Debut Novelist on the Influence of Boston, Family, and ‘National Inquirer’

Laura van den Berg at the Writer’s Room on State Street in Boston.
Laura van den Berg at the Writer’s Room on State Street in Boston. –The Boston Globe

Laura van den Berg is a name to write down.

The Andover resident’s debut novel, Find Me, came out in February 2015 to great reviews. She’s been favorably compared to literary superstars like Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Margaret Atwood. Salon recently labeled her the best young writer in America.

“Oh it’s definitely exciting. I worked on it for a long time, so it’s very exciting to see it out in the world,’’ said van den Berg of Find Me and its success.

The novel centers on Joy Jones, whose Boston upbringing unfolds through flashback and memories. Joy works at Stop & Shop, gets high off of stolen cough syrup, and fosters a penchant for list-making. She travels to and from her Somerville apartment via the T. As a baby, she was left on the steps of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and spent her childhood bouncing between Boston-area foster homes.

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Van den Berg said her life in Boston helped paint the local details. The Florida native received her MFA from Emerson College and later lived locally while teaching in the same program.

“When I was in grad school, my husband and I used to house sit for a couple in Harvard Square, so we have these amazing memories of great Cambridge summers,’’ said van den Berg. “We were married in Harvard Square in the Charles Hotel, incidentally on the weekend of the marathon bombing. So I have a lot of nostalgic and emotional ties to that part of Cambridge.’’

She said her favorite local exploits include visits to the Institute of Contemporary Art, and long, looping walks around the Charles River—though maybe not in winter.

Van den Berg is currently a writer-in-residence at Bard College in upstate New York, and her husband lives in Andover. Still, when she comes into Boston for book events, her mindset is the same as any other Bostonian.

In addition to the city’s influence, van den Berg attributed her passion for writing to elements of her youth. Describing herself as “not bookish’’ and “a poor student,’’ she said that her love for narrative began with her father’s storytelling and her childhood babysitter’s discarded copies of The National Inquirer.

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“One of my favorite things to do was to fish them out of the trash and read them. And I think the odd, surreal fictitious worlds that I stepped into were enormously influential. If you read my work now, that makes sense I think,’’ said van den Berg.

Find Me takes place in one of these “odd, fictitious’’ settings. It opens in the midst of a raging epidemic hallmarked by silver blisters and memory loss. The protagonist Joy is one of a select few who is inexplicably immune. She and others like her live in “the Hospital,’’ located in Kansas, where they are studied in the hopes of finding a cure. The second half takes place once Joy leaves “the Hospital’’ and journeys to Florida in search of her estranged mother.

While Find Me is van den Berg’s debut novel, this isn’t the first time her work has been lauded.

Her first short story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (2009), was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Van den Berg worked on her next collection, The Isle of Youth (2013), concurrently with Find Me, and the collection was recognized by several outlets as the “Best Book of 2013’’.

Van den Berg described her works as “distinctly separate beasts,’’ but admitted they share strong narrative voices and poignant storylines: The same qualities she looks for in a book. She said the next three works she plans to read are Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, The First Bad Man by Miranda July, and A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor.

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June 22, 2017 | 7:46 AM