interview: Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg is the author of two collections of short stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009) and The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013), as well as two novels, Find Me (FSG, 2015) and The Third Hotel (FSG, 2018). In The Third Hotel, Clare, the book’s protagonist, travels to Havana, Cuba, for the Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Her late husband, Richard, a horror film scholar, had planned to attend, and her grief has ferried her there in his place. She spots a man that appears to be Richard in the street and becomes determined to track him down, following his every move, even as her reality begins to blur into something sinister and shifting. We spoke to van den Berg about her process of writing The Third Hotel, the unique lens that horror offers as a genre, and the way fiction allows access to hidden layers of the self.

The Third Hotel is a short novel, but it’s dense with meaning, lyrical, and intricately woven. Clare’s journey is only two weeks but felt much longer, as did my time with her story. What was the experience of writing it like?

LvdB: My experience went through a number of different permutations, as is usually the case for me. Initially I was just trying to find potential intersections between several different worlds—travel, tourism, horror films, marriage, sick parents—writing my way into those moments of discovery, where I could see how these different spheres and languages might be linked. I wrote a first draft very quickly while on a fellowship at Bard College and then spent a couple of years letting the draft transform and shift in the necessary ways—near the end I felt so in the book. I had dreams about Clare all the time.

Clare goes to Havana to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which her husband—a scholar of horror films—would have attended were he still alive. She’s looking for him, and her journey is riddled with horror motifs. When emotions spike, she feels like her head has been cut off, or her ankles severed. She feels eels beneath her skin. The environment, too, feels body-like: as a child, an impending hurricane and awkward encounter with a stranger feels like “sitting inside a mouth that was slowly closing.” What drew you to these reoccurring horror movie themes, particularly body horror? What do they mean to you in the context of The Third Hotel?

LvdB: I think of horror as being a very viscerally physical genre, whether it’s bodies moving through spaces trying to escape a killer, as in slasher movies, or a film where the body itself becomes the site of, or a container for, horror, such as The Exorcist. And so I wanted Clare to always be rooted in her own body, in its strangeness and dis-comforts, especially as the plot unfurled in increasingly surreal directions.

In the beginning of the novel, when reading bits and pieces of a Patricia Highsmith novel while flying, Clare describes feeling incredibly unsettled by subtext—“the hidden things she felt quivering under the surface.” She’s reminded of the sight of her suitcase tucked into her closet and how it always leads her to imagine it “waiting for her second, secret self.” This idea of a secret, somewhat sinister undercurrent courses through the story, and many characters have a second, secret self. Did other works of art inspire this theme, as the Highsmith book does for Clare, or did it spring from elsewhere?

LvdB: Yes, absolutely—it’s hard for me to imagine writing something that isn’t in dialogue with art that has come before. That’s part of what motivates me, the desire to speak back to work that I love, work that has moved me, rescued me, changed me. The Third Hotel actually started as a kind of call-and-response to Jean Echenoz’s novel Piano, in which a character dies early on in the novel and then must traverse the afterlife. He’s eventually repatriated to Paris, where he lived at the time of his death, but his appearance has been changed so he is indistinguishable to those who knew him when he was alive—but one person does manage to recognize him and the order of things is upended. I thought, what if a story like that was told from the opposite point of view, from the alive person who did the recognizing? I do think influence can be a kind of scaffolding in some ways, an initial point of entry, and that scaffolding of influence in respect to Echenoz had to be torn down at a certain point—but it was an important book for me. As was Yoss’s A Planet for Rent. And I forever dream of being in conversation with Cortázar (his story “Blow Up” was especially important), and Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, and Marie NDiaye’s Rosie Carpe and Ladivine, and Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. And of course there were many cinematic influences also, from Vertigo to Halloween to Juan de los Muertos.

Much is made of the idea of the Final Girl, or the last character alive in most horror films. Clare acts as the Final Girl, but she also takes on the mantle of the killer as she stalks her husband’s ghost. When Clare and her husband first met, it appeared he was stalking her, so he, too, began as a role but subverts it in the present as he eludes Clare. This plays into the idea of second selves, that people can be both key roles at the same time. What makes Clare the ideal Final Girl? How do those qualities set her up to become the foil?

