Floridian Literature, Liminal Spaces, and Absent Places: A Conversation with Eleanor Kriseman and Laura van den Berg


Eleanor Kriseman’s new novel The Blurry Years traces the coming of age of a young woman named Callie as she travels across the country and comes to understand herself. Laura van den Berg’s new novel The Third Hotel centers around Clare, who discovers her apparently dead husband walking around while visiting Havana for a film festival. These novels share a detailed approach to place; they also utilize absence in fascinating ways. I talked with both writers over the course of numerous emails about their books, the literary works that influenced them, and the role of Florida in their fiction.

Both of your novels deal with questions of place, but also with questions of distance from that place. In The Blurry Years, Callie has a kind of breakthrough when she and her mother temporarily leave Florida for Eugene, Oregon; in The Third Hotel, there are plenty of details about Clare’s life near Albany and childhood in Georgia and Florida, but the bulk of the novel is set in Cuba, a place to which she is far less connected. What are the challenges of writing a work in which a place takes on elements of a character–but so does the absence of that place?

Laura van den Berg: I love the idea of thinking about place as both presence and absence. Generally I think about a character’s “filter” a lot in respect to place. What they are noticing and why? What kind of lens are they using? Clare has traveled to Havana to attend a film festival and is filtering the city through cinematic language with a particular emphasis on horror films, as her recently deceased husband was a horror film scholar (my secret dream job!). And then her filter grows more distorted as her comprehension of her own reality becomes increasingly unmoored. In terms of the past, Clare grew up in an inn managed by her parents, and I see the ghost of her childhood setting, that particular slice of Florida, as a link between her theories on travel/travelers and her position as traveler in Havana—among other things.

Eleanor Kriseman: Laura, I love that idea of a “filter,” and–though I hadn’t consciously conceived of a filter in regards to Callie’s point of view, I think it works just as well conceptually as a description of adolescence–a natural filter for the world. As for writing about place in terms of absence or presence, it was very different for me to write the chapters that took place in Oregon (somewhere I’ve never been) than it was to write the bulk of the novel, which takes place in Florida (where I spent the first eighteen years of my life). I was so afraid that my portrayal of Eugene wouldn’t ring true that I spent a lot of time on Google Maps and Street View, looking up what neighborhoods might have been considered middle or working-class, researching the weather. (While Callie’s isolation and boredom in Eugene was intentional, it also meant that most scenes in Eugene took place inside, in a house that really could have been anywhere, which did make it easier!) Callie only realizes how much she feels at home in Florida when she’s elsewhere, and I think that’s common, to need that removal or distance from a place to understand the depth of your connection to it. I don’t know that I would have been able to write so easily about Florida had I still been living there.

Both of your novels involve temporary spaces–whether it’s the hotels in Clare’s life in The Third Hotel or the way Callie is constantly on the move in The Blurry Years. Did you both know from the outset that these books would be set in, for lack of a better phrase, liminal spaces? What were some of the challenges and benefits for you as writers of setting these books there?

van den Berg: Yes, definitely—my projects always evolve so much over time, and often in unexpected ways, but I had been thinking so much about the layers of travel and so I knew “transit spaces” would be a huge part of the novel’s landscape. I think a lot about how fiction can navigate the different layers of self: the public self that we present to the outer world, the private self we share more selectively, and then the secret self, that submerged layer we don’t really understand and that we often reveal on accident—and, to my mind, this connects over to that unique blend of intimacy and anonymity that we can encounter in transit spaces. We find people’s hair in hotel carpets. We hear arguments and nightmares through the walls. We see people fall asleep and dream on planes (or I have, at least). We often have an front row seat to people’s anxieties and the curious things these anxieties will compel people to do (as someone who has issues flying, I have definitely displayed some odd and illogical behavior on flights). What I mean to say here is that the secret self is sometimes on full display in transit spaces, which feels so intimate to me, and yet there is a pact of silence around this intimacy. We don’t ask what the person sitting next to us is dreaming about, for example—we just take it in.

In terms of challenges, I think making sure I was seeing these spaces through Clare’s lens—versus what is objectively interesting to me—took some time and calibration, and also making sure I was creating enough imagistic touchstones and patterns to ground the narrative.

Kriseman: I actually felt that this book was pretty rooted in place until other people started reading it! And now I definitely see how it can also be read as a more liminal text. And the main way that I see that is through Callie’s growth not only as a character, but also as the narrator. Childhood and adolescence are perhaps the ultimate liminal spaces: periods of growth, transitions but also waiting. Callie spends so much time waiting, for something, anything to come next. So in that sense, I think Callie’s age (and aging throughout the novel) provide that liminal space within a book that is also so physically rooted.

Eleanor, you talked about the role of Callie’s aging over the course of the book, and as she grows older she becomes more aware of both the truth of certain things around her and has a greater sense of herself. Laura, The Third Hotel abounds with narrative ambiguity surrounding what exactly happened to Richard. What were some of the challenges you faced constructing the knowable levels of reality in your books?

