MJ Rose’s Backstory: Laura van den Berg

The title story of my collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, began with me falling in love with a word: Madagascar. I fell head-over-heels for the cadence, for the way it evoked a Jacques Cousteau-esque sense of adventure and mystery. What did I know about Madagascar? Not much. How was I going to write about Madagascar? No idea. What would even happen in such a place? Anyone’s guess. The one thing I did know was that the word had hooked itself into my imagination and I was going to have to try writing about it.

Next came the purchasing of travel guides, the perusing of Google images, looking for the details that would help this real-world landscape evolve into a fictional setting, into a story. I learned about lemurs and red dirt, about currencies and the names of towns—and, gradually, a fictional approximation of Madagascar began to take shape for me. At the same time, I was thinking a lot about that sticky period of adolescence where freedom is the dream, where being out on your own seems like the greatest thing in the world, even in the face of immense vulnerability and fear. That led to the creation of the story’s narrator, Celia, and her mother, June. Celia—who is desperate to stop trailing her scientist mother around the globe, to strike out on her own—finds herself in that previously mentioned period: terrified but determined, ready to be free of her mother, but still needing her desperately. Perhaps I was drawn to this period in Celia’s life because it seemed filled with contradictions, and contradictions tend to be good for fiction.

In the end, the landscape of Madagascar was fundamental in the creation and development of Celia and her mother; the heat and the sea and the screams of the lemurs, the very foreignness of the place to Celia, became instruments of pressure, revealing the cracks in the characters’ foundations.

Stories come to me in many different ways. Another story in my collection, “Where We Must Be,” started with a voice; another one, “Goodbye My Loveds,” originated from a series of images. “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us” grew out of a single word and from that word, a fictional landscape emerged and from that landscape came Celia and June. It might seem odd to start with a place, as opposed to the characters that, one hopes, will end up being the story’s driving force. But in this case my fictional version of Madagascar was as much a character as Celia or her mother; it was not only a setting, a container for these characters and their conflicts, but a shadow that looms over the characters, a force, at once unseen and deeply felt, that pushes Celia to make a move.

(What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us has been short listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Laura van den Berg can be found at lauravandenberg.com.)

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1 Comment to MJ Rose’s Backstory: Laura van den Berg

  1. August 3, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more, Laura, about what you say regarding contradictions. They’re what fascinates me the most. I mean, what is fiction, if not a beautiful treatise on the art of the contrary?

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