Laura van den Berg is known as “a prose master” (Entertainment Weekly) and Sigrid Nunez has referred to her as “one of our most imaginative storytellers.” In this “Story Behind the Story”, she brings us behind the scenes in writing “Hill of Hell,” which appears in her forthcoming collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. In this piece, van den Berg shows us how a combination of multiple ideas and experiences lead to her to write in a process she refers to as “a kind of chemical reaction that takes the shape of a story.” The result is a magical, transportive piece of fiction.
Some years ago, I shared a train ride with a colleague. We talked the whole way, several hours. I had been expecting small talk, but there was little small talk; rather our conversation was like a whirlpool, pulling us deeper in the direction of revelations that felt raw and bracing in their honesty. We talked about our families. We talked about death and dying. About solitude. About what time changes and what time will never change. I’ve been thinking about some of the things we said to each other ever since I exited that train.
Writers are often asked where we get our ideas. A fair question, though for me an idea for a story hardly ever comes from one place. Instead multiple wheres—some immediately perceptible, others less so—collide in a specific moment in time and there is then a kind of chemical reaction that takes the shape of a story. This process is invisible to me, but I can feel it when it’s happening, that gathering of energies. I try to not think too hard about how much happenstance is involved.
Writers are often asked where we get our ideas. A fair question, though for me an idea for a story hardly ever comes from one place.
For “Hill of Hell,” the train ride was one where. For a while, it was the only where I could see, which was a problem because I became very attached to having the whole thing happen on the train. I wanted to story to feel like what I had experienced in real life and thought hewing close to the events as they actually occurred would get me there.
Sometimes real life experiences resist fictionalization and sometimes they demand it. With “Hill of Hell,” those early drafts, set entirely on the train—wow, it pains me to even think about them now. So self-serious! So dull! Everything meaningful about the real train ride evaporated the moment I wrote the conversation down. It was like watching water run through your fingers when you were sure you were cupping it in your hands. Eventually I abandoned the story in favor of more cooperative projects and then, months later at a writing residency, I decided to try again. I happened to be reading two collections I’d found in the library—Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden and Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. The title story of Largesse is told in titled sections that skip around in time. Li’s “Sweeping Past”—a story from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl—takes bold leaps forward, allowing the protagonist’s now to collide with her past in unexpected and dramatic ways. Both writers made time feel like a vast and mysterious cave; both writers gave me permission to release the version set entirely on the train.
At the residency, I kept having dreams in which the things I had been writing down came true. This was unsettling to me as I rarely want the things that I write to actually happen. I had been thinking a lot about fate—about how much I believed in it, or how we might be molding our own fates in ways we can’t possibly comprehend until the fated thing arrives. Destiny. Doom. I’d recently heard a writer I admire talk about storytelling as being like casting a spell into the world, an idea I found compelling even as it deepened an emerging superstition that there might be a correlation between the fictive spells cast and what actually happens to the people in our lives. Which, I realize, sounds like a major delusion of grandeur but sometimes there are coincidences that can—well, can make a person wonder. One morning, after a dream in which I kept having to vacate my apartment at all hours because the landlords had put it up for sale and people kept wanting to come see it (a story idea I’d been trying to work out and a thing that would actually happen to me a year or so later—see what I mean?) I wrote the lines: “I have learned that one must be very careful about the desperate wishes cast out into the universe; maybe something is listening, something all too willing to grant us exactly what we have asked for and maybe even what we deserve.” Once I got that bit down the rest of the story seemed possible.
The residency was Civitella Ranieri in Italy, a place that has been on my mind a lot these days. The residency program has shuttered for the foreseeable future, though I have been in touch with people there, and they are all safe and well. One of the best parts of being at Civitella was the kind of thing that now feels unthinkable, in the midst of a pandemic, the frequent trips we took as a group to the surrounding villages and towns. It was in Assissi that I first heard the phrase “Hill of Hell,” a detail that pertained to the construction of the Basilica of Saint Francis, a bit of history that found its way into the story and also led me to the title. Another where.
The train ride ended up being just a point of departure for several major leaps in time. The story stayed compact, in that it’s pretty short, but now spanned many decades. There was a divorce and a marriage and two deaths and secrets kept and secrets shared and one very ugly baby. I feel like this story taught me a lot, mainly that facts don’t always honor truth and that I should never assume that I think I know more than the story does and that reading writers you love is one of the most reliable ways out of an imaginative jam.
