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Exploring the art of prose

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Art of the Opening: Laura van den Berg


Welcome to our occasional column exploring the art of openings!

First impressions matter. The opening lines, paragraphs, and pages of a story or novel must not only hook the reader, they must ground us in the world of the story, in place, in time, in character. Landing an effective opening is no easy feat. At CRAFT we focus on writing craft in the work we publish. With this column, we’re exploring the art of the opening in an interactive way, re-reading the masters, discussing openings with their writers, peeking behind the scenes at the revision process, essaying about what we find striking. With any luck, no two pieces will look exactly the same.

In 2018 we published Laura van den Berg’s craft essay “Object Lessons: An Exploration,” one of our absolute favorite and most-read craft essays. We are excited to share this exploration of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. Led by short fiction section editor Suzanne Grove and contributing editor Albert Liau, working together on behalf of CRAFT, we explore the openings to several of Van den Berg’s stories via an essay, a Q&A, and a look at the collection’s revision process and inspiration, shared here as her photographs.  —CRAFT


 

A friend tells you a story.

It makes you pause each time you enter the bathroom, eyes sliding to the linen closet. Each time you pull a fresh bath towel from the shelf, the warm musk of cedar reaching your nose. Was the doorknob always brushed nickel? The white trim always flushed with peach undertones? You must have opened that door more than a thousand times. A warm vibration in your chest, the unsettling crawl of your friend’s words knocking at the base of your skull.

Your friend read about the story on a local news website. It goes like this: A family—a father, a mother, and two children—return from a day trip to the beach. July. A suburban two-story colonial. The children flop onto the sofa while the mother takes the bag of used beach towels and wet bathing suits to the laundry room. She is still salt-licked, tan, the roiling of the Atlantic in her ears. She is putting toiletries away in the children’s bathroom closet when she discovers a trap door. A secret room.

She does not remember it. She calls for the husband, the children. They do not remember it. Inside the room is a bleach-stained towel, an old rag, a nearly empty bottle of cleaner. Dust. Dead fly. Dead spider. Nothing else.

Inside this family’s home of more than a decade, the trap door and its secret room have appeared. No monster emerges. The children do not disappear. There are no lights that flash in the dark, no portal that opens. But the family’s joint memory and psychological well-being are thrown into question. A bizarre folie à deux. Or, more aptly, folie à quatre. A shared madness.

This—the humming emptiness of that inexplicable closet and its newly unearthed room—is the space that Laura van den Berg’s stories occupy. The safety of your own home turned suddenly strange, unfamiliar. Inside the pages of Van den Berg’s latest collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, you’ll find a death that does not happen. Faux grief as commerce. A doula who does not welcome newborn life but instead escorts life away from this plane of existence. Husband as undead ghost, upholding patriarchy via lime-flavored sparking water. A brother as forgotten as a dream, until he is remembered.

With sharp, flawless prose, Van den Berg raises question after question about what we’re willing to remember and apt to forget, about what we see and why. Her stories challenge the reader in the best possible way: She asks us, again and again, to look closer. The result is a collection that rearranges life as we know it and a mood that evokes both nostalgia and the etherized hold of a night terror. There is little outward screaming because this is defamiliarization in deft hands—the sense of danger here dresses itself in the vestments of the everyday. The terror builds slowly, placing you in a fog of both the real and unreal with each careful detail. She has populated the world of her stories with characters who might be our sisters, our neighbors, our friends. With landscapes both common and fantastic, but always haunting and exact.

Reading these stories is like the shadowed stranger from a thousand horror stories knocking on your rural door after midnight. Except, when you open that door, the person staring back at you is wearing your face.

In the interview that follows, Van den Berg shares how she utilized craft to conjure this mood and to raise questions that remain with the reader long after the final page.

We believe that after reading I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, you’ll begin looking more closely at the people and places normally surrounding you. What will you find? You’ll run a finger down your lover’s collarbone, seeking the familiar birthmark on his chest only to find it has disappeared. His laugh has changed. He begins showing you his teeth when he smiles. Or perhaps you’ll find a new freckle you hadn’t previously noticed on your lover’s thigh. You brush against her lip with the soft pad of your thumb, checking for her chipped canine tooth—the jagged inverted mountain of it. You feel nothing but smooth enamel.

Or maybe when you glance again at the linen closet door and reach to turn off the bathroom light, you will find your own reflection in the mirror. Will you recognize it?

