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Laura van den Berg's new novel, The Third Hotel
, is an exquisite exploration of grief, travel, and intimacy. It's also got an extremely compelling story: Clare, an elevator sales rep, goes alone to a horror movie festival in Havana after her husband, a film scholar, dies in a car accident. A few days later, to her shock, she sees him standing in front of a museum. Thus begins a surreal, intuitive, unsettling journey through Clare's past and psyche that makes for one of the best books of 2018. Garth Greenwell raves, "In this gorgeous, frighteningly smart novel, a woman deranged by grief becomes an imposter in her own life. As inventive and inexorable as a dream, The Third Hotel
is a devastating excavation of the unconscionable demands we place on those we love, and a profound portrait of the uncanny composite creature that is a marriage. Laura van den Berg is one of our best writers, an absolute marvel." And Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies
, writes, "I love Laura van den Berg for her eeriness and her elegance, the way the fabric of her stories is woven on a slightly warped loom so that you read her work always a bit perturbed. The Third Hotel
is artfully fractured, slim and singular; it's a book that sings, but always with a strange pressure more felt than heard beneath the song." We’re thrilled to present The Third Hotel
as Indiespensable Volume 75
What was the genesis of The Third Hotel
? How did it begin?
Laura van den Berg:
It came from a few different sources. I started living in upstate New York at Bard, in the Hudson Valley. I'm from Florida, so everything for me is "up," but I hear that, technically, if you're a real upstater — if you're from Schenectady — you'll say that the Hudson Valley is not truly upstate.
I had some pages of the novel. I had gotten a fellowship at Bard to live there for the spring semester and I wasn't teaching; it was just a fellowship to focus on my own work. I was living in a house that was completely haunted. My dog was always barking into this one corner, which is atypical for him, where he could clearly sense something. There was this very creepy attic ceiling ladder that would unfold itself in the middle of the night.
Indiespensable Volume 75
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Oh my god. [Laughter
Van den Berg:
I'd come out of my bedroom and this staircase that I'd really tried to cram up there as tightly as I could would just be unfolded, like an invitation to something frightening.
Also, around that same time, my father had a stroke. He recovered well. He has been fine. But when I first got the news from my stepmother, I was driving. I had a rental car. I drove my rental car into a ditch. It was a shallow ditch. I didn't need AAA or anything, but…
So I came to Bard with a lot of unique ideas. I was born and raised in Orlando, Florida, and I'd been thinking a lot about how tourism was taking shape in contemporary Havana after the Obama-era loosening of travel restrictions. And I was thinking about how we narrate the places that we travel to. I was also obviously thinking a lot about horror films, and particularly the conversation that horror has around gender. And I had an idea for this married couple.
I had all of these things, and I just imagined a constellation of jellyfish. I didn't really have a notion of how to put them all together, or even if they could be put together.
I think there was something about having this time to write, and having the ditch feel lightly supernatural, in some ways, and then also having this raw lightning strike of grief that led me to do something that, thankfully, was ultimately of so little consequence. But to do something really extreme and rash helped to give way to the shape of the book.
You definitely seem to be interested in ghosts — there's a line in Find Me
that's about "the residue of ghosts, if ghosts leave anything behind," and in the new book, Clare wants to turn herself into a ghost to learn how to grieve; she was also called a "little ghost" at her parents' hotel when she was a kid. And there's that amazing image of her hiding in the closet and thinking about her sweaty handprint as the "work of an overheated ghost."
Van den Berg:
I definitely have a ghost thing. [Laughter
If your interest in ghosts predates the haunted house you were living in, what is your ghost thing about, do you think?
Van den Berg:
Right now, I'm at a residency in Italy, and I'm working on a story collection that's exploring the premise of unconventional ghost stories. Sometimes a ghost is like a literal, supernatural thing that's happening in the world, or sometimes a ghost is a damaged person, or a person who returns unexpectedly, so I'm looking at the different permutations of ghosting.
We believe in our own sort of knowing, but there are times when the limits to that knowing are thrown into fairly sharp relief.
Clearly, that's narrative ground that I'm interested in exploring. There is a literal ghost situation, in a manner of speaking, in The Third Hotel
, but I was also interested in exploring the idea of “ghostness” through a couple of different vantage points.
