Barbara Shoup talks with Elizabeth Berg

Appears in Other Voices #40

“What really knocks me out,” Holden Caulfield said, “is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Just about as cool: what if you called up an author whose books you love, asked for an interview, and she said, “Sure, let's talk!” And a few weeks later, there you are, chatting at the Cozy Café in Oak Park, the setting for a number of scenes in her most recent novel. Elizabeth Berg worked as a nurse for many years before turning to writing articles about parenting as a way of spending more time with her children. Her novel, Durable Goods , was published in 1993, the first of a series of bestsellers, including Talk Before Sleep, Joy School, What We Keep and Open House, which was an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000 . Berg was friendly, funny and wonderfully perceptive in her thoughts about her own work, the mixed blessings of success and the creative process.

BS: Rereading a lot of your work and reading some for the first time in preparation for our interview, I felt sometimes as if I were turning a kaleidoscope in which all of your issues were the shards and shapes from which the patterns were made. Loss, transition, friendship among women, marriage, the disconnect between men and women. You're looking this way, that way. The same thing over and over—but not. Each book, each story is its own work of literature, uniquely yours. In the end, what all the books seem to have in common is a fascination with ordinary life. Would you talk about how ordinary life yields up stories for you, both in terms of your real life and places where your real life and fiction intersect?

EB: First and foremost, a lesson I learned from being a nurse is how important seemingly ordinary life is, which of course is not ordinary at all, and how much is held in the smallest of things, the cup you use for breakfast every morning, the places—like this—where you go that anchor the specific. The anchors people have in their lives. I'm reading right now Naked in Baghdad by Anne Gerols, an NPR correspondent, who covers Baghdad. I happened to do an event with her and I just fell in love with her on the spot. What an incredible woman! I told my partner, Bill, this is what's really important, what she's doing. She's going off to Baghdad and she's, in her words, bearing witness. But then as I was reading along in her book, her husband started talking about how she likes to embroider, and I thought Yes! It always comes down to that. It's always those comfort things. Whether it's a person or a thing or a dog. So Anne can go to Baghdad and I'll write about embroidery.

BS: You must get lots of feedback from your work that tells you that these “small” things matter, too.

EB: I do. These are such devastating, uncertain times that I don't think any of us quite know where we are anymore and what's going to happen. People in New York are afraid to live by the river now because of scuba terrorists! Our whole world is so threatened, and I feel like now, more than ever, it's so important that people learn to get along in their relationships: their husbands and wives, their innermost family members and on beyond that. That's my focus, in so far as I know what it is, and I don't think that most writers do. Speaking for myself, I don't know what I do or how I do it. I see a repetition of patterns myself, of course, and they have to do with some of what I was just telling you. Finding the joy in the ordinary. But I don't set out to do anything. I set out to explore something and let the story tell me what it wants to reveal.

We all go around the world everyday and there are things I would notice because I'm me, things you'd notice because you're you—and those things might end up in our work. What kinds of things do you see and think, “Mine!”

I look for the things that make an individual an individual, that make them unique. The smallest of interactions are the things that interest me most. Mainly mundane things. I remember once being with this man I was nuts about and walking past a pizza window where the guy was making pizza. I was ready to stay there all night, and he was like, oh no, she's going to stop and look. And I thought, oh boy, this is never going to work out. I think what writing lets me do is put on a larger palette why I like to watch that pizza man. It's not something I can articulate, except on paper. If I didn't speak the language I would look at how people talk to each other, what they wear, their gestures. I want to know what's in their purses. I'm concerned with intimate personal details, revelations. At a party—if I have to go to a party—I look for the people who are off in the corner, talking.

BS: Are you an eavesdropper?

EB: Of course! Aren't we all? I heard Jacqueline Mitchard say the other night that her kids had given her one of these devices for the hearing impaired, so now she can hear…everything!

BS: What kinds of insights do you come to about your own life when you come up close to things the way you have to do to write fiction? Do you have personal breakthroughs?

EB: Absolutely! I think it's one of the reasons I do what I do. A case in point is a book I just finished, which is called The Art of Mending. In it, this family gets together every summer to go to the state fair. The narrator is a 50-something-year-old woman whose sister calls her before she's ready to go to this annual reunion and says, “I need to talk to you. I need to tell you something,” and reveals allegations that she was very much abused by their mother. The sister's thinking, wait a minute. I was in this same house. And the brother's saying, she's always been weird.

