Laura van den Berg Sees Ghosts

‘The Third Hotel’ is a travel horror novel that subverts genre and expectations

The instant I finished reading Laura van den Berg’s new novel, I turned back to page one. The Third Hotel is that kind of book — an addictive puzzle as labyrinthine as the streets of Havana. The protagonist, Clare, works for an elevator company in upstate New York. She loves to travel, but not for the usual reasons. Instead of sightseeing, “her favorite thing in all the world was to switch off every light and everything that made a sound — TV, phone, air-conditioner, faucets — and sit naked on the polyester comforter and count the breaths as they left her body.”

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When Clare’s husband — a horror film scholar at a local university — is killed in a tragic accident, Clare travels to Cuba alone for a film festival they had planned to attend together. She wants to talk to the director of the “first horror movie ever produced in Cuba,” but during her second day in Havana, she spots her (dead) husband — a ghost? hallucination? lost twin? — standing outside a museum. And then things get even weirder.

The Third Hotel is one of the most immersive novels I’ve ever read, full stop. Rarely has a book so slim evoked a city’s sense of place with such richness. “She counted soaring gothic arches; neoclassical stone lions; retro beach hotels on the Malecón; bright art nouveau facades with ornamental moldings that made Clare think of Fabergé eggs; stark Soviet high-rises,” van den Berg writes, as Clare passes “codes over doorways that she did not understand.”

I recently spoke with van den Berg via email about the anonymity of travel, writing a travel horror story that subverts genre and expectations, and the haunted house where she wrote The Third Hotel.

Adam Morgan: The first thing that struck me about this novel was your sensuous descriptions of Havana. How do you approach description? Contemporaneous notes? Memory? Imagination?

Laura van den Berg: All of the above! I think a lot about the different functions that detail can serve. There are the orientating details when you’re writing scene (is the character inside or outside? Is it raining?) and then also what I call “granular detail” — i.e. those hyper-specific details that carry layers of time and meaning. For example, the novel’s first section is titled “The Fingernail,” in part because early on Clare is startled to discover a fingernail in a hotel room drawer, a detail that becomes emblematic of the strangeness of travel and transit spaces, the way a sudden shift in the atmosphere can toss you into a different reality, if only for a moment. If the orienting details work to ground our readers, then the granular details often work to destabilize. So I’m interested in how different levels of detail can work together, the friction they can generate.

As for Havana, I took several research trips, including one to attend their annual film festival, the basis for the festival Clare goes to in the novel, and took massive amounts of notes each time. Clare has a particular relationship to travel because her parents used to manage an inn in Florida and I started doing the same thing with small hotels and motels, whenever I’d pass them, in terms of taking down details. This led to a vast amount of descriptive material, which was daunting, but it firmed my sense of where the descriptive energy would be concentrated: the smaller ecosystems within Havana that Clare moves through — the world of the film festival, the world of hotels, what she observes while walking — and in her childhood memories, the inn is a kind of sun that everything else orbits around. I find that a character’s specific lens is important too: in Havana, Clare is somewhere between a tourist and an investigator, and the more I understood that lens the more focused the descriptive choices became.

AM: Clare is something of a nomad before Havana, and something of a flâneuse once she arrives. Are you a big traveler? An avid walker? How does experiencing the world that way impact your writing? Your sense of self?

LvdB: It’s strange — I lived in one place until I was 22 and then my life after has been super transient. My husband is also a writer and so for us, the artist’s life has meant a lot of moving around (though we are mercifully now settled in one place for the time being) and within the macro-transience there has been a lot of small-scale moving about. My second story collection and my first novel came out in close succession, so I was on the road quite a lot for a stretch and, like Clare, encountered many a bizarre detail while moving through transit spaces. I feel very compelled by the tension between anonymity and visceral intimacy that we see in hotels and airports, on planes and trains.

At a certain point, I got burned out by this rootlessness and developed, seemingly out of nowhere, a flying anxiety that is much better now but was crippling for several years. In addition to practical concerns — i.e. when I was an adjunct, I relied a lot on honorarium money — constant motion also became a means to avoid dealing with what I would rather not deal with. I wasn’t traveling to be present but was rather fleeing presence and this is Clare’s exact orientation towards travel when we first meet her, with her sales job that requires her to travel nonstop.

