Laura van den Berg’s beautiful and haunting The Third Hotel brings us to Havana, Cuba, where recent widow Clare has arrived for the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema. She was supposed to be there with her film scholar husband, Richard, but he was hit by a car five weeks prior. Clare decides to acquaint herself with the newly tourist-filled streets of Havana, and as she passes a museum, discovers Richard standing outside. Clare decides to follow him, clocking his every move. This encounter uproots Clare’s sense of reality, and sheds new light on her role in her husband’s death. Laura van den Berg joined Marlena author Julie Buntin at Books Are Magic to discuss how her own experiences informed the book, how she grapples with the irresolvable in her writing, and her favorite horror films.
Julie Buntin: “There’s Borges and Bolaño, Kafka and Cortázar, Modiano and Murakami, and now, Laura van den Berg.” I want to start there, with a quote from a recent review of The Third Hotel in review. I’m curious about whether those writers are influences to you, and also how it feels to be here launching your fourth book, on the heels of praise like that?
Laura van den Berg: I think that review is very generous. A lot of those writers are influential to me—they’re giants to me and will always be giants to me. And so there’s nothing that will ever sort of scale them to not be these monumental figures in my imagination. I think the part of the piece that really resonated with me about that is that idea of fiction sort of transforming experience. I do think both as a reader and sort of my ambitions as a writer, that’s something that I’m very drawn towards. Joy Williams, who’s a writer that I really love, she has this great and sort of terrifying essay called the “Uncanny the Singing that Comes from Certain Husks,” which is online if anyone cares to check it out. She has this great bit where she talks about how a writer can be a transfiguring agent. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read that phrase, “a transfiguring agent.” I think that for me the books and certainly some of the authors that you’ve just said are among people who have written books that I feel like I walked into the book understanding the world one way and left with an altered view, like something in my sight, something in my understanding, had been forever shifted. And those are always the books, the books that transformed sight in one way or another, that are always the books that have meant the most to me as a reader.
Buntin: That makes sense. So just to backup for those who haven’t read it, the book is mostly set in Havana and it follows Clare, whose husband has just died. She’s 37. She’s at this conference that he planned to attend to see a film, a horror film. He’s a horror scholar. Where was the access point for the story? Did you come at it from an interest in horror? Did you come at it from an interest in Clare, or from an interest in an image, scene, or developing an atmosphere?
Van den Berg: I think it was a lot of things colliding simultaneously. When I’m between projects, it’s my practice to keep what I call a thought log, which is exactly what it sounds like. I just write down things—what’s on my mind, phrases, images, anything that just sort of stuck with me—and it’s a space that I return to and it’s a way of cataloging what in my own imagination keeps coming up. And before I started this book, there are a few things that kept coming up. One was this couple, Clare and Richard, who had appeared, a version of them, in this short story that I wrote a long time ago about a couple that steals a luxury yacht in Key West. It does not end well for them. And the story was something that I had worked on but didn’t end up in a collection, and that couple had always stayed with me. They went through various permutations of my thought log through time.
The other thing that I was thinking a lot about was horror films. I’m a longtime fan of the genre and particularly thinking about how gender could operate in horror films. I was also thinking a lot about travel. I wrote early chunks of the book when I was traveling a lot and was spending a lot of time in transit spaces. I’m fascinated by transit spaces: airports, hotel rooms. They’re really intimate and also really anonymous at the same time. I’m very interested in the friction between those two things.
I’m fascinated by transit spaces: airports, hotel rooms. They’re really intimate and also really anonymous at the same time.
It was also interesting thinking about travel in the context of tourism. I was born and raised in Orlando, Florida, which is part of the state where the economy and culture have been really powerfully shaped by tourism. And so I’m interested in how we narrate the places we visit and what’s highlighted and what’s left out. And so all of those things kept coming up in my thought log. But then of course the question is: how could they live in the same universe and how could they be connected? I mean the answer to that question in some ways lays in the research. This was probably one of the most research-heavy books that I’ve done and particularly the more scholarship I read on tourism and film theory. I was amazed at how often the vocabularies overlap. Writers from both areas were using the same words, like gazes, angles, lenses, vantages, and things like that. That was sort of like an early door in terms of understanding how these different concerns and these two characters could come to live in the same space.
