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A Rearranging World In 'The Third Hotel'


Clare, a recently widowed woman who's at the center of Laura van den Berg's new novel, goes to a movie one night at the Havana Film Festival and sees the last person she'd expect, her late husband. He's wearing a white linen suit. She follows him through the streets but never speaks, as the novelist writes, she was afraid that if she spoke, he might disappear.

Laura van den Berg has written what amounts to a shape-shifter of a novel, where Clare searches for clarity and finality in a world that keeps changing, flashing and rearranging itself. Laura van den Berg's novel is "The Third Hotel." And Laura van den Berg, who's previously published collections of stories and a novel and lectures at Harvard joins us from WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Richard, her late husband, or husband who may be late - I don't want to give anything away - was a critic of horror films. So this sort of falls into place, doesn't it?

VAN DEN BERG: It does. Yes. I am a longtime fan of the genre, so process-wise, one thing that was fun and interesting about working on "The Third Hotel" was getting to sort of dig deeper into the genre.

SIMON: What is it about you and horror?

VAN DEN BERG: Well, I think my favorite horror films are really grounded in human psychology, which is to say I think through sort of extreme dislocations of reality. Whether it's via the monstrous or the paranormal, horror actually can really get at some of the most fundamental human questions.

If I may, there's a really fantastic horror movie called "The Babadook." And it centers around a mother-son relationship. And this mother is raising her son as a widow, and so they're on their own. And the son is having trouble. And they both become very isolated. And then, they begin to be menaced by this creature, this outside force.

And that's a movie that really beautifully navigates the ambiguity of - is there a monster in the house in the literal sense, or is this sort of feeling of the monstrous being generated by the psychic state of the characters? And I think that's the sort of aspect of horror, the strand of horror that interests me most powerfully in terms of narrative.

SIMON: Clare, who is 37 during the course of this novel, says she knew back in her 20s - I truly admire this phrase - that the ice cube she had pressed against her heart in childhood was proving slow to thaw. What is that ice cube? What's in it?

VAN DEN BERG: I think for Clare, you know, the ice cube is made up of several different frozen parts. I mean, she has a particular relationship to travel and tourism as an adult. She travels - she's a sales rep, so she's on the road constantly. She was also raised by - in an inn. Her parents were innkeepers in North Florida, so she grew up being the kind of fixed person in a fixed space that tourists who are visiting that part of Florida are coming to see.

So I think for Clare, you know, some of her adult transience is born of a desire to get away from certain aspects of her life and to not confront certain things. And so perhaps that tendency towards flight has, you know, kept that ice cube a little bit more frozen than it might be otherwise.

SIMON: May I ask, where does Clare come from in your mind?

VAN DEN BERG: I think Clare is a composite of a lot of different people and, you know, and places. There's a chapter that comes early in the novel that just sort of details the various odd encounters and odd discoveries she's made while on the road. And that was a chapter that I wrote while I was traveling quite a lot.

And, you know, and I found all kinds of strange things, you know, in the backs of seat pockets on planes and in hotel room drawers and had, you know, curious conversations with people while, you know, checking into a hotel and so on.

SIMON: You mean you would find things people had left in the seat pockets?

VAN DEN BERG: Yes. People had left - yes, exactly. Yeah. I mean, there's this sort of strange blend of anonymity and intimacy to travel, I think, into transit spaces where we're seeing these intimate details of people's lives, but it's not really something we sort of engage in or comment on. And so, you know, she's a hybrid in that way of real sort of tactile experience on my part, and then just wild flights of imagination.

SIMON: The question that kept coming back to me as a reader is, is Clare seeing things, or is she conjuring things?

VAN DEN BERG: I don't know that I necessarily have a, you know, clear-cut answer to that. I mean, I'm - I think both of those things can occur sort of simultaneously - that you can - you know, something can be the product of one's imagination and also feel completely real.

And I, actually, am sort of in recovery from fairly serious flying anxiety, but there was a time where flying was very difficult for me. And I, you know, would get on a plane. And the plane would take off. And I would be absolutely convinced with all of my heart and brain that the plane was going to drop out of the sky and crash at any moment. And I know intellectually that that's not true. I've read the statistics. I know how improbable that is. But yet, there is this other part of my imagination that just takes over, and it's so powerful. And it generates a physical response, too, you know? I'd have panic attacks and hyperventilate on planes and so on - my poor seatmates.

But it's - so I'm really interested in sort of the way, you know, our imaginations can create a state of being that might be fictional, but it's still a real thing that's happening at the same time.

SIMON: I must salute your courage for taking off anyway.

VAN DEN BERG: Yes. I know. Well, if you've got to get somewhere, you've just got to get there (laughter).

SIMON: Laura van den Berg - her novel, "The Third Hotel." Thanks very much. And if I may, safe travels.

VAN DEN BERG: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.