Another part of the constellation of jellyfish that I had come to Bard with was that I'd also been thinking a lot about travel, period, whether it's travel in the context of tourism, travel for work, etc. Find Me
came out within a year and a quarter of my second short story collection, and so there was this stretch where I was on the road incessantly.
It was an interesting experience. I lived in Florida until I was 22. I've been very grateful for the opportunity to see the country in a way that I didn’t as a young person. I'd traveled some in the South, but I’d never driven west. I'd never been to the West Coast. I'd never seen the desert. I'd never seen Big Sky in Montana, or anything like that. But after a time, I felt like travel was making me a ghost in my own life, if that makes sense, in a way that I got strangely addicted to.
The justification for this massive amount of travel that I was doing was that I had this project. I was like, Well, I really need this part of my income. I really need the honorarium money
, even when I had a full-time job. And in time, even when that wasn't the case anymore, I had a very hard time pulling back. I realized that for me, travel for work — I'm not speaking so much about travel for pleasure — had actually become a way of avoiding life.
If my partner was like, There's something we really need to talk about
, it was like, Oh yeah, but I'm leaving at three in the morning, and I have to pack, so we're just going to have to table that.
It was really a great way to avoid getting into the nitty-gritty of my own day-to-day.
When we first meet Clare, that is her orientation toward travel. The perpetual, nonstop motion has allowed her to become a ghost in her own life. That was a feeling that had become familiar to me, and one that I wanted to explore on the page. Then we have the possibly supernatural situation that's going on with her recently dead husband.
She's also seeing her father become a ghost before her very eyes. There's the manifestation of ghosts through horror films, and also ghosts of the past that keep coming back and niggling at the margins of her memory.
There's so much in The Third Hotel
about identity — the secret selves that people have, but also mistaken identity, hiding with disguises (like the actress Agata Alonso), and maybe even something like Capgras syndrome, which Clare's father might be suffering from in his dementia. Some of this is tied in with travel, too.
Even Clare, when she sees Richard again, thinks, Is he a little bit off, or different, just the tiniest bit?
There's so much in there about identity, what makes an identity, and what makes the subtext of someone's identity. What were you interested in exploring with this theme?
Van den Berg:
That's such a great question. I think, just writing fiction in general, in terms of character, I think a lot about how a narrative can navigate the different layers of self.
There's the public self that we present to the outer world. There's the private self, which maybe takes more time to access. But ultimately, what I'm most interested in as a writer is a few notches below the private self. It's the secret self, the part of us that we really don't understand, that compels us to do things that we're bewildered or startled by.
I teach creative writing, and I sometimes do this exercise with my students. They don't turn it in or share it in any capacity. It's just for them to think about. I ask them to write about something, a time where they did something really fucked up, and they didn't understand why they did it. It's so interesting, because the students are all so different, coming from different places, but everyone has an answer to that question. It's amazing — they write this in class — how quickly they begin writing. They don't even hesitate.
We all have that submerged part of the self that's generating actions and reactions, thoughts and feelings. It's like a little area living within you sometimes. I think of The Third Hotel
as being a book where actually, at a certain point, the secret self is really the primary generator of what's happening in the novel. That self is kind of exploding out of Clare as she moves through the world.
I think the secret self, too, is on wild display in travel contexts and in transit spaces. I don't think these thoughts are at all unique in these spaces, but in that second chapter, which is a chronicle of her various trips as a field rep and the different things that she sees — so many of those details were pulled from my own experiences, like the dentures in the back of the seat, or hearing someone screaming on the other side of the wall all through the night.
To me, in general, something that's really rich in terms of identity about transit spaces is that they're so intimate. Especially thinking about long international flights when we're trying to sleep on the plane — we're total strangers, but we're sleeping next to each other.
I'm actually too anxious to sleep on a plane, so I can observe people's sleep habits. If they have a nightmare, you're there for this incredibly intimate thing, but there's also this passive silence around it. It would be invasive to ask a stranger, What are you dreaming? What was going on?
