Best-selling author Elizabeth Berg (“Durable Goods,” “Tapestry of Fortunes”) is the Oak Leaves' guest editor for the May 8 issue, and she took the job seriously. Sure, she had her dog write a story, but she also assigned stories (marked as “Editor’s Choice”) on an environmental activist and what people want to see in town.
Berg, an Oak Park transplant and former nurse, has enjoyed a successful second career as a novelist. Oprah Winfrey chose Berg’s “Open House” for her book club in 2000, which helped the author plant roots here and buy a house.
Below, Berg champions local theater, talks about her writing process, the book she had to shelve and why her forthcoming novel on George Sand was the hardest to write. You can listen to the entire exchange by finding “The Big Questions” on iTunes, YouTube or SoundCloud.
Q: As our guest editor, what was your focus?
Elizabeth Berg: Well, my dog wrote a piece for the paper about dog parks, or lack thereof. I typed it for her.
I wanted the focus of the newspaper that I edited to be on Oak Park: who lives here, what are they doing, what are they thinking? What do other people think we can do to make this an even better community than it already is? And I wanted in particular to ask little kids that. There are people doing really interesting, creative and optimistic things here. So I wanted to go inside people’s houses in a way.
Q: The charities you chose to champion are also local theaters.
Berg: Yeah, there’s one in particular I’d like to focus on, which in fact is not in Oak Park, but it’s in Berwyn.
It’s called the 16th Street Theater, and the reason I am so crazy about it is because of the woman who started it, Ann Filmer. She had a child and needed some land, needed more of a child-friendly house and life, and so they moved to Berwyn, which was affordable. And she said, “Well, I’m going to start a theater here.”
They do provocative things. They do world premieres of plays there. There’s a social conscience there. She built it up from nothing into a really reputable theater.
Q: Might you want to contribute a play?
Berg: I did! I wrote a book called “The Pull of the Moon,” which is about a woman who is going through menopause, and she just leaves. And the novel alternates between journal excerpts that she makes and letters that she writes to her husband at home. Actually, one of the best reviews it got was by a man, no less, who said, “This is not about a woman getting lost, but a person finding home.”
Q: Did that drive you do something original just for the stage?
Berg: I would love to do that. I really love theater. You go to the Art Institute and your spirit just soars and you read a good book and your spirit just soars, but for me, the most pleasurable art form is theater. I just love it. And the idea and the actuality of having actors say the words I wrote was really thrilling. I went to all the performances. It was very unnerving for the lead — “Oh my God, the playwright’s here again.”
Q: You were born in Minnesota, but what brought you to live Oak Park?
Berg: When I was married, I lived in Evanston, I think it was in ’77 and ’78.
I just felt like I was creatively turned on — not in terms of writing at that time, I was a nurse. But I took art classes and I took guitar lessons and … I loved it. And I was only here for a year, and then I got divorced and I met someone who was from here.
I don’t want to live in the city. I want to have a garden and I love neighborhoods. I say this all the time I’ve lived here — almost 15 years now — I tell everyone that this community has everything. You can walk everywhere you need to go. Oak Park has everything except a good dog park.
Q: You’ve also used Oak Park as research material. You came to my twins’ preschool. Can you tell me what that was for?
Berg: I was writing a novel about a nursery school teacher who has retired from her job teaching, and she’s a spinster, and so I wanted a real feel of what it was like to be in a nursery school classroom, and they were kind enough to let me come. And it was so enchanting, I have to say. If you are ever in a bad mood, go and spend the morning in a nursery school and you’ll be just fine.
The novel is not published and probably will not be. It’s on the shelf. I think I called it, “This Side of Life,” but yes, a lot of things came out of that experience in terms of what children said and how they hold themselves.
Q: It’s interesting what you said about the book going on a shelf — but that’s not uncommon. If I remember right, didn’t “Open House” go on the shelf for five years before you resurrected it?
Berg: It’s certainly common among writers. It was not particularly common for me. But at the time I wrote the one about the nursery school, there were things I wanted to do in that book that my editor was not particularly comfortable with. Usually we are really in sync. And I didn’t feel like making any accommodation in that direction, so I put it aside.
Q: I am also interested in your writing process. Looking at your bibliography, there’s a book every year. That’s an amazing pace.