LvdB: I was interested in the Final Girl trope before starting the book, and then became even more interested after reading Carol Clover’s seminal Men, Women, and Chain Saws. As a young person, the Final Girl was a striking figure to me because it was so rare to see a woman as the lead, the protagonist, in an action genre—so there’s the potential for that feminist reading. But as I revisited the Final Girl in later years the trope struck me as far more complicated. Often the subtext of the Final Girl’s journey is that she has to essentially adopt the principles of patriarchal violence to survive; when a character assumes the role of the Final Girl she is taking a step closer to the killer in this way (that said, there are some women directors who’ve been reclaiming this trope to fresh and more genuinely feminist ends, such as Jennifer Kent and Ana Lily Amirpour). And so I was interested in Clare as hero and villain, survivor and killer, and her relationship to violence as both recipient and enactor.

Final Girls are often quite young, but Clare and mouthy side characters make it known fairly often that she’s considered older. What is important about the distinction of her age as a woman in the story?

LvdB: I wouldn’t consider Clare “older” myself—she’s only 37. It’s more like she’s just not very young. Broadly speaking, I think becoming unmoored in your 20s has different stakes and consequences and connotations than becoming unmoored in your middle 30s. Also, for many of us, late 30s and early 40s is where we might begin to feel the pressure of the day-to-day lives we’ve built alongside the pressures of parents getting older and sicker, a dynamic that is relevant for Clare.

I think the best horror has a way of using extreme dislocations of reality to access the root systems of violence and inequity—that which has been covered up, paved over, buried.

The everyday horrors of being a woman are touched on in the novel. Her period surprises her in the night, and she wants to erase any trace of blood to spare the hotel workers, evoking a small, relatable feeling of shame. When she and her husband meet, he truly appears to be stalking her, and they laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. But he later explains his deep humiliation at her laughter, and Clare wonders what it is about men and humiliation. Agata Alonso, an actress in the zombie film Clare visits Havana to view, is abused by a producer and later chronicles her abuse in a film she directs. How did current events shape Clare’s experiences? How does the everyday experience of being a woman lend itself so easily to horror?

LvdB: I think the best horror has a way of using extreme dislocations of reality to access the root systems of violence and inequity—that which has been covered up, paved over, buried. Clare, like many women, has absorbed plenty of “everyday” violence, in ways that she hasn’t really processed, and the consequences of that kind of internalized violence can be terrible. So I’m interested in the ways that horror can blast open the surfaces, tear down the usual frameworks, and get to the heart of something. That said, historically the genre’s relationship to misogyny is highly complicated at best and downright awful at worst. On the one hand, we can see The Shining as being in part about the nightmare of domestic violence; on the other, Kubrick was highly abusive to Shelley Duvall, and “torture the women” was one of Hitchcock’s favored pieces of advice to filmmakers.

The settings in The Third Hotel are carefully laid out and lushly detailed. The flora, the way the light hits, the stature of the buildings—everything is vivid and immersive. As Clare travels, whether in the present or in flashbacks, the settings begin to feel like characters she must grapple with, or mirrors to her state of mind. How did you build each location? What does the level of detail service in the story to you? How do you situate Clare in the sets and help her not be drawn behind the curtain of all those lush buildings and trees?

LvdB: I think a lot about the different functions that detail can serve. There are the orientating details when you’re writing scene (Is the character inside or outside? Is it raining?) and then also what I call “granular detail” — i.e., those hyper-specific details that carry layers of time and meaning. For example, the novel’s first section is titled “The Fingernail,” in part because early on Clare is startled to discover a fingernail in a hotel room drawer, a detail that becomes emblematic of the strangeness of travel and transit spaces, the way a sudden shift in the atmosphere can toss you into a different reality, if only for a moment. If the orienting details work to ground our readers, then the granular details often work to destabilize. I’m interested in how different levels of detail can work together, the friction they can generate.

The fingernail captivates Clare, and she wonders “what kind of person would abandon to a hotel room drawer such a perfect specimen of their existence.” This notion stayed with me—it’s such a beautiful way to look at something others might find grotesque. How did this moment come to be? How do you decide how much weight to give small moments like this one?