Buntin: I want to pull out something you said about travel that relates to this amazing line in the book where Clare says, “The traveler is not a peaceful presence in the world.” There are all of these incredibly evocative images, many resulting from her travel, that become a kind of a ghostly presence in and of themselves and exert pressure on the story. For example, the detail of Clare finding the fingernail in the drawer, which has haunted me since I’ve read it. I’m sure other people have pulled that out, too. It’s absolutely stunning and really memorable. How did you begin the process of uniting the themes within images like that? Did you ever feel like, I need to talk about travel more here? How did you kind of do that structural work?
Van den Berg: A lot of the very tactile details like the fingernail were drawn from life. I once found a fake fingernail—in the book, it’s a real fingernail—sitting right on top of the Bible at a Holiday Inn. I was mesmerized and repulsed, which is exactly how I want to feel when I’m reading. That’s the space that I want to be in. There were some things that in life were so mesmerizing and repulsive that I’ve just been kind of hoarding them, waiting for the right time.
Buntin: Clare wants to swallow the fingernail, which is like the next step into gruesome bodily function stuff that for me is one of the ways in which this book is really chilling. You get the fragmentary image, and then there’s always a weird twist on the end of it somehow.
There’s this other thing that happens in this book where often the things that are unsaid or kept from the reader are withheld in a way that becomes really uncanny. And it struck me that there’s a relationship between that choice—leaving something out, therefore up to the imagination—and horror films, in which often the monster or object of terror is in some way obscured. How did you balance the unsaid and the revealed in this novel, especially taking into consideration standard readerly expectations about narrative closure? Or what was the relationship between the audience and those kinds of moments of withheld information?
Van den Berg: That’s a great question. It was a challenge to sort of figure out the distribution of information and what would be resolved in a more definitive way and what wouldn’t. I think that, at a certain point, in early drafts it wasn’t something that I was thinking about a lot. It’s something I thought about tremendously in sort of mid or mid-to-late work on the book, and to think about sort of the different layers of mystery that are in play. I mean, there’s some very concrete mysteries, like there’s an actress that goes missing at the film festival. There are sort of subplot mysteries that are in play and then there are also mysteries that are fundamentally irresolvable, and particularly the mystery between Clare and Richard and what exactly is happening to her and what was happening in the past and what was going on with the great change and so on. My hope is that as the book progresses, the kind of vantage shifts so that the reader understands that picture in a fuller way.
I don’t want to resolve the irresolvable, and I think often when we sort of force ourselves to resolve the irresolvable, it can feel sort of pat or unsatisfying. And so I really wanted to dwell and to dig into that space of unknowability and irresolvability. At the same time there were some concrete mysteries that were more resolvable, and it was very pleasurable to figure out where this actress’s story was and where she had been. And thinking about that balance between the two. And really sort of pressing myself, too. The question was: am I not resolving something because it really is truly in the more profound sense irresolvable, or am I not resolving it because I just don’t know what to do and I haven’t pushed myself hard enough to figure it out? I think sometimes we can tell ourselves, “Oh, it’s just all supposed to be sort of vague,” but it might be that we actually haven’t been rigorous enough and hard enough on ourselves.
Buntin: I don’t want to give anything away for people who haven’t read it, but just when you kind of think that something is just a fantasy, like Richard showing up, and that it is never going to appear in the story again, suddenly your expectations are challenged. I also want to return to something you said earlier about being interested in gender portrayals in horror films. There is this interesting contamination of ideas into the narrative, like these notions about women that are imported from male creators. For example, Hitchcock’s advice to other directors is to torture women in films, and Hemingway said in a letter that if you leave a woman, you might as well shoot her.
Van den Berg: Yes.
Buntin: Why did you choose to grapple with those in the way that you did and what’s the relationship between Clare being haunted by these ideas and her development as a character within this story?
Van den Berg: I think Clare is haunted by these ideas partly because she’s been living in close proximity to them, and because this is a landscape that her husband was really immersed in. There are a lot of Hitchcock films that I really love and that had been very influential to me. He was horrible and women are not only physically but psychologically brutalized in a lot of Hitchcock movies. I remember being really taken with horror as a young person because it was the only genre I could recall where women were regularly the heroes and the protagonists. I was a young person when the slasher movies were becoming part of the mainstream cultural lexicon and so I remember being very struck by that. But it’s also, you know, the question is, too, to what ends?
