Midwinter is a sickly time in the Midwest and thus it was that Elizabeth Berg and I talked over the phone, both of us coughing and sounding congested. Berg admitted to being sick for the previous week and said that the only good part of it was that she had had some extra time to read.
I have seen Berg twice before at Unity Temple and her charm and quirky world view shine through in personal appearances. On the phone she was patient and forthcoming, despite obviously not feeling her best. Berg will be appearing again on April 12 at Unity Temple to talk about her newest release, Once Upon a Time There Was You.
She described this book as a look at why people make the decisions they do. She said the book opens with the main characters having serious second thoughts about the marriage they are planning. Both parties have reservations about the suitability of the partnership but they go ahead anyway and then end up divorced. Circumstances later bring them together and the book looks at the choices they make, why they make them and what the reader can learn from them.
Berg said that forgiveness is a theme in the book and acknowledged that forgiveness is a theme that she often returns to in her writing. She is interested in how we relate to one another and how we learn about life, truth and forgiveness from one another.
She said that to her, forgiveness is most important to the person doing the forgiving. She believes it liberates the forgiver, which is why it is important to do it. I asked her if there were some actions she might find too heinous to forgive. She hesitated for a minute and then said, no, she thought that forgiveness is not dependent upon the act or the actor but on the victim. She added that forgiveness doesn’t sanction the act, but releases the victim from the power of the perpetrator. I am anxious to read this new book to see how she works out this theme in the narrative.
I asked her about her writing process. Berg has published a book for other writers called Escaping into the Open: the Art of Writing True that discusses her approach to writing. She said that she typically works on one major project at a time. She might do something small, like an article for a magazine but when she working on a book, she concentrates on that alone. She writes when she first gets up in the morning for about two to three hours.
On her website, Berg talks about food and recipes and she clearly is interested in food. I asked her if she had other hobbies, like traveling. She said that she used to dislike traveling and when she was offered a writing gig working for National Geographic that required a lot of travel she wasn’t excited about that part of it. She didn’t begin to enjoy travel until she traveled alone. Then she discovered that she has time for adventure and learning in a way that can’t happen when you have to consider the interests and needs of traveling companions. In fact, she is hosting a workshop in Italy this June and details about it can be found on her website: http://www.elizabeth-berg.net. Food and books in Italy sounds heavenly to me.
Berg has given voice to middle aged women in many of her books and that audience is appreciative of the humor and insight she brings to their struggles. Berg said that when she is out making appearances, it is highly energizing to meet her readers because they are warm and enthusiastic about the books. “Writing is a solitary job and it’s nice to find out that you’ve struck a chord with readers,” she observed.
I asked Berg if another writer or editor had given her extra assistance when she was first establishing her career. She has the reputation for being generous with other writers and I wondered if that was pay back--or pay forward. She said no, that she had not been given any help. She said she thought her attitude came from her career in nursing—the idea that “If I can help someone and it’s not going to cost me, why in the world wouldn’t I do it?”
She expanded that idea to include being respectful and kind when talking about other writers’ work. She said she thought that too often writers were critical of each other and indulged in professional sniping rather than supporting each other.
Berg describes herself as a compulsive reader. “Reading is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” she said. My sentiments exactly. At the time of the interview she was reading several books, among them, Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, which is a cooking memoir, The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain and Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick. She said that the written word, more than any other art form, feeds her imagination. She described how a well written sentence can inspire her and get her excited about an idea that might develop into something she will write about.
I’ve read five of Berg’s books, but didn’t realize the scope of her writing until I studied the 23 titles listed on her website. She has written two nonfiction titles and said that her next project will also be nonfiction. In addition, there is a trilogy about a young girl, Katie Nash, two collections of short stories and 16 stand alone novels. She has received several awards for her work, which is compassionate, wise, and wryly humorous. Her take on the human condition is rooted in reality but mainly devoid of cynicism and finger pointing. Her characters have flaws and sometimes serious imperfections but Berg does not condescend to them or to her readers. She seems to say that while we all have our less than stellar moments, we are still worthy of a warm smile and a cup of tea.
If you can’t see her at Unity Temple on April 12, do yourself a favor and pick up one of her books at the Book Table or the library. I promise you a satisfying read.