Q&A with Laura van den Berg ’05 and Alan Michael Parker

The short-story writer (and alum) and the poet and novelist discuss the influence of place, the role of social media in the life of a writer, and the creative process.

Director of Winter With the Writers Carol Frost (far right) asks Laura van den Berg ’05 and Alan Michael Parker questions submitted by the audience (Photo by Scott Cook) Director of Winter With the Writers Carol Frost (far right) asks Laura van den Berg ’05 and Alan Michael Parker questions submitted by the audience (Photo by Scott Cook) What is even better than a Thursday spent taking in a Winter with the Writers Master Class in the afternoon and a reading by that week’s visiting writer in the evening? Why, a Thursday that includes two Master Classes and two readings, of course! The penultimate program in the four-week series featured short-story writer Laura van den Berg ’05, a former Winter with the Writers intern, and poet and novelist Alan Michael Parker. Both writers teach, as well. Van den Berg teaches creative writing at George Washington University. Parker is the Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) One of the highlights of Thursday’s double feature was the announcement of Winter with the Writers intern Brittany Baum ’15, a junior majoring in English, as the 2014 recipient of the van den Berg Scholarship. The scholarship was established in honor of van den Berg, a Hamilton Holt School graduate, by her parents Egerton van den Berg and Caroline Merritt.

“Winning this scholarship means more to me than I think I am capable of expressing,” Baum says. “Obviously the support and financial assistance that comes along with the award is incredible, but even more than that, to have achieved a form of recognition for something I have written has instilled a new level of belief in my potential as a writer.”

Before Winter with the Writers, “I had mentally crossed out ‘author’ as a possibility for myself,” Baum says. “The past few weeks have been monumental in shifting my perspective to something far more hopeful.” And that, it would seem, she shares with the former intern for whom the scholarship is named.

“When I think of Laura van den Berg and what a liberal arts education can do, I think of accidental learning,” says Carol Frost, director of the annual literary arts festival and Alfond Professor of English, as she segued from the scholarship announcement into an introduction of van den Berg. Frost said van den Berg, “ended up in a fiction workshop with Philip Deaver,” where “accidentally she found what she was meant to do for the rest of her life.”

It is clear that the Winter with the Writers experience is highly regarded by interns and visiting writers alike. Before reading selections from Whale Man and Long Division, Parker looked out into the audience. “You interns,” he says with a smile, “can you come home with me?” From an intern’s perspective, Baum says, “In regards to the Master Classes, they can be tough, yes, but I think Alan Michael Parker summed up the intention behind the criticism perfectly. He reminded his students that his critiques came out of respect for their work. In fact, he insinuated that a writer should feel more insulted by a string of empty niceties and compliments.” Baum added, “Everyone is there to learn, and if our meager ‘donations’ can help an aspiring writer finally conquer that scene on page 29, hoorah!”

Q&A with Laura van den Berg ’05

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Dixie Tate: As a Holt graduate, you must find it especially exciting to be working with Rollins students and reading before a hometown crowd. How did your time at Rollins help shape your career as a writer and creative writing instructor?

Laura van den Berg: It is exciting for sure! I wasn’t a writer before I came to Rollins. I wasn’t even really a reader. Thanks to one of [Professor of English] Philip Deaver’s fiction workshops, I started to read the contemporary short story and quickly fell in love with the form.

DT: You grew up in the Orlando area and now live in the Boston area. The two areas are surely quite different. How do the places you live figure into character and place development?

LV: They are very different places and both have snuck into my fiction in their way. I went from Florida to Boston and then left Boston and lived a number of other places—North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland—before returning to Massachusetts last summer. Every place has its material, but I’ve never been overly interested in writing about my own backyard, so to speak. Imaginative travel—writing what I don’t know or what I’d like to know—is, for me, one of the greatest joys of fiction.

DT: Is there a common thread running through your short stories? For example, in your first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, many of the characters seem to be caught between two worlds, often looking for an escape. And some, such as the mother and daughter in the title selection, are well-traveled.

