Laura van den Berg on Piecing Her Collection Together in Baltimore

In one of our favorite reviews of Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth, Kevin Nguyen at Grantland compares the collection to Frank Ocean’s latest album, Channel Orange:

“A sturdy short story collection works like a good album: strong piece by piece, but also on the whole. ‘I Looked for You, I Called Your Name&rquo; is as strong an opener as I’ve ever seen in a book of short stories, and it sets the tone and pace for the rest of Laura van den Berg’s second work . . . I’m not much of a rereader, but I’ve returned to the collection’s best story, “Antarctica,” several times already . . . To extend the album metaphor past its welcome, [“Antarctica”] reminded me of my obsession with “Pyramids” from Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. Like Ocean, this is van den Berg’s most ambitious, intricate piece, but it is also a showcase of all her talents: It’s coolly written, a masterful balance of subtle beauty and strangeness. Sometimes you get the sense these stories are more about mood than meaning, and as it turns out, that’s something you’re more likely to revisit — a puzzle, an uncertain feeling.

Below, Laura van den Berg describes how she put her puzzle together in Baltimore.

In May of 2012, I received a notice from my apartment building in Baltimore, slipped underneath my door. It seemed innocuous enough, this thin sheet of paper sitting on the floor, but it carried some unfortunate news. Major renovations would soon begin and our floor, the sixth floor, would be impacted especially, as construction workers would need to access a part of the building’s interior that could, for reasons that mystify me still, only be reached by going through our bedroom closets.

“Only in Baltimore,” my husband said as he reviewed the notice.

From the notice, several things became clear. Strangers would be coming in and out of our apartment as much as their work required them to. We would need to empty our bedroom closet. There was going to be a lot of noise and dust. My spring semester had just ended, and May was the month I was finally going to finish the short story collection I had been working on for the last three years. The apartment my husband and I shared was a small one-bedroom; my “office” was a desk wedged into a living room corner. From there, I could look out a tall window at the street below and the buildings beyond; that view had always made my workspace feel like enough. In a small apartment, however, unforeseen disturbances have a way of magnifying the absence of space—of separate rooms, doors that close, a means of escape.

We emptied our closet. The construction began. The document titled The Isle of Youth languished on my laptop.

There is an ocean of difference between a group of stories and a collection. A group of stories is, well, a group of stories. A collection is a chance to build a world. There are echoes and parallels and contrasts. There is a progression, an arc. There is the “understory,” to quote George Saunders. The subterranean layers. I had planned to spend May looking at the group of stories corralled together in that document, in search of the larger architecture. But then life intruded, as it does.

One afternoon, I was lamenting the noise and the dust on Facebook (who says social media doesn’t accomplish anything?) and shortly thereafter got a message from some friends who were moving away from Baltimore, which I already knew. What I didn’t know was that they were leaving a few weeks before their lease officially ended. They offered to let me use those weeks to work in their empty apartment. I said “yes” right away, awash in gratitude.

This apartment was a fifteen minute walk from my apartment, which already looked like the apocalypse had blown through. I arrived at their building on a bright, hot afternoon, a key and a printed draft of The Isle of Youth in hand. Inside I found a chair and a small table; otherwise the apartment, the walls and hardwood floors, were empty. There was, mercifully, no Wifi.

laura in Baltimore

Over the next few weeks, I worked daily in that apartment. I relished the luxury of space, the freedom of movement. I lay each story on the floor, page by page, and ferreted out the connective tissue. I taped first and last pages to the wall and studied them. I spent a lot of time pacing and kneeling and leaning on walls. I rarely sat in the chair, at the desk. Instead the process became active and physical—almost as bodily as it was mental. I felt like I was assembling a very large puzzle, even if I didn’t yet fully understand what the parameters of the puzzle, the borders, were supposed to look like. I trusted that if I kept looking, the whole picture would emerge.

isle of youth

When I was stuck, I played my music too loud. I walked to the used bookstore down the street. I went to the grocery around the corner and bought a pack of cigarettes, which I smoked on the sidewalk, looking up at the apartment window, where I could see my white pages fluttering on the wall.

There is a lot to be said for looking closely. I started to notice echoes, which gave way to an architecture, an order. I saw how the opening story “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name,” which contains a last line that contains the word “evidence,” could give way to “Opa-Locka,” a story about two sisters working as private eyes. I saw that “I Looked For You…” and the title story could serve as bookends for the others: they both begin with arrivals and the suggestion of bodily danger (an emergency landing, a hurricane). In “I Looked For You…” the narrator has a twin that died at birth; in “The Isle of Youth,” the narrator has an adult twin who goes missing. Suddenly “Lessons,” the only story in the third person, whose inclusion I had been puzzling over, made sense midway through the collection as a kind of transition, a turning point. I also saw the echoes I wanted to mute—that it might be wise, for example, to put distance between the two stories with missing fathers. The borders of the puzzle were starting to take shape.

While studying my first and last lines, I noticed the presence of “disappear” or “vanish” or some other word or phrase that evoked the missing in nearly every sentence. I came to understand that this was largely a book about the incomprehensibility of people leaving.

On my last day in the apartment, I knew the collection had made the passage from a group of stories to a book—not a perfect book, to be sure, but in those weeks an essential transformation had occurred. Walking into the empty apartment each day, greeted by only a desk and a chair and my pages, felt like slipping through a portal into a space where The Isle of Youth was not a scattering of stories, but a unified thing struggling into existence. That evening, the stack of pages felt different as I carried them home.

Before I left, I opened the bedroom window and crawled outside, then climbed a little ladder that led to the uppermost part of the roof. I looked out at the low skyline of Baltimore, hazy with dusk and heat. I smoked my last cigarette and resolved to quit, as we do. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed out there, but it was all the time I needed.

About the Author

Laura van den Berg’s debut story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, a finalist for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and long-listed for the Story Prize. Her stories have appeared in One Story, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, and Best New American Voices 2010, among other publications. A Florida native, she has an MFA from Emerson College and is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. She lives in the Boston area.