I often think that I sincerely don’t know how stories get written—perhaps especially when I am asked to account for how one of mine did get written. It seems so unlikely: a hundred particles from disparate corners all making contact with each other at exactly the right time. One of those particles, one of those wheres, doesn’t make it and poof—maybe the whole story never gets to exist. Yet the most unlikely things imaginable are happening all around us. Here the same man I see feeding the ducks bread is the same man I see spitting on them. Last week, I saw maybe a dozen cats crouched in the grass of an empty lot, looking like they were on the edge of overthrowing the neighborhood or being teleported into outer space. How did they all find each other? When does the unlikely become the likely? That is part of what fiction is here to report.
Excerpted from I Hold a Wolf by the Ears
After we opened the second bottle of wine, which he’d been keeping in his satchel, I told him about the worst thing that had happened to me in the last three years, as this was the period of time that had elapsed since we last saw each other. We sat at a table in the café car, the panoramic windows looking out on the vast sweep of the Hudson. At first, I was surprised that we could drink openly on the train, but my friend assured me that we could eat and drink whatever we wanted because the café car was closed on this route—and besides, he had been taking this train three days a week for a decade and he knew every conductor on it and could get away with anything.
“It was around this time last year when everything came apart,” I said, turning my plastic cup on the table.
Last September, I was pregnant. My husband had been the one wracked with longing for a child and I had allowed myself to be carried along by the tide of his enthusiasm, but once it was underway I felt like I had been conned into a heist for which, as the plans came into focus, I was woefully unprepared. You’re talking about robbing the Louvre and I’m just a common criminal! In those early weeks, I willed my body to show up with the getaway car and then four months later, after I had forgotten all about getaway cars, I was standing in Ikea, of all the undignified places, waving a spatula and lecturing my husband about how our dairy products were teeming with opiates, when my shorts filled with blood and I fainted. While I was unconscious, I had a dream that men in white coats were elbow-deep in me and then I awoke in a hospital bed to find a doctor elbow-deep in me, working on my body with the grave air of an executioner. The baby had ten fingers and ten toes, the only thing that many a stranger had told me I should care about. Eyelids as thin as organza.
“She was stillborn,” I said.
Now my husband wanted to try again, even after seeing his wife faint in a pool of blood and a dead child pulled from her body.
“Our marriage is on borrowed time,” I told my friend.
The air-conditioning was out in our car. My friend mopped his forehead with a paper napkin. He told me that in the past year his father, mother, and sister had all died. In six months’ time, he had lost his entire family. He went on to say that his sister, the only person his mother had ever loved, died first, and then his mother, the only person his father had ever loved, died second. Then it was just my friend and his father, and they had never liked each other very much at all.
“The big alone,” he said. “That’s all any of us has in the end. Nothing can protect us from it, not careers or children or spouses or money or lovers.”
When I asked my friend if he was telling me that nothing matters, if at this stage in his life he had embraced outright nihilism, he replied, “What I’m saying is that you can’t change the essential outcome.” Then he went quiet and stared hard at something over my shoulder. He flung his arms across the table and leaned in close. “The conductor is coming. I’m warning you.” We had our tickets, so I couldn’t see a reason to be frightened of the conductor, and I wondered if my friend had already gotten a bit too drunk.
As if on cue, the conductor appeared at the head of our little table. He was a young man, with pink cheeks and a buzz cut, and his face did not yet betray the deadening repetition of having traveled the same stretch of river a million times over. Even the Hudson could lose its beauty if you were forced to look at it for too long.
“Here’s the latest.” The conductor brandished his phone. “He’s gained five pounds.”
I peered down at the screen, only to behold the ugliest baby I had ever seen, hairless and shriveled as a raisin, his tiny mouth contorted as though in response to the myriad horrors of this world.
“Wow,” I said, thinking that my friend had been right to warn me. “That’s really something.”
The conductor beamed and then continued down the aisle, pausing to scan tickets. Whenever the small talk with a passenger seemed to go on for a bit, he would take out his phone and beam some more.
“The poor bastard,” my friend said. “He has no idea.”
The outside world disappeared, replicated by a shadow-network of track and tunnel. Passengers began to fold newspapers, gather bags, rise from their seats. My friend slipped on the blazer he’d worn to class, despite the heat.
