“All cities have their apocalyptic-seeming corners.” @knguyen talks to @lvandenberg

“THE BEST YOUNG WRITER IN AMERICA”*’s debut novel, Find Me, came out this week in paperback. Kevin Nguyen talks with Laura van den Berg about Fallout 4, speculative fiction, and character attachment.

KN: I read Find Me early last year, and two other very different things drew me back to it throughout 2015. The first was Nick Moran's audacious essay on The Millions about the apocalypse of Florida (which smartly references Find Me). The second was the videogame Fallout 4, which literally renders an apocalyptic vision of Boston. Find Me takes place in both of these places! Is there something inherently apocalyptic about them? Why did you set the novel in these places?

LVDB: Oh, I loved Nick Moran’s essay about apocalyptic Florida. “There are many ways to die in Florida, and a hurricane is only one.” What a line. For me, it’s a place where the surreal and the mundane exist alongside one another to an often startling degree. Also it’s a place of extremes: the weather, the wildlife, the politics. Perhaps the extremity has always made Florida feel like an fundamentally unstable place to me, even though I grew up there.

I confess that I don’t know Fallout 4—I have a lingering videogame aversion thanks to an old boyfriend who spent nearly every waking hour playing them—but an apocalyptic Boston might just be enough to get me to wade back in. I have lived in Boston, so I know the city well, and while it does not have the uniquely off-kilter strangeness of Florida, I think all cities have their apocalyptic-seeming corners. The boarded-up building, the car someone ditched on the roadside, the languishing construction site. Those small acts of abandonment.

findmebookshot

I think I was drawn to having both these places exist in Find Me partly because it was a world where I was attempting so many new things—the speculative, for one—so it was a helpful anchor to return to familiar landscapes. There were also some structural parallels place helped created: Joy’s passage from cold to warm; landlocked to coastal; frozen to melting.

KN: One of the symptoms of the epidemic in Find Me causes people to lose their memory before they die. What connection were you trying to draw between memory and the apocalypse?

LVDB: Joy has, for me, always been at the center of the memory questions: the relationship between memory and identity; the self-narrating we engage in to make our lives comprehensible; how the act of memory can be both saving and destructive; the question of whether the erasure of memory can, in some instances, be a gift. So I started with Joy, stayed with Joy, and the larger world of the memory-erasing epidemic eventually sprouted up around her. I was interested in the interplay between that larger canvas of forgetting and remembering and the personal dystopia Joy has been existing inside, her journey to crawl back from psychic obliteration. And for a character as frozen and calcified as she, I did truly feel it would take a cataclysmic series of events to push her into a space where new movement was possible.

KN: Find Me emerged alongside Station Eleven and California—two other great books that you could classify as "literary apocalyptic." Is there something about right now that draws us toward the end of the world?

LVDB: That’s a great question, and it’s one I wish I had a better answer for! Certainly there’s been an abundance of dystopian novels as of late (though I started Find Me in 2008—I took a lot of long breaks—so before the recent dystopian wave). That could be attributed to the fact that we’re on the precipice of historic environmental catastrophe, and thus staring down our own demise in a more immediate way. Also, I have a friend who once theorized that for writers who came into young adulthood around 9/11—I was born in ‘83—the apocalyptic might well seem like a more natural direction to reach in.

At the same time, dystopian literature is nothing new; it is, of course, part of a very long tradition. In her essay, “It’s the End of the World as She Knows It,” Sloane Crosley dove all the way back to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, which was published in 1826. Crosley’s essay focuses on dystopian novels authored by women, arguing that “These writers don’t need to destroy the world in order to imagine what it might be like to feel unsafe in it. The threat of violence is not something that’s new to them, and thus they’re less likely to fixate on it in narrative form, opting instead for stories about psychological preservation.” All observations I found deeply interesting.

More generally, though, I suspect the world of Find Me was more an outgrowth of my own preoccupations with mortality—what it means to live in the world, what it means to leave it—and a desire to explore those human limits on a larger scale.

KN: It's been a year since Find Me came out. Has your impression of the book changed in that year? Has anything about its reception surprised you?

LVDB: That’s an interesting question for me, as I’m not prone to looking back a lot on past work. The Isle of Youth has been out for a few years now, and if someone quotes something from a story back to me in an interview, I’m often like “Huh, just when did I write that?”

islebookshot

Like most writers, I’d imagine, I was overwhelmingly grateful for any review, mention, discussion, etc, grateful to anyone engaging with the project of this novel. Writers tend to feel a sea of conflicting emotions when going through the publication process but all that left me feeling about as good as I was capable of feeling. I especially loved the piece you wrote for Grantland—Ishiguro is a hero of mine, and it was such an honor to read about something I had written discussed alongside The Buried Giant.

For me the biggest difference between stories and novels is the intensity of connection I felt with the central character. I don’t often think about the characters in The Isle of Youth still, or the characters in my first collection, even though both those books of course mean a great deal to me. But Joy is still a kind of presence in my life and I think about her all the time. A bit like a (mostly friendly) ghost trailing me around. I’m working on a new novel now, so new ghosts are appearing, but I’m surprised by how much she’s stuck with me. And so I was/am particularly moved any time a reader seemed to forge a strong connection with her. I’ve gotten some letters from people whose childhood experiences left them with fractured memories, saying how they had connected with Joy and how her story had maybe even helped them a little. I’m not of the mind that it’s the job of fiction to help anyone, but holy hell those letters were very powerful to read.

For more from Laura van den Berg visit her website: lauravandenberg.com

Follow Kevin Nguyen on Twitter: @knguyen

*Claire Cameron, Salon