Oprah Book Club Author Elizabeth Berg Says Write First, Sell Second

Reading a book by Elizabeth Berg is a lot like having a heart-to-heart with a good friend. You alternately laugh and tear up at the most honest moments, and when it’s over, you feel a sort of renewed sense of what matters. A conversation with Berg on writing proves to be much the same. Her pure energy for the act of putting words to the page is so genuine, so real, you find yourself hoping it might transmit through the phone and settle comfortably in the creative region of your brain, where it might fix itself a cup of cocoa and stay awhile.

At 61 and looking ahead to the release of The Last Time I Saw You, her 19th novel, Berg is unassuming and easy to talk to in exactly the way her books are unpretentious, even chatty. She’s a writer who claims she can’t teach writing, despite having not only done just that, but written a book on the craft: Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True. “I don’t feel comfortable teaching,” she protests. “I always feel like, Go do whatever you want to do!

That might not be such bad advice: It seems to work for Berg, who’s adamant about writing from the gut rather than for the marketplace—and whose books are no strangers to The New York Times bestseller list. Berg worked as a registered nurse for 10 years before she won a writing contest and began freelancing for magazines. A decade later she released her debut novel, and her career built momentum the old-fashioned way, book by book, until 2000, when her eighth novel, Open House—about a woman who decides to open her home to boarders after her husband abruptly leaves her and their young son—splashed onto the scene as an Oprah Book Club selection. Despite having achieved the holy grail of contemporary writers, she still cites the sale of her first novel as her career highlight: “That was just such a miracle.”

Critics and readers differ in how to best define her work: Some feel it’s “literary” or “mainstream,” others “women’s fiction.” Defying labels at a pace of about a book a year, the prolific author has built a following while continuing to experiment in new forms, including her recent short-story collection The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted.

Here, with her trademark good humor, she explains her uninhibited process, discusses the magic of Oprah and shares her nursing-inspired remedy for writer’s block.

You write a lot about people whose lives just didn’t quite turn out the way they thought they would. Why do you think those stories resonate with people?
We’re such imperfect beings. I think that’s more often the case than not. One of those great life lessons I think is making due with what we’ve got. We all long for things we don’t have, and I think grace is everywhere in the way that people not only come to terms but really love different circumstances than they predicted.

You’ve said you find it best to let the story tell you, rather than planning things out in advance. What sparked the idea for this book?

You know, I just started writing about this Dorothy character, and she was so absurd but so highly entertaining to me. I wanted to follow her, and it turned out she was going to a high school reunion. So, I was more interested in these characters than I was the reunion itself, but it became a book about a 40th high school reunion.

Are you often surprised by where stories take you?
I am, and that’s part of the mystery and the joy. I never want to know. To me, it would be like doing homework, it would be so boring, if I knew what was going to happen. So, I’m kind of like the reader everyday. I go into my study, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. And it’s exciting, you know?

A lot of your characters seem in some way empowering—whether they’re finding a strength they didn’t know they had, or coming to terms, as you said earlier, with difficult situations with grace. Do you ever set out to empower readers with a story, or with a character?

You know, in the most self-protective of ways, I don’t think about the reader when I’m writing—I just think about the story. After it’s done, I think a lot about the reader, and I’m like any other writer: I’m not unaware of what’s said about books; I’m very happy when they’re praised, and my feelings are hurt when they’re denigrating. But in the end, always, and I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times: If you’re going to be a writer, you need to write what’s in your heart and soul, and let the chips fall where they may.

Let’s say you try to accommodate this imaginary reader, and you produce a work that you’re not particularly happy with. That will always stay with you, that you didn’t write what was true for you. Whereas if you do write what’s true for you, and someone doesn’t like it—well, you know, that stings for a minute, but it goes away.

So you don’t ever have any sort of intended effect, or purpose with your stories? Because The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted made me really hungry—I was craving chocolate the whole time I was reading it!
[Laughing] Sorry! Yeah, I know, and feeling ever so able to do it, and like you’ve been given permission, right?

