Laura van den Berg’s debut novel, Find Me (LJ 1/15), published after two well-received story collections (The Isle of Youth and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us), is getting rave reviews. LJ reviewer Christine DeZelar-Tiedman gave it a star, deemed it “highly recommended,” and compared the literary postapocalyptic novel to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. In this interview, van den Berg discusses the world she creates, the popularity of dystopian fiction, and her own reading interests.
What do you think accounts for the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? What interested you in setting your novel in such a time?
I have been thinking a lot about this question, given the big wave of dystopian literature we’ve been seeing. I actually started the book in 2008, so I wasn’t influenced by current trends, but I think it’s no accident that our increasingly anxious times—the environment, illness, economic and political disparities—have produced books that are concerned with catastrophe. But I wonder how new this is, really, because while we’re seeing a very concentrated wave of end times books right now, dystopian literature has, of course, a long and rich tradition, so perhaps every generation experiences moments where their way of life feels unsustainable and is moved to respond.
In my case, in 2008 we were crawling out of the Bush years, and our way of life had felt pretty dark and unsustainable to me for a while. My aspiration was to create an American landscape that was unstable and surreal and damaged and, in some ways, not so much unlike the country we live in now.
Tell us about your main character, Joy, and the qualities she has not just to survive the world you created, but to search through that world for what is lost.
Joy is searching and tenacious—qualities that sometimes get her into trouble but are, ultimately, saving. Also, Joy’s childhood has taught her a lot about how to navigate disaster. She knows how to watch, how to hide, how and when to run. This knowledge has, of course, come at a huge cost, but it is nevertheless helpful in the After.
One of the most striking elements of the first part of your novel are the Pilgrim characters—people who come to stand outside of the hospital in which Joy and the others immune to the memory sickness are held. You keep their motivations and histories intriguingly vague. What do they represent in the novel?
At first, the Pilgrims were a way to introduce an exterior narrative into the isolated world of the hospital; something alive in the landscape that Joy and the other characters can track. But the presence of the Pilgrims, the way they allow Joy to observe life carrying on in the outside world, also pave the way for eventual escape from the hospital. They help open up a door inside her.
Find Me is divided into two parts, each very different in tone and feel. What motivated you to write a somewhat realistic opening and a deeply surreal second half? How do you hope readers relate to each section?
I imagined the two parts standing in opposition to each other in some ways: landlocked and cold vs. a movement toward coast and water and warmth; stasis vs. roaming; coolness vs. heat in terms of Joy’s voice. But there are also some parallels and mirrors in terms of how the two books relate. For example, you could see Nelson and the mansion as Book Two’s version of the hospital and Dr. Bek, in a through-the-looking-glass kind of way. My aspiration was for the reader to see the interplay between the two worlds, and also for Book Two to offer some relief from the cold and the stasis of the hospital.
If you could describe Find Me in three words, what would they be?
Haunted, surreal, searching.
How do you pick books to read?
I love strong, idiosyncratic voices in fiction. Often I’ll stand in a bookstore and peruse opening paragraphs, waiting for a voice to grab me.
Could you suggest a few books that you have deeply enjoyed and want to share with others?
Some recent titles I’ve loved include Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline.