In The Third Hotel, Laura van den Berg’s phantasmagoric fourth book, a recently widowed woman named Clare travels alone to Havana to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema. There, she sees her deceased husband Richard and everything she knew—or thought she knew—about their marriage is thrown into turmoil. It’s the perfect premise for a novel that, in van den Berg’s hands, is both emotionally nuanced and philosophically profound.
Part of the book’s appeal is the way van den Berg shines a light on the casual misogyny of some of our once-revered artists. “Torture the women, Hitchcock was reported to have said when a young director asked him for advice,” she writes. And, “If you leave a woman, though, you probably ought to shoot her, Hemingway had once written in a letter.” The novel’s clear-eyed scrutiny of the treatment of women in horror films made me rethink a lot of my own viewing habits as a kid.
Though I’ve admired van den Berg’s fiction for about a decade now, we first met in 2015, when we were on a panel together at the Brooklyn Book Festival. This interview was conducted via email, this spring.
How did you begin to write this novel? What questions did you seek to raise or what did you want to know more about?
VAN DEN BERG
Ah, so many things were on the brain! Ghosts. Death. Accidents. Violence. Sick parents. Marriage. Florida. Tourism. Planes. Hotels. Cameras. Horror films. Misogyny. Secrets.
More specifically, I wrote much of the first draft while living on the campus of Bard College, in a house that I’m fairly sure was haunted. I was only at Bard for a semester. I had been bouncing around between various campuses for a few years and that winter I was on the road a lot because I had just put out my first book and my husband and I were spending too much time apart and my father was ill—life felt so transient, as if everything was moving too quickly for me to absorb anything. So the book sprung from a tangle of chaotic feelings—plus 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 like an invitation.
There’s a line from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing that goes, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” I was born and raised in Orlando, where the economy and culture has been powerfully shaped by tourism, and so I’ve long been interested in how we narrate the places we visit, how the gap between what we see and what we know manifests when we’re traveling. And, of course, the gap between what we see and what we know has much resonance for horror films too.
How did you decide to set it in Cuba? I couldn’t imagine this novel taking place anywhere else.
To start, I am interested in the travel novel as a form, even as I understand it to be a form that comes with baggage, especially the subset featuring the American abroad. I love so many books that might be 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, Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, Cristina García’s Here in Berlin, Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel—if we’re categorizing loosely. For a while, I had a kind of constellation of narrative elements that I felt were conversant with contemporary Havana, but it took me a while to understand the how and the why.
The film-within-the-book, Revolución Zombi, is based loosely on a real film, Juan de los Muertos, directed by Alejandro Brugués and regarded by many as Cuba’s first non-animated horror film. This offered an early link between the theme of horror and place.
What is your own relationship to Cuba?
The Third Hotel is set in 2015, a year that saw a major influx in American tourists. I thought quite a lot about the vocabulary of tourism, the kinds of desires that vocabulary seems designed to ignite, and the promises made, and how those promises change or vanish altogether depending on who you are. Perhaps the language caught my eye in part because I’m from a place that has been powerfully molded by tourism and is often marketed in a way that flattens complexity. Havana and Orlando are of course wildly different contexts, but this was an open door, so to speak. And then, at a certain point in my research, I realized that some theoretical work on tourism used language very similar to that of cinematic scholarship—the idea of the lens, for example—that discovery allowed for increased synergy between the various elements, between subject and place.
In terms of approach, I went to Havana three times while working on the book, once to visit the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, the same festival that Clare travels to in the novel. Havana is a uniquely complicated city, and contains a great many histories. I knew it would be a monumental challenge to set much of the story there—especially given that I’ve never been anything but a visitor, and thus my eye on the place is always going to be incomplete, comprised. So my strategy was to focus on a few small ecosystems within the larger landscape of Havana, areas where I could locate a point of entry—the film festival and the world of hotels, for example.
Your novel displays an encyclopedic knowledge of film and film theory. For someone like me, with very little knowledge of that medium, it was exhilarating to learn so much during Clare’s adventure. Would you please tell me a little bit about your other cinematic influences here? What are a few more films that would appeal to readers of The Third Hotel?
Film is central to the novel’s plot, and I also become interested in the vocabulary of film—how the language of film gave Clare a means to express things she might not be able to otherwise, and how that language could offer a frame for how to read what’s unfolding. In terms of specific cinematic influences, certainly I’d recommend Juan de los Muertos, and I also really love this French zombie movie Les Revenants—where the dead reanimate for no apparent reason. Les Revenants is a bloodless zombie movie, and somehow all the more unsettling for it. REC is innovative for its use of space. I also revisited many older horror films, from the monstrous Hitchcock—Psycho, Rear Window—to De Palma’s Carrie to Carpenter’s original Halloween, which I found surprisingly frightening—that methodical, inevitable stalking, and the claustrophobia of a tight network of spaces.
In terms of craft, what was the most difficult part of writing this novel?
Holy cow—everything about writing a novel is hard for me. It was as true for The Third Hotel as it was for my first novel. I need to hold a lot more mental space in order to work seriously on a novel, and that can be hard to do alongside a full-time job, life, etc. In the case of The Third Hotel, I was lucky to have a fellowship for a chunk of the time I was writing the book. But I think at the end an intimacy exists between myself and the characters and the fictive world. At this point, it feels like Clare and I have been through a lot together, and she’ll be with me for a long time. I find this closeness to be very rewarding.
In terms of craft, the distribution of information took a long time to figure out—what does Clare know and when does she know it and how will that material be unfurled. There is also always material I am avoiding, but I don’t know that going in and so I have a kind of silent, invisible argument with myself for several years. The subplot concerning Clare’s father would be one such example. The father was like a grain of sand in the corner of my eye for a long time—I tried to ignore it until I couldn’t.
Your book contains a fictional zombie film. What will be your own strategy for surviving the inevitable zombie uprising?
Zombies have nothing to lose, which makes them formidable adversaries. Destruction is their only plan. Ideally I’d come across an eccentric with a secure underground bunker where we could ride out the disaster with Netflix and tinned fish. Otherwise, I would plan to stay away from other people, find myself a baseball bat, and keep moving at night. I’ve been boxing for the last eight months, which is not all that useful for self-defense—you don’t want to get too close! But it means I have decent physical stamina, which would be helpful if these are the kinds of zombies that please the zombie purists—i.e., the lurching kind. Though zombies are like death itself—you can only outrun them for so long.
Andrew Ervin is the author of the novella collection Extraordinary Renditions and the novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World. He lives in Philadelphia.
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