For Laura Van Den Berg, Modern Life is Scary Enough

Culture

Reading Laura van den Berg’s eerie short story collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is chilling—but not in the way you’d expect. Rather than emphasize otherworldly creatures or the heightened unreality of horror, the collection reveals that the underpinnings of everyday life can be more unsettling than your favorite thriller. Steeped in the uncanny, these stories view contemporary life through the refracted lens of a ghost story. After publishing two novels back to back, van den Berg is excited to return to the short form.

“The short story was my first love,” the PEN/O. Henry Award-winning writer says. “It was the first form of literature I fell in love with. It was the form that made me want to be a writer and, in turn, want to write myself.”

Using the ghost story as a vehicle for social critique, van den Berg’s collection chronicles American upheaval, from the dangers of the gig economy to gun violence and the pervasive nature of misogyny. I Hold a Wolf by the Ears also examines the ways white women uphold systemic violence through silence and inaction. In “Your Second Wife,” a freelancer is drugged and taken hostage only to wake up inside her client’s trunk, while a woman whispers ghost stories to her sister who remains comatose following a shooting in “Volcano House.” In “Lizards,” a wife’s mounting rage over sexual assault allegations concerning a prominent judge prompts her husband to silence her with nightly doses of artisanal sparkling water laced with a mysterious sedative. Throughout, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears captures the ways women are pushed to their breaking point, yet still expected to carry on.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears: Stories

bookshop.org

$23.92

Here, van den Berg speaks with ELLE.com about how the news cycle influences her work, the existential loneliness of the human experience, and adapting her creative process in turbulent times.

Were you approaching these stories as contemporary ghost stories while you wrote?

Not at first. As a reader, when I read a really incredible short story collection, it’s not only that the individual stories are really interesting and exciting, but it’s the thematic understory—the larger conversation generated by putting this particular group of stories together in a particular arrangement and proximity. In 2018, I was at a writing residency in Italy called Civitella and ended up writing half the stories in Wolf over the course of one very intense and productive summer. All the stories were engaging with the supernatural in one way or another, and I was like, Oh, this is the thematic connective tissue, this idea of the modern and unconventional ghost story.

That comes through when you’re reading, especially because it’s a world that’s only slightly off-kilter from our own.

I’ve always been interested in writing into this space where the strange and the mundane intersect.

You’ve said your first love was the short story. Do you find there’s more potency in brevity?

A short story is kind of like taking a grain of sand and putting it under a microscope. You’re looking at a tendril of time or an experience very closely, and there’s [an] intensity that comes with that kind of magnification and really intense focus. “Your Second Wife” was really fun to work on in terms of building the world. Could I have kept that premise evolving and kept it kinetic for 100 pages? Probably not, but that’s not what that story was asking of me. There’s a lot of freedom with the economy.

“If this character is unable to reckon with the violence in her own personal sphere, what hope does she have of more substantive reckoning?”

There’s a the theme of women grappling with lives on the edge, whether it’s the edge of loss in “The Cult of Mary,” or traveling along the fringes of society in “Karolina.” Why did you want to capture these women’s stories?

Nearly all my work centers women. The dimensions of what it means to be a woman in our now has been of great artistic interest to me. I don’t think there is a universal depiction of womanhood, and certainly my depiction of womanhood is not in any way universal, but it reflects the dimension that I—as a woman moving through the world, in my body, in this moment in time—can access. I can’t imagine not writing about women or writing books that don’t center women.

There are also particular things I was interested in looking at in these stories. Certainly the relationships between parents and children—both from the parents’ perspective, like “Hill of Hell,” and also from the child’s perspective, like “The Cult of Mary.” I am in my mid-thirties. My father died last year. My mother is getting older. So, the deep emotional complexity and grief of having aging parents and losing a parent was very close to my heart and imagination when working on these stories.

One thing I became really interested in writing about was the daily, quiet ways white women support and uphold white patriarchal violence just within the context of their own lives and families. I was thinking about that with a story like “Karolina,” where you have a character who is unwilling to reckon with the violence in her own family. I hope the broader question this story might ask is, “If this character is unable to reckon with the violence in her own personal sphere, what hope does she have of more substantive reckoning?”

Similarly with “Lizards,” even within her own marriage, the protagonist is afraid to ask these questions.

Clearly what the husband is doing to his wife is monstrous, so she is—in that way—his victim, but at the same time, there is a part of her that is relieved to literally be put to sleep. Yes, she is enraged that this judge—who is pretty clearly intended to be Kavanaugh during the hearings—is about to assume this position of extraordinary power. But what would this character be willing to change in her own life? What would she be willing to give up to contribute to a person like Brett Kavanaugh never being allowed to ascend to this position? And I think there’s a sense, that, well…not that much.

