Valerie Laken holds an MA in Slavic Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Her novel Dream House received the Anne Powers Award and was listed among Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2009. Her story collection, Separate Kingdoms, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and the Story Prize. She is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
Laken crafts stories that are grounded in the physical world, exploring places that are suffused with emotional meaning. All the characters in the novel Dream House orbit around the property, each seeking to understand his or her relationship to the house and to each other. In her short story collection Separate Kingdoms, readers travel from the heart of Moscow and the surrounding villages to sanitary hospitals and dirty basements across the midwest, from the expansive space of the dream world to the internal limitations of a family unit. Her work charges into new literary frontiers by incorporating visual elements that examine and reflect the way contemporary society’s reliance on screens and visual messages has altered the reader’s relationship to the words on the page.
Silk Road: How does ‘sense of place’ inform your writing?
Valerie Laken: Place is that great quiet, mischievous character lurking around in every good story. It’s very easy to overlook that fact when you’re writing fiction. It’s easy to concentrate only on the human characters and their problems, and treat setting as a kind of painted backdrop dimly waiting in vain to be drafted into service.But the truth is, every place has an atmosphere and brings a set of unique pressures to bear on its occupants. An argument that seems mundane in a bedroom might sound riveting or explosive in a grocery store aisle. The same word can have profoundly different effects if uttered in a church or a jail cell. I believe our spaces shape us as much as we shape them. Sometimes I’ve begun stories with a very clear sense of the setting but only the weakest inkling of the main characters.
My story, “Map of the City,” is a love-letter to the city of Moscow during the turbulent first years after the fall of the Soviet Union. My story, “Scavengers,” is kind of an elegy to the city of Detroit and to every neighborhood abandoned during the housing crisis. Cities, like people, have their conflicts, their rises and falls, their mysteries and manners. What’s nice about putting a place at the heart of a story is that many readers know that space and share affection for it. Their views of it may not match up exactly with yours, but that’s OK, because places are palimpsests. We keep reinterpreting and reinventing them.
SR: The stories in your collection Separate Kingdoms deal with the interactions between people and nations, language and meaning, ability and disability, consciousness and reality. What draws you to write about these liminal spaces?
VL: For reasons I may never understand, I think was born feeling like a misfit, and I just can’t seem to shake it. Maybe I don’t want to. Wherever I am, I am always scanning the room trying to figure out how the people here behave and talk. What’s nice about liminal spaces is that everyone’s a misfit in them, an interloper. Maybe that puts me at ease. Maybe natural-born misfits have an advantage in those spaces. In any case, I like being a foreigner because by definition nobody expects you to fit in when you’re foreign. The minute you do, you have probably become a foreigner at home.
My first fiction workshop teacher, Josh Henkin, repeated the maxim, “Every story really boils down to two plots: A guy goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. And those are really just the same story told from two different perspectives.” On some level every story is about someone being drawn or pushed out of their comfort zone and into uncharted territory. Part of why I wanted to write about disabled characters was because in our culture, even today, they are the ultimate strangers who can unsettle people by their physical presence alone. That’s a powerful, fascinating phenomenon, and I hope it won’t last much longer.
SR: The eponymous story in Separate Kingdoms is told from two points of view, a father and son, in two columns, running simultaneously down each page. What inspired the unconventional format? Was the look of the story part of its original concept or something that evolved?
VL: I started by writing the story just from the father’s perspective, but when I finished the first draft I realized that I hadn’t developed the son’s character very well, so I decided to write notes in the margins about what the son was going through in each scene. I figured I’d just make these notes to learn something that I could then incorporate into a normal revision. But the son’s voice started to bloom for me. I started to have fun with it. So I started typing it up in a separate column, and once I saw the result, it seemed like exactly the right format for this story.
The characters in the story are all cramped in one small house on one night, so close to each other yet pretty clueless about what the others are going through. They not only have their separate rooms but they have different modes of escape — TV, music, video games, etc. Those technologies often encourage us to do two or three things simultaneously (and half-consciously). By putting two columns of text side by side I felt I was posing an impossible challenge for the reader: you just can’t read two things at once. You have to choose. You have to commit and concentrate.
Our real lives are a blur of simultaneous activities and distractions. I wanted to create that sense of tension and anxiety we feel when we’re trying to focus on one thing but there’s something else next to it that’s tempting us away. To me at least, that may be one of the defining sensations of our era. A lot of books ignore it, but I think that sensation is affecting the way we read and may also come to affect the ways we write.
SR: What was your editor’s reaction when you submitted paragraph after paragraph of the sound of drumming?
VL: Funny question. Every time I sent the story to anyone I braced myself for negative reactions to the two columns and the drumming, but they never came. I always felt the thrill of getting away with something. Once the story collection was sold to HarperPerennial, I kept asking my agent and editor, “But will they be able to do the two columns?” And they kept saying, “Don’t worry about it.” When it came time for Harper to do the layout and design of the book, I braced myself all over again and sent a long pre-apology to the layout designers for all the trouble this was going to cause them, but they just jumped on board very cheerfully. We had to send page proofs back and forth a lot so I could tweak the lines to make sure the columns stayed in synch, but they were great sports about it all. I’m very grateful to them.
SR: The story “Map of the City” has a strong visual component as well — the section headings that mimic the signs marking metro stations in Moscow. As you write, do you visualize the spatial aspects of your work? Do you imagine and manipulate the ‘geography of the page,’ as you call it?
VL: When you’re foreign you spend a lot of time looking at signs and maps, trying to get your bearings. I had a lot of grand ideas originally about how maps might play a larger role in this story, visually, but none of them quite worked. The danger of incorporating graphic elements in a story is that they can distract the reader or become simply redundant.
But it seemed to me that using the graphics of the Moscow metro signs would put readers into that position of being foreign and looking at signs in an alphabet they can’t parse. In that case you stop seeing words as something to automatically read and you begin seeing them as beautiful, complicated shapes, a code you can’t yet crack. That’s what the protagonist is doing for much of the story, and I wanted to make the reader do a little bit of that too. It’s a small matter, I suppose. But yes, the spatial arrangement of my words and paragraphs, the geography of the page, is increasingly important to me. It’s not entirely clear to me why fiction can’t be as beautiful to look at as some magazines are — except that few people have figured out yet how to do it in a way that feels organic and necessary to the story. I don’t claim to know, but I want to learn.
SR: As a scholar of Slavic literature, what do contemporary American writers have to learn from the luminaries of that tradition? Are there contemporary Slavic writers that you recommend all American writers read?
VL: Oh, this is such a great but big question. I think Chekhov has probably been one of the most significant influences on contemporary American fiction writers. He put so much emphasis on honoring the complex humanity of his characters rather than setting them up as targets of judgment, and this has been a pretty strong tradition among contemporary American realist writers. Among contemporary Russian writers I’d recommend Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.
SR: Silk Road is now publishing the first chapters of novels. When you pick up a novel, what do you expect from the first chapter or prologue? What persuades you to turn the page?
VL: Hmmm. In a first chapter — even a first page — I want to feel that the author has command of the voice and the material, that s/he is willing to take chances and is using language with care and originality. I want a lack of pretension and fluff. I also want a sense that the author is consciously guiding his or her audience, revealing and concealing information not just whenever s/he feels like getting around to it, but right when the reader needs it. It’s also good if I can feel that this is unlike any book I’ve ever read before. Think about the opening lines of Catcher in the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Right away we get a distinctive, authoritative, uncompromised voice. He has something to say and something to conceal. His irreverent attitude suggests he’s capable of interesting and possibly risky exploits. He’s funny and smart and he’s decided to confide in me. I’m hooked.