Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories, “The Isle of Youth,’’ was hailed as one of 2013’s best works of fiction by more than a dozen outlets, including The Boston Globe. Her first novel, “Find Me,” comes out next month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It concerns a downtrodden Bostonian addicted to cough syrup and immune to the plague killing most people around her. Van den Berg lives in Andover with her husband, the fiction writer Paul Yoon, and a new puppy. She writes there and at the Writers’ Room, a nonprofit cooperative work space near the State House.
THE VANISHING WORLD: When I get to the Writers’ Room . . . it’s dead quiet. It’s like the quiet car on Amtrak: People take the silent atmosphere very seriously. There’s wireless, but I keep my Wi-Fi off and look over my notes and dive in. I realize the amount of work that I can get done here writing three days a week vs. working every day at home is vastly, vastly different. At home, we have a puppy, and I end up talking to my husband and have my e-mail on . . . The business of living is always nudging in on the margins, but here the world vanishes.
NO ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE: It puzzles me when writers say they can’t read fiction when they’re writing fiction because they don’t want to be influenced. I’m totally open to useful influence. I’m praying for it . . . While writing “Find Me,” I sought out a lot of first-person novels, novels that involved a search in some way, and idiosyncratic novels in a dystopian vein, like Fiona Maazel’s “Last Last Chance” . . . Ben Marcus’s “The Flame Alphabet,” and Grace Krilanovich’s “The Orange Eats Creeps.”
HOLD AND RELEASE: I worked on the novel on and off for about six years and wrote a story collection in the interim . . . The novel was in an unfinished state for so long that I needed the satisfaction or the confidence that comes with completing a narrative arc. I know some writers that have a million novel ideas, but I don’t . . . but I have notebooks full of story ideas. If I’m really rolling with a short story, I work on it everywhere and end up with a finished draft in a couple months, but a novel really demands that I step out of my life and vanish into the world of the book . . . I would cordon off time at home to read pages and make notes and sketch out scenes — more daydreaming sort of work — and save my writing energy for when I was in the Writer’s Room, where I would just unleash. I was hoarding momentum. I went through a period where I was trying to write 1,000 words every day and I got burned out, so that pattern of hold and release worked out much better for me.
WHAT IS THE WHAT: In the spring and summer, I was teaching at Emerson, where I went to graduate school, and I taught at Colby College in the fall . . . One of my favorite things about teaching fiction is that I get to read a mix of works that I love, and fiction that’s new to me. I think that one thing about teaching is you’re trying to communicate your thoughts about a work to a group of people who may or may not share that sentiment. This has forced me to become a lot more articulate about what I respond to and what I don’t respond to in fiction. If I give them a story by Amy Hempel, I can’t just say it’s amazing; I have to be able to say why. This has made me a sharper editor of my own work by helping me see it with more clarity, to unravel what is exciting me in some moments and bogging me down in others.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.