I'm very interested in the way that transit spaces, where we would think we’d use our most guarded, outward-facing public self, actually become very rich environments for the secret self to come to the fore.
My flying anxiety has improved considerably in the last year, because I finally got some therapy for it, but I used to sob all through a turbulent flight. I would just tell the person next to me, This is going to be really unpleasant. I'm so sorry. I'll be fine. I just need to ride it out.
You think about the almost profound intimacy of that, and yet there is this kind of passive silence around it. I'm very interested in how we see glimpses of people's innermost identities in travel spaces.
I felt like travel was making me a ghost in my own life...in a way that I got strangely addicted to.
It's such a rich vein to explore, and such a wonderful part of the book. It's a huge part of why I enjoyed the book so much.
I love the way you were putting that — that Clare's secret self has become her primary generator of movement. There are points in the book where I was almost jealous of her, because she has no attachments. She's just following whatever impulse hits her.
Even though she's grieving and in such deep sorrow, she has a kind of freedom that we don't generally see or we don't generally have, I think.
Van den Berg:
Totally. I was thinking about that, too, in the context of horror films. If we're talking about the classic Final Girl archetype, the Final Girl is transformed by the end. There's usually a physical transformation. There's an emotional transformation. Something is reckoned with or confronted.
But one thing that's really compelling about horror as a genre is that whatever the horror is, whether it's someone's ex becoming a serial killer, or horror of the more supernatural variety, this new kind of logic overtakes the narrative world. Suddenly, all of the things that made sense before make no sense now. I think you can see that in any horror film, once the logic of the horror — whatever the nature of the horror is — takes over the world and changes the rules for everything.
I've been thinking about that structure in relation to Clare — that once the new rules take hold, all of a sudden everything changes. She's not bound to the norms that she was previously bound to. So I think it's true, you get this very weird, sort of terrible liberation, but there is a measure of liberation there. [Laughter
One of the complicated things about the Final Girl trajectory is that it often has to do with embodying patriarchal violence, in a way. It's a very classic arc for lots of those slasher films from the ’90s and early ’00s that the Final Girls become increasingly masculine in presentation, and they become more violent. It's like in order to survive they have to embody the male violence that the killer has been embodying. You see how that is sort of liberating for those characters, even if it's a very complicated, almost retrograde kind of liberation.
Clare is going along with these new rules; but then there's that scene later in the book, where she wakes up in the middle of the night and just absolutely cannot process what is happening, and has a physical and mental meltdown for a while, which felt to me like such a realistic depiction of what would happen to someone if they were actually in this impossible situation.
Van den Berg:
You can't outrun your life, which is an obvious thing to say in some ways, but sometimes I think the most obvious concepts are the hardest ones to really internalize.
On a much, much more modest scale than Clare, obviously, I'm thinking about how I was speaking before about travel becoming a way to absent myself from my own life. Eventually, the things that I had been trying to avoid did catch up with me, and led to some pretty significant burnout, both physically and emotionally.
One thing that can be kind of fun to do in fiction, or interesting to do, is to take a feeling you know in your own life, and then really magnify it into a much, much more extreme scale to see what shows up. I was definitely engaging in a little bit of that with Clare.
She can't outrun her own life. In a lot of ways, this sort of odyssey that she’s on moves her farther outside of her life, in a sense, but then ultimately — particularly in regards to the subplot with her father — moves her deeper into it, in a way that she's almost not aware of until it's already happened.
With regard to the Final Girls, there's a lot in the book about dangers to women and women's ability to survive — their ruthlessness, as it comes out in the end. But also, there's Clare thinking about the rules of being a girl, and how she sort of broke or skirted those rules and wasn't "punished" for the risks she took. I feel like I had similar experiences growing up. But later, she's shocked when her boyfriend randomly shoves her down the stairs. It's fascinating to see it framed that way.
Van den Berg:
That was how I was raised in terms of gender. I got the lectures: Don't walk alone at night. Don't drink too much. Always watch your drink; don't ever let it out of your sight. Never accept a ride from a stranger. I mean, a lot of it is commonsense advice, but I felt like I was being prepared for… My mom's a southern lady with a flair for drama. She would be like, Don't accept a ride from a stranger. They could be a serial killer.
