Madagascar was not the first expedition on which I had accompanied my mother. We’d started traveling together the year I turned seventeen, after my father called from Alaska to say he wouldn’t be returning from his ice-fishing trip and my mother, a biologist who specialized in rainforest primates, told me it was time I saw the world.

As we landed in Fort Dauphin, south of Madagascar’s capital, the morning sun blazing copper through the small windows, my mother told me to stop calling her mother and to start calling her June, adjusting her oversized black sunglasses—she’d started wearing them all the time, even at night and indoors—as she explained mother made her feel old and undesirable. In the year without my father, the same year she turned forty-five, her age had appeared on her face like a terrible secret. The delicate half-moons underneath her eyes had hardened and crinkled, lines appeared in her forehead. Her hair grayed, though she’d dyed it blonde to cover the evidence. It was even startling to me, the person who saw her day after day. Sometimes I wondered if she wasn’t in Madagascar to research deforestation and primate populations for her latest book, but to charge through the vines and bushes in hope of finding some fountain of youth, to splash river water on her face and paste mud against her skin; to look for a cure.

Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg lives in Boston and attends the MFA program at Emerson College, where she is the editor-in-chief of Redivider and a Ploughshares staff member. Her fiction has or will soon appear in The Greensboro Review, The Indiana Review, The Literary Review, American Short Fiction, and Story Quarterly, among others. Her stories have also received awards from Glimmer Train and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Dzanc Books will publish her debut story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, in 2009.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
Lv: That’s a tough question for me, as the origins of stories typically feel pretty nebulous. For some reason, I had lemurs and long-distance swimming and Madagascar swirling around in my head—all coming right out of the ether, or so it would seem—and then one day I started writing and a few weeks later, I had a very rough draft. If I were able to look back farther, the story probably began germinating after I saw something about lemurs on TV or read a piece on distance swimming. I get a lot of ideas from things I read and see and hear. For me, one of writing’s great pleasures is gaining entry into landscapes and experiences I might not otherwise access. Not that there isn’t some kind of autobiographical, for lack of a better word, center to the story, but those elements emerged much later in the process, as per usual for me. I’ve come to recognize this pattern as a pretty effective form of psychological trickery, to let myself believe for a few drafts that I’m just writing about the plight of primates in Madagascar when of course it’s much more knotty and charged than that.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
Lv: Giving the story a coherent shape and center. I tend to pack a lot into my stories, and then struggle in revision to understand where the nucleus exists. With this one in particular, it was hard to figure out what truly belonged, to distinguish what actually meant something to the story from what just meant something to me. In an earlier draft, there were all these flash-forward sections and a few more characters and it was just too much; the story’s power was being diluted rather than enhanced. Along similar lines, I have a great love of landscapes, but also tend to overwrite scenic descriptions or incorporate too many details that aren’t forwarding the story—partly because of my personal interest in something might just take over and partly to avoid the more difficult aspects of writing, like dealing with my characters. So, in several respects, there was much killing of darlings along the way. The last paragraph was tough, too. Aren’t they always? They’re sort of like rubix cubes—I just have to keep fiddling with them until, if I’m lucky, the colors line up.
HT: How much research into lemurs was required to write this story?
Lv: Quite a bit. I read about their origins and behaviors and endangerment, looked at countless pictures. I didn’t know very much about them before writing the story, but I love reading about unusual species, so it didn’t really feel like research, and I’m kind of obsessed with lemurs now. A major life goal has become pulling together funds for a trip to Madagascar, so I can make my lemur pilgrimage.
HT: The details of Madagascar and its rainforests set up such a powerful setting for Celia’s coming of age. Why did you choose to set it here? Have you been to Madagascar?