Of course, I still love to travel, especially if it’s for pleasure and especially if it somehow leads to space and time to write. This year has been a really excellent travel year, for which I am grateful. And I do love to walk — I have a terrible sense of direction and find physically moving through spaces to be very grounding. The first time I went to Havana, I walked something like 12–13 miles a day to get oriented.

In Florida, I lived with my parents and then with my grandmother and then more-or-less with a college boyfriend. I had never lived on my own; I did not study abroad and hadn’t spent a lot of time navigating the world beyond Central Florida. I was afraid to do pretty much anything on my own and in time solo travel helped me find a bit more confidence and self-reliance, of which I was in desperate need.

I feel very compelled by the tension between anonymity and visceral intimacy that we see in hotels and airports, on planes and trains.

AM: Of all the places you could have written about, what drew you to Cuba?

LvdB: So many things! I’ll try and narrow it down.

To start, I’m interested in the travel novel as a form, even as I understand it to be a form that comes with baggage. I love so many books that might considered travel or abroad novels in one way or another: Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, Chris Kraus’s Torpor, Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, Cristina García’s Here in Berlin, to name a few. I’m particularly interested in travel novels that somehow remake the usual boundaries of the genre, that subvert expectations, and so that formal challenge had been on my mind for a while.

So for a time, I had a constellation of narrative elements — they felt like jellyfish swimming around in my imagination — that I thought might be conversant with contemporary Havana, even if the how and the why remained elusive.

Tourism and film were two other “jellyfish,” so to speak. The Havana sections are centered on a film festival in 2015, a year that saw a major influx in American tourists. I spent a lot of time with the vocabulary of tourism, and the particular kinds of desires that vocabulary seems designed to ignite, the promises made and how those promises change or vanish altogether depending on who you are. I think the language caught my eye in part because I’m from Orlando, a city that has been powerfully shaped by tourism; Havana and Orlando are of course radically different contexts, but this was an initial open door. At a certain point in my research, I realized that some theoretical writings on tourism often used language similar to that of cinematic scholarship, a discovery that allowed for increased synergy between subject and place.

In time, all the jellyfish collided and I finished a proper working draft at Bard College, in a house that I’m fairly sure was haunted, over the course of one winter. For a while, I had been bouncing around between various campuses and my husband and I were spending too much time apart and there had been serious illness in my family. Life felt very very fast. So the book sprung from a web of intense and confused feelings, processed in a possibly haunted house — with an attic ceiling that would unfold itself in the middle of the night. I would come out of my bedroom in the morning and the stairs would be out and waiting, an invitation.

AM: Is creating a sense of “atmosphere” something you think about while writing, or does it just happen naturally as a byproduct of other narrative strategies?

LvdB: A mix, I think. I love books — and films — that have a rich sense of atmosphere, so I do consider mood and atmosphere, the tone of both the interior and exterior worlds, when I’m working on a project. At the same time, atmosphere is also something that can take on a life of its own. Each book has its own weather and some of that weather I am generating consciously and some of it — ideally — is emerging from a place that exists beyond the realm of conscious understanding. No mystery, no art.

I’m particularly interested in travel novels that somehow remake the usual boundaries of the genre, that subvert expectations.

AM: Have you always been interested in horror movies, or was that a big research goal for this book? What are some of the most memorable films you watched?

LvdB: I am a fan and a kind of armchair theorist, which places me somewhere between Richard, Clare’s film scholar husband and a true expert, and Clare herself. Film is of course central to the novel’s plot and as I mentioned before I also became interested in the intersection between cinematic vocabularies and other vocabularies — that of travel, that of tourism, that of Clare’s own inner life. I’ve never studied film formally, so I read loads of theory while working on the novel, part of the reason why the research notes for The Third Hotel is the longest for any book I’ve written. Happily, part of this research involved revisiting certain movies and seeing others for the first time. I found the original Halloween to be surprisingly unsettling on re-watch and expert on the use of spaces, the increasing claustrophobia of winnowing spacial options. I revisited a lot of other classics, from Carrie to Night of the Living Dead. For more recent horror, I love a French zombie movie called Les Revenants, a bloodless horror movie and all the more unsettling for it, and also Juan de los Muertos — which was regarded by many as Cuba’s first non-animated horror film and also provided the inspiration for the horror film-within-the-novel. I’m also excited to follow the directors Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), and Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body). More women directors in horror, please.

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