Laura van den Berg: A Writer's Window

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a common enough question to ask a writer and one that I am usually ill-quipped to answer. Where do ideas come from? For me they usually seem to arrive out of nowhere, like a gift. Often these gifts are half-baked at best and terrible at worst, sort of like the gizzards cats drop on doorsteps, but mysterious nevertheless. In the case of my first novel, however, I have the rare pleasure of knowing exactly what to say: I got my ideas from windows.

In the six or so years I worked on my novel, I lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina; the battlefields of eastern Pennsylvania; Baltimore; a town in Massachusetts, just north of Boston; Maine. Even when settled in these places, I was rarely ever fully there. While in Baltimore, I commuted to D.C. for teaching work. I spent another semester shuttling back and forth between Massachusetts and Maine. In the summers, I spent months in a host of places that were not home: Utah, Key West, New York.

From birth until I was twenty-two, I lived in one place: Orlando, Florida. For over two decades, the landscape of central Florida was the only one I knew. After I left, my life began its peripatetic march—a reaction, perhaps, to the years of constancy, to observing the same highways and houses and lakes.

The landscapes of these past six years have been ever-shifting, but windows were a constant: there was always a way to look out and there was always something to see. The religious billboards I saw while driving around the south. The crosses on hills. The mountain fog that wrapped its way around houses and trees. The man who started singing God Bless America late one night, in a near-empty commuter train car, as we approached Baltimore. The abandoned blocks in the eastern part of the city with the hollow windows and the boarded doors. The raw winter skies of Massachusetts. A scorched barn in rural Maine. Graffiti on a crumbling overpass.

Since a window is a frame, much of my day-to-day looking was bound by those fixed borders. I saw a sliver of something, but not the whole story; I had to imagine what lay beyond. All of these places were utterly distinct, yet the eeriest details were always the ones that stuck. The beyonds I kept imagining were ominous and strange.

The novel I ended up writing takes place in a near future America, in the aftermath of an epidemic that destroys memory, and every place I lived in, for any period of time, left its mark—the setting might be speculative, but many of the landscape details are from life. After I spent a month in Key West, with its rotting summer heat and wild roosters in palm trees and mango rats that scuttled across my roof in the middle of the night, in the state I grew up in and yet very far from home, Florida found its way into the book. As did the Orange Dinosaur miniature golf course on Route 1 in Boston and a particular deserted house in Baltimore with grass growing through the porch and the abandoned barns of Maine. People have asked me how on earth I wrote a book while moving around so much, but it’s hard for me to imagine having written this book at all without these different places. Perhaps I am just especially susceptible to landscape.

A novel bends around the shape of your life and your life bends around the shape of a novel. In a recent interview with Guernica, Claire Messud said of The Emperor’s Children: “I always feel the reason people read it is because it has really short chapters and other people also have lives. So I always secretly thought that the key to that book having readers was that it had short chapters. But the writing of it, and why the chapters were short, was that those were the blocks of time that I had.” Working on a novel while living so peripatetically led me to a place where I felt as though I was constantly thinking someone else’s thoughts, registering the world with their sight. In order for all that I was seeing, through all of those windows, to be absorbed into the book, I had to effectively stop seeing as myself.

One afternoon, when my husband and I were walking on a trail near our house in Massachusetts, I pointed to the tires dangling from trees—part of a ropes course, we would later learn—and said, “Those look like nooses” and understood it wasn’t quite me talking then, but a character. After returning home, I added that detail to a scene.

Now, in its finished state, the novel has started to feel like a ghost world trailing behind me: present, but waning. Tires swinging from trees in Massachusetts look like part of a ropes course again. An abandoned KFC in Maine looks like just that—not a harbinger of The End. I am still looking through windows, but less inclined to imagine what’s beyond the frame. My own sight is returning, though after adopting the sight of a fictional character for so long, a part of me is left to wonder—What, exactly, is my sight? Perhaps the magnitude of that question accounts for the reason why so few writers, despite threats to the contrary, manage to actually retire.

In the spring, I will add Hudson Valley, New York to the list of places I have lived. I will be there for four months and then after that—who knows? I often find myself wondering how a novel would bend around a more stable life. Now that I am looking at the world with my own eyes again, stability has taken on a new appeal. For now, though, there is stable ground in what I do know: soon I will release my book into the world and it, in turn, will release me.