I looked very closely and carefully at the possibilities of things happening in families that we're not aware of and why kids' experiences in the same household are so completely different. What turns us into who we are? We're born with certain genes and predispositions, but then the way we turn out is based on the way we're raised. It's a very complex book and different from others I've done in that respect. There's a lot more going on. It's pretty intense. What it did in the end was bring me to a place of real compassion for my mother, who's nothing like the woman in the book. Truly, she's not. It was always easier for me to be close to my dad, who's the real scary guy, the supposed bad guy—but he wears his heart on his sleeve. My mother's much more closeted. Looking so closely at [the family in the book] was probably the most therapeutic thing I could have done in terms of understanding the need to forgive and be close to family members.

BS: Your description of your father makes me think about the father in the Katie books. Is he patterned after your own father?

EB: Yes. He wasn't that bad, but he was scary as hell. The guys that I used to go out with would come to the door and go, “Whoa!”

BS: But you made him with compassion, even as awful as his effect was on his two daughters.

EB: He's a victim, too. As we all are.

BS: You've written three books “starring” Katie. Do you feel you're finished with her yet?

EB: Somebody asked if I was going to do another Katie book and I said, probably not.

BS: Yes. Katie's issues feel resolved. The reader feels she'll be O.K.

EB: But I felt like she was O.K. that first time. There's something that's so irresistible about writing in that voice. It's so much fun.

BS: Cheryl Ann must be fun to write, as well. You can't help but laugh the moment she appears on the page, because you know it's going to be funny.

EB: She is an amalgamation of a lot of people I knew. You know those people who say things that are so absurd, but there's a kernel of truth. And they're so certain when they're young. It's such an endearing time of life. Those girls who are caught between the two places, and they're so vulnerable. I love that age.

BS: You do twelve really well. Why is that? Is there something about twelve for you that is particularly resonant?

EB: I think it's an attraction as a writer and as a nurse to that kind of vulnerability—and that kind of inquisitiveness. It's like having this great land revealed before you and you don't know. You have all these hopes and dreams. You think things should be a certain way, and they're just so not that way. So it's rich for a writer to mine that kind of thing. And of course whenever I write about a twelve-year-old it's from when I was twelve. Things I remember.

BS: What We Keep is also, essentially, a book about twelve-year-olds. Though it's framed in present time, the main story is the one in which the two sisters' world is shattered when their mother leaves the family.

EB: There are so many books that when people ask, “What should I read?” I often recommend that one because it's a combination of the younger voice and the older.

BS: There are lots of missing mothers in your books: mothers who have died or disappeared, or who just aren't very present in their daughters' lives.

EB: Or who cracked up.

BS: Yes. That Fifties thing. Which is interesting, since you've said that what you're doing now has given you an insight into your own mother. Was your mom one of those quiet Fifties moms?

EB: She was very closeted, and still is. She lived with a guy who was really overpowering. He was a scary guy. For many years, he would say, “Jean! Where're my cigarettes.” And she would run around the house looking for them. Where did he leave the cigarettes? I think it was hard for her.

BS: There's an interesting sense of these girls being failed by their mothers in ways the mothers couldn't quite control. They end up being the ones who are left, who have to deal with the dads.

EB: Certainly, that was true of her. When he was coming after us, she did not intervene in any way. In that sense, we were left to fend for ourselves. Or not.

BS: The mothers in your books are readers. Did your mom like to read?

EB: Yes, she did. I wrote about this in Durable Goods , I think. My mother would have a stack of library books, and she had candy bars in her drawer. She'd curl up with a book.

BS: Heath Bars.

EB: Yes. Heath Bars. I still think they're sort of forbidden. My dad was in Korea for nine months, and that was the time I remember most how aware I was of that ritual. She still reads voraciously. She reads everything.

BS: Your most recent book, Say When, is from the point of view of a man, which was something new for you. I had the sense, reading all the books in a row to prepare for the interview, that you were working through some pretty heavy personal stuff, using the books as a way of looking at your own life. It seems as if you've come out on the other end in a different life than what you had.