LV: The Isle of Youth has a couple of common threads. All the stories explore the corrosive effect of secrecy and deception in the lives of women, with the manifestations ranging from a teenage magician’s assistant who steals from her audiences to twin sisters who trade identities and become ensnared in the Miami underworld. About half the stories are set in South Florida and in the other stories, the locales range from Patagonia to the Midwest to Antarctica.

DT: What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. How important is that sort of recognition? And what pressure, if any, does that put on you?

LV: I’m always enormously grateful for any recognition—it’s so hard to publish a book and so many books come out every year, so any kind of recognition always feels like a very lucky thing, and it’s encouragement that can go a long way when you’re feeling beleaguered. But at the same time, anything public feels very far away from me, like I am watching a different person standing on a distant stage. And I look up for a moment and wave to them and then I go back to whatever it was that I was doing.

DT: Did you always want to be a writer? Is there a particular subject that interests you?

LV: I didn’t know what I wanted to be for a long time. To write was the first thing I ever wanted with real and lasting force.

DT: What is your creative process? Is there a particular schedule you keep? A favorite place to write?

LV: I try to not be too precious about my writing habits, and when I’m working on stories, I can work pretty much anywhere, but when working on my novel I found I needed longer stretches of time, fewer distractions. Right now I belong to a communal writing space in Boston and get there as much as possible. If I can’t get there, I happily work at home, preferably in the mornings.

DT: Where do you draw inspiration? Are there certain authors you enjoy reading or to whom you look for inspiration? A favorite literary work?

LV: Reading is always a source of inspiration, sometimes returning to old favorites (Joy Williams, Yoko Tawada, Javie Marias) and sometimes seeking out new voices. Or I turn to other mediums for inspiration. In the fall, for example, I saw a Christopher Wool exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, and some of his photos helped me figure a scene of the novel I'm working on. For Isle a number of films were really influential—The Passenger, L’Avventura, Vertigo. I also seem to get lots of ideas on trains.

DT: How do you approach the short story, arguably one of the more difficult literary genres? Do you prefer to write in first person?

LV: I try to not think very much when I’m writing the first draft. I often begin with a first line — “The day my husband left me I followed a trio of Acrobats around the city of Paris,” to take the first line of “Acrobat,” a story in The Isle of Youth. There are a lot of questions inherent in a line like that: Who is this woman? What were she and her husband doing in Paris? Why was she left? What will happen with these acrobats? So the first draft is a way to speak back to those questions, and then in revision the real labor begins.

I do tend to lean toward the first person, but sometimes I make myself rewrite a draft in third person just to be sure.

DT: How important is it to you to be connected to your readers through social media? Do you devote a portion of your day to that sort of reaching out?

LV: I don’t follow sports and I see social media like Twitter as my alternative to the time I might spend watching a football game or following baseball—an amusement, in other words. A hobby, a news source, a virtual water cooler. Sometimes correspondences that evolve into something more meaningful do begin on social media, but I’m not very calculating about it. I’m just having fun.

DT: Your second collection of stories was published in 2013, and you are at work on a novel. Can you give us a sneak preview?

LV: Absolutely! The novel is called Find Me and it should be out in March 2015. It’s about an epidemic that destroys memory and a young woman searching for her mother.

Q&A with Alan Michael Parker

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Dixie Tate: What is your creative process—a day in the life of Alan Michael Parker, the poet, novelist, and professor? Where do you find inspiration?

Alan Michael Parker: I mostly work in the mornings: I caffeinate, go hide in my study, read ’em and weep, then bang some words together to make a little fire. If my schedule permits, I’ll return later to versions, reversions, revisions, erasures, and my trash bin (that last element an essential part of my writing process). On campus, I teach with glee and exhaustion, fueled by my unabashed, fervid passion for words. I have amazing colleagues. I love my students. At the end of the day, I like to cook, play softball, hang out with my partner, walk the dogs.

DT:  It is easy to assume that, for writers, there is at least a creative moment or two in every day. Do you have days when you’re not feeling very creative?

AMP: Certainly! But this is my job, so I do it.

DT: You have published seven collections of poems and three novels—one, The Committee on Town Happiness to be released this summer. Can you give a sneak preview of your latest novel?

