the key to her future. With a cast of spirited characters and prose that is confident, glistening and raw, the story comes alive.

Van den Berg’s first collection of short stories, “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us” was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second, “The Isle of Youth,” won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was a "Best Book of 2013" by over a dozen venues, including NPR, the Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

“Find Me” is being compared to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” While it stands up to such fine company, I’d argue that van den Berg has a style, humor and grit that is all her own. Salon spoke to van den Berg by email.

A list about Joy Jones: She believes that the symmetry of her name has never suited her; laughter makes her feel brave; she used to get stoned on Robitussin; she has no talent for following rules; she leans on lists when she gets upset. How did you find her?

I worked on the book on and off for six years, so she’s a character who has become very dear to me. It feels important to say, however, that Joy did not arrive overnight—the process of excavating her character, of excavating traits like the ones you mentioned, was a long one.

I tend to be drawn to characters who are not rule followers, who behave in unexpected and unusual ways. In real life, we are often so bound by social convention, but at the same time we all have secret, inexplicable aspects of ourselves. The parts that nobody else sees. In fiction, we are not bound by social convention, so the things that mystify and unsettle are allowed to rise to the surface.

Is there part of Joy in you?

Here’s something a little more personal: In my teens, I was having a hard time and ended up in a therapy group of young women, some of whom had endured terrible childhood traumas. In some cases, these women had a sense of what had happened to them, but key information was missing.

The predominate thinking on the part of the therapists was that one must access and face these missing memories (often through hypnosis) in order to become well, but there was also a real danger in that: Can you face what your memory has been keeping from you? What is the cost of remembering?

Their struggle was not my struggle—I’ve never been abused, I have no missing memories, I have a terrific family, etc.—but nevertheless witnessing these young women struggle with their memories was deeply haunting and it’s a time in my life that I will never forget.

Joy makes lists.

For Joy, the lists are more about finding systems to organize the world. The world of the hospital, the epidemic and its aftermath are of course strange for Joy, but her own history is equally mystifying.

On both the external and internal levels, there is a great deal she is trying to make sense of and the lists are her attempt—albeit a somewhat superficial one—of ordering the world. The lists got more esoteric in the last quarter of the book—i.e., “a list of things that get to live forever”—and I felt like that was Joy starting to release her previous ideas about what it means to have order.

In many disaster stories, those who survive are the burly, strong and well armed. Joy is small, hungry and armed only with garden gloves, yet she is a survivor. What does it take to survive?

True! She is not your typical survivor in some respects, but Joy is scrappy and smart and her childhood has actually prepared her well for the hospital and what happens after. She learned to notice; to listen; to endure; to hide; to run. She already knows what it means to be a trauma survivor, and that turns out to be a useful skill in the second book, "After."

In “Find Me,” The epidemic is amplified by fear and civil unrest. As Dr. Bek, the doctor in charge of the wards at the hospital, points out it only takes the smallest change to turn our lives inside out. Are we so fragile?

Well, yes—and absolutely not, at the same time. On the one hand, the gap between “business as usual” and catastrophe can, at times, feel alarmingly small. On the other, given all that has gone and is going so terribly awry in our world, it’s a wonder we haven’t completely melted down already. We, and the societies we construct, are astonishingly vulnerable and astonishingly resilient.

The disease in your novel is terrifying as the spread and the reaction to it feels so plausible, especially in light of the recent outbreaks of measles. How did you come up with the shape of the sickness?

For a while, the sickness was rendered in a more realistic manner; it was more "Contagion"-esque. But the longer I worked on the book, the more the sickness edged into the surreal and that felt right to me. For one, it was in keeping with the “tilted world” I wanted to capture in “Find Me,” but also alleviated some of the practical concerns about representing the mysterious ways in which the sickness moves, the national response, and so on.

Ultimately this is less a book about examining the mechanics of a national collapse and recovery than it is about Joy’s interior journey, and the more surreal incarnations of the sickness felt like they were better serving Joy. And once the memory loss came into play, I understood how the larger story of the sickness and Joy’s story locked together.

The first half of the novel opens with the last line from Haruki Murakami’s "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle," “In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.”

On a literal level, in the hospital Joy is far away from “anyone or anywhere”—in terms of people and places that are familiar—and is indeed drifting. That Murakami line has a transportive quality to me. It calls to mind a character descending into a dream.

