“Complications fuel my fiction,” says Laura van den Berg; her new story collection, The Isle of Youth, has enough of them to power a rocket. The characters who populate these stories—con artists, inept PIs, estranged couples, teen bank robbers—desperately want lives better than the ones they have, but their limitations and the circumstances of their lives will never allow them to realize their dreams.
Van den Berg pulls back the curtain on those illusory hopes and exposes the often harsh truth beneath. Out-of-staters typically picture Florida—where several of the pieces are set—as the land of sun, oranges and Disney. But van den Berg grew up in Orlando. “The reality of Florida is that it’s hot, there are mosquitoes the size of your hand, it rains all the time. You have hurricanes,” she says. There’s so much development in central Florida that “there’s tension between the manicured lawns and alligators.”
Her stories suggest that everyone has a secret face waiting to be revealed—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, sometimes both. “There’s a lot in the stories about masking and unmasking in the literal sense,” she says. “In a deeper emotional sense, unmasking is scary.”
Revealing dark secrets is, of course, a hallmark of noir. The stories translate “a kind of noir onto the page,” van den Berg says, and points to Antonioni’s film The Passenger as one of her inspirations. Many of her characters are petty criminals whose schemes turn out poorly. “I’m interested in cause and effect,” she says. “You need the world to push back. If the characters are permitted to transgress and transgress, it’s difficult to keep the tension. I was particularly interested in literal consequences and also in internal consequences. Who will they have to betray and how far are they willing to go?”
Another noir theme that runs through the collection is emotional and intellectual distance—characters have incredible trouble in establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships with the people who should be closest to them. “The real problem these people are facing is disconnection from themselves,” van den Berg explains. “They’re confounded by what they see. I’ve felt that in myself.”
Conversely, the stories create a profound link between the characters and the reader. “One thing I think about a lot that comes up for writers…one of the benefits of writing fiction is that you can know a person wholly and completely,” van den Berg says. “Granted, the person is imaginary. You ultimately know the characters more completely than you know real, live breathing people….It’s impossible to express what we’re really thinking and feeling in the moment. I do think other people are essentially mysterious in that way.”
Noir tales can end somewhat ambiguously, and often unhappily. “There’s always an arc I’m interested in tracing,” van den Berg explains. When the arc is complete, “I can kind of walk away,” she says. “I’m not concerned with happiness and unhappiness but honoring the truth of the character….I’ve created the world, I’ve put these elements in motion.” Sometimes the truest thing for her characters involves “moving deeper into the darkness instead of light. It’s heartbreaking. I feel for those characters.”
While van den Berg finds inspiration in the more shadowy corners of existence, she notes that, “a real person’s life is a lot more marbled, with all the difficult periods and complications that life brings us…. At the end of the day, the dark experiences don’t dominate the picture. They give me a lot of material to draw from.”
Amy Goldschlager is an editor and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix and AudioFile magazine.