Laura van den Berg previews her uncanny new book of short stories
Laura van den Berg is returning to the short-story collection.
The prose master drew praise in her recent turn to novels, publishing her debut Find Me and widely acclaimed follow-up The Third Hotel back to back. But next year, van den Berg will return to the form in which she made her name with I Hold the Wolf by the Ears, her first book of stories in six years. Van den Berg has won an O. Henry Award and a MacDowell Colony fellowship, among many other prestigious prizes, so this marks a highly anticipated coming-home of sorts.
Not that readers were complaining. Van den Berg found a larger audience with The Third Hotel, particularly, which hit shelves last year to terrific reviews. Featuring surrealistic touches and an uncanny feel for the madness of the human mind, it features much of what the author will continue to explore in I Hold the Wolf by the Ears, which features 11 tales that seem unusually attuned to our current moment.
Van den Berg has shared an exclusive preview of her new book with EW. Below, you can check out the eerie official cover, as well as an original essay the author penned telling the story behind it.
I Hold the Wolf by the Ears publishes June 9, 2020, and is available for pre-order.
Laura van den Berg on writing I Hold the Wolf by the Ears
At an event for my most recent novel, a woman in the front row raised her hand during the Q & A and asked me when I thought I would “graduate” from writing short stories. Stories are often regarded as the training wheels that writers slough off once they cross over to the long form, which is to say I had encountered this kind of question before, and knew that it often prompted me to speak about how and why I started writing fiction in the first place.
I was eighteen and flunking out of college. I felt utterly lost. I enrolled in a fiction workshop hoping for an easy “A.” You read some made-up stuff, you make some stuff up. How hard could that be? I had read very little contemporary literature — as a child, I loved reading Nancy Drew, but once I outgrew those books I was a faithful reader of The National Inquirer and not much else — and I dreaded our first reading assignment, a short story by Amy Hempel. At the time, I was living with my grandmother and I can remember sitting in her kitchen and reading the story’s opening lines — “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting…make it useless stuff or skip it.” In an instant, the dread lifted. I had anticipated lethal boredom and ended up feeling as though I had received a divination. I could not remember ever having read a short story before and knew so little about the form that I ran around calling them “tiny novels” until I was gently corrected. Nevertheless, I was in love.
It felt like coming home, then, to return to the short form after writing two novels. When I sense that I might be working my way toward a collection, I am mindful of where the stories begin to overlap, to speak to one another, and before long I could discern a recurring thread: all these stories were ghost stories, in one way or another. A night photographer discovers some unearthly footage on her camera. A woman who impersonates dead wives — as one of her many part-time jobs — must contend with the complexities of the ghosted lives she so skillfully inhabits. At first, I was just following ideas where they took me, but soon I began to think more critically about the ghost story and its possibilities. In an NPR interview, Toni Morrison once said that “…if you are really alert then you can see the life that exists beyond the life that exists on top.” What does this “life beyond” have to say about our world that cannot be conveyed through other channels? What does it mean to haunt? What does it mean to be haunted?
In her essay “The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?” Parul Sehgal writes that “ghost stories are never just reflections. They are social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs; the past clamoring for redress.” Over time, my work on the collection became increasingly attuned to forces that haunt our contemporary moment, from sexual assault to the harrowing realities of the gig economy to gun violence. In the wake of the 2016 election, I also felt increasingly compelled to explore the complicity of white women in upholding patriarchal violence. In one story, a woman’s deep denial about her brother’s capacity for harm is challenged when she happens upon his ex-wife, a specter from the past, while in Mexico City for a conference. They spend a night together, and the narrator is pushed to confront the ghosts of the knowledge she has continually refused — the truths she has been unwilling recognize; the different, better future she could have participated in building had she been more courageous and less loyal to her own comfort.
The title — I Hold a Wolf By the Ears — speaks to the challenges of navigating messy situations with no clear solution. How to live alongside consequences that cannot be undone? How to name a thing — a trauma, a terrible mistake — when the very act of naming could shatter how you understand your life? Here ghosts appear in a forest in North Florida and in a train car bound for a mysterious destination. They appear in the form of the haunted stories a sister tells her twin, a shooting victim, as she languishes in a coma. They appear in the form of missing persons and those who unexpectedly return and in how, if we stop being alert, we can become ghosts in our own lives. There are no soft landings for these characters, but new paths do open, suggesting the possibility of a way through.
Falling in love with the short story all those years ago did not fix my life, but it did help me find a way through, I told the woman during the Q & A. A single short story made me into a reader and once I was a reader I could become a writer. To this day, I can’t imagine an artistic trajectory for myself without the short story in it.
The night after my father died, I dreamt that he was speaking to me through my sister’s dog and then I woke up in my sister’s guest room in Florida and her dog was sitting upright on the bed and staring down at me, his jaws opening and closing as though controlled by a ventriloquist’s strings. Words were exchanged, though I won’t share them here. Was that experience a product of my grief-soaked imagination or owed to some other ineffable force? All I know is that that moment — the recognition that there is so much out there that I can sense but will never fully understand — left me feeling a little less alone.
—Laura van den Berg