I know—I stand here now about eight pounds up because I just went through another one of those “It’s OK!” things. It’s all about me, you know? [Laughs.] I get a lot of letters from people saying, “How did you know this about me?” It’s because we’re alike.

When I first began writing, I had an editor at a magazine who said, “Oh, you have the common touch.” She meant it as a compliment—she meant that many people would be able to relate to the things I was saying. And I think that that has continued.

You’re writing is so conversational. Do you think of it as a conversation you’re having with your characters while you write?

I guess I’m drawn to a conversational tone in real life, and I’m drawn to it in the things that I read, and I enjoy doing it in writing. I particularly enjoy outright dialogue—I love hearing what these people are going to say to each other. And again, I don’t know what they’re going to say to each other. I feel like I’m the eavesdropper, the person who transcribes what these characters say.

I love to listen to people talk, especially when they’re being really honest and they’re not trying to sound any particular way. You know, a conversation on the El or in an airplane. I love when I sit in front of people who are chat-chat-chatting away.

You’ve said Durable Goods was never meant to have a sequel, but you started wondering what Katie was up to. Do all of your characters become real to you in that way?

I have to say they do. When I lived in Boston, I had an office that I rented because I found it wonderful to go away from my house to work: It was so quiet, and I couldn’t go to the refrigerator or do the laundry. And everyday I would walk past this duplex, and it became the place where Laney in Range of Motion lived. I saw her living there with her neighbor Alice next door. And long after the book was published—I mean, I’d published a few since then—I walked past that house one day and realized that I actually thought she was in there, and was kind of looking for her. So yeah, they do become real.

Is it hard not to become attached to them?
Oh, I am attached to them. And just because the book ends doesn’t mean that my attachment to them ends. I still think about characters and sometimes I—this sounds awful to say, but I draw inspiration from my own characters. You know, What would Laney do? Do you think she’d be sitting here bitching about this? No! She wouldn’t!

I’m sure your readers feel that way about a lot of your books, too.
I think readers feel that way about a lot of books—not just mine, of course. Isn’t that one of the great pleasures of reading? You enlarge your life in so many ways.

There seems to be a bit of you in many of your characters. Does that happen organically, or is it something you consciously set out to do?

It’s organic and I think it’s inevitable, especially when you have a lot of books, that you reveal yourself in your characters. It’s not something I ever intend to do, but one can only make up so much, and then you start drawing on yourself, I suppose.

In describing the inspiration for 2009’s Home Safe, you said you were dealing with some difficulty writing for the first time ever. Would you say you’ve made a full recovery?
Yeah—oh, that was murder. It was murder.

What did the process of writing that book teach you about creativity?
That book let me explore on paper some of the mystery of creativity and the process of writing in a way I’d not thought of it before, or certainly not articulated before. I did feel as though I came back to writing in that book—otherwise, I’d never have been able to write it.

My favorite part of the book is the very end when [the writer] starts imagining a character who’s walking to a bookstore and she sees her so clearly—she sees her earrings, and her scarf, and her coat—and she knows how she walks, and she knows what’s in her refrigerator, and it all comes to her. And that’s how it usually comes to me, and it was not coming, for such a long time.

I think in retrospect I was just exhausted. I was really tired, and I needed to just stop. And I felt panicked at the notion, and I felt bereft without my beloved, you know, entertainment. I really did go down and apply for a job at Anthropologie.

[Laughing] You didn’t get hired, I take it?
I didn’t get hired at Anthropologie! [Laughs.] I didn’t quite fill the bill, I guess.

So you say in retrospect you needed a break, but then it also sounds like writing through it was what helped you.
Exactly. It’s almost a paradox. As a former nurse, the analogy that occurs to me is somebody who has to get physical therapy after an injury: It hurts, but you have to hurt to get better. You just have to keep it up and break through to the point where it doesn’t hurt anymore.