But ultimately, what I'm most interested in as a writer is a few notches below the private self. It's the secret self.
Again, I don’t think that my experience in this regard, and what you're suggesting, is so unique. But I felt like I was being prepared for a world where there are all these frightening strange men hiding in the bushes waiting to jump out and grab you. It's like all of this safety advice was oriented toward stranger danger: Beware the strange man who could be following you. Beware the strange man who offers you a ride. Beware the strange man who's offering you a drink.
Statistically speaking, for most women, they're actually much more likely to be harmed by a man they know personally than by some random stranger. In my own life, when I've had relationships that were problematic or even frightening or threatening in some way, I was very ill-equipped in terms of how to cope with them.
There's this mentality that this danger comes from some anonymous person. And also, Florida and California have had more than their fair share of serial killers. [Laughter
] I remember the Ted Bundy murders in Gainesville. It's like that's the roving maniac you should be on guard for.
When I look back on past relationships, with people who were doing things that were extraordinarily fucked up, but which I never cast as problematic, abusive, or anything like that, it’s because I was like, Unless someone is beating me senseless, that's not where the danger is. The danger is out in the woods.
It takes some time for that thinking to be reconfigured.
That was something I was certainly interested in exploring. Horror also really gets at that, because it seems like... I'm thinking in particular of the Scream
-era slasher. But it comes up in so many films from Scream
to The Shining
to Rosemary's Baby
, where the horror initially is in this wandering monster. But then the wandering monster takes off its mask and it turns out to be the person that you're supposed to be the most intimate with. Horror definitely plays with the ideas that your secrets will undo you, and that the person you are the closest to, and the person who stands to do the most harm to you, are actually two sides of the same coin.
What the novel is saying, or asking, about marriage also seems connected to these ideas. I love the passage about knowing another person, where Clare is listing the things she knows about Richard and then says: “She could go on into infinity and yet she understood that knowing another person was not a stable condition. Knowing was kinetic, ineffable, and it had limits, but the precise location of those limits, the moment at which the knowing stopped and the not-knowing began, was invisible. You would know you had reached the border only after you had surpassed it.”
That’s one of the best descriptions of the problem of long-term connection with another person that I've read.
Van den Berg:
I was certainly thinking in this book about the limits of intimacy, for sure.
I feel compelled to say, as we've been talking about all these terrible things, that I'm married to like the world's most wonderful human being. [Laughter
For Find Me
, I promised my parents that I would clarify at every possible opportunity that I was not raised in a horrifying foster care situation, and was not an orphan, and have very nice parents who love me and raised me right and all that. And I feel like for this book I need to say my husband is wonderful! [Laughter
But we've known each other for 14 years, and we still find out new things. You learn a little bit, like, Oh, I've somehow known you for 14 years and I didn't know you have such a thing for anchovies.
Those little things that come out over time and surprise you in some way.
And then, sometimes, we have those sorts of mysterious weather systems that move through us in an invisible way, and we start behaving differently or doing things that our partner doesn't understand. I don't think it has to be in the context of a romantic relationship — it could be siblings, parents, friends, or coworkers. Sort of like, This seems like something that I've not quite seen from you before. What's up with that?
I started — as a lifelong non-sporty person — I started boxing last year, and I've been boxing for seven or eight months. I’m obsessed with it. I found a place to box here in Italy. I've been walking like two miles into town once a week to box. That's the level of love I have for it.
I think that at first my husband was like, That seems pretty good, and very healthy, and cathartic
, but he probably thought it would be a kind of passing interest. And I think it definitely took a little acclimating. In school, I was going to the gym like five days a week. I was scheduling my whole life around boxing. [Laughter
And it's odd to see your spouse, whom you've known for so long, become so enraptured by something that's completely new, and completely outside of your own orbit or world.
Even in our closest relationships, there are all sorts of ways we can surprise each other that I think can be really beautiful, inspiring, and sort of bonding. And sometimes, in ways that can be unsettling, too. We like to believe that we know the people we're close to as completely as we can. Then, in some ways, knowing is also a context. We believe in our own sort of knowing, but there are times when the limits to that knowing are thrown into fairly sharp relief.