“The big alone,” he said, shaking a finger like the old professor he was becoming. “Don’t ever forget about it.”
I had expected for us to have a proper goodbye in the station, given how long it had been since we’d seen each other and the intensity of our respective losses, which we had shared so freely. I had expected us to embrace, for him to thank me for coming and me to thank him for having me, no matter how small the stipend or the audience. The real remuneration had been the time spent together, the chance to get caught up. You reach a certain point in life and you go too long without seeing someone you care for and the next thing you know they’re dead. But I had forgotten that we were arriving at rush hour, and as we pressed our way out of the train we were separated. Ahead I could glimpse the silvered peak of my friend’s head, his jacket collar upturned like a fin. Wait, I thought. Surely there is something else. On the platform, I saw him look back once, right as he stepped onto the escalator. He gave me a little wave and for a moment I thought he was going to fight his way back down, but then the woman behind him made a big show of being inconvenienced by his hesitation and so he simply looked at me and shrugged, ascended with the crowd, pushed on.
Six months after my friend and I rode the train together, I left my husband. Some years later, I remarried. My friend was invited to the wedding, but he was too ill to attend. He sent me a note of congratulations and that was the last time I heard from him before he died. In my second marriage, I was the one who lobbied for a child and when I gave birth to a daughter, I thought the universe had granted me a chance to remake my life. The notion of being at the mercy of the universe turned me superstitious in a way I had never been before—for example, for the duration of my pregnancy and my daughter’s childhood I never once set foot inside an Ikea and was better for it.
It pains me to say that our daughter was, from the moment of her birth, a difficult human being. A sleepless and squalling baby, possessed by violent tantrums as an older child, episodes where she hit and kicked and bit. On two occasions, I needed stitches. In high school, she was diagnosed with a mood disorder. She wanted to write but could never get organized enough to make anything. She dropped out of college and got mixed up with drugs and when we finally staggered out of that terrible wilderness, marked by disappearances and theft and countless lies, the sober version of my daughter turned out to be just as prone to petty cruelty and deception. I wondered if something was genetically wrong with me, given that my body had killed one daughter in the womb and produced another so maladapted. I confess that when my daughter first complained of fatigue and back pain keeping her from work I thought she might be up to her old tricks, that she was waking too hungover to get to her job answering phones at a veterinarian clinic. But then an MRI revealed a malignant tumor burrowed deep in her spine like a fat white tick, and we were lost to the equally terrible wilderness of chemotherapy and radiation and drug trials, of oceanic despair and hope as fragile as eggshell. Just after my daughter’s thirty-third birthday, her oncologist sat us all down in his office with the latest test results and said there was nothing left to do except prepare.
At the height of our daughter’s troubles, after a hair-raising visit to her third rehab facility, my husband, once we were back in the car, had pounded the steering wheel and wept and cried out. “I never wanted this,” he sobbed. “Why can’t she just leave us be?” After that meeting with the oncologist, I wondered in secret if my husband felt the soul-warping shame that I had felt years ago, when my body became the getaway car I had begged it to be after all. I have learned that one must be very careful about the desperate wishes cast out into the universe; perhaps something is listening, something all too willing to grant us exactly what we have asked for and maybe even what we deserve.
When my daughter began palliative care, I thought nonstop about what my friend had told me on the train, about the big alone. The strange thing was, I had never seen her so awash in company. She had embraced the “positive death” movement, introduced to her when she took a six-week course called the Art of Dying. She was a regular at death cafés, and at the meeting my daughter asked me to attend, so I could better understand her philosophy of dying, I was able to discern that some of the participants were sick and not getting better and some were from medical or religious communities and some were morbidly curious or worse. One man asked questions that made me strongly suspect he had necrophilic leanings; a woman who volunteered to sit with the dying in hospice announced, with her eyes closed and her hands in a steeple, that the end-of-life experience was “more transcendent than an orgasm.” I could not get away from these people fast enough. My daughter decided on a green burial, which meant that her body, unembalmed, would be interred in a biodegradable casket and we would plant a linden tree in place of a headstone. She hired an end-of-life doula, who claimed that birth and death were more or less the same: seminal life experiences that most of us approached with unthinking terror. Our daughter rented out a bar and threw her own celebration-of-life party. Among the guests, we recognized few people from her world as it had existed before dying the best death possible became her full-time job. Instead the place was flooded with these death enthusiasts, who kept coming up to us, her bewildered parents, and saying things about our daughter that shocked us: the beautiful song she had written for someone’s funeral; the Buddhist prayer circles she led; the homemade soups and juices she brought to people who were dying or grieving or just plain sick and tired of being here.
