An Interview with Laura Van Den Berg
I first met Laura Van Den Berg in Chicago in 2009 during the annual AWP festival where I was manning the Publishing Genius Press table, desperately trying to sell books among thousands of others trying to desperately sell their books. At that moment, the scene was bleak. But when Laura came to the table she was smart, funny, and curious about each book she picked up. She seemed to care and pay attention to my rambling about the books on the table, and watching her move from table to table, she carried this curiosity with her amongst the thousands of shoulder-shruggers and the downright exhausted. She bought three books, including my own novel, from the table. We’ve stayed in contact ever since.
Laura’s curiosity (I imagine her as someone who could find anything, say, linguine, worth dissecting to find the interesting inside it) carries over into her fiction. Her new collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, mines the lives of men and women in revealing and microscopic ways. Her stories are incredibly sleek, intelligent, and well crafted. After a week of re-reading DeLillo and Lydia Davis, I moved right into The Isle of Youth without once being consciously aware that this is an author who is still in the early stages of her career.
I emailed Laura (who was on the train from Boston to New York where she was giving a reading to promote The Isle of Youth) to discuss gender, death, editing, and to find out how her first novel is going.
THE BELIEVER: The summary for The Isle of Youth is only 140 words but I was surprised at how aggressive the sell is that this is a book about women. It “explores the lives of women mired in secrecy and deception,” and, “the reader grows attached to the marginalized young women in these stories.” The stories highlighted in the summary are about “an inscrutable marriage” and a “magician mother.” At the end you’re referred to as a “sorceress.” Do you have any thoughts or reservations about this kind of gender pigeon-holing?
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: I don’t have reservations. All the stories in Isle are narrated by women and are very much about women—in that the male characters, when they appear, tend to be more peripheral, one piece in the puzzle that these women are struggling to assemble. I think I would feel differently if the stories weren’t so women-oriented—like, why would they just focus on this one aspect when I write about other things that have nothing to do with women? But I don’t. So that focus does not feel inaccurate or unfair to me.
My publisher, FSG, actually shied away from overusing the “woman angle” in some ways. An early cover had a woman on it; it was a cool cover but very literal and for sure emphasizing gender more. My editor nixed that one pretty quickly, and we ended up with a much more enigmatic, arguably less conveniently “marketable” cover. Also: it fucking sparkles.
But while we’re on the subject: do you know what’s been driving me crazy lately? People asking why I’m not smiling in my author’s photo, or knocking the photo because I look imposing and unapproachable, as opposed to “warm.” Do people ask you why you’re not smiling in your author’s photo? Or get requests for a different photo because you don’t look friendly enough? I get different versions of this a lot. As a result, I am pretty well determined to never smile in another photo ever again.
BLVR: The story about the cover seems very typical—a designer got the pitch and thought “I’m going with a woman on the cover for this one, done.” I like the cover they decided on. I just didn’t come away from The Isle of Youth thinking “this is a book about women” rather, “this is a book about humans who are all fucked in some sense.” Out in public, or say, on the train right now, do men ever tell you to smile? And no, I’ve never been asked why I’m not smiling or asked to send a different author photo. I’m a thin, white, heterosexual man.
LVDB: It was a cool cover, but we wanted something that would evoke the book in a more comprehensive way. In a funny/nice coincidence, the designer is a friend, so I was unworried because I already knew A. I dug her work and B. if we ran into issues, we could talk it out as needed. Otherwise I might have been a little worried about a palm tree making an appearance, which I really did not want.
And that has happened occasionally: men telling me to smile in public, as though a smile is something that I owe them. But most of the time I’m walking around with my iPod going at full volume, so if anyone is saying anything to me I’m probably missing it.
The Isle of Youth is a staff favorite here. Buy it, read it, be a better human.