LvdB: I found a fingernail in a hotel room drawer once myself—it was an acrylic nail, but pretty strange nevertheless. Some details open a little world of oddness within the world-world, and the fingernail struck me as one such detail.

Laura van den Berg

Often in flashbacks, Clare relates moments that shaped her or stayed with her. She explains that as a child on a trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains, her father stated that “God did not live in the cosmos, like many people thought, but inside of things, inside of trees and mountains.” Young Clare sniffs the air and smells a mixture of scents, predominantly pine, and henceforth the scent of pine reminds her of the breath of God. This kind of stunning moment stands out as a bit of a micro story. As an author of short stories, how did short-form narrative structure inform the structure of the novel? Has its influence evolved from your first to your second novel?

LvdB: I’m not sure, to be honest. I am drawn to fragmentation in the novel form, so the book has self-contained moments like the one you just referenced, but I think of that fragmentation as being generated by character as opposed to short form versus long form.

Much is made of the medium of film and its unique way of transmuting meaning to the audience. Richard, Clare’s husband, once wrote that no eye or lens could be subjective, and that the viewer in response to the images on the screen becomes the third subjective eye, “an invisible revelatory force.” This adds a fascinating layer, because the reader must feel out what is real—both in terms of what is reality and what is real to Clare. How did you think about balancing the perspective of Clare versus reality when you were writing the novel?

LvdB: I think that Clare’s eye does create the larger reality to a significant degree—just as the camera lens creates a cinematic narrative. But I also wanted to keep the larger world around her in view: the other characters with stories unfolding, the matter that Clare refuses to see, which in her case is just as important as what she is seeing. So I thought a lot about growing those two types of sight alongside each other, what is visible to Clare and what is invisible to her.

You’ve written two collections of short stories and another novel, Find Me, before The Third Hotel. The collection The Isle of Youth probed questions of identity, and Clare’s vision of her two selves can be seen as exploring different locales of the same territory. What themes and ideas do you find yourself coming back to, and why?

LvdB: I’ve long been interested in how fiction can navigate the layers of the self—the public, the private, the secret. And it’s that third layer, the secret one, that holds the most interest to me, in part because that matter shapes us so powerfully and yet in ways we might not understand, which of course so powerfully informs how we move through the world, how we shape the landscapes we find ourselves in and how they shape us in turn. That submerged realm is a space I’ve returned to, in one way or another, in all my books.

The title story of The Isle of Youth is one of my absolute favorites. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind that story?

LvdB: I wrote that story in maybe 2008 or 2009, even though The Isle of Youth didn’t come out until 2013—which is to say long enough ago that I really have no idea! I was interested in writing mystery stories where the mystery was never solved or even ultimately central to the plot: what would such a structure allow the stories to discover or “solve” instead? Certainly that idea was at work in the title story.

You were born and raised in Florida, and in The Third Hotel, Clare is the daughter of innkeepers in Florida. I’ve noticed many writers from the state feel a strong pull to it. What does Florida make possible as a setting?

LvdB: The strikingly uncanny and the deeply mundane are so often twinned in Florida, so growing up there had a huge role in shaping my orientation as a fiction writer. I spent so much time trying to get away from where I’d grown up, but of course I never could, so returning to Florida on the page feels something like an uneasy embrace.

How has your approach to writing changed since you’ve turned to writing novels? What stands out to you in retrospect as shaping how you live and work now?

LvdB: Novels require a ruthless amount of time, in my experience. They prompted me to spend a lot of time working away from home, at writing spaces and also at residencies, in order to reach the deep-sea zone of concentration I needed to find; they required me to step out of my life more than short stories tend to. And yet they’re kind of addictive in their way: I’m already thinking, slowly and hazily, about a new novel project. But I’m definitely still writing stories—that’s the first form of literature I fell in love with and one I’ll always feel very close to. Actually my next book is going to be another collection. I think it’ll be called Aftermath.

Interview by Kimmy Whitmer.
Photography by Paul Yoon.