SF: We met back in the spring of 2010 when you were a Visiting Writer at Gettysburg College. I took your “Writing What You Don’t Know” class where we read magical realism stories and workshopped our own pieces. What have you been up to since then?
LvdB: It’s funny—I know that class was only five years ago, but it feels like much longer! After Gettysburg, I lived in Baltimore for three years and then moved to the Boston area and then to Bard College in New York for the spring 2015 term (that’s where I am currently). I published my second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, and my novel, Find Me. I got married. I got a dog.
SF: In your class, you introduced students to short stories by Aimee Bender, Kevin Brockmeier, and others. Which authors and/or stories have had the greatest influence on your writing?
LvdB: Influence is ever shifting for me, which is to say that the authors I turn to tend to change from book to book. Current authors/books I’m a bit obsessed with include Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, JM Ledgard’s Submergence, Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine and The Devil in Silver, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island.
SF: Find Me is set in a world where a flu epidemic is sweeping the United States and decimating the population. The story’s protagonist, Joy, is one of the few people immune to that particular strain of flu. One of the things that sets your work apart from other authors writing about dystopian/apocalyptic worlds, is your attention to detail. Would you share a little bit about what your research process was like for this novel?
LvdB: I read two works of nonfiction, Killer Germs and Flu, and a number of magazine pieces that illuminate the American dystopias that exists in our present moment were important as well, most especially: Apocalypse, New Jersey, which appeared in The Rolling Stone, and the Invisible Child series that appeared in The New York Times. In the end, those two magazine pieces were probably more influential, as they show, in heartbreaking detail, the ways in which America is currently very sick.
Ultimately, though, I think more in terms of what’s needed to build the story and since it’s quite a surreal one, that changes the rules in terms of logic. For example, I doubt seriously that our government would have a website named “IAmSorryForYourLoss.com” but in the world of Find Me that makes a certain sense.
SF: Part of “Writing What You Don’t Know” requires researching subjects or time periods that are unfamiliar to the writer. There was an element of research required in all the short stories we wrote for your class. As a writer who deftly weaves research elements into her writing, how do you decide how much truth/fact to include in a magical realism—or any fictional—story?
LvdB: To me, the research process is a search in itself and often you don’t know the kind of information you’re seeking until you stumble upon it. But in the end I’m thinking mainly in terms of building the world and Joy’s trajectory through it.
SF: You’ve been doing a lot of interviews to promote your debut novel, what’s the one question that you never get asked but you wish someone would?
LvdB: I’m surprised people don’t ask about cover design more! It’s not the author’s creation, of course, but it is the first thing readers encounter when they see the book, and a good cover design should capture the spirit of the text.
I think the process if very interesting: the different versions, the conversation around them, the merging of the publisher’s vision of the book and the author’s into one super cool (hopefully!) object. I was lucky enough to work with the immensely gifted Nayon Cho for both The Isle of Youth and Find Me. Recently she talked to The HuffingtonPost about the process of designing Find Me.
Thanks so much to Laura for taking the time to answer some of my questions. You can follow Laura on Twitter @Lvandenberg and find out more about her other projects at her website, HERE.
Now, go read FIND ME before it’s too late!