In this “Origins,” Laura van den Berg, author of the acclaimed debut collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), discusses the origins of the story “Still Life With Poppies.”
There are some stories in my collection that I often come back to when I’m asked about where ideas come from or how stories usually start for me, but this time I wanted to talk about a story that hasn’t come up as frequently, “Still Life With Poppies”—partly because the process of writing that story was so atypical for me. I was traveling through France and I kept seeing these beautifully odd, and sometimes ominous, details—a weird hotel sign, a field of bright red poppies, a peculiar child’s drawing, police running through a crowded metro car, a skeleton costume, a gated cave—and soon the character of Juliana, a schoolteacher, was taking shape. The landscape of southern France was stunning, but the riots in the Paris suburbs had happened fairly recently and so I couldn’t help but hold that darker side of the country in my mind; that piece of history entered into “Still Life With Poppies” and also gave way to Juliana’s other pains: the disappearance of her husband and a troubled student. I say the story’s conception was unusual because I traveled to many of the places that are in the story and wrote the story as-it-was-happening in respect to landscape; I usually need a lot of distance from any kind of experience before it can move into my creative lexicon, so this was a departure in terms of process. Also, I’m not usually that focused on capturing a particular political or cultural moment in my stories, but while drafting Still Life With Poppies I kept thinking about 9-11 and all that’s followed, about how the world seems so much more fragile and the possibility of something happening that would truly irrevocably change our society as we know it feels increasingly plausible—hardly a new idea or sentiment, but that profound uncertainty and the sense of lurking danger is something I very much wanted to capture in this story.