Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Elizabeth Berg

As Marilyn and I crossed the street heading to Margaret Mitchell to hear Elizabeth Berg, Marilyn says, "I feel all literary."

Well, you know, I do too. Going to hear these authors has been a great addition to my retirement portfolio and listening to them read from and talk about their works -- inspiring.

Last night was one of those lovely spring nights in the South. As we drove downtown, the light was fading to pink, and with the sun-roof back, the Volvo at seventy and little traffic, we made it in twenty minutes -- until we got off at 10th street -- then it was another fifteen minutes to go twelve blocks.

The crowd at Margaret Mitchell was small -- not quite as Buckhead as the crowds for the other writers we had heard.

As we waited for Berg, Marilyn and I did a shoe inventory of the other members of the audience -- well, Marilyn did, I call shoes archaic things like slings, pumps, and flats -- Marilyn is more hip with terminology like wedges, Mou Mous, gladiators, and flip flops.

Marilyn: Look at those Grasshoppers.
Me: Where?
Marilyn: Her shoes -- my momma wears those.
Me: Oh, I was looking for insects.

It was a younger crowd -- women in their twenties seemed interested in Elizabeth Berg. When Berg approached the stage, dressed in a black suit with a crisp white shirt and black pumps (tee hee), she quipped, "I was back there with Scarlett and Rhett."


Then she proceeds to tell how she has read Gone with the Wind eight times. The first time was when she was seven years old, living in Germany, and managed to score a painful sunburn the first day of summer at the beach. She spent the next two days devouring her cousin's copy of GWTW.

BTW: I have read GWTW a whopping one time; unlike most Atlantans, I didn't see the movie as a child even though it played at Lowe's Grand for years. In fact, I think GWTW was always playing at a theater somewhere in Atlanta. My parents did not think it was a necessity to view the film -- LOL -- you know my mom and tv -- not sure that she felt any differently about film -- and therefore, they never took me to see it or encourage me too.

They weren't real Atlantans, my parents; they were transplants from other places. In 1974, I saw the movie for the first time in West Point, Alabama, in a theater with a tin roof, and it rained. In 1976, Metro-Goldwyn -Mayer released GWTW to cable, and then NBC showed it for the first time on regular television. Whew. I barely made that curve -- to be an Atlantan and not see GWTW at the theater! Oh no.

When the city of Atlanta decided to demolish Lowe's Grand, several friends of mine and I went downtown and took a brick. I have no idea what year that was --- or why I wanted a brick. Peer pressure?

I have it around her somewhere.

*looks for brick*

Blog readers: No one says "regular television."
Me: You got that right -- nothing "regular" about it any more.
Blog readers: I assume you stole that brick.
Me: Don't assume.


Berg's new novel, The Last Time I Saw You, is, as she puts it: "about reunions even though I have never been to a high school reunion since I am an Army brat."

Berg attended an American high school in Germany, but she said it was a place of transients -- students may attend six months, two years, or one year -- but no one completed all four years at this school.

At one point in the 1980s, some alumni from the American school organized a type of reunion that included thirty years of high school attendance at this school. The festivities held in, of all places, Texas, and she said, "I went in order to see a guy on whom I had a huge crush. I bought a dress, had my hair done, and then when I met up with him, he was a huge bore. It was like a nose dive into an open pool."

More laughter.

She also told us about another crush she had in college on a guy "that made [her] mad he was so good-looking." She said she finally got up the nerve to pass him a note in class full of "pithy Bob Dylan lyrics" since she knew he was a fan. He passed them back to her "corrected" since she got some of the lyrics wrong. She said, "I nourished this crush through college," and then met up with him again -- and he was "old, bald, and fat," but had "changed a lot on the inside and outside --- he had become a different man."

This is how Berg handled her audience -- with little glimpses into her before she launched into reading from The Last Time I Saw You.

After the reading, she took questions.

Why does she write?

"For different reasons -- sometimes to explore, understand, or celebrate an issue -- but other times, characters walk into her head and start yakking."

"Writers are empathetic. They understand how something might feel and they wonder about it."

How does she write?

"I write with characters. I don't like to know what's gonna happen -- I just like to follow them where they lead me. I have tried to have a certain ending, but it never works."

"I write linear."

"Some of my characters never leave me. The other day I passed a duplex that I used in a novel as a model of the house I wanted for my character to live. I fully expected to see her there."


How long does it take her to write a novel?

"On average, one a year -- I'm not on a timetable."

What is her approach to a writing day?

"I write as long as I feel like it. I write in a gray chair, facing a blank wall. If I look out the window, I may be distracted by a good-looking dog."

"I write when I feel like it -- and I am a lazy boss."

Who are her favorite writers?

"Alice Munro -- a woman who writes with a deep human understanding -- and E.B. White for his humor, his clarity, and his politics."

Do you take ideas about stories from others?

"Nope. I don't' wanna be sued -- but I did write a story inspired by a girl I met who told me about her mother who raised three children --- after being diagnosed with polio when she was nine months pregnant. Her husband left her -- and she lived the rest of her life in an iron lung."

What was your first vocation?

"I was a nurse. I learned a lot about human nature from observing the ill. The ill don't play games-- they are unguarded -- they know what matters. Nursing was my writing school."

Elizabeth Berg was a delight to listen to. I have read several of her novels -- Durable Goods, Talk Before Sleep, and What We Keep.

She's worth the time, if you got it.

BTW: You know I got it. Right? Time.


Marilyn: That was a long one. I nodded off.
Me: *twirls* You gotta read to the end -- you just never know whose name might pop up.


  1. In my retirement, maybe I can be your fact checker. Cable in 1976? Are you sure? UHS perhaps, but cable? What was cable in 1976?

  2. I'd love for you to be my fact checker ... but cable was HBO and Showtime, wasn't it?

    You were like 12 in 1976, weren't you?

  3. I always enjoy reading these posts. I should have gone to hear some of these author talks when I was living downtown. Oh wait, I had no time! I think your commentary on the author chats is pretty entertaining too!

  4. My mom forced us to watch GWTW, and we're not even from Georgia. LOL.