I remember being really taken with horror as a young person because it was the only genre I could recall where women were regularly the heroes and the protagonists.
Buntin: Yes, and who are those women. Clare kind of asks that. There’s that moment where she realizes in a conversation with her husband that those women have given up some element of their femininity in order to survive, to make themselves less vulnerable. In some ways her presence in the story challenges that idea, if you read this as a kind of a horror text. In one of the reviews of the book, there was a conversation about The Third Hotel as a book about horror but not in itself horror novel. I disagreed with that, essentially, since I was frightened from beginning to end while reading it. My own fear was the source of a lot of narrative momentum. How do you see the reader’s fear working in the novel? Do you classify it as a horror novel? Were you trying to scare people?
Van den Berg: Yes! It gave me nightmares when I was working on it, so it felt only fair to sort of give those to other people. But, yes, I do. I mean, certainly many different genres were important to me when I was working on the book, so I think it maybe is part travel novel, part psychological horror, and part detective’s quest, in addition to being also a book about marriage and intimacy. It’s also about the age-old question of, how can we ever really know the people that are closest to us and also, how much does it matter whether we can answer that question or not, and what does it mean to be able to answer that question or not?
The horror that I love the most, and it’s interesting just to go back to the gender piece, I also, at a certain point, after revisiting a lot of kind of canonical horror films, began to seek out newer films by women. And I love horror movies like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which is an Australian movie. It’s so amazing, and it’s so psychologically rich. It dwells in that space where there is this outside menace. There’s a creature in the house, but also it’s really about this psychological violence of the two characters, as well as grief and trauma and the act of looking away from that grief and trauma and the cost of looking away and the cost of that repression. You have two characters who are under extraordinary pressure and they have no outlet and so up rises this terrible creature in the house. But the really good thing about that movie is that the monster is never really fully revealed. There’s always a little bit of that ambiguity. Is this really an outside menace that’s sort of been beset upon these two characters, or is this something that they have actually generated? That is what interests me the most, where something is grounded in human psychology.
Buntin: Ultimately, at least for this reader, it was very much a story of a marriage and what marriage is and—I say as a very happily married person—the foundational bonkers-ness of marriage, which is that you commit yourself for life to someone you can never fully know, even if you really know them, right? Like nobody really knows their spouse, come on everyone.
You said you started with Clare and Richard, or that was one of the access points for the story. What was it like to write this fictional universe, where there are so many horror elements and the setting is ever shifting. It’s Havana, but we can only absorb the fact of the place through this accretion of images and our picture of it is always sort of moving around. I’m curious whether Havana itself, and your construction of it, changed how you conceived of the novel and if there were any surprises along the way. At any point did you have the book mapped out?
Van den Berg: I don’t do a lot of mapping when I write drafts. My drafts are like a dog running through the woods chasing a strange scent. Like when my dog’s doing that, he’s following something. He’s following a smell, but he has no idea what it’s going to lead him to, and that’s basically me. I write with my nose very close to the ground, in the moment, scene by scene. I’m not necessarily looking at the big picture.
Certainly later in the process I did absolutely do a lot of mapping. I’m very visual so I do a lot of things like putting notecards on the walls and seeing what happens if you move one chapter here and one chapter there. Time in some ways becomes more fractured and fragmented as the novel progresses, and those sort of structural choices really grew out of having this kind of visual map and playing with it and moving it around and seeing how the meaning changed essentially when time and place were reordered. So that, for me, always comes later. There were also drafts where, because I read, I did do a lot of research, so much fun scholarship, it was like—here’s every really neat thing that I ever learned about horror films all in one manuscript. So there were also the phases where I was weeding out what is interesting to me and what is actually sort of salient to the characters, what really makes sense for Clare’s lens and her gaze.
Buntin: That’s so interesting. There are these characters having really heady conversations about film theory and I honestly don’t know anything about horror film theory so I just assumed you made it all up. I was like, I believe in these characters entirely, therefore what they say is must be true. I never really cared if it was outside of the bounds of the novel. But structurally, within the novel we have this intellectual conversation about worlds within worlds and dislocating reality, and then we’ve got very concretely Clare dislocated from reality when her husband dies and then dislocated from reality again when she sees him in Havana, dead or not, whatever he is. Did you track those worlds within worlds as a way of structuring the book, or maybe the transitions between them? Or did you kind of steer by intuition?
