“Most of us do things that defy explanation and logical motivation”: A Conversation with Rebecca van LaerBy Shannon McLeod
October 11, 2022
Last night I discussed the fear of poetry with a group of other prose writers. Poems seem to evoke a more common anxiety than other mediums. Rebecca van Laer is a poet-turned-prose writer, and in her novella How to Adjust to the Dark the reader gets to glimpse inside the mind of a poet. We read through the main character Charlotte’s pursuits and failures in love, alongside the character’s own poems, interwoven with literary self-analysis. How to Adjust to the Dark is compelling in its voice and poetic prose, its painfully-relatable romantic interactions, as well as how it makes transparent a writer’s relationship to her writing. I felt seen by Charlotte’s experiences, in which writing is both a life raft and a burden. I spoke with Rebecca van Laer about her history with writing, form, disappointment, and the process that went into her beautiful debut.
As a prose writer for whom poetry holds a lot of mystery, I felt like How To Adjust to the Dark was a really rich and unique reading experience in that you get to hear the narrator’s analysis and interrogation of her own poetry. I found that really fascinating, like I got these glimpses into the mind of a poet alongside her narrative.
Can you tell me about how you came from a poetry background into becoming a prose writer and how your new novella reflects that journey?
When I took my first creative writing class, I had grand notions of being a writer even though I’d never done more than write in my LiveJournal. As we started to get assignments, I found that writing fiction required a leap of empathy that was quite challenging. Poetry was easier, because I had implicit permission to write from a point of view close to my own. As I began to take more poetry workshops, writing within formal constraints helped me to develop my skills without the complete, billowing freedom of prose. (Within academia, I didn’t have early exposure to either non-lyric poetry or to autofiction, so I didn’t know the full range of possibility in either genre—or in the overlap between them.)
Because of that, it took a while to develop the confidence to try and create my own structure within prose. The novella is in some ways about that—Charlotte looks back on the simultaneous safety and constriction of writing within a received set of assignments and forms, and the book itself shows her (and me) stretching beyond that.
You’ve shifted form, but also the environment in which you write. During the pandemic you moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York. Has your new home affected your writing life?
On the subject of imaginative leaps, I think I’ve wanted to be an environmental writer since around the time I wrapped up the first draft of HTATTD. Some people accomplish that both living in and writing about cities, but in my early attempts, my urbanite characters were tormented by the specter of climate change in an abstract, theoretical way. Moving upstate has changed my daily life pretty significantly; I have chickens and bees and a garden, and I can spend much more time outside. While the existential experience of living with climate change is a rich well to draw on for fiction, my new set of interactions with creatures, plants, and fungi has given me more concrete conduits for writing about the natural world and its demise.