Author Elizabeth Berg Shares the Stories behind Her Stories
March 19, 2010
By Susan Shinn, Special Correspondent;
Elizabeth Berg finds effortless joy in writing.
Berg was speaker for the 24th Annual Brady Author's Symposium, held March 18 in Catawba College's Keppel Auditorium. Members of local book clubs, the Brady family, Catawba staff and residents from Rowan County and beyond enjoyed a luncheon afterward in the college's Peeler Crystal Lounge. Berg further shared insights at an informal Q&A session later in the afternoon.
In introducing Berg, who lives in Chicago, Dr. Janice Fuller described her 21 books as beautifully crafted snow globes — in which her characters are trapped in a state of inertia for political, physical or psychological reasons. Berg's newest novel, "The Last Time I Saw You," will be published April 6.
Berg began her remarks with compliments. "I love to come to the South because you guys have manners," she said. She went on to praise the beautiful red dirt, barbecue and unmatched hospitality.
Berg called reading an interactive art form — one in which the reader's imagination completes the book. This is sometimes why movies based on books do not work well — they are not our own interpretation of a well-loved book.
Berg said writing is like "being in heaven. It is a special place to be. You just feel great." Writers choose details, she said, that "glitter and gleam."
Berg took a circuitous route to becoming a writer. Along the way, she was a "very bad waitress," a receptionist at a law firm, an actress in an improvisational group and a singer in a rock band. And, oh yeah, something about washing chickens in a hospital cafeteria.
When she was living in Minneapolis, in a "horrible, horrible apartment," she heard a neighbor being sick upstairs one night. Her instinct was to help, she said, "But after dark, you did well to just stay in."
That experience, however, convinced her to go into nursing, which she practiced for 10 years. She called nursing her school of writing. "If you really want to learn about human nature, go to nursing school," she said. At the time, however, her daughters were 4 and 9, and she wanted to stay home with them.
She decided to write essays for a magazine. She won an essay contest and went on to write for a variety of women's magazines, as well as The New York Times, before turning to fiction.
Her first novel, "Durable Goods," tells the story of a young girl's life as an Army brat. Berg's father was in the Army, and she and her sister were never allowed to cry when the family left a posting.
"You would have to hold in this sadness," she said. "It was almost unbearable. If you don't let that stuff out, it will come out in another way." She began writing fiction, she says, because there was so much she wanted to explore in her past experiences. But she did not want to hurt her father's feelings, either. She sent her mother 90 pages of the novel to read. "If you didn't publish this," her mother said, "you would hurt your father more than if you did."
Berg wanted to make sure her father understood how fiction works — when a fact of a truth is transformed into a dream of a truth, she said. It was awkward at first, she admitted. But she ended up having some good conversations with her sister — they talked about things they never had before — and she and her dad came to understand one another, too.
Berg shared thumbnail sketches of many of her titles.
Her newest novel, "The Last Time I Saw You," is about a 40th high school reunion.
She said it was effortless and a lot of fun to write. "The characters took over," she said. "It was all I could do to keep up with them."
During the Q&A session, Berg talked about specific characters in her novels, and her best friend Phyllis. They became friends when Berg was 19. When Berg turned 60, her friend presented her with a collection of Berg's letters and had taken special pains to decorate them with drawings, collages, ribbons and the like.
Berg appreciated all the work that had gone into the gift, but reading the letters again ... not so much.
"It wasn't you, it was me," she told Phyllis. Then they had another drink and kept on celebrating.
Berg still writes for magazines from time to time. A travel editor told her she could go anywhere she wanted, so Berg has an article about a cooking school in Italy in the current issue of National Geographic Traveler.
Berg was asked about her writing techniques. She typically writes in her pajamas for several hours a day, from first thing in the morning until she does not feel like writing anymore. She noted that every writer is different.
"What's most important is to discover what works for you," she said. "Take risks. Nobody has to see it before you're ready. Something for me as a reader that's thrilling is a writer who is not afraid. Writing should be joyful."
Berg praised writers' groups that offer honest but kind criticism. "When you read aloud to someone, it's a very good way to find things that are working and not working," she said.
Again, Berg used the word "joyful" to describe writing. "Getting what's in here out — nothing matches that feeling of satisfaction," she said. "You can always have that as a writer."
During the day, special tribute was paid to Alma Hedrick Brady, who with husband Charles gave a generous endowment to the event in 1991. Charles Brady died in 2007. Alma Brady died Jan. 8. Because she loved yellow roses, the tables were adorned with bouquets of these flowers, and each guest received a yellow rosebud to take home.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn is a full-time student at Catawba College.