Berg: First of all, I don’t like the book-a-year label. It was not an aspiration. It is what happened. I never set out to write a book a year and I’m suspicious of people who do.
I think the driving force needs to be something besides sales and marketing. That is just something that happened. And there was such a pent up force in me for writing. I always wrote, even as a little kid. I sent out a poem to be published when I was nine and it was rejected. And then I didn’t send anything out for 25 years, because they hurt my feelings. So, I always had the need to write. That’s how I come to understand the world, that’s how I figure things out — on the page.
But I find now I’m 65 years old, I’m thinking about a lot of things. About what I want to do going forward. Carole King went to her play in New York, and someone asked her about writing more and she said, “I think I have said what I want to say.” And I might be getting to that point. That said, I changed gears with the last book I did and I wrote a novel about George Sand [“The Bird Lover,” out next spring], which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Q: There was no lack of opinions about George Sand. She dressed like a man. She had famous lovers, including Chopin. Why pick her in the first place?
Berg: I called Nancy Horan, who wrote “Loving Frank” and used to live in Oak Park, and who was in my writers group, and I said, “Nancy, you have to write a book about George Sand. She’s so interesting.”
She said, “You write it!” … and I thought, “No I can’t, I can’t, but I want to read it.” And I think that that’s a really good prompt for a writer — a really good impetus. If you want to read the book, and it’s not there, then write it. So that’s what I did.
And you feel an enormous sense of responsibility. Where is the line between what you create and what you re-represent on the page with historical fiction? Rather than some historical fiction, which is an imaginative presentation of someone’s life, it’s pretty much fact-based. I extrapolated a lot and I wanted to present my dream of her, in a way.
Even if I’m admitting that so much of this is made up, I still feel a certain sense of responsibility to a person who actually lived. And there is not the same kind of flight of fancy when I usually write a novel — I don’t plot and I don’t know where I’m going.
If I try to hold onto it, or shape it or get in the way too much, it dries up. So, it sounds woo-woo to say it, but it’s a kind of disengagement of the mind, so that the spirit can take over. And it’s easy, it’s effortless, it always has been. Not the George Sand book. If people don’t buy that book, I’m going to kill myself. [laughs]
Q: We’ll be holding our breath until next spring.
Berg: You’ll be blue.
Q: I wanted to double back to ask about your process. So do you make yourself sit down for eight hours a day? Do you have an office?
Berg: I have an office. I don’t make myself do anything, because it doesn’t work for me. Inevitably the question comes up, “What advice would you give to aspiring writers?”
And my advice, the most important thing I can say to people is, “to listen to yourself.” Because every writer is different. It’s like asking, “How do you fall in love?” or “What makes you love someone?” It’s different for everyone. It’s very personal. It’s very deep and you have to respect it or it’s not going to work.
So some writers, like Ann Patchett, she imagines the whole book before she ever starts to write it. I know nothing when I am starting to write it, with the exception of George Sand. When I am making characters up, I don’t know anything, and I have to not know anything or I get bored. So, I write almost every day when I’m working on a novel, because I want to. And if I don’t want to, if I don’t feel it, it’s not going to happen. It doesn’t work for me to say you have to write six pages today, you have to write X number of words.
Q: Which is the Hemingway way.
Berg: Anne Lamott puts her butt down in the chair and she doesn’t get up, and she advises other people to do the same. I advise you to do that if it works for you, but to be open to the fact that it may not. That you need to discover your own ways of working. So, that’s how I work. I go in there and see what happens. And in some ways I’m like a reader and a writer at the same time. Because I’m discovering as I go along, not presenting what I already knew.
People also often ask the question, “How do you know when it is the end?” and for me it just sort of clunks in like a gear or something. And sometimes I’m surprised. Sometimes I think, “Oh, OK, so that’s why this happened,” and then I go back and see how the arc was created and... that’s a really great, magical feeling. Then you really do feel like it is that other thing that is writing for you. So, that’s how I do it.
Then it goes from my office into the marketing and publicity and all that — the teeth of the machinery —and then it becomes a different thing altogether. I think you really have to keep that separate when you’re writing. You know that yourself as a writer, no doubt. If you start thinking about, who’s going to read this? How will it be marketed? How will it sell? It’s poison.