AMP: The new novel is composed of 99 connected flash fictions; it’s the story of a small town a little too well-run by a Committee. People are disappearing from town, hot air balloons are sent up and come back pilot-less, and a renegade group forms to help out the ice cream vendors. It’s a political satire rooted in a personal drama, or maybe a personal satire rooted in a political drama. I think it’s hilarious—but I think Kafka’s funny, and the saddest writer too. My novel’s also sad.

DT: How easy or difficult is it to go back and forth between the two genres? Are you working on more than one project at a time?

AMP: I’m usually working on three or four books at once—the new novel’s due in June; my next collection of poems, The Ladder, will be out from Tupelo Press in 2015; and I’m co-editing a very cool secret book due in 2016. Plus what I’m writing now. I don’t find moving between projects difficult anymore; I think I remember that it used to give me fits, in the 1990s when I started doing so.

DT: John Freeman wrote in Mid-American Review, “… Not since Wallace Stevens has America produced a poet as complex and varied as he is accessible... a must for any serious reader of American poetry.” How do you feel about the word “accessible” being used to describe your work? How would you describe your poetry?

AMP: That’s the nicest review I’ve ever gotten!

If I do my job well, my poems might be accessible—that is, I try to minimize obstacles to comprehension if the poem’s read a couple of times. I often use words people know, and the appearance of a narrative occurs regularly. What’s under there? Lots of ideas, I hope, and big thinking; that’s where the difficulty might be more heightened.

DT: What was the inspiration for Whale Man? Is there a character with whom you identify? What are your thoughts on the notion that works of fiction are, to some extent, autobiographical?

AMP: Whale Man came from a dream I had, in which I was moving about inside a giant wooden structure that I eventually learned was the body of a whale. I woke up, wrote down the dream, and started writing the novel within the week.

I don’t particularly identify with any of the main characters in Whale Man—none is me—but I did give myself a cameo in one of the crowd scenes. I also have a cameo in The Committee on Town Happiness. Autobiography, the experiences I have had almost never factor into my work directly. Autobiographically, my books in general tend to be portraits of my cast of mind, my wackiness, and my persistent curiosity about love.

DT: Your most recent book of poems, Long Division, contains several lists, each numbered item a gem. Often the advice from published authors to would-be novelists or poets is to write something every day. For the aspiring writers among us, how about a list of reasons you should write every day?

Reasons to Write Every Day
1. So that you can write badly.
2. To discover.
3. To write badly more.
4. To learn that the job means writing badly most of the time.
5. To figure out the difference between a first draft (that which you write for yourself) and a fifth (that which you write for your reader).
6. To have time to read, so the pressure isn’t only to produce a masterpiece today.
7. Did I say “to write badly”?
8. To learn to be alone.
9. To write a couple of words that have to be together.

DT: Do you have a favorite book? A favorite writer?

AMP: My favorite books tend to be the ones I’m loving reading now—as well as the ones to which I return later. Recently, I’ve been rereading Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Don Delillo’s White Noise, both spectacular, and big loves of mine. There are always great poems nearby too; the newly published posthumous poems of the astonishing poet Larry Levis have been thrilling. Oh, and I’m sort of rereading Dante—by “sort of,” I mean that it’s going to happen more concertedly soon, but for now, I’m nosing slowly through the traffic in the opening cantos. I’ve been reading a lot about animals lately. Oh, and I’ve just spent some time reading around in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria again. I can’t wait to read Colson Whitehead’s new poker memoir.

DT: In this age of everything electronic, how do you see the world of books—the actual hold-in-your-hand paper variety—evolving? How important is it for writers to be connected through social media?

AMP: Bring it all. Words are fun. Any platform, any material, any art-act. Make enough decisions that matter. Be social if you are.

DT: What’s next?

AMP: I’m trying to write the craziest novel ever; really, that’s my goal. It’s a post-apocalyptic carnivalesque Bildungsroman political fable adventure memoir. With cults, a seafaring expedition, and lots of awful beauty. With hope. It’s about a person. We’ll see what the novel becomes....