Laura van den Berg on Her First Love: “You’re Ugly, Too”

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I first heard about Laura van den Berg two years ago, when she won the first Dzanc Prize for a project she had developed to teach creative writing in Massachusetts prisons. At the time, she was putting the final touches on the stories that form her debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, and, well, here we are. I’m loving these quirky stories and the women who are trying to make their way through a world that’s just like ours, only sometimes a fraction weirder, from the professional Bigfoot impersonator of “Where We Must Be” to the botanist looking for a rare flower on the shores of Loch Ness in “Inverness.” Van den Berg was kind enough to share her thoughts about one of her favorite stories in this short essay.

Perhaps it is because I’ve been reading the reviews of Lorrie Moore’s new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, or because I’ve been teaching her work in my classes this semester, but there are details from her brilliant short story “You’re Ugly, Too,” from the collection Like Life, that I just haven’t been able to get out of my head: that sad plastic baggie at the movie theater, Earl’s grotesque naked woman costume, the Illinois towns with names like “Oblong” and “Normal,” the earrings that stick out from the “sides of [Zoë's] head like antennae.”

“You’re Ugly, Too has all the trademarks of a first-rate Lorrie Moore story—the dark wit, the well-observed characters, the arresting voice—but the reason this one remains my favorite of her oeuvre can, I think, be partially attributed to the way the story’s intense emotional power rises to the fore midway through the story like a jolt of electricity. For all its cleverness, the stakes for Zoë are deadly serious; her life, in respect to both her physical self and her psychic self, are at stake.

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19 November 2009 | selling shorts |

Page Turner Focus: David Henry Hwang

page-turner-dh-hwang.jpgPlaywright David Henry Hwang is one of the most widely recognized literary figures participating in “Page Turner,” the Asian American Writers’ Workshop literary festival taking place in Brooklyn this Saturday, and his panel (with Jennifer Hayashida and Sree Sreenivasan) sounds like it’ll be a great discussion about pop culture representations of Asian-Americans in the post-Harold & Kumar era. Ken Chen and Vyshali Manivannan at the AAWW sent along a brief Q&A with Hwang, whose plays include M. Butterfly and Yellow Face, as a quick preview of what attendees can expect. (And since this panel is immediately after the session I’m moderating, I won’t have to miss it, either!)

So, what’ve you been working on lately?

Two new musicals and a new play. Bruce Lee: Journey to the West has been a dream of mine since the mid 1990’s; I’m currently working with composer David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, Joe Turner) and choreographer Dou Dou Huang (Artistic Director of the Shanghai Song & Dance Ensemble). My other musical is Pretty Dead Girl with composer Anne-Marie Milazzo (East Village Opera Company) and director Leigh Silverman (Well, Yellow Face), an Amelie-like romp about sexual fetishes and suicide. My play, tentatively titled Chinglish, is a bilingual piece about a non-Chinese businessman trying to make a deal in a contemporary Chinese provincial city.

We all know that writers can be exceptionally good at procrastinating when they should be writing. What do you typically do to procrastinate?

Come up with ideas for movie pitches.

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12 November 2009 | events |

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