SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Laura Van Den Berg is one of the most admired short story writers in the country, so her first novel has been greatly anticipated. It's called "Find Me." There's a sickness sweeping the country. It obliterates memory then kills. Joy is a lonely young woman who works at a Stop & Shop outside of Boston. Her chief impulse in life seems to be to swill Robitussin cough syrup. By the way, there's a lot of product placement in this book. But Joy also seems to be untouched by this sickness. Is she somehow immune? She's put into a state hospital in Kansas for tests where she befriends some patients who are losing their memory and their lives. They make plans to break free and Joy sets out for Florida where she must rely on her memory, which may falter, to uncover secrets that she can't recall. Laura Van Den Berg joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.
SIMON: So what's this sickness?
VAN DEN BERG: The sickness is an epidemic that destroys memory. And in the early incarnations of the book, the sickness actually got a much more realistic treatment, sort of "Contagion"-esque if you will. But the more I worked on the book the longer it began to move into this surreal direction. And then when I uncovered the part about memory loss, I finally understood how the larger story of the sickness locked together with Joy's interior story.
SIMON: Joy's interior story - for example, why is she always swilling cough syrup?
VAN DEN BERG: Yes, I mean, Joy is a character who, ironically, wants to forget. She's had a childhood trauma that is somewhat repressed and over the course of this story she has to confront those damaged parts of herself.
SIMON: Let me get you to read a section if I could. She's in this state hospital getting tested. And she finds common cause with a couple of twins.
VAN DEN BERG: Absolutely. (Reading) Sam is holding a flashlight. Christopher is pecking at the ground with a big metal spoon, the kind of serving spoon I've seen in the dining hall. Where did you get that, I whisper? We stole it, the boys whisper back. The medicine cabinet blocks the bathroom entrance. Linoleum squares are piled nearby like shed skin. Sam points the flashlight at the hole and I am astonished by the size. The opening is as large as a car tire. I move closer and feel grit on the bottoms of my feet and think about how long it's been since I've touched the outdoors.
SIMON: But if you can get out, where do you go in a sick world?
VAN DEN BERG: Well, in Joy's case, she - during this epidemic, and while she's in this state hospital in Kansas, she discovers her mother who abandoned her as a child. So Joy knew that her mother had left her on the steps of a hospital in Boston, but she never knew her mother's identity. And when that identity becomes known to her and Joy has reason to believe that her mother is in Florida, she begins sojourn to Florida in hopes of finding her mother.
SIMON: You, I gather, grew up in Florida and now live in Boston.
VAN DEN BERG: I did, yes.
SIMON: But you went back to Florida when you were writing some of this book.
VAN DEN BERG: I spent about four weeks in Key West at a writers' colony there and the book is divided into two parts. The first part is set entirely in the hospital and the second part is set entirely on the road. And in some ways the constraints of writing the hospital section was a huge challenge, but it took me even longer to figure out what should happen in the second part. There was so much freedom. It was sort of just enough rope to hang myself, so to speak.
SIMON: (Laughter) When you talk about so much freedom, you mean so many different directions in which you could turn.
VAN DEN BERG: Absolutely, yes, right because the hospital immediately closes certain doors, but on the road, quite literally, anything could happen. And I was at this residency in Key West and it was haunted. And in another - a woman, whose house was next to mine - a painter - we were hearing the most terrifying sounds in the middle of the night. So I was having a supernatural experience. I was sleeping very little. It was very hot. The thing that kind of kept me alert and in the world was every morning I would walk to the ocean and swim. And I remember - and I had had this other, you know, version of the second part and I never really felt good about it. And I actually remember this moment of jumping off a pier into the ocean and coming up for air and thinking I have to throw all of that away and start over. And I did. And I did not save any files. I just deleted it and in about three weeks, in sort of an insomniatic frenzy, I wrote the first draft of the book two that exists now.
SIMON: To follow up on ghosts, are you quite sure it wasn't just squeaky timbers in the attic?
VAN DEN BERG: I was actually very prepared to accept that there was a corporal, non-supernatural explanation behind this, but two things convinced me that it was supernatural - one that it was shared by a couple of my residents. So at a certain point I realized that I was not alone in experiencing these terrifying night noises. And then the second thing was that we organized a casting out spell of the ghost and I am painfully aware of how preposterous that sounds, but it totally worked.
SIMON: Oh, I don't know what to say. Maybe they were just funning with you, you know? Maybe they said, oh, oh, this way we'll get on the book tour.
VAN DEN BERG: Yeah. You know, it could be. And one of the artists who was in residence there was a performance artist. And, you know, this - we had a sort of running joke about what if this is someone's sort of performance art piece that we're unwittingly a part of.
SIMON: What kind of changes do you have to make in the way you write and the way you think to go from the short story to the novel?
VAN DEN BERG: When I'm working on a short story, I could duck into a bathroom at a crowded party and write a scene, which is to say I can work in a very incremental way. And I can work on a short story virtually anywhere and there's a chance it might all add up to something worthwhile. I found that I couldn't work on a novel that way at all. I really need so much time to really make headway on a novel that requires me to disappear from the world in a way.
SIMON: Laura Van Den Berg - her new novel is "Find Me." Thanks so much for being with us.
VAN DEN BERG: Thank you so much.
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