By Ken Trainor
"You have to do whatever is calling your name the loudest," says novelist Elizabeth Berg. At the moment, what's calling loudest is a writers series she's organizing. The "trial run" begins at 7 p.m., this Saturday, June 14 at the Arts Center of Oak Park auditorium, 200 N. Oak Park Ave., with Leah Hager Cohen, one of the best writers you might not have heard of.
"I always appreciate it when authors share who they like to read," Berg said at Marion Street Cheese Market recently over a pot of tea. She likes high tea, a throwback to old-fashioned elegance, and thinks the Cheese Market should offer it — as an event.
That's how Berg feels about the traditional author appearance. She wants to create a kind of "high reading."
"I've done hundreds of readings," she recalled, "and some were horrific, like the ones where the cappuccino maker was going off and there's no microphone. On the other hand, I've done readings that were so well planned. The audience was welcomed and given wonderful food and wine. It was a worthwhile event."
And to have a worthwhile event, you need a worthwhile author.
"Leah is gentle, compassionate and smart," says Berg. "She looks like Audrey Hepburn, so fragile and delicate looking, but she boxes. She did a book about it. When you look at her, you can't put the two together.
"I happened to be communicating with her because I had just read her latest novel, No Book but the World [The title comes from a quote by Rousseau: "There should be no book but the world"]. The ending is very, very moving, so I wrote her an email to say so, and we started chatting. I asked if she were coming here on tour. She said no, so I thought, 'I'm going to get her to come here. I'm going to do this myself.'"
Berg likes the idea of introducing an audience to a fine writer they might be unfamiliar with.
"If you're looking for a plumber," she said, "wouldn't you want a recommendation from another plumber? It's the same with a writer."
But she also wants this to be a more upscale event — with good food and wine (donated by Whole Foods) and a relaxed atmosphere.
"I wanted people to be able to come out and make a night of it," she said. "It could be a good date. Instead of going to some vacuous summer movie, you can actually get your brains stimulated. And then the next day you can go see the vacuous movie."
Oak Park, she believes, is the right setting for something like this.
"It's a wonderful walkabout town," she said. "I like the diversity of stores. We have Magic Tree and Book Table, both of which are wonderful bookstores, and there's a really cute used bookstore down on Oak Park Avenue by the Ale House. If you come early, there are so many restaurants you can choose from or you can go out after the reading."
Admission is just $10 and after the cost of the rental space is covered, the remaining proceeds will buy books for school libraries in struggling neighborhoods in the inner-city.
But there's more to this brainchild than an entertaining evening.
"I think people are beginning to worry more and more about our dependency on the screen," she observed, "the number of hours per day we're staring at a screen. This gets people away from those screens and out with like-minded people to engage creatively and intellectually, to be in that 'third space.' There's home, there's work, and there should be a third space where people can gather and talk with each other.
"People read a lot, but to be read to is an altogether different experience. We read to our children, but we very rarely read to each other. Something happens. Words are taken in in a richer, slower way."
At Writing Matters, there will be readings — and not just by the author. With each get-together, Berg hopes to have a child chosen from one of our local schools who will read an essay on why he or she loves reading. And, of course, the featured author will read enough to give the audience a sense of her style.
"But mostly," Berg said, "we will be talking about what made them the person they became. Why did they become an author?"
Cohen, for instance, has an unusual background.
"She was raised in a school for the deaf," Berg said. "She was a boxer. She crossed the country three times in a Greyhound bus. When you write a book, it stands by itself. It comes from the spirit and you don't even feel like you're writing it sometimes. The personality is separate from the work. Still, there's a kind of integration that has to be there. I think it's really interesting to have the writer explain how it happened."
All of which helps the reader understand a book. And Berg believes, "understanding a book helps us understand each other. When you read about characters who are not like you, you come to understand them even if you don't like them. I think that's really good for world peace.
"So I have big aspirations for all this," she said, laughing.
