John Berendt, author of the bestsellers Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels, told us about his former life in the fast-paced magazine world, which he likened to "standing in a stream trying to catch fish with your bare hands." He recalls, "I began to realize I wasn't getting very deeply into anything I was writing about. In order to get deeply -- to wallow -- in a topic, I knew I'd have to write a book."
"I like crazy people," John Berendt once told an interviewer for The Independent. "I encourage them, they make good copy."
They do indeed, if Berendt is writing about them. His first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which Berendt has called "a nonfiction novel," could be classified as a true crime story, or a travelogue, but it's also an absorbing collection of crazy people, cranks, eccentrics and oddballs, whose lives Berendt chronicles with as much detail as he devotes to murder suspect Jim Williams, ostensibly his main character.
As readers and critics have noted, the true "main character" of Midnight in the Garden is the city of Savannah, Ga., which enjoyed a tremendous boost in tourism as a result of what Savannahians now refer to simply as "the book."
Berendt started visiting Savannah in the early 1980s, flying in from New York, where he worked as a writer at Esquire. "All I did the first year," he later said in the London Daily Telegraph, "was take notes and interview, because I knew, the longer I was there, the less strange the whole thing would seem."
For Berendt, who once edited New York magazine, Savannah may have seemed strange at first, but in a fascinating way. As he explained in an Entertainment Weekly interview, "People in Savannah don't say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on her coat.' Instead, they say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on the coat that her third husband gave her before he shot himself in the head.'"
After gathering facts, gossiping with the locals and getting to know the city, Berendt shaped his experiences into a work Kirkus Reviews called "stylish, brilliant, hilarious, and coolhearted." Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil spent a record-setting four years on the New York Times bestseller list and sold 2.7 million copies in hardcover.
Not everyone adored it, however. In a controversy that perhaps anticipated author James Frey's troubles in the publishing world, some journalists wondered whether Berendt's embellishments were too numerous and substantial for the book to hold up as nonfiction. The book included an author's note explaining that Berendt changed the sequence of some events in the narrative.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became a fixture on bestseller lists and was made into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Some of the real people profiled in the book became minor celebrities in their own right -- most notably Berendt's drag-queen friend Lady Chablis, who played herself in the movie and later published an autobiography.
Readers wondered what Berendt would do for an encore, but the author was relatively slow to oblige them. It wasn't until more than ten years after the publication of his first book that Berendt released The City of Falling Angels, a portrait of Venice as experienced not by tourists, but by its year-round residents, who turn out to be as eccentric and weirdly compelling as the Savannahians of Midnight in the Garden. ("The man whose palazzo features three space suits and a stuffed monkey is par for the course," noted Janet Maslin in The New York Times Book Review.)
Though some critics thought Berendt's second book lacked the narrative pull of his first, many agreed that, as Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley put it, "The story of the Fenice fire and its aftermath is exceptionally interesting, the cast of characters is suitably various and flamboyant, and Berendt's prose, now as then, is precise, evocative and witty."
As Ann Godoff, Berendt's editor (first at Random House and now at Penguin Press), explained it, "By no means is this the same book. But nobody else could have written them both."
Good To Know
Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Behrendt:
"I never use an alarm clock. I have an internal mechanism that wakes me up when I want to wake up. I'm not sure how I developed this ability, or what its significance is. Anyhow, I always fall asleep secure in the knowledge that I will wake up within ten minutes of the desired time. And I always do.
"When I'm writing, I like to gain distance from my work so I can tell how it will strike a reader who is seeing it for the first time. I do this through a trick I devised while I was living in Savannah writing Midnight -- I would call my apartment in New York, the answering machine would pick up, I'd read the page of text I'd just written, then I'd hang up. A minute later, I'd call my apartment again and listen to the "message." Hearing my own voice reading the page over the phone -- my voice having traveled 1800 miles (900 each way ) -- gave me just the detached perspective I needed.
"On occasion, while I was working on Falling Angels, I used the same technique, ridiculous though it may sound; in this case the calls were from Venice to New York rather than from Savannah. Gay Talese says he achieves a similar detachment by tacking pages to the opposite wall and then reading them through binoculars. Whatever works."
"I had an early start in the world of books. I was hired at the age of fourteen as a stock boy at the Economy Book Store in downtown Syracuse. It was my first job. I worked after school every day for four hours and made ten dollars a week."
"I stay fit by exercising daily on a treadmill or a stationary bicycle for close to an hour. I'd be bored out of my mind doing this if it weren't for the fact that I watch movies at the same time. That way, time flies. I call it my Treadmill and Bicycle Film Festival. I've found that if I'm watching a thriller, my pace ratchets up a notch."
"My number-one hobby, my preferred means of unwinding, and my most often-used route of escape are all the same: reading. Nothing takes me out of myself faster or more completely than a good read. It relieves stress, lifts me out of a funk, and makes me feel I'm doing something worthwhile.