Anne Bernays is a novelist (including Professor Romeo and Growing Up Rich) and coauthor, with her husband, Justin Kaplan, of Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York. Her articles, book reviews and essays have appeared in such major publications as The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and The Nation. A longtime teacher of writing, she is coauthor, with Pamela Painter, of the textbook What If? Ms. Bernays currently teaches at Harvard's Nieman Foundation. She and Mr. Kaplan have six grandchildren. They live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Truro, Cape Cod.
Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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Some fun and fascinating out takes from our interview with Bernays:
"I've written a memoir, Back Then, which has a lot of dicey stuff in it. And it's a good read! I'm fixated on how things work and how groups of people work with and against each other. I'm also a passionate liberal, and am convinced that this administration is so business-oriented that it's forgotten to serve the people who elected it. I'm a lifelong Democrat and have voted in every election since 1952."
"We have three daughters, five grandsons and one granddaughter. I think about them all the time. They have pet names for me. I don't see them nearly enough."
"Justin and I play word games at breakfast. I'm a demon walker and walk about ten miles – briskly -- a week. We have two dogs, Pansy and Daisy, who seem to occupy more time and emotional space than they ought to."
"Justin and I love to travel. We go on these ‘educational' trips, where Harvard professors tell you what you're going to see or what you have just seen."
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In the summer of 2005, Anne Bernays took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Different books at different ages. As a teenager, it was The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. Reading it made me aware, for the first time, that my parents lived lives entirely separate from my own. It shocked me but it also liberated me.
Later, when I thought I might like to be a writer, it was Muriel Sparks first novel, The Comforters -- a book that relied on a kind of subdued magic realism to examine how complicated and unconsciously driven most of us are.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Memento Mori by Muriel Spark -- Her ability to build a scene or a character within a short passage is dazzling.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh -- A satirist, I consider Waugh my master. The poignancy of this book hasn't been matched, for me, by anything else I can think of.
Emma by Jane Austen -- It's funny, it's sad, it's shocking. It's a whole world encompassed in about a five-mile radius. How does she do it?
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens -- His minor characters have more passion and substance than most other novelists' heroes and heroines.
The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley -- This is a novella, a short novel about a dentist who thinks his wife is having an affair. She is. His torment is exquisitely rendered.
Tolstoy by Henri Troyat -- A magnificent biography. The authors find the exact right balance in telling the life and examining the work. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, by Justin Kaplan. Is it fair to list your husband's work? What I said about the Tolstoy biography is true of the Twain. Both subjects came alive in these books.
The Emperor's Last Island by Julia Blackburn -- Who would have thought that a book about Napoleon's final days on a god-forsaken island could hold the reader in its iron grip? Part history, biography, psychology, botany, ecology, and social commentary, this book is written with great clarity and love.
Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham -- This writer is in a critical trough at the moment. This is a pity; he really knows how to tell a story. Here he does an extended portrait of a famous British writer, loosely based on Thomas Hardy
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak -- When I first read it with my children, I was bowled over by its honesty and immediacy.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Casablanca -- The mother of all tearjerkers that escapes being sentimental by its
context of war and its aura of life-and-death.
Tender Mercies -- Who doesn't love a story of redemption? This movie is beautifully under-acted by Robert Duvall
The Paper -- I teach at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalists. This movie really nails what daily journalism is all about.
A Fish Called Wanda -- Anything with John Cleese is okay and better in my book.
The Philadelphia Story -- Unabashedly upper crust, this film stars Katherine Hepburn, on whom I had a teenage crush when I first saw her. The dialogue is snappy, and Cary Grant (on who I also had a crush) is terrific in the part of the ex-husband who "tames" his ex-wife.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen only to classical music on the radio when I'm working. If there's singing it disrupts my concentration. I prefer seventeenth and eighteenth century stuff to nineteenth and early twentieth. I also love old-type jazz and swing. Sinatra. I'm almost seventy-five, and I've earned the right to be retro in a couple of areas.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Whenever I give a book I try to choose something I think the recipient will like. Custom ordered, so to speak.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I try to keep the same hours -- nine to twelve -- free for writing. I also play one game of Scrabble against the invisible opponent on my disk.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I was lucky enough to have my first book published -- more than forty years ago. But since then I've had three novels rejected. Six publishers turned down Professor Romeo (reviewed on the front of the New York Times Book Review) before being taken by the seventh. Most writers have so many rejections that we have had to develop hides like hippos, while keeping our delicate antennae in good working order. My favorite rejection was for my first novel. The editor wrote my agent that he was sorry to have kept the manuscript so long, "but my secretary's dog was sick."
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't give up! Joining a writers' group is helpful both for the criticism you get and for what you may be lacking in motivation. A group keeps you supported in many ways. Try to meet people who may be able to help you get an agent or a meet a sympathetic editor. Network. But the basic ingredients are hard work and revision. There's no getting around this fact, just as there's no crying in the writing game.
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