I was like, Unless someone is beating me senseless, that's not where the danger is. The danger is out in the woods.
There are some incredibly striking images in your work: a whole, perfect fingernail in the drawer of a hotel, the eels under Clare’s skin, the elevator door being opened by meat hooks. How do they come to you, and how do you choose which ones will be recurring and which ones will stand alone?
Van den Berg:
That, for me, is definitely an organic process. I found a fingernail in a hotel room drawer once. It was a fake nail. Then when I was writing, I thought, What could be even weirder and more disgusting than a fake fingernail?
Then I was like, A real nail.
] It's the title of the first section, so obviously I'm intending for it to have more significance than just as an odd detail.
When I have been working with something for a while, at a certain point I can step back and see these recurring things. And then I think, Is it recurring just because I'm being descriptively or imagistically lazy, or is there some sort of deeper resonance there?
And then I act accordingly, depending on which conclusion I come to.
Broadly speaking, I tend to think of detail in two ways. I think of orienting details, so if you are writing a work where grounding your reader in a scene is important, those are the details that orient your reader to what it is you're describing.
It's like when Clare has a coffee at the airport and bumps into someone she spent time with in the city. Are they sitting or are they standing? What is she looking at? Is there a window? Can she hear anything? You're thinking about those orienting details.
Then there's also this thing that I call granular detail. For me, those are the details that hold deeper layers of meaning, and also hold time, and sort of hold their own stories in a sense. Often, those are the odder, more startling details.
If the orienting details are there to stabilize the reader's experience, the granular details often work in the opposite direction, to destabilize. I think a lot about how the orienting details and the granular details can kind of work in concert together, and of the friction between them.
I would think of the fingernail as being a granular detail, in the sense that it's a real thing that she finds. It's a concrete thing in the world. But it's also emblematic of the deep changes of travel, the intimacy with an absent stranger. And it also invites its own questions: How did the nail get there? What happened? How did this happen? [Laughter
] There are those larger questions that will of course remain unanswered.
It’s often those granular details, because they hold time, because they hold meaning, and because they hold their own stories in a way and thus have that supercharged layer of resonance, that often become the ones that recur in different permutations throughout the work.
That makes a lot of sense. I love your description of the two kinds of details. One detail struck me. You write in our Q&A that you’re left-handed, like Clare is left-handed. I was wondering, did someone ever really tell you that left-handed people are twin-eaters?
Van den Berg:
Oh my god, yes. That happened at a book signing. It was incredible.
So this man came up to me. He was not buying a book or having a book signed. He came up because he had noticed I was left-handed. He came up to me expressly to tell me this. He said, Did you know that you're a twin-eater?
I was like, What? What's that? No.
He told me that if you're left-handed, it means you had a twin that was in the womb with you, and that you consumed the twin and so everything about you flipped. I think he might have a weird thing with left-handed people. He just kind of appeared from around the corner and then left. It was a very odd encounter, but also, delightful for the fiction writer. As soon as this man said that, I was like, Oh my god. That's something I can use.
My feeling is if a person says it to you, then it is yours. I mean, unless it's like their deepest secret. But if a person says it, and addresses it to you, then it is your material to use as you see fit. I was like, I can't wait to put that in a work of fiction.
I thought, What are the odds?
So I called my mom. I was like, Mom, this is a weird question, but were you ever pregnant with twins?
and explained this to her. She was like, That's the most batshit ridiculous thing I've ever heard.
She got pregnant in her 40s, so she's like, I had five million sonograms, but it was only ever you.
So unless I ate the twin at a very early stage in the pregnancy, it seems that his theory does not vet. It's amazing what people will say to other people. I thought that was an incredible thing to say to someone.
I think so too. I'm left-handed, too, and I've never heard that.
Van den Berg:
Well, some man in Florida thinks we ate our twins in the womb.
I spoke with Laura van den Berg by phone from her residence in Italy on July 3, 2018.
÷ ÷ ÷
Laura van den Berg
was born and raised in Florida. She is the author of two collections of stories, The Isle of Youth
and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
, and the novel Find Me
. Her next novel, The Third Hotel
, will be published by FSG in August 2018.