Where had this individual been when she was well? I watched these people embrace our daughter, who looked serene and beautiful in a floor-length white peasant dress. She was barefoot. She wore a crown of daisies on her head, like a forest nymph. Was this the person she had been all along and we had somehow missed it, somehow failed to coax this kinder self out into the world? Or had dying transformed her, even if it had failed to do so for my friend and his father?
Of course, I knew my thoughts about my daughter’s new community were ungenerous, but this was how I had come to understand the big alone—the way we are walled-in by our secrets and the implacability of our judgments. The big alone had little to do with physical company; rather, it was a matter of understanding, and where understanding broke down.
“We should abide whatever brings her comfort,” my husband always insisted. He was so shattered by the whole situation that he had lost the ability to think critically. Meanwhile, I could not help but feel betrayed by the universe; as it turned out, I had been doomed to relive the same old story, with the same ending, even if that ending arrived at a different moment in time. I’d never told my husband about my stillborn daughter, so I had no one with whom I could discuss this brutal symmetry. I no longer knew how to contact my first husband, who, last I heard, had moved to Finland for work; and my friend was, by then, long dead.
In our daughter’s last week on Earth, we slept in cots in her hospital room. The day of the week, the hour of the day—time in the conventional sense had become meaningless; the only clock I could track was how many breaths she had taken and how many more she had left. There were long stretches of silence, all of us engaged in our private acts of bargaining. I had spent my life studying medieval literature and I thought often of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, how before construction began, just after Saint Francis’s canonization in 1228, the site had been used for public executions and was called the Hill of Hell. Laborers believed the hilltop to be contagious with doom and refused to work on the basilica, so the Pope offered anyone who did work forty days off their stay in purgatory, and that was how the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi came to be built. I thought about how few things were more ancient than the bartering of souls.
One night, out of nowhere, I remembered the train conductor on the Hudson Line. In my imagination, he was still a young man and his baby was still a baby and ugly as can be. But of course the conductor would be much older now and his baby would be an adult and perhaps it was like in a fairytale and his child had grown into the most handsome man in all of New York.
I left my daughter’s room and decided I would go over to maternity to see if I could look at some babies, but after wandering a series of hallways and getting turned around by signs, I realized that the babies were kept in a separate building, one that I couldn’t reach at this hour. The next time I saw the death doula I was going to pull her aside and demand to know why, if birth and death were so very similar, they were not permitted to occur in the same space.
In my daughter’s room, I found her twitching under the thin hospital blanket. Her eyelids were fluttering. Her mouth was open. My husband was still asleep on his cot, curled and facing a blank wall. I wondered if it might be time for more morphine soon and, if so, how long it would take a nurse to get around to administering it. I placed a finger under her left eye and felt her lashes brush my skin. When I was certain she could not hear me, I kneeled beside her bed and said, “You were not my first child. You had a sister, a long time ago, but she did not make it very far in this life.” I’m not sure why I needed to tell her, right there at the end. Maybe I thought my daughter deserved to know that her mother was not always what she appeared to be—and that maybe I, as her mother, deserved someone to tell.
When I turned from her bedside, I saw that my husband was not asleep at all. He was sitting on the edge of his cot, facing me, his shoulders square, his hands on his knees. I sat down next to him, expecting to have to answer for what he had just overheard, which frankly would have been a relief, a chance to talk about these twin losses and how our most cloistered wishes and our ultimate fates might or might not be related. Is any thought truly private or is everything overheard by a presence we cannot detect? If nature loves symmetry, then why is symmetry so cruel? But my husband never said a word about it—not then and not later. I think it must have been too much for him to take in. Instead we slept the rest of the night in the same cot, our arms wrapped tight and hot around each other, and even today I could not guess at his thoughts.
“Hill of Hell” was originally published in the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, and the novels Find Me and The Third Hotel, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and an Indie Next pick, and was named a best book of 2018 by more than a dozen publications. She is the recipient of a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, a PEN/O. Henry Award, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and is a two-time finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Born and raised in Florida, Laura splits her time between the Boston area and Central Florida, with her husband and dog.