Paul Yoon and Laura van den Berg Are a Different Kind of Famous Writer Couple
Sixteen years ago, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in the mountains of Vermont, two young, unpublished would-be writers separately showed up for ten days of craft workshops. Within the first 24 hours, they fell in love. Laura van den Berg was 21 and had barely been out of her home state of Florida; Paul Yoon was 24, had already quit a publicity job at a publishing house in New York City, and was midway through a vagabond year traveling the globe. “I was dazzled,” van den Berg says about the worldly stranger. “I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be a fun ten days, but I’m never going to see this guy again.’”
After the conference ended, they continued to date long distance for a year before moving to Boston together, where van den Berg was pursuing an MFA and Yoon was working on short stories. They each published their first short-story collections in 2009, and they repeated that odd synchronicity, both releasing a second book in 2013. Nine years after they met, they married. “We started off together as writers,” Yoon explains. “The more serious we got, the more we realized how uncertain it is. There’s very little stability. I think marriage was a very strong anchor for us in navigating the writing life.” Like all married couples, they’ve fallen into a pattern—albeit one that’s unusually creative and prolifically bookish—because this year, they’re both releasing books once again. This past January, Yoon’s haunting war story of 1960s Laos and the forced separation of three orphans, Run Me to Earth (Simon & Schuster), was published to rave reviews. This June, van den Berg’s fantastically surreal ode to American culture in chaos, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears (FSG), might stand as the benchmark short-story collection of our new decade.
Unlike a lot of famous writer couples, Yoon and van den Berg’s respective styles haven’t bled into each other. There’s no confusing Yoon’s spare, lightning-rich prose with van den Berg’s twisted, supernatural delights. That difference might be chalked up to their distinctive work patterns. Yoon tends to go for a run to clear his head before writing at home with their lab mix Oscar next to him on the couch. “He became an essential part of the writing process,” Yoon says of the dog. “When you’re entering dark subject matter, just to have his heartbeat and aliveness next to me, it helped.” Van den Berg, on the other hand, tends to leave the house to write. And while Yoon keeps his writing to himself, thinking through the story before he puts down a draft, van den Berg goes through multiple drafts, in a constant pedal of shaping and revising. “Some people are pulled toward one another because of their similarities,” van den Berg says. “I think in some ways, we were pulled toward one another because of our differences. We have such different personalities and such different aesthetic orientations and styles and ways of being in the world. We’re really in our own orbits to a great extent.” And yet, they often overlap on their admiration for certain writers—Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, Edward P. Jones, and Joy Williams among them—as well as finding inspiration in foreign climes. This summer, Yoon and van den Berg are headed back to Bread Loaf, this time as teachers.