"Love Actually" is 10 years old today! if you’re the kind of person who watches it every year to kick off the holiday season*, then pick up one of these books. We’ve pegged them to each of the movie’s nine (!) love stories—from infidelity to puppy love to huge romantic gestures, we’ve got a book for that.
*I don’t know why I’m even asking, because who doesn’t do that? Seriously.
The best, best thing to happen to the Internet today. Counting down the days until Thanksgiving is over and we can watch our first viewing around here…
But we never talked about age, gender, or nationality. I’m convinced that if you go with quality, what you’ll get is equality. You get diversity and gender balance. I think in those years when there hasn’t been that gender diversity, someone has had their thumbs on the scales.
—Confessions of a Booker Prize judge: Stuart Kelly on reading a book a day and what really goes on behind closed doors at the Booker.
Anonymous asked: Do you ever suggest checking in on a novella submission, after the four to six months time frame has passed?
We do not. We do our best to stay true to that time frame, and usually are, but we receive quite a lot of submissions and want to give each of them due attention, so sometimes we fall a bit behind. Rest assured that your submission will be given full consideration in as timely a manner as possible.
In the final weeks of the submission period for the Lambda Literary Awards, it looks like again this year, there will be just one transgender category (“Transgender Literature”) instead of 2 (fiction and non-fiction). This is because if one of the 2 categories receives fewer than 10 entries, the Lambda folks will collapse them into a single category and a single prize.
This turn of events is disappointing because for the last three years there were two categories and it looked like this category was expanding in exciting ways. My hope is that in the near future they will see fit to add a “trans poetry” category as well.
If you’re an author who has published a book in 2013 that might fit into the transgender fiction category, you have until December 1 to submit! In the past, entries in this field have been novels, books of short stories, poetry, graphic novels/comic books, young adult books and children’s books—it’s a very flexible category, and it is up to the submitter to “opt-in” to it.
I suspect that there are lots more trans books out there that should be submitted to the Lambdas, but perhaps folks don’t know about the award, or don’t think they qualify. Help us get the word out so we can maintain this category and continue the conversation about transgender literature!
If the category exists, five titles will be chosen as finalists. Even being a Lambda Literary Award finalist is a huge opportunity for your book. You’ll be invited to participate in the finalist readings all over the US this spring, and your book will get exposure to audiences that might never have heard about it otherwise. As of last year, each finalist is also given one free ticket to the Lambda Literary Awards in June in NYC, which by itself is a $100 value. Authors submitting to this category this year will have a very good chance at being a finalist.
Here are the complete submission guidelines: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/2013-award-guidelines/ (opens in new window)
Keep in mind:
- self-published books are eligible
- the author can be trans OR not trans
- the book has to have been published on paper (ebooks alone are not eligible) in the US and in English during the 2013 calendar year
- each submission requires 5 copies of the book and a $40 fee (this should not be the reason you don’t submit—write us or reblog if that’s the case!)
Even if your book isn’t in the transgender fiction category, make sure it gets submitted to the Lambda Literary Awards!
Different Kinds of Readers.
- The Devourer: Each book is a snack for this kind of reader--but it doesn't mean that s/he won't enjoy each book just as much.
- The Lover: Books read by this kind of reader are read in hidden, stolen moments at the most unexpected times.
- The Slow Dancer: Books are a treat that this kind of reader savors. Slow and steady wins this reader's race, as his/her eyes take in and taste each and every word.
- The Addict: Books are a conquest to this kind of reader. S/he will buy more books than s/he can read, but s/he will ALWAYS have something to read.
- The Classic: Books of the past are a gift to this reader. Prose in the style of early contemporary authors, or stories written long ago, are favorites for this reader.
- The Die-Hard: Genres are a way of life for this reader. S/he finds a niche and sticks to it--veering from what s/he knows for short bursts of time.
- The Advocate: This reader is a lover of books. S/he is not just a reader, but an advocate of reading--hoping that the future will contain more readers.
- What kind of reader are you? Add on if you wish!