Van den Berg: Yes, for sure. At a certain point in the process, I definitely did, and actually that idea of worlds within worlds was really important to approaching Havana as a place. Havana is extraordinarily, and also a very uniquely complicated city, and it contains a great many complicated histories. One kind of rule that I made for myself is just to contain parts of the story: where we are, where do I find points of entry, and where does the character find points of entry? And focusing on the small ecosystems that exist within that city or really within any city. Specifically for Clare, it’s the world of the film festival and also the world of hotels. Certainly when it came to place, I was thinking about where I could locate points of entry, and where the character could locate points of entry in turn.
Buntin: I mean, for those of you who haven’t read this book yet, there’s such great pleasure in reading an imagination wrangling with these themes, in finding the relationship between horror movies, hotel rooms, and these images. I’m also wondering—you are an absolutely perfect short story writer, and I’m just such a fan of your short fiction. How does that process inform the writing of novels, and how has that shaped you as a novelist?
Van den Berg: I think they are completely different. I had a professor in college who said that a short story was closer to a poem than it was to a novel, and that made no sense to me because I was like, well, one is written in prose and one’s written in verse, so I don’t really understand that. And then I tried to write a novel, and I was like, oh, I get it now. I think, for me, the scale of the canvas is completely different, and this is a short novel, you know, it’s just over two hundred pages. It was under two hundred pages in manuscript, but even so, it’s not something that I can kind of walk around with a short story. With a short story I can walk around with the whole thing in my head, which is a really beautiful feeling, and a novel always feels at a certain point like my brain was being stretched in ways—
Buntin: Like where you can’t remember pieces of it?
Van den Berg: Yeah, it’s like a recurring dream that you keep having, but you’re never quite coming back to the same parts somehow. Like a recurring dream that gets confusing and then clear and then really confusing again. There’s also great pleasure in the immersive quality of the novel, and I think for both of my novels, I feel a real relationship to the characters that’s very vivid. And I did have really vivid dreams about Clare. I dreamed dreams that she was having that ended up getting written into the book, and I’ve never had that sort of relationship with a character that I’ve written about in a short story. I wanted to be a writer because I read a short story that I loved.
There’s also great pleasure in the immersive quality of the novel, and I think for both of my novels, I feel a real relationship to the characters that’s very vivid.
Buntin: What was it?
Van den Berg: Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”
Buntin: Perfect. It’s an amazing story.
Van den Berg: It is an amazing story. And that was the story that made me—I don’t think I even knew I wanted to write, but I just knew that—I also wasn’t much of a reader—and I was like, oh wow, this is good.
Buntin: When was this, Laura?
Van den Berg: In college. I made it that long! I had been living on a steady diet of tabloids and horror movies.
Buntin: It all came together in the end!
Van den Berg: Yes, I think the National Enquirer actually was surprisingly influential! But it was good to get a kind of higher order literature in there at a certain point, instead of just aliens and conspiracies about celebrities. But yeah, I mean I love the form passionately, but it also is completely different than novel writing.
Buntin: Yeah. I’m so interested in that. I would not write a short story again if someone paid me—actually, someone tried to do that recently for an anthology, and I could not do it.
Van den Berg: Why not?
Buntin: I don’t know. I think stories are so hard, and different from anything else. Sometimes people are like it’s all fiction, but it’s actually a totally separate form, and either you know how to do it or maybe you can learn, but I haven’t yet. Are you working on a novel now?
Van den Berg: I’m working on stories actually, back in a compressed space—
Buntin: Interesting, so are you doing them back and forth?
Van den Berg: Yeah, I mean I wrote my first novel, Find Me, and this novel, almost back-to-back with some stories in between, which was fairly intense, to go from sort of one long project into another—beautifully intense it a lot of ways, but it does feel really wonderful and kind of lighter spirit to be back working on stories. I was at a residency this summer and it was the first residency that I think I’d ever been to where I didn’t cry.
Buntin: Why did you cry the other times?