It’s one thing to be angry and watch CNN and get all worked up and argue with yourself about it, but it’s another thing for that anger to mobilize a person toward meaningful action. This character is definitely in the space between those two categories of anger. I didn’t want to write a simplistic victim-abuser dynamic. I wanted the wife to be complex and, in some ways, complicit in this situation she’s found herself with her husband. There is this part of her that’s like, “Give me the laced seltzer already, and let me go to sleep and not think about this anymore.”

That resonates with what’s going on right now in the country. People are either actively engaging or looking for ways to dodge everything.

There are pieces popping up about, “What to do if you’re white and feeling burned out by the work of trying to be an ally,” and it’s like, what the fuck?! What is there for me to feel burned out about? It’s that desire to escape difficulty and self-examination and accountability. In “Lizards,” my sense is the wife might be better at performing what she feels she’s supposed to say and do, but her internal script would be, “Yeah, can I just opt out at a certain point? Can I just take the laced seltzer and get my eight hours of sleep and not have to think about the world?”

There’s also this dynamic of withholding in the stories—this fear of uncovering the other person, whilst still wanting to know. Do you think that fear is new in our relationships?

The anxiety of how completely can we ever know another human being—even those closest to us—feels ancient. In our now, there are specific dynamics at work. You might have a scenario where I’m sitting down to dinner with my family, and I think we’re all on the same page, all “liberal” people with a political conscience. Then [I] bring up defunding the police. All of a sudden, half the table is like, “If we defund the police, this country will descend into anarchy.” Maybe we didn’t know the kind of political landscape and worldview of our own family members as completely as we thought we did. There are eternally new dimensions of people’s perspectives and world views that weren’t necessarily known to us that are being revealed. Sometimes that can be heartening, frightening, upsetting—depending on what the nature of the revelation is—but it also feels so important to go there.

Once you do, you have to decide how you’re going to use that information.

Right! How does this change relationships and conversations moving forward? There is so much conversation right now about equity or lack thereof in work environments. It might not be such a monumental project to get people to agree on a basic set of articulated values or principles, but when it comes to asking people to give up space they’re used to taking, the conversation often gets really thorny.

Facing our own unknowability of other people, we end up with this deep sense of loneliness. You see that in “Slumberland” and “Volcano House.” Does that loneliness in your work resonate differently now that we’re globally isolated?

Loneliness feels eternal for me. Any era or any moment in time, there are aspects of loneliness that are unique to and shaped by what’s going on in that moment. But there is also this deep existential loneliness to being alive. So much of life is interior and private, and in a way that is really hard to fully communicate to any other person outside yourself. I think this as someone with a large family with whom I am close and a wonderful partner and a beautiful network of friends. My life is very peopled and I’m so grateful for that. Those relationships are sustaining and nourishing, but that does not erase the deep loneliness of moving through Earth in this one body and one life. There is loneliness embedded in the human experience.

To be in a state of grief is terribly lonely. For the rest of your life you’re having this internal conversation with a person who is not in the world anymore. I found that to be a tremendously grueling experience in a lot of ways. When I think of a character like the narrator of “Slumberland,” or the narrator of “Volcano House,” both of those characters are in a state of raw, fresh grief. Part of that loneliness is having that sort of private, internal conversation with this person that doesn’t exist anymore. The weight and shape of grief changes over time, but there’s less a pushing through than learning to live alongside. This is now one of my invisible, but felt, companions as I make my way through life.

Do you think working on the collection apart from everyone brought out that sense of loneliness?

It’s a current that runs through my other books, so it’s not a new emotional preoccupation by any means. I do think there was something about being isolated from my usual context that opened new doors in the imagination. It felt like I was, on one hand, isolated, but also really connected to this creative laboratory for two months. The intensity of that absolutely opened new doors in the imagination and allowed some of these stories to come into being in a way they probably wouldn’t have in a different setting. There’s so much chance in writing, which I think is wild. If I hadn’t been accepted to that residency, if I hadn’t gone, if I hadn’t happened to go on this trip to Assisi, if I hadn’t happened to hear that Hill of Hell story, would I ever have written that story? And if I hadn’t written that story, would I have ever been able to finish this collection in the way that I really wanted to and hoped to? Of course the answer to that question is as unknowable as other theoretical or alternate paths, but it’s wild to me just how much serendipity and chance there is in writing.

Are you able to get in touch with your creativity right now?

It’s been up and down, honestly. There have been times when I’ve been able to find the headspace to work. There’s also been times where participating as a citizen in America has needed to be prioritized over virtually everything else, including writing. Earlier in the pandemic, I was tracking the news so carefully that that took up a lot of anxiety and headspace that otherwise might have been directed towards fiction.

I’m doing something I’ve never done before. I started two long-form projects around the same time, and I just work on the one I feel like working on when I get up in the morning. Right now, they’re taking turns, but I’m thinking eventually one will take over or emerge as the priority. I’ve never worked in this way before, so that will be interesting to see how it takes shape over time. I’m also giving myself a lot of permission to be very slow.

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