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"In my experience, deep grief can feel very much like being transported to a place where the un-real outstrips the real. I aspired to create a world that captured that feeling of being thrown suddenly from one kind of reality into another."
Clare thinks that her husband, Richard, has died. She is attempting to cope with her grief as she attends a Latin American Film Festival. Then, outside a museum, she sees Richard standing there. As Clare decides to follow him throughout his day, she finds herself working to decipher reality from fantasy, all the while questioning the truth in their relationship. As she thinks back on her own childhood in conjunction with these things, she will also discover what part she played in his death. Part romance, part mystery, part horror story, the novel is an exquisite handling of all equally.
Laura shares about her process for writing the book, including why she chose Havana, Cuba as the setting and how elements of horror played into the plot. She also tells us the difference for her in writing short stories versus novels (and which we can expect to see next).
How did you become interested in writing?
Like a lot of writers, I came to writing through reading—though it happened later for me than it does for some. In college, I sort of accidentally took a fiction workshop and read contemporary short stories for the first time. After each one, I would look up from the page and think: More, please.
You have written a number of short stories and novels. Does your process for writing differ at all depending on what you are working on?
I find short stories and novels to be quite different process-wise. With stories, I can work a little at a time, in fits and starts, and somehow end up with something worthwhile. Whereas novels require a ruthless amount of time, in my experience. They prompted me to spend a lot of time working away from home, at writing spaces and at residencies, in order to reach the deep-sea zone of concentration I needed; they required me to step out of my life more than short stories tend to. And yet they’re kind of addictive in their way: I’m already thinking, slowly and hazily, about a new novel project. At the same time, the short story is the first form of literature I fell in love with and one I’ll always feel very close to.
Tell us a little bit about what inspired your latest novel, The Third Hotel.
If I go back to the very beginning 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. He is assigned to a job and an apartment. He has relationships. And yet: he is dead. His appearance has been changed so he is supposed to be 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?
The novel is set in Havana, Cuba. What was your knowledge of Cuba before beginning the novel and what did you learn about it in the process?
I had read and loved many works of literature by Cuban and Cuban-American writers, and I had a pre-existing interest in Cuban cinema (the film-within-the-novel is based on a Cuban horror movie called Juan de los Muertos) . For the book, I researched in many different directions: tourism; travel; film theory, with an emphasis on horror; Cuba and the history of Havana specifically (especially in the context of cinema and tourism). I went to Havana three times while working on the book. One of those trips was to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema (the basis for the festival that Clare travels to). My Havana-centric research affirmed for me what a uniquely complicated city Havana is, how it holds so many complicated histories. I knew it would be a monumental challenge to set much of the story there—especially since I’ve never been anything else but a visitor, and consequently my perspective was always going to be incomplete, comprised—and so illuminated where I could (and could not) find points of entry. Ultimately my strategy was to focus on several small ecosystems within the larger landscape of Havana—the film festival, the world of hotels. Also, I had never been to a film festival before, international or otherwise, and realized at a certain point that I had little idea of how to describe one. Many (if not most) of the descriptive details of the festival and the city itself came from things I saw or did or overheard during those three trips.
There is a surrealist quality to this book, but at times it does feel rooted in reality. How did you balance these elements when writing?
As both a writer and as a reader, I’ve long loved fiction that bends genre, so the intermingling of the real and the fantastic felt like a natural direction to look in. I see The Third Hotel as being part psychological horror; part travel novel; and part detective’s quest, in addition to also being a book about marriage—and so I needed to create a spectrum of reality that could accommodate those different types of narratives. Also, Clare’s husband is killed in a hit-and-run accident, so his death is very sudden. In my experience, deep grief can feel very much like being transported to a place where the un-real outstrips the real, and I aspired to create a world that captured that feeling of being thrown suddenly from one kind of reality into another.
Claire, the protagonist, finds that her husband, Richard, is supposedly not deceased, and then must revisit their relationship. In what ways do you think the book examines how we think about partnership and marriage?
I’m interested in the relationship between intimacy and secrecy in close relationships (marriage, in the case of The Third Hotel, but we could ask similar questions about deep friendships or siblings or parent-child relationships). We know so much and we know so little all at the same time, it seems to me—and I find that paradox rich and interesting. And, of course, the unknowability of others is a classic subject in horror films.
Claire also explores elements of her childhood. Why did you decide to include this in the novel?
Childhood is formative for so many of us, as much as we might wish otherwise. I didn’t want the novel to be backstory-heavy, but I did want to provide a few keys to why Clare approaches the world as she does. And the longer I lived with her character the more I understood that those keys resided in her childhood, her youth.
What do you think about the future of women writers?
I feel powerfully optimistic about the future of women writers. Women have, of course, been at the vanguard of literary arts for a long long time—and we're finally starting to see a contemporary cannon take shape that reflects, or beings to reflect, the profound diversity of what it means to be a women writer working today. When I read the work of, say, Tiphanie Yanique and Yiyun Li and Miriam Toews and Jenny Erpenbek and Wendy Guerra and Yoko Tawada and Marie Ndiaye (to name a very few—I could go on and on and on) I feel wild and bountiful hope. Legions of women are doing extraordinary work; it’s more a question of when the world will catch up.
What is coming up next for you?
I’m currently at work on a collection of stories, Aftermath, that should be out in 2020 or thereabouts.
Follow Laura van den Berg on Twitter and Instagram. The Third Hotel is available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.