Van den Berg: Because I was working on a novel! I did a launch event with my husband at our neighborhood bookstore in Boston and he had gotten permission to ask me about the time I was at a residency and I called him every day, like in the woods, just sobbing. I was working on the third part of The Third Hotel, and I couldn’t figure it out. I had gotten into this terrible loop where I would work through the night, and I would fall asleep at dawn thinking maybe I’ve cracked it, and then I would wake up and start reading pages and realize almost immediately that I had most certainly not cracked it. And then I would go out into the woods and would cry and call Paul, and he would have to listen to me until I stopped crying. No one was happier when I finished this book! He was like, “It seems like we’re celebrating Laura, but we should really be celebrating me.” And that’s not to say that short stories don’t take everything out of you or that they can’t have that kind of intensity. But I think with a novel, it’s also just the stakes are just different in terms of time. You know, if I work on a story for two months and I’m like, “I just don’t think this is going to be anything,” I’m going to throw it in the trash. It’s not ideal, but it’s also only two months of your life. If it’s five years of your life—
Buntin: Totally, it’s just a different weight. So, what are your favorite horror movies? I mean we’ve talked about The Babadook.
Van den Berg: I think Halloween, the first Halloween, is an absolute masterpiece.
Buntin: There are lots of intakes of breath.
Van den Berg: We can have a conversation about it! But I think that the movie—it’s eighty-five minutes long, and aside from the opening sequence where we learn about how Michael Myers torments a child and so on, no one dies for fifty-five minutes.
Buntin: You timed it!
Van den Berg: Oh yes, yes. I’ve studied Halloween for some time, and it’s actually one ambition that I had for this book was an increasing sense of claustrophobia, and also moving through spaces, you know, moving through spaces in the past, moving through imaginative spaces, moving through dream spaces, moving through spaces in the city, moving from the inside of the theater to light, moving through hotel rooms, moving through, you know, planes and trains and so on, I was thinking a lot about the tactile qualities of space. That movie is absolutely brilliant, the way that they move characters through spaces and the way that, when you start, everything is kind of very broad and daylit, and as night falls, everything shrinks and the possibilities for escape diminishes. If you study it, structurally, it’s pretty perfect.
Buntin: Wow, I haven’t seen it, which is kind of weird, especially because I kind of love horror movies. I just haven’t.
Van den Berg: So it’s a challenge that awaits you.
Buntin: What about scary novels? This is one of the reasons I think The Third Hotel is such an amazing accomplishment, but it’s actually pretty hard to read a novel that’s genuinely scary. Film I think has an easier time invoking fear; I think it’s harder to be scared in fiction. Do you have any touchstones for books that have really scared you or that have some of that quality?
Van den Berg: There are novels that do really unsettle my sense of reality, for sure. There’s a writer that I really love named Yoko Tawada who wrote this book called The Naked Eye that I’m obsessed with. It’s so good. And that book is so dislocating. It’s about a young woman who goes to deliver a talk at a youth conference in Berlin and is abducted by a German man. And this happens in the first few pages. It’s a short novel, but the entire novel is just sort of what happens after and movements in that book are so strange and so dislocating and so powerful, and so unexpected. That was one of those books that, while I was reading it, the ground had been remade under my feet, and everything felt a little stranger and a little less stable. And so I love it when literature sort of scares me in that way, where it’s like, I feel like my understanding of the world isn’t as firm as it was before I entered into the book.
Buntin: Yeah, it reminds me of what Yuniel Mata says in The Third Hotel about this kind of horror replacing the compass that you use to decipher your way through the world, with another more frightening one.
Van den Berg: Yeah. And he talks—this is a fictional film director in the novel—also about how horror is a dislocation of reality. And that’s also something that, especially as a writer who’s always been drawn towards the strange, that speaks to me about the genre, the idea of using these really extreme dislocations of reality, a paranormal serial killer, a monster in the house, to actually get at these really fundamental questions. Who are you? Who can you trust? What secrets have you been keeping? And how will those secrets undo our inability to reckon with our own history? I think horror uses these really radical dislocations of reality to get at the human core.
Laura van den Berg is the author of two story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, and the novel Find Me. She is the recipient of a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, an O. Henry Award, and a MacDowell Colony fellowship. Born and raised in Florida, she lives in Cambridge, MA, with her husband and dog.
Julie Buntin is from northern Michigan. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, O, The Oprah Magazine, Slate, Electric Literature, and One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Marymount Manhattan College, and is the Director of Writing Programs at Catapult. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Marlena is her first novel.