EB: The truth is, Say When is the first novel I ever wrote. I started writing it and showed it to an agent and an editor, both of whom were really excited about it. It was the reason I got my agent. Then one day when I was writing it—I don't know why—I was thinking about how we moved all the time and how you couldn't cry. You weren't allowed to cry. And I wrote this little vignette about that and I thought, Whoa, there is something here that I really want to explore. So I put aside Say When and wrote Durable Goods instead. Then I did Talk Before Sleep . Then I was going to write Say When , but ended up doing Range of Motion . Anyway, I put it away. Both Open House and Say When were books that I shelved because I didn't like them. There came a point at which I pulled out Open House and rewrote it. And the rest is history. The same thing is true of Say When . I pulled it out and said, I know there are some things I like here and maybe now that I've been away from it for so long I can rewrite it and make it into something I like.

BS: In what ways do you think it is different than it might have been, had you finished it then?

EB: For one thing, I wrote it when I was still married, and I stayed married for a long time afterward. I rewrote it after I was divorced. So it was enriched, so to say, by that experience.

BS: It's your only book written in third-person. Was it in third person from the start?

EB: Yes.

BS: Do you have any thoughts about that, or is it just the way it was?

EB: I don't know. I think it was part of writing from a man's point of view, a distancing mechanism. You'd think if you wanted to inhabit a character fully, you would use first person because that would bring you closer. But I never do anything according to the rules.

BS: You were trained as a nurse, not as a writer. I wonder how that training served you as a writer and also whether not having been formally trained as a writer affects your willingness to break the rules. Do you feel that your “alternative” puts you at an advantage or disadvantage in the writing world?

EB: Being a nurse was a really good way to be a writer because people are revealed as themselves. They're not goofing around too much when they see you. They're not posturing. You can get really close to people and you can really see what they're like. I also did home nursing, so I got to go into all different kitchens on the same day. I really like people and I felt really privileged to do that. I would go from these veritable mansions, where sometimes people had staff, and then I would go to Roxbury and get in the elevator with all the graffiti and hope to hell I didn't get jumped. I'd get mad at myself. Think, damn! I'm not supposed to bring syringes here. I forgot.

What I know about myself and my own process is that it's a very shy thing. If I had gone to school to be a writer I think I never would have written. I think I would have been squashed. I am very wary of anybody telling anybody else how to write. It's interesting to me that most of the people who teach are not published, or if they are published, they don't do very well. I think writers are born.

BS: A good teacher can help people with technique. She can help people see what's good about their work and what's not working.

EB: Right. But a good writers' group can do that. And maybe some people work differently and profit very much from going to school. Certainly, some people who have graduated from schools of writing are really good writers. But I think they would have been writers anyway.

BS: Do you think novelists different from short story writers in this regard? Talk a little bit about the difference between the person who's a novelist and the one who's a short story writer.

EB: It's like the family room versus the living room for me. The living room would be a metaphor for the short story. Everything has to have its place. It can't be extraneous. Everything has to fit, somehow. In the family room, which is the novel, you just throw things around everywhere. If you want to go off on this road and have a character talk about, I don't know…green peppers, you can do that. There's a lot more latitude writing novels than there is in short stories. That said, when I write a short story versus when I write a novel it's still the same way. I don't know what I'm doing. I just let it go. And it happens to work in short stories that I am more economical. I tend to be an economical writer anyway, but in a short story, I am more keenly aware subconsciously of how this is all coming together. How everything I'm saying is going to contribute to this center.

BS: Is there a moment when you feel a story come together?

EB: No, not a moment. There's a continual subconscious awareness of how this will all fit, even if I'm thinking, what does this have to do with it? That happens a lot with endings, whether it's novels or short stories. Some sort of mental event will serve as this gigantic metaphor for everything you've been trying to say.

BS: How does a novel gather for you? What is the process that takes you to the moment when you sit down to begin?

EB: It's a highly subconscious process. I am trying to make some sort of point about something that makes itself known to me. Everything I see around me can support that, in any given number of ways, whether it's an event in nature, an injury, a conversation I overhear, or one I make up. Somebody's outfit. It all contributes. I have the same experience writing novels as I do in short stories, of sometimes thinking, what am I talking about this for? And at the same time knowing, subconsciously, it's because “this” knows that later on I'm going to be doing something else. More than anything else for me, in writing, is…you have to have trust. You have to let it go and trust it. The thing that can be really dangerous for writers, I think, is to linger too long on what you've just said. Is this sentence exactly right? Can I craft this in a better way? Just go. The more you can loosen up and trust that the process will take you there, the more fun it is and oftentimes—for me, at least—the better your work.