Lv: I fell in love with the word “Madagascar” before even beginning the story—the cadence, the way it sounds so foreign and adventurous in a kind of Jacques Cousteau-ian way. After I started researching and read about the lemurs and the details of the landscape, I immediately felt an emotional resonance with the place and began to see what Madagascar could do for the characters and the emotional terrain of the story. Landscapes are often great for applying pressure to characters, for heightening tensions, and Madagascar contained elements that I hoped could pressure Celia in useful and vivid ways. I haven’t been to Madagascar, so this decision in setting necessitated more research. When I’m writing about a place that really exists, I try hard to acquire a good understanding of the facts, to avoid inaccuracies that might break the proverbial dream, though in the end, I don’t see the Madagascar of this story as being the actual Madagascar, but my own fictional approximation of the place. As long as the details, whether factual or invented, are things the reader can believe in, I have no qualms about making stuff up.
HT: The last image of June, the mother, walking into the rain forest is at once so alienating and inspiring; a woman whose work is so important to her that she will put it in front of anyone, even her growing daughter. You don’t know whether to hate her or admire her. What impression did you hope the reader would have of June?
Lv: In the end, it’s for each reader to decide, and I’ve definitely gotten varied reactions to June. Though I perceive June as being a deeply flawed character, I can’t help but admire her. Most writers are intimately acquainted with the ruthlessness needed to pursue one’s passion and, though June takes it to an extreme, I’ve come to admire people who chase their obsessions with such ferocity, who are willing to put it all on the line. There are huge costs, of course, costs that would prevent most of us from leaving someone we love to traverse yet another rainforest, but, in the end, a part of me admires June for her obsession and for bucking the conventions—even the most fundamental convention of the bond between parent and child. There’s a great George Orwell line about how when someone undertakes writing a book, they’re being “driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” This is arguably true for obsessed people in general and this is what I see in June.
HT: Do you think Celia will, as her mother says, not make it very far and come back to her mother?
Lv: I actually believe Celia will make it far. I think she has more of her mother in her than she perhaps realizes. In the end, Celia chooses to go try and find herself and in doing so, exhibits her own brand of ruthlessness. If June were able to look at the situation more objectively, I think it’s a choice she’d be proud of.
HT: You write with such care and knowledge of swimming. Are you a swimmer yourself? What inspired the tough “swimming lesson” Daud gives to Celia?
Lv: I am not a swimmer. As one of the most unathletic people walking the earth, I’d surely drown if I ever attempted something that even resembled a long-distance swim. But I’ve always loved the ocean, loved being in the water and looking at the skyline and wondering what it would take to swim into that vastness. What an extraordinary, and slightly insane, thing to do. What would it feel like? What would compel someone to swim hundreds and hundreds of miles in open water? For me, the prospect is at once awe-inspiring and deeply terrifying. When Daud plunges Celia into the water, he’s educating her in this terror.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
Lv: Just under a year. I drafted it in May 2007 and did a little re-writing over the summer. I let the story sit for a while, then workshopped it at Emerson College with the wonderful Margot Livesey and revised some more. After it was accepted, I did several more drafts—ranging from global revisions to line edits—with the superb editorial team at One Story, to whom I am very indebted. A handful of close friends and treasured readers helped at one stage or another and I am deeply grateful to those individuals—particularly my most patient friends, who were subjected to drafts on multiple occasions. While the initial drafting took just a few weeks, bringing that jumble to where the story is now took nearly a year and it was during that process that I really discovered what the story was about.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
Lv: I’ve been fortunate enough to have some truly great teachers, who’ve all offered a bounty of excellent advice. A few tried-and-true bits of advice that come to mind are familiar, but always worth repeating: read, read, read, write hard and revise harder, keep having adventures. Margot Livesey talks about striving to be able to justify every sentence in your story (or novel)—a daunting directive but one that made me look at my work differently and (I hope) has made me a sharper editor. Also, Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners is brimming with the sagest of advice. Pure genius.
HT: What are you working on now?
Lv: I finished a story collection not too long ago, which I’m currently editing before I submit the final manuscript to Dzanc Books later this year. Apart from that, I’m writing a new story about a toll-booth worker and preparing to start a novel.