In Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth, tales of teenage bank robbers and girl detectives uncover the secrets that connect us to “the larger mysteries of the self.”
The stories in The Isle of Youth dip into fantasy and noir, but without abandoning realism. Can you address this tension?
I’m interested in placing characters in a space where reality, while not too far from the realm of possibility, is definitely skewed. Tilting things slightly applies a pressure to characters that reveals the vulnerability and struggles that they might have previously been able to cover in day-to-day life. But in terms of the blending of a sense of reality—I think any sort of story is only interesting to me if there’s a strong sense of emotional reality, regardless of whether we’re talking realism or nonrealism.
Do mystery and literary fiction have the same goals?
I love noir and detective stories. On the other hand, one of my favorite contemporary writers is Javier Marías. The bones of his Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me are the bones of a detective story: why did this happen? How did this woman die? What is this doing to me? So I was interested in using the tropes of the mystery or the detective narrative to get at the larger mysteries of the self: who am I and why am I doing what I'm doing?
Can you talk me through the evolution of a story like “Antarctica,” which hinges on a gradually emerging impression?
In my experience, our memory of any given experience, whether it’s of a marriage or of our family or of a place, is very rarely defined by one moment alone. Rather it’s a wave of smaller moments that leave us with a cumulative feeling. So I was trying to bring that sensation into the short story, building things in a cumulative way. In “Antarctica” there are many catalysts, but the moment when the story ends is, to me, many years of moments and pain coming together.
Every story in the book deals to some extent with deception and family secrets. What makes our skeletons in the closet such good reading?
We all have secrets. I’m interested in how even the most well-adjusted among us choose what they reveal and conceal. They might be ordinary secrets, but others walk around with a weight that shapes who they are and determines everything about how they move through the world.
What can a short story do that a novel can’t?
Junot Diaz has this great quote: “What gives a novel its force is that it feels very human, and why it feels human is because it’s imperfect, it’s contradictory, it has gaps, it has all sorts of weird shit. Whereas stories are demanding and infuriating because of their perfectibility.” I certainly don’t think I’ve ever written a perfect story, to be sure, but I think I’m more interested in building a very meticulous ship in a bottle than a cruise ship or doorstop novel. The great joy of writing fiction is getting to live all these different lives and go all these different places without leaving my desk.