You used to be in a writing group—are you still?
I’m not now, no. I was in a writers group for a long time in Boston and we remain close. In fact, we’re talking about resuming that group, though on a monthly rather than a weekly basis. My grandchildren live in Boston and I do try to go there once a month, so it would be a more erratic schedule, but I’m hoping that we can get it together.

What do you think the friendship and support of other writers can do for an aspiring writer?
Well, we know each other’s miseries. We understand things about each other that other people might not. Nobody but another writer understands that when you’re writing, if you get interrupted, it’s not like baking cookies. You don’t just pick up where you left off. It’s so fragile. It’s so fragile. It’s this little cobwebby thing in your brain. … It’s very, very hard to explain to someone—I think they think you’re being awfully pretentious. But it’s a little bit like doing brain surgery. [Laughs.] I mean, you’re busy!

What’s the hardest thing about writing a story for you, when the words are flowing easily?
It’s not hard for me. It’s so joyful. It’s so much fun.

You hear so many successful writers talk about the agony of writing.
Sometimes I think people say that to keep the competition down. [Laughs.] “No, no, you don’t want to do this!” I feel the opposite. I feel like we are in such need of fresh voices, and I worry sometimes that emerging writers pay a little too much attention to what other people say.

If I could say anything to aspiring writers, it’s to keep your own counsel, first and foremost. There’s nothing wrong with listening to what other people have to say, and I used to be one of your readers who would gaze longingly at those pictures of people who are published and think, Oh man, what must it be like? But there is something inside of a person that makes them be a writer in the first place. That’s a strong and true thing. And you can have your head turned very easily by the business of writing. It’s so important to keep it church and state—keep it separate. The process of writing and creating and answering that very unique call inside yourself has nothing to do with agents and sales and all that stuff. I can tell you as someone who’s enjoyed a lot of success in my career that nothing matches the feeling you have when you get it right on the page, when you please yourself in that very intimate way: That’s always the best thing, no matter what happens. For me it is, anyway.

I know you’ve said you were lucky that when you started you actually didn’t know how hard it could be.
Right, I was a dope! I knew nothing. And if I’d been told, “Oh, this is so hard and awful,” I would have thought, eh, you know, being a nurse isn’t bad!

For writers who do feel painfully aware of the odds stacked against them, what would you say to them?
Your mission should not be to be a bestselling author. Your mission should be to answer the call and to write in the best way you can what you need to write. First do the work, then think about where you’re going to sell it.

I saw where Augusten Burroughs has said of you, “If she had a penis, she’s be John Updike”—
I love that quote! I’ve been wearing a penis ever since! [Laughs.] He is so dear. He’s a fan, he’s unabashedly a fan, and he’s done a log of nice things for me. When he does appearances, people say, “So what’s up with Elizabeth Berg?”

How would you like to be seen by your writing peers?
I would like people to find reading me to be a pleasure and to be a little surprising. There are writers I admire so much—my goodness, you’re just blown away when you read them, and I don’t feel that I do that. But what I do think I can do is make people feel at home, in a kind of metaphysical way, feel understood and comforted. I’m all about comfort. I wasn’t a nurse for nothing! I think in many ways I’m still being a nurse, only now I’m doing it through writing. I’m interesting in healing, obviously. And that’s what I concentrate on.

Also, I want to be fun to read. I think we need to have fun in our lives! So I have fun writing and I hope that people have fun reading it. I don’t mind making people cry—I think it’s good to cry, you release stress hormones when you cry. But I want to make people laugh, too. And I think that’s the essential balance in life, tears and laughter. That’s what it’s all about here on planet Earth.

What do you think being chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection has meant to your career? Do you think it had a lasting impact?
I do. I so appreciate what she does for books and reading. The numerical miracle of Oprah is that I would estimate that I was selling around 30,000 copies of a book when it came out at that point. And slowly each time I would sell more, and I was kind of proud of that. And when people would say, “How come Oprah doesn’t pick you?” I would say, “You know, I’m doing all right. It’s going up each time.” But, man oh man, when they called, I was a happy girl. I think Open House sold 500,000, so that’s what she does.