The ending of “Find Me” reminded me of the film “Boyhood” in that a reader could follow Joy as endlessly as we could have followed Richard Linklater’s Mason. But you also found the perfect place to leave Joy Jones. How did you make this choice?  

With both novels and short stories, I think a lot in terms of character arcs, when it comes to endings. I wanted Joy to arrive at a moment where something shifts powerfully within, even if that moment is fleeting and the vast unknown still lies at her feet. The last paragraph is full of rage and directives, orders—the last line is especially directive.

At long last, Joy is the one who is delivering the instructions, not Dr. Bek from the hospital or anyone from her past. Once I reached that moment of fury and empowerment, I knew that was where Joy’s story should end.

Lorrie Moore says “a short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage.”

It was the longest relationship I’ve ever had with a project before, that’s for sure. At times, it was wonderful to be so deeply imbedded in the world of the book and at times the challenges felt crushingly insurmountable. It seemed like a test of fortitude in a way.

I would never advocate pushing through with a project that you aren’t obsessed with, that you don’t love, just for the sake of finishing—I find boredom unbearable, so I quit things all the time—but in this case my heart was sunk deep in “Find Me” and many of my biggest hurdles were psychological. Can I push through the uncertainty and the doubt? Can I figure out the kinds of questions I need to be asking of Joy and her world?

There were many times when I wondered if I would find what I needed to finish the book and yet I kept working on it and then one day I was there.

You say, “A nightmare becomes a nightmare when you start to believe it will never end.”

Ha! That could be an apt parallel for novel writing, except I think it’s crucially important for us to remember that no one is forcing us to write our books. If writing “Find Me” ever did feel like a nightmare—and it did at times, when I was terribly stuck and feeling deeply anxious about being terribly stuck—it was only unending because I chose to keep going. I could have stopped at any time, in theory, and ultimately it was up to me to figure out what I needed to figure out in order to escape the nightmare phase.

Before you started, did the idea of writing a novel make you nervous?

Not at first—but that was just because I had never written a novel before and didn’t know what I was getting into! When I wrote the first draft of "Find Me," in 2008, I approached it much in the same way I would write the first draft of a short story. Write the draft straight through, in a frenzy, don’t plan or chart, just go. Having a 300-page mess on your hands, however, is very different than having a 20-page mess on your hands.

Once I realized how long it was going to take me to make my way through this world, to even understand what I had put on the page, I started to get very nervous.

In that moment after you sat down and before you started to write, what felt different about a novel?

In a novel, there are a lot more threads to track and you’re trying to create a longer, more sustained arc. I was so used to the compression of the short story, and it took me a really long time to get a feel for the pacing, the tempo, of the novel.

Why did you decide to write this length?

The two-part structure—one part set in the hospital, the second on the outside—was there from the beginning and when I thought about what that shape would look like in a short story, I couldn’t see it. Immediately that structure seemed to require a larger, more expansive canvas and so it was very much a case of the form responding to the demands of the material.

I organize my bookshelf according to feel and “Find Me” will live somewhere between “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook, “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel and “All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews. How do you like the neighborhood?

I love that neighborhood. I’m a fan of all of those authors. I read “All My Puny Sorrows” very recently and fell in love with Miriam Toews’ work. That novel is totally unafraid of the dark wilderness of the mind and heart—seeing as it’s a novel largely preoccupied with suicide—and it also somehow manages to be really funny. It felt incredibly alive to me.

“Find Me” has many beautiful lines. One that stood out about remembering: “All you are doing is telling yourself a story.” If memory is story, is this why you write?

I think memory and storytelling rise from a similar impulse. Part of the drive behind the shaping and recalling of memories is a desire to self-narrate: We need our story, our history, our trajectory through life to make some kind of sense, to have a comprehensible shape.

Memory is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. In fiction, I’m very interested in that self-created narrative, and how story can be used to explore and, in some cases, challenge or even dismantle it.

By Claire Cameron

Claire Cameron’s most recent novel is “The Bear,” which is just out in paperback. She is a staff writer at The Millions, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe & Mail and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Books Dystopia Fiction Find Me Laura Van Den Berg Memory Loss Novels Writing