Posted by: janesstories | February 9, 2010

Guest Post: Laura van den Berg: What the [Publishing] World Looks Like

Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg

I wrote my first collection of stories, “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us,” in about 4 years, from drafting the first story to submitting the final manuscript to my publisher, Dzanc Books. Much of the collection was written and revised while I was in the M.F.A. program at Emerson College, where I benefited hugely from the wise mentorship my teachers offered and the community of writers in the program. The collection has several thematic links—they are all narrated by women, explore landscape, and have a “mythic” element of some kind—but I wasn’t aware of those overlaps until I’d written about 3/4 of the stories. It was then that I began to wonder if I didn’t just have a random assortment of stories, but perhaps the beginnings of a book. Later I was able to see that it was helpful for me to not think in “big picture” terms too early on—i.e. I am writing a Book!—but to just take it day by day, one story at a time, and trust that a larger enterprise would eventually take shape.

To talk a little more about the collection’s thematic links, the central characters are all searching for something either elusive or imaginary, often a mythic monster of some sort, like the Loch Ness Monster or the Mokele-mbembe. This element is often central to the way the stories unfold, so I thought I would take a little time to explore the role of those creatures and the searches that accompany them. In my stories, I see the monsters as manifestations of the characters’ desires, obsessions, and fears, as tangible expressions of intangible things. The creatures are also a stand-in for all that is ineffable to us, for all that is unknown and unreachable. This is part of the reason I chose to never have a creature appear “onstage”; I wanted to keep that ambiguity, that inaccessibility. After all, there’s so much we will never know, will never understand, about ourselves and the people around us and the world at large. The thematic overlap in the stories gave me an opportunity to explore some of the facets of the human condition that fascinate me the most—desire and how it shapes us, obsession, and the ways in which we try to “make it all make sense.”

Another thematic connection in my stories is landscape. A few of the settings are familiar—like Boston, where I used to live, or southern France, where I’ve visited—but many of the settings are places I’ve never seen firsthand. For example, the title story in my collection is set in Madagascar and centers on a young woman and her scientist mother, who has traveled to the island to study lemurs, but the closest I’ve ever come to Madagascar or lemurs is watching a program on the Discovery Channel. Another story, Inverness, concerns a botanist searching for a rare flower in Inverness, Scotland; yet the only trip I’ve ever taken to Inverness has been courtesy of National Geographic. In fact, “writing what I don’t know” or writing outside my own experiences is actually another thread that runs throughout the book, with the far-flung landscapes (many of which I’ve never visited) and exotic vocations (all of which I’ve never held) that kept finding their way into my stories. Over time, I realized writing outside my own experiences, writing what I don’t know, was the very thing that allowed me to access what I do know; the unknown was the key to getting my own emotional realities onto the page, to accessing my autobiography in a way that could inform my fiction.

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

The first book, at least for me, is a tricky animal. At times, self-doubt was the biggest hurdle, both in the writing and publishing processes. With the debut book, you are, for perhaps the first time, you’re getting your vision of the world down in a comprehensive way; you’re learning what you think and know and feel and see and what you don’t know and don’t think and don’t feel and fail to see. Lorrie Moore has said that “if one publishes, then one is creating a public record of Learning to Write” and that notion seems especially true for the first book, which, with time, seems more and more like an artifact of The-Best-I-Could-Do-Then, a thing to be proud of but also a thing to seek to progress beyond.

For me, the most magical part of having a book out in the world has been the opportunity to connect with readers. To that end, many thanks to Glenda Bailey-Mershon for inviting me to write this guest post and many thanks to you for reading!

Editor’s Note: Find out more about Laura at

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the 2009 Julia Peterkin Award, and the 2009-2010 Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg College. Formerly an assistant editor at Ploughshares, Laura is currently a fiction editor at West Branch and the assistant editor of Memorious, an online journal of new verse and fiction. She has taught writing at Emerson College, Grub Street, and in PEN/New England’s Freedom to Write Program. Her fiction has or will soon appear inOne Story, Boston Review, Epoch, The Literary Review, American Short Fiction, StoryQuarterly, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV: Best of the Small Presses, among other publications. The winner of the Dzanc Prize, Laura’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published by Dzanc Books in October 2009 and was a Holiday Pick for the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” Program. She is currently at work on new stories and a novel.


  1. Very interesting, and with all those monsters and exotic locales and vocations, of course now I want to read the book! I love that quote from Lorrie Moore. How true!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Suzanne! Hope you enjoy “What the World…”

  3. Wonderful! W.T.W is on my next to read list ! I keep seeing it on the table by Connie May’s computer so it is close at hand. I love reading your facebook comments about all of the places you are going and all that you are doing. Hope to see you and Paul sometime soon. Bill

  4. laura,
    i read your book a few months back and loved it. i thought each story was beautiful, all characters complex, every word important.
    i too enjoyed this post. “that notion seems especially true for the first book, which, with time, seems more and more like an artifact of The-Best-I-Could-Do-Then, a thing to be proud of but also a thing to seek to progress beyond.” this part resonated with me as i am finishing up my first novel and violently vacillate between being excited and thinking i am crazy. i need to remember to do the best i can do right now.
    i wanted to tell you i loved your book and look forward to reading your next books, posts, and articles.

  5. Dear Katie: Thanks so much for the lovely comment! I’m so glad you enjoyed both the collection and the post. Very best, Laura

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