Laura van den Berg, MFA ’08, has great reason to be proud: her short story collection The Isle of Youth is being published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and will hit shelves in November 2013. The alumna is also working on her novel Find Me, which will be published in two to three years.
Van den Berg grew up in Florida and attended Rollins College for her undergraduate degree. Van den Berg described herself as not much of a reader as a young person, often feeling what she read was “disconnected from [her] school and community.” At Rollins, however, she took a creative writing workshop for which she read short stories. For the first time in her life, she felt she could identify with the tales. The workshops gave her a “literary education” and thus her journey to a writing career began.
At Emerson, van den Berg discovered a “sense of purpose and community” in the Master of Fine Arts program. That environment helped her to develop the courage, confidence, and drive she would one day need to launch her career as a writer. Although she initially found it challenging to receive critical feedback from her peers, van den Berg came to greatly value the workshop setting at Emerson. It toughened her up, taught her how important it is have readers while still engaged in the writing process (learning that often what you think is clear on the page is not necessarily clear to all readers) and, finally, helped her learn better listening skills—when to push back and when to simply take something in.
Van den Berg’s first book was her MFA thesis, titled What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, published in 2009 by Dzanc Books. After graduating, she completed a teaching fellowship—the Tickner Writing Fellowship at the Gilman School in Baltimore—and is now an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The Isle of Youth, her first book to be published by FSG, is a series of short stories, all narrated by women, about women committing criminal acts, such as spying and robbing banks. Van den Berg described it laughingly as perhaps any “transgressive impulses [of hers] being worked out.” All the stories are set in “a female landscape…with females in unexpected places.”
Find Me, her work in progress, takes place in the frozen plains of the Midwestern United States after the country has been devastated by an epidemic. The heroine is a young woman attempting to find her lost mother. Asked whether she draws from life when creating her characters and plot, van den Berg said that consciously she does not; there is “virtually no relation to my literal experience.” Emotionally, however, she does connect to her characters, and feels that her experiences do inevitably seep into her writing.
Van den Berg prefers writing short stories to novels, and is confident that it will be at least a few years before she begins another novel. Writing a novel, although incredibly rewarding, she said, can also be grueling and draining. Surely this is encouraging news to Emerson’s current MFA students: all writers, regardless of their status, feel challenged at one point or another in their careers. Van den Berg admits that it is not an easy road; her advice to young writers is to read everything they possibly can and do not be afraid to begin writing. One of her favorite quotations comes from poet Dean Young: “Inspiration doesn’t happen while you’re waiting to write, it happens while you’re writing.” Never underestimate the importance of simply showing up.