BS: Technical aspects of writing aside, don't you find that being “in process” is like having an alternate life? That writing novels allows you to live more than one life?

EB: Yes. But of course the danger is that you're too much in your other life and you're not quite present in your real life. Which is a real problem I have. I'm always drifting off, thinking about something else. Like, my partner tells me something and I have no memory of it. I think I've probably had that problem all my life, paying attention.

BS: Interesting, since a good novel pays attention to life in a way that allows it to make a real difference in the way readers see the world.

EB: When I look back I see certain patterns [in my work]. What I see over and over again is the message of affirmation. It's really hard to be here, but it's always worth it. There's always greater good. I think that one of the most rewarding things for me as a writer has been people saying, “Your books helped me.” Get through my friend's breast cancer. Or my divorce. [One reader] took a trip after she read The Pull of the Moon. She got a journal and she got in her car and she left. She was this really short lady with this helmet hairdo. She came up [after a reading] and she said, “I got a journal, I got my hair done, I'm hittin' the road.” I wanted to go with her.

BS: How do you get to the final version of a novel, one that has the power to inspire a reader to change her life? Do people read for you as you go along, or at the end? How do you look at what you've got to decide if it's right?

EB: I used to be in a writers' group, so that was people reading as I went along. Now I'm not. My writers' group was in Boston, and I've moved since then. So now I just do it by myself. But sometimes I'll ask my best friend to read little pieces here and there. Or, in the case of the last book, I actually gave it to a person who's not a writer but a really, really good reader. If you give it to a writer, they'll say, “Oh, I'd do it this way.” They have too many ideas.

BS: Is there a writing routine you like to keep?

EB: Just the Monday through Friday thing. But one thing that happens when you achieve some level of success is that you're asked to do all these other things. You're sent all these galleys! It takes you away from the ease with which you can just get lost in a project. You get a lot of things pulling at you. It's been a long time, it seems, since I've been able to do my usual routine. One of the reasons I don't like to go off and do talks very often is that there's the preparation for it, there's the fly day, there's the event day. Then you have to come back. You unpack. You end up wasting a week. It's like neglecting a lover. If you don't stay with [a book] and nurture it along, it kind of hangs its head.

BS: What about revision?

EB: I tend to be a linear writer. I start at the beginning and go to the end. The only revisions I do are when I start the day's work: I read what I did the day before and edit that. When I'm through with the whole thing, I'll go through it again. But I don't throw out whole chunks or rearrange things. They'd probably be better books if I did. But I'm too lazy. I like to get on to the next thing.

BS: Do you have any advice for writers who dream of achieving the kind of success you've achieved with your books?

EB: Try to honor their original voice as much as possible. It becomes increasingly difficult as you become embroiled in the publishing business. But we really need new original voices. We don't need people trying to copy other people. I think there is a kind of freshness that happens with first drafts, for example. I think a lot of people overwork their material. I have a friend who's a fabulous writer, but she goes too far with editing. She'll never finish anything. She just keeps changing it and changing it and changing it until it's lost its original spark.

BS: O.K. Here's an off-the-wall question to end with. You've been interviewed so many times. Is there a question nobody ever asks that you'd love to have the opportunity to answer?

EB: [Laughs]. I do have a really big recipe collection and nobody ever asks me for a recipe.

BS: Elizabeth, would you tell “Other Voices” one of your favorite recipes?

EB: Yes! This is so excellent, you won't believe it. I gave it to my girlfriend who's a gourmet cook and she makes it about nine times a week. Get a chicken. Get some Kosher salt. Three tablespoons. Squeeze a whole bunch of garlic into the salt, till it's kind of a paste. Rub it on the inside and the outside of the chicken. Get two or three lemons and stick them full of holes. It's very good when you're feeling aggressive. Stick them inside the cavity and then put a cup of water in the bottom of the pan. Put the chicken on a rack. I roast it at 350 so I can smell it a long time. Let it get really brown on the outside. What happens is—oh, I'm drooling! The water makes the skin really crispy and the lemon just sort of saturates. The best part is, the sauce on the bottom becomes this kind of gravy and you dip the chicken in there. And, girl!