—Suzanne Grove with Albert Liau for CRAFT


 

Suzanne Grove with Albert Liau for CRAFT: While many writers successfully utilize craft elements like dialogue, setting, and voice in their short stories, I find it’s harder for writers to effectively create a specific mood that infiltrates the reading experience. No matter where I read your stories—on the porch in the middle of a hot afternoon; at midnight in the midst of a tornado warning—they each transcended my physical location and invoked a specific mood: A surreal and unsettling haze washed over every moment of my reading. For you, do these moods come about organically once other components are in place, or is the concept of mood something you try to actively engage with and create?

Laura van den Berg: I think mood arises from a collaboration between many different narrative elements—voice, perspective, landscape. I think of it like a frequency: I can feel a shift when I land on a specific “mood frequency,” and from that point mood can become a kind of guide, but I can’t will myself there. I spend a lot of time turning the dial.

 

AL: The first story in I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, “Last Night,” immediately refers to an implied reader—a certain person to whom the story is being told. Then you quickly clue the reader in to the narrative distance between the narrator and the events of the now-story. This approach differs from other stories in the collection, and from literary short stories generally. Why did you choose to have “Last Night” take such a stance at the outset of the story, and to begin the collection here?

LVDB: Originally, “Last Night” was the last story in the collection. Then a wise friend read a draft of the book and totally reimagined the order for me. What a gift! She made the argument that the collection should begin with the most autobiographical story—which she correctly understood to be “Last Night”—and then allow the world to expand out from there. After thinking about this idea a little more, I also came to feel that the implied reader could also work as a kind of voice portal, inviting people in.

 

SG: I love the layers present in the realities your characters experience and how the act of looking—of seeing—is examined. While I read “Slumberland,” I kept thinking of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and how I’m more unsettled by his actions than by what he observes. I remember reading The Third Hotel and thinking about how if we glance back with an open mind and look hard enough, we might see something we didn’t before. We turn down a different street or answer a call from an unfamiliar phone number or finally ring the doorbell at a neighbor’s house, as your narrator does, and we’re jettisoned into unfamiliar spaces. Are you interested in the duality of what’s on the surface versus what we might find if we, like the narrator in “Slumberland,” creep into spaces that give us voyeuristic entrance into other people’s lives?

LVDB: Our perspective in a given moment allows us to perceive some things and to not perceive other things; our sight reveals and conceals at the same time. A simple example, but I think this must be partly why things look different at night—the quality of light is actually different, but also, speaking for myself at least, my eye on the world is a little different too. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I have been in Central Florida, where I grew up, since March and I’m alert to all kinds of things that I never was before. For the narrator of “Slumberland,” the combination of grief, time, and looking at the world through a camera lens has transformed what she perceives (and what she misses).

 

SG: So much of this book feels like a haunting. It reminds me that short fiction often feels like a brief and uncanny visitation, ghostlike. For you, does writing short stories take on a sense of urgency? Do you find that the shadow of an idea follows you and won’t let you go? Will you drop work on a novel to follow the idea for a story?

LVDB: Yes to all those questions. A novel—for me—requires a lot of endurance, sustained imaginative effort over years. A story draft, on the other hand, usually gets put down a lot faster, maybe a few days or weeks, though it might take much longer to really figure the story out.

 

AL: The openings of the stories in this collection often remind me of Steve Almond’s Hippocratic oath of writing: Never confuse the reader. Especially with “Slumberland” and “The Pitch,” in which the first lines situate the reader yet also convey that something is off-kilter, you provide a sense of what the characters are in the middle of and what they might be in for. Does this blending of clarity and intrigue come naturally in the crafting of these stories or is it something that must be deliberately developed?

LVDB: I try and make a distinction between generative ambiguity—or even confusion—and confusion that’s just a product of a lack of understanding on my end about the world I’ve created. Complete certainty can be so flattening in art—and lazy too. Nearly always I’m drawn to work that is engaging with bewilderment to some degree. Generative ambiguity is just another form of communication, but at the same time it’s important for me to make sure I’m not using ambiguity to evade a deeper understanding.

 

SG: I was so struck by the conversation between the wife and husband in “Lizards” that I found myself addressing (yelling at) the husband aloud. You write:

He has learned to proceed carefully during these kinds of conversations. Ever since the allegations were made against the judge, the hostile nature of the news has started to leak into his wife; she’s like a boxer these days, always out there with that jab. He tries to channel the calm he feels while waiting in line.

I kept thinking, what a luxury that he doesn’t feel that visceral hostility.