What people don’t understand, I think, is that when you are picked for the Oprah Book Club, what people buy is not you. They’re buying what Oprah tells them to. It doesn’t mean that every book you write afterward will sell 500,000 copies, believe me.

Afterward, was there a spike?
There was a spike, but not like that. And you know, if you were to say to someone, “Can you name three titles that Oprah picked?” they might not be able to do it. They don’t particularly remember the name of a book or an author, and particularly an author. The point is just that it’s Oprah, it’s not you, so you’re back to having to prove yourself.

What would you say has been your career highlight?
Oh, the first sale of the first novel. That was just such a miracle. It was so—I was a shy, dorky kid who had so much in my heart that I wanted to share, and my way to do that was with writing. I never dreamed that I’d be able to do it.

What do you feel about the label “women’s fiction”?
Well, I wonder why there isn’t a comparable one for men. The term “chick lit” I really dislike. I think in the end it’s a pejorative term, and a dismissive term. I think that there’s a lot of crap written by women and men. There are a lot of books that, for me, are very unsatisfying to read either because the language is not rich or because the story is trite. So, there are good books and there are not so good books. …

There’s still sexism and we all know it—and I think that that’s reflected in literature, too. I think women by and large tend to be taken less seriously. There needs to be mutual respect of the sexes, and it hasn’t happened yet.

Aspiring writers are always told to read the kinds of books they’d like to write. How do you read like a writer?

You know, I try not to read like a writer, and I find that my editorial self is intruding more often than I would like it to. I have experiences where I’m reading something and I’ll say, oh, the editor told her to do that. It just seems like it, you know? I think that sometimes editors underestimate readers. We get, as readers, a lot more than they might think we do. But I want to read like a reader. I want to get lost in a book. I don’t want to think about what a writer is doing here, or how this technique works particularly well in this instance. I want to be my 9-year-old self in a corner with a book absolutely lost in a story.

You mentioned editing: What’s the process of working with an editor like for you?
I adore my editor. I had an affair with another publisher for three books and then I went back to my marriage with Random House. It’s tempting at certain times in your career to explore other places, but I’m very happy with my editor, she and I care deeply about each other. She’s a very elegant person, and I can be tacky. [Laughs.] And I have to make sure that I don’t get too tacky. So, she’s good with that.

When you write something you’re very protective of it and you think, that’s it, that’s what I want to say. And then to have somebody interfere, make these suggestions, it can be irritating, and it can be—you know, you thought you were done with that, you thought you were perfectly clear with that, and here we go again. But I have to say that for the most part, because I do love writing, I look upon editorial suggestions as opportunities. And they really can enrich the material.

Do you ever think you’ll write another book like Escaping Into the Open?
It’s funny you should say that because I was thinking about that just the other day. I got a card from a reader that had a quote on the cover of the card about giving back.

I wrote Escaping Into the Open because I needed a place to put down everything I knew and believed about writing. I had fun writing it, and I hoped that it would be comfortable and warm and inspire people to do things. And I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten letters from people who have told me that in fact it did do that. So I was thinking about doing something else that would help some more.

What do you think you’re still learning about writing?
I think I’m still learning that first and foremost you have to trust. You have to trust the process. You just have to take a freefall into the unknown and let it happen. And when you have had a number of books published and enjoyed a certain amount of success, it can be hard to do that church/state separation that we were talking about before. You have to treat every book like it’s the first one, and let it be a little dangerous.

What do you hope people will say about your body of work years from now?
Oh, I hope they’ll say, Oh, that Elizabeth! Oh, that woman with a penis! [Laughs.] I hope they’ll regard me with some affection and if something I wrote helped them out in some way that would be very pleasing to me.

This article appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.

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