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"The Last Days of the Neanderthals": An Interview with William VanDenBerg

William VanDenBerg is the author of Lake of Earth (Caketrain Press, 2013) and Apostle Islands (Solar Luxuriance, 2013). Recent stories have appeared at Spork, SAND, and Pear Noir. He lives with his wife in Denver.

His story, "A Source," appeared in Issue Fifty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, William VanDenBerg talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about Neanderthals, revision, and narrative ambiguity.

So where did spark that led to this story come from? What was the very first idea that led to all the others?

I watched a few things in quick succession about Neanderthals and early humans: a Nova episode called “Decoding Neanderthals,” another Nova called “Iceman Murder Mystery,” and an episode of Walking with Beasts. The last one is pretty bad, the night-vision Mammoth hunting scene in particular. I’d been wanting to write stories that weren’t set in the modern era, and the last days of the Neanderthals seemed like interesting subject matter. I enjoy narratives that gain drama through their setting (George Saunders's “93990,” most of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn). It also gives the story a fatalist tone that I liked—the setting gives the story its trajectory.

Can you describe how this story changed throughout your drafting process? “A Source” is written mostly in simple sentences and short paragraphs. Were you writing it that way from the beginning, or did this restrained style emerge during revision?

The narrator’s voice was more complicated at first. I was trying to make it distinctive by using odd sentence constructions and avoiding simple sentences, but that didn’t work. Her voice came off like a non-southern writer trying to write a thick southern accent, all misspellings and apostrophes. It was awful. Over the next few drafts I reworked and simplified the sentences, took out most of the stylistic garbage. I used this technique I read about in a Gary Lutz interview, where you blow the text up to 26-point font, which gives the sentence this massive scale. Any dead weight becomes obvious – it can’t hide in a big block of text. That reduction technique produced the minimal, kinda stilted voice that ended up in the finished piece.

I was also working on the edits for Lake of Earth at the time, and I used some things I learned from Caketrain editors Amanda Raczkowski and Joseph Reed. After the piece was accepted, Gabriel Blackwell had some great changes that pushed the story where it needed to go.

The protagonist is a woman who tells stories. Do you feel a sort of kinship with her for that reason?

No, not really. It’s rare that I have much of a connection to my characters, particularly this one.

On your blog, you said of this story: “One of the main ambiguities of the piece is whether or not she believes the stories she tells, or if she’s just stretching her imagination.” As the author, did you ever have to decide for yourself whether or not your protagonist believes her own stories, or does it remain ambiguous even to you? (How hard was it to maintain this ambiguity? Were you ever tempted to delve deeper into the character’s inner life and reveal her beliefs or doubts?)

I never decided whether she believes in her stories or not. I think she might be on the fence as well. She tells the story about the sun and moon without a great deal of motivation, almost by accident, then gets wrapped up in it. From early on, I thought the ambiguity provided some charge to the narrative, and I wasn’t tempted to expand on it.

Re: her inner life, I was always interested in her lack of self (or at least what modern humans define as self). Her existence is governed by survival, which is a largely repetitive act. Eat, shit, reproduce, sleep, don’t get eaten, repeat. Not a lot of time to develop an inner life.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m finishing up a series of twenty linked pieces called MILK TEETH. One has appeared at Alice Blue Review and another at The Fanzine. I’ve also been working on a novel since January or so. It takes place over thirty years and focuses on a pair of detectives, a long dead alien creature, and a young woman who is birthed every ten years by the sea. That one will take a while.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Megan Martin’s Nevers is just mind-blowing. The stories in it are hilarious and terrifying and can turn on a dime. Elizabeth Mikesch’s Niceties: Aural Ardor, Pardon Me is superb as well, full of dense sentences and a fantastic, unexpected story about hockey. Those two books make a good pair. They both contain a lot of startling, innovative writing about the body. I also stumbled across Ann Quin’s Tripticks last December, and I’ve been rationing the rest of her books. She’s able to pull off these thick spirals of description that completely baffle me. I often read her sentences out loud over and over, trying to unravel them. I’ve only got Passages left to read, and I’m almost afraid to start it.

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