Kriseman: One of the challenges was that I did not write these chapters in order, which might have made it easier! But I think I definitely drew on my own experiences with children–I’ve been a babysitter, part-time or full-time, for the last decade and a half of my life, and for children really of all ages. And so I feel like, as a result of that, I have a sharper understanding than most of how children arrange their thoughts, what questions they ask and don’t ask, what stands out for them and what goes unnoticed. Since writing this book, I’ve actually had more of a formal education on child development (I recently graduated with a Master’s in Social Work, and focused on clinical work with adolescents), which probably would have been a good reference. But I purposefully wanted Callie to wonder and consider more than she says aloud–I like the narrative tension that that creates.

van den Berg: So many! Distribution of information took a long time to sort out—there is the material that is truly inaccessible to Clare, the unanswerable, and then there is the material that is accessible but that she is actively avoiding. Unraveling what was what, and the pace at which Clare should begin to turn toward the latter category, was one of the major puzzles of this book. There are a few mysteries that do get solved in a more definitive way—where a missing actress has been, what’s in a white box that Clare has been carrying—and it was fun to offer a more concrete answers to a few of those subplots, a kind of counterpoint to all the ambiguous liminal. But the most interesting material to me in fiction is nearly always the irresolvable, what can be explored and illuminated but not really answered or explained, and so then it becomes a matter of trying to name whatever what material is, for a character, in the most precise language available. That’s what I’m aiming for.

The state of Florida plays a significant role in both of your novels. In recent years, it seems like there’s been an uptick in the number of high-profile literary works set in and around said state. Do you think that we’re in the midst of a literary Floridian renaissance?

van den Berg: Well, Florida literature has always been great—from Zora Neale Hurston to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I grew up in the Orlando area, where Jack Kerouac had a house, which is now a residency program. I do think we’re in a moment where the wider public is acknowledging that the state has something to offer culturally beyond Florida Man memes (though I am now chagrined to confess that as a young person I believed Florida to be a cultural wasteland—I was very wrong!). Also, the literature currently coming out of Florida is representing the breadth and complexity of the state. Florida contains so many different worlds, with major regional differences; parts of the state still feel very unknown to me even though I lived in Florida for 22 years. And we’re now seeing this range in the Florida literature that’s being published, or starting to at least. Jeff VanderMeer and Sarah Gerard and Jennine Capó Crucet and and Susanna Daniel have, for example, all written writing vastly different Floridas. And then of course you have writers who are from or who have made a home in Florida and write largely about other places. And in turn writers who have written important works about the state without living there for extended periods of time.

Kriseman: I don’t know that we’re in the midst of a literary renaissance in Florida as much as maybe a recognition of–or higher visibility around–authors from or writing about Florida (which might be part of a larger shift, not just in the literary world, of identity and place becoming much more salient and urgent topics in the political sphere at large). I want to second Laura’s emphasis on Florida containing so many different worlds–if you drove the entire length of the state you would cross through so many starkly different communities, both in terms of the natural (and artificial) landscapes and the people that inhabit them. But there have always been notable writers from or in Florida–Joy Williams isn’t from Florida, but she’s made it her home for decades now, I believe, and she’s written what I think is one of the best novels set in Florida, Breaking and Entering.

Each of your novels has a very archetypal title. Eleanor, you mentioned Breaking and Entering — do either of you see your book as being in dialogue with literary works (or creative works, period) that have come before?

Kriseman: I would be honored to be seen as in dialogue with Joy Williams in any way! If The Blurry Years has anything in common with Breaking and Entering, it would be the current of restlessness that runs through both novels. Restlessness in terms of both place and age, if that makes sense. In that way, I might consider The Blurry Years to be in dialogue with (or, perhaps more accurately, inspired by) some of my favorite novels, like A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, or I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Both of those books are radically different in terms of time period and setting and style, but they’re narrated by adolescent girls who feel trapped in some way (by poverty, by isolation, by social standing) and are yearning for something new.

van den Berg: It’s hard for me to imagine writing something that isn’t in dialogue with art that has come before. That’s part of what motivates me, the desire to speak back to work that I love, work that has moved me, rescued me, changed me. The Third Hotel actually started as a kind of call-and-response to Jean Echenoz’s novel Piano, in which a character dies early on in the novel and then must traverse the afterlife. He’s eventually repatriated to Paris, where he lived at the time of his death, but his appearance has been changed so he is indistinguishable to those who knew him when he was alive—but one person does manage to recognize him and the order of things is upended. I thought, what if a story like that was told from the opposite POV, from the alive person who did the recognizing? I do think influence can be a kind of scaffolding in some ways, an initial point of entry, and that scaffolding of influence in respect to Echenoz had to be torn down at a certain point—but it was an important book for me. As was Yoss’s A Planet for Rent. And I forever dream of being in conversation with Cortázar (his story “Blow Up” was especially important to TTH) and Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye and Marie Ndiaye’s Rosie Carpe and Ladivine and Mishima’s short story “Death in Midsummer” and Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel.


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