Beautiful & Daunting

With two successful short-story collections under her belt and her first novel drawing rave reviews, Laura van den Berg ’05 is blazing a literary trail.

(Photo by Laura J. Cole ’04 ’08MLS) (Photo by Laura J. Cole ’04 ’08MLS)

She’s been called the “best young writer in America.” Although she finds that headline for a Salon review of her first novel very flattering, Laura van den Berg ’05 says, “There are about a hundred people I’d put in front of myself. At least.” Be that as it may, there’s no getting around the fact that at 31, van den Berg already has to her credit two well-received short story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (2009) and The Isle of Youth (2013). The latter won the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And Find Me, van den Berg’s debut novel released in February, has received glowing reviews from newspapers including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times to magazines such as O and People.

Not bad for someone who says she never thought she could make a living as a writer. The secret to success, she says, is “embracing that there is no secret,” a concept that may be difficult to grasp for those who are used to having all the answers. The writing life, van den Berg explains, is both beautiful and daunting. Her voice on the other end of the phone connection sounds warm and welcoming. “There is not a particular path that you have to take; you move through it in your own way and time,” she says. “Ultimately, we all have to create that for ourselves.”

It was a little more than a year ago when van den Berg shared the Bush Auditorium stage with poet and novelist Alan Michael Parker during the annual Rollins literary festival, Winter With the Writers. At the time, she could only offer a sneak preview of her novel about a young woman’s search for her mother in a world made bleak by a memory-destroying, body-ravaging epidemic.

What a difference a year makes. Or does it? “The funny thing about publishing a book,” van den Berg says, “is how a lot can change and nothing can change at the same time. Certainly with Find Me I have had more press inquiries and, in that sense, a busier publication schedule than I have had with past books. But that’s also a flurry that settles down pretty quickly, in the grand scheme, so I just try and take things as they come. On the large scale, though, little has changed. I still have all the same anxieties. I’m working on a new project and feel the same pangs of doubt.”

The transition from short story to novel was super hard, van den Berg says. “The biggest adjustment for me was the process. With stories, I can work in small increments, a little bit of time here and there. But that approach didn’t work for me at all with a novel. I found that I needed a lot more uninterrupted time. I needed to disappear from my life, in a sense.”

When she’s at home in Boston, van den Berg says she does her best work when she’s not at home. She belongs to the Writers’ Room of Boston, a communal workspace open to members 24/7. “The only thing I do there is write,” she says, free from such distractions such as Oscar, the Lab mix puppy she and her husband, writer Paul Yoon, share their lives with. “Why torture yourself over sentences when you can play with the dog?”

The creative backdrop for her current project is the idyllic-sounding Hudson Valley community of Annandale-on-Hudson, located about 3.5 hours from Boston and home to Bard College. A recipient of the $30,000 Bard Fiction Prize, van den Berg is spending this semester there as a writer in residence. Included is an on-campus apartment (with fireplace, of course) and office. While teaching is not expected, informal interaction with students is.

“I’ve especially enjoyed the space and time to work, and also the beautiful surroundings,”—surroundings, by the way, that did not include nearly as much snow as Boston received. Van den Berg, who was born at Winter Park Memorial Hospital and grew up as part of a large family in Central Florida, says, “I do generally feel more at home in the Northeast—Boston, in particular. Winter can be rough, but spring and fall make up for it.”

Van den Berg will be moving to New York City and begin teaching at Columbia University in the fall. For now, that sense of urgency to finish the next project, to write every day, is gone. And she’s OK with that. “It’s a wonderful gift to have these books out in the world. It’s time to get off the publishing carousel for a bit.”