For Laura van den Berg, writing speculative fiction is more than a deeply personal experience: it’s a tool to make sense of her past, the world, and her place in it.

“Life often feels speculative to me, in that time and its impact is so mysterious and unpredictable,” van den Berg says over FaceTime from her office at Harvard University. It's a cold and wet spring day, and the office's wall-to-wall windows offer striking views of the red and gray rooftops above Harvard Square. “At periods in my life, I was so disconnected from the familiar world that I might as well have been in outer space, or in some other dimension.”

In her youth, van den Berg struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, and the speculative genre has helped her process that painful past. “Speculative fiction is uniquely equipped to represent uncertainty and not necessarily make sense of it but just allow us to be in it, and that’s why I’m drawn to it,” she says. “The speculative is a tool to get at a quality of feeling or experience that I don’t know how to put language to.”

Few contemporary writers understand the speculative genre better than van den Berg, who commutes weekly from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley to teach classes at Harvard, including courses on the speculative short story and haunted fiction. A 2021 recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in fiction, she’s the author of five boundary-pushing works—including the 2018 novel The Third Hotel, a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and the short story collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, named one of the top 10 fiction books of 2020 by Time—that have been translated into seven languages.

Van den Berg’s new novel, State of Paradise, out in July from FSG, is a twisty work combining speculative fiction and autofiction, narrated by a struggling ghostwriter who moves to Florida during the pandemic with her husband (as van den Berg herself did in 2020) to live with her mother, next door to her sister. There, a tech company has been distributing virtual reality devices called Mind’s Eye to locals to help them meditate. Soon, people start to go missing—among them the narrator’s sister, who’s addicted to the device. Then the weather turns deadly, and the narrator begins to use Mind’s Eye, too, and starts to recall memories of her deceased father and her time as a patient at a mental health facility, while also dealing with inexplicable bodily changes.

State of Paradise is van den Berg’s most intimate book, a mediation on sibling and maternal relationships, death and trauma, and the nature of writing. Returning to her home state of Florida during the pandemic—where she hadn’t lived in more than a decade—allowed her to reconnect with family; process the 2019 death of her father, who fiercely championed her work (“I’ll forever owe my dad a debt as a writer,” she says); and confront her own memories of spending seven months when she was 16 at an inpatient treatment facility for depression, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation.

“This was a book I’d never expected to write, but I badly needed to write,” van den Berg says. “Writing about my history made me feel like an adult and that I could finally move on.” And Florida provided the perfect precarious setting. “Nature in Florida has teeth. There are canals with alligators. It’s dangerous, and not hard to imagine yourself on the edge of something otherworldly.”

Jackson Howard, van den Berg’s editor, admires the author’s ability to build arresting worlds. “This novel is extraordinary,” Howard says. “All of Laura’s books have this profound darkness that she’s able to balance with levity, and this is the most complete version of that.”

Born in 1983 in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando, van den Berg couldn’t be bothered with books growing up. “I had to be badgered into doing homework, reading, all that stuff,” she recalls. Her early mental health struggles, including dealing with anorexia, left her raw. After getting her GED at 17, she attended Rollins College, where she was on academic probation and took a fiction workshop to get her grades up. She promptly fell in love with stories.

“Amy Hempel’s ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried’ was my conversion experience,” she says. “I wouldn’t be a writer without the short story.”

After graduating from Rollins in 2005, van den Berg got an MFA from Emerson College, then briefly worked at Ploughshares and published her first novel, Find Me, in 2015. She has taught creative writing in the graduate programs at the Michener Center, Columbia University, and Warren Wilson College, and is currently a senior lecturer on fiction at Harvard, where her husband, the writer Paul Yoon, also teaches.

Van den Berg met Yoon in 2004 at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vt. The pair have been inseparable ever since. They read each other’s work first, and van den Berg credits Yoon with inspiring parts of State of Paradise. As an example, she points to long runs Yoon took when the couple lived in Florida. On one such occasion, he witnessed a man violently slashing a car tire with a knife—an image that shows up in the opening chapter of State of Paradise.

“She’s my confidant,” Yoon says. “We met when we were so young, wrestling with craft. It became the language of our relationship and still is. For me, it’s everything.”

With Yoon by her side, van den Berg has dealt with anxiety and overcome trauma, and he has watched her thrive. After returning to therapy in 2016, van den Berg took up amateur boxing to further improve her health. It’s done wonders.

“Boxing straightened out so many things—my drinking, my sleep, and it’s taught me how to breathe,” she says. “After my first fight I was up for two days feeling invincible and bulletproof. I love boxing and hate it, but even when I hate it, I still love it.”

When van den Berg isn’t writing or in the ring, she can be found walking her 10-year-old Lab mix, Oscar. “We walk when the world is quiet and the light is new and beautiful,” she says. “We don’t have an infinite amount of these days left, so I really slow down and feel connected to everything.”

With her fiction, she’s committed to destabilizing things that appear fixed but aren’t, as she challenges the limits we impose on our reality and ourselves. “That’s what it means to write a book,” she reflects. “To walk through the unknown door, where miserable failure is possible—but so is great transformation.”

Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Find Me was van den Berg's first book; it was her first novel.