Later, he tells her they should stop watching the news because it’s making her paranoid, a statement that feels like a moment of gaslighting. But then the story takes a completely unsettling and unexpected turn in which the husband’s actions prove him to be exactly the kind of man he frantically denies being. I’m interested in where this idea came from, and more specifically in the relationship between the opening of the story and the turn it takes. Did you have the initial situation—the national news and the dynamic between husband and wife—first and then work from there, or did the element of the sparkling water and the drugging of his wife come first?

LVDB: The conversation came first, the spiked seltzer much later. I had been thinking about this guy I dated in college and his circle of friends. Back then, at least, they would have considered themselves liberals. Their parents were Republications and they thought their parents were boring. They voted for Gore. They were against the war. At the same time, they were, in hindsight, so incredibly misogynistic—scarily, toxically misogynist. I started wondering what had become of these guys and the conversations they might be having with the women in their lives about Kavanaugh. I imagined them performing disdain—all the while knowing that they themselves were as guilty as Kavanaugh and secretly believing that he was getting a raw deal. So that was how the husband’s character came to exist. That said, while the wife is her husband’s victim, there is also a part of her that craves the obliteration, the permission to turn away. What would she be willing to change in her life to help dismantle the structures that made Kavanaugh possible? What would she be willing to give up? These are questions she’s not yet prepared to engage—and so she remains lodged in this cycle of facile rage and sleep.

 

SG: Your stories here all deal in some way with memory and what we carry with us forever. I appreciate how your narrator in “Last Night” has trouble recalling the girls she roomed with at the treatment center despite them being part of this intense memory at such a formative age—seventeen. She remembers the place vividly and yet, when it comes to the girls, you write: “I could not tell you their names. I have forgotten them. Their faces are twin black holes, deep space.” This felt true to life in the way faces and major details can slip away, but a flash of the way someone’s hair falls can remain. I think her forgetting might be a trauma response. Your narrator asks, “What kind of person could forget?” Can you talk about how you approached the idea of memory in this collection and how you think it can function in a story?

LVDB: Memory is so narrative, I think—at a certain point, it’s less about the memories themselves than the stories we create from them, as these stories can come to be such a significant part of our own self-understanding. So memory is a really foundational dimension of character, even in stories where there’s not a lot of backstory. In “Last Night,” the narrator’s survival, she feels, required a sort of ruthlessness that compelled her to leave those other two girls behind, to erase them.

 

SG: Last year, I read the essay “Maybe the Secret to Writing is Not Writing?” by Kate Angus on Literary Hub. She talks about enduring “fallow periods” in our creative lives and that “maybe we can accept that we aren’t blocked at all, and that resting might just be part of our process.” This was a watershed moment for me. I’ve learned not only to accept but to appreciate the silent moments. I think a lot of us experience this sort of creative anxiety and pressure to always be on—to be working, writing. How do you approach this feeling? Do you go long stretches without creating or are you always working on something—even if it doesn’t ultimately culminate with a finished, publishable novel or story?

LVDB: I believe, in theory, in the value—the necessity even—of accepting fallow periods. In practice, I’m pretty awful at it. I always want to be working on something. Even a small something. Even if it doesn’t come to much. I tend to feel really disconnected—from myself, from the world—when I’m not able to work at all. I think this is partly my own wiring and partly the mindfuck of capitalism; the latter piece I’ve been trying to look at carefully during quarantine, trying to unknot my own internalized ideas about the relationship between self-worth and productivity. At the same time, I have a lot of other dimensions to my life beyond writing and as a result fiction isn’t always at the center—but I do need it to be in there somewhere.

 

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is available now from FSG.


LAURA VAN DEN BERG is the author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, and the novels Find Me and The Third Hotel, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. She is the recipient of a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and is a two-time finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her new collection of stories, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, was published by FSG in July. Born and raised in Florida, Laura splits her time between the Boston area and Central Florida, with her husband and dog.


SUZANNE GROVE is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and received the J. Stanton Carson Grant for Excellence in Writing while studying at Robert Morris University. Her poetry and fiction appear in The Adirondack ReviewThe Carolina QuarterlyThe Penn Review, Okay DonkeyPorter House ReviewRaleigh ReviewRust + Moth, and elsewhere. She has been a flash fiction finalist with SmokeLong Quarterly and received honorable mention for her short fiction appearing on Farrar, Straus, & Giroux’s Work in Progress website. She currently serves as the short fiction editor for CRAFT. You can find her at SuzanneGrove.com.


Ever eager to find fascinating, fanciful fiction, ALBERT LIAU is an editor at Montag Press, a niche/nano publisher based in the San Francisco Bay Area with an expanding, eclectic catalogue spanning a range of literary and genre fiction.