"It's a win, win, win, win situation. It's good for the audience, it's good for the author, it's good for the community, it's good for the school libraries. I love situations where everybody gets something."
Including Berg herself.
"You know how authors say, 'I wanted to read a book like this, so I wrote it'? I want to go to an event like this, so I organized it."
If the first one goes well, Berg plans to hold four per year, one per season. In September, she hopes to land Doug Cruickshank, a former editor at Salon who has written numerous books.
"In his late 50s," Berg said, "he had some kind of spiritual crisis. He sold or gave away everything, joined the Peace Corps, and went to Africa. He's also a fabulous photographer. He took a bunch of breathtaking pictures and wrote essays about being there. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, and it takes a lot for me to laugh out loud. Some are really poignant and some are really thought-provoking. The book is titled, Somehow – Living on Uganda Time. In Uganda, if you say, 'I'll see you next week,' they'll answer, 'Somehow.'
Berg is hoping he'll bring slides and make it a multimedia presentation.
She will also ask for suggestions from the audience on future events. Possibilities include a writing workshop, a "prose slam" for local writers, and perhaps an appearance by a literary critic.
"I'm very interested in critics," Berg said. "I have a lot of questions for critics. Why do you choose the books you review? What is the value of a review that just eviscerates an author as opposed to letting people know about a really good book?"
Always a writer
Berg has certainly been on the receiving end of her share of reviews. She's just finishing her 24th book, which will be out next spring. It's a departure for her — historical fiction about the writer George Sand (aka Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin).
It has been a very productive 21 years since her first book came out in 1993. Before she became a full-time writer, she worked as a nurse in Minnesota, California, Massachusetts, and Evanston.
"I always was a writer," she said, "but I never thought I would publish anything. There came a time when my daughters were 4 and 9, and I just did not want to leave them to go to work anymore, even though I was only working part time. So I was trying to think of something I could do at home because we needed the income.
"Teachers and friends said, 'You should be a writer.' I didn't know a thing about it, which was probably a good thing because if I'd known how hard it can be to get published, I probably would have said, 'Oh, forget it.' I went into it blindly. I just went out and bought magazines that I thought I could write essays for. At that time, 1985-'86, a lot of magazines were doing essays. That was a good time to break into the magazine business. You didn't need an agent. Just send it in.
"Then I got interested in fiction and started writing short stories. Then I got interested in novels. Now I'm old and winding down," she said, laughing.
She moved to Oak Park in December of 2000. Today, she is a "best-selling novelist," but it still hasn't really sunk in.
"It happened so gradually," she said. "I'm caught by surprise whenever someone says that." Nowadays, when she buys something and signs her name, people frequently ask, "Are you the author?"
She says it's like being on a "moving ride." Someday she may look back and say, "Wow, that was swell" (yes, she uses the word "swell"), but for now she's too focused to think much about it.
"People tell me things that are very meaningful," she said, "about what a book has meant to them. It's incredibly moving and who'd have thunk? I never did."
Being a published author is a two-sided career, she said. "You have to do the church-and-state thing. There's the creation of whatever you're writing, and then there's the editing and the marketing and the publicity and the touring and all that."
But writing doesn't feel like a job. "I face my desk against a wall because I don't want to be distracted. I just want to be in a cave." Her best writing time is morning. An early riser, she takes care of the dogs and cats and checks email, then gets busy.
Ideas have never been a problem.
"As soon as I finish one [book], another surfaces," she said, "usually before I finish." The book on George Sand, however, has been a much more difficult undertaking.
"So many of my books I wrote so easily," she said. "This one required far more give-and-take in the editorial process. But I am so proud of it. I don't usually say that. My editor was right. What I envisioned in the beginning was very different. Now I think it works."
And she may tackle another — or not.
"I have an idea for something that keeps coming back," she said, "and is just quietly standing at the door.
"You have to do whatever is calling your name the loudest."