"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."
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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.
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In the Fall of 2005, John Berendt took some time out to tell us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I could cite any number of great classics that, when I first read them, introduced me to the excitement of books, but the book that meant the most to me is not at all well known and is now out of print.
It's Small World a novel published in 1951 by Simon & Schuster. The story concerns a family of four living in upstate New York. It's charming and beautifully written. Carol Deschere, the author, happens to be my mother, and the family depicted in her novel closely resembles our own. The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.
re ten your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I wouldn't know how to start listing my ten favorite books, since that's not the way I think of books, or of anything else for that matter. Clifton Fadiman once edited a collection of pieces, fiction and nonfiction, entitled Reading I've Liked. So, I'm going to call the following list, "Books I've Liked":
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens -- The experience of reading Dickens has been a lifelong pleasure. I go from book to book and back again. Of all Dickens's novels, Nicholas Nickleby has a special standing with me, because it was the first one I read to myself. I was deeply impressed, at the age of twelve, by the squalid boys school Dotheboys Hall, run by the horrid Wackford Squeers and his wretched wife, who force-feeds the boys a miserable breakfast of brimstone and treacle, all from the same too-large wooden spoon, then calls a curly-headed child to come forward so that she can wipe her hands in his hair. That scene and that book propelled me into years of reading Dickens.
Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams -- This is a book I've given as a gift countless times, usually when I've discovered that someone hasn't read it or hasn't even heard of it. Tennessee Williams's plays have overshadowed his short stories, and small wonder, but these forty-nine stories span most of his life from the age of sixteen until the very end. As Gore Vidal points out in his affectionate and informative introduction, the collected stories are "the true memoir of Tennessee Williams. Whatever happened to him, real or imagined, is here."
The stories are about love, longing and loneliness, and they are flavored with a connoisseur's taste for the loony and the bizarre. On occasion, the glimmer of a future work flashes by, like the line in Williams's haunting "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio" that reads, "But the sweet bird of youth had flown from Pablo Gonzales, leaving him rather sad..." For me, the best of the stories is the fiendish "Desire and the Black Masseur," but there are a good many runners-up.
The Age of Innocenceby Edith Wharton -- The wistful regret of having made the wrong decision in life and realized it too late makes this book as heart-wrenchingly relevant today as it was eighty-five years ago. And Wharton's writing style is just as fresh and durable.
I commend to anyone, for example, her astonishing 165-word description of the doyenne of New York society, Mrs. Manson Mingott, beginning with the words, "The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the center of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation...." Wharton was a master in the art of prose portraiture.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin -- This is travel writing at its best. As a boy, Chatwin was fascinated by a dried-up piece of skin and hair, said to be from a brontosaurus brought back from Patagonia by a distant cousin. Chatwin's musings about the brontosaurus eventually led to a trek through Patagonia described in ninety-seven brief chapters filled with sharp observations and crystal-clear prose. They are gem-like entries in a brilliant diary. The narrative meanders, just as Chatwin did on his journey. Passages describing the stark landscape are side-by-side with profiles of people encountered, nuggets of historical lore, and the details of rugged overland travel. Readers who insist on a traditional narrative thread might be disappointed, even put off. But for me, Chatwin evokes a serene curiosity that I found captivating.
The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor -- Flannery O'Connor is simply the best. She enshrines in each of her characters an unforgettable rendition of a basic human flaw: venality, bigotry, pent-up anger, stupidity, jealousy, greed, even innocence. Her dark humor is funniest when she is laying bare some horrible piece of human nastiness. And the writing! She can evoke more from the particulars of a person's face than any other writer I know. For example:
"His face behind the windshield was sour and froglike; it looked like it had a shout closed up in it, it looked like one of those closet doors in gangster pictures where there is somebody tied to a chair behind it with a towel in his mouth." ("The Heart of the Park")
"He heard the words drag out – ‘Well, the way I see it, men elect....' He felt them pull out of his mouth like freight cars, jangling, backing up on each other, grating to a halt, sliding, clinching back, jarring, and then suddenly stopping as roughly as they had begun." ("The Barber")
"His neck was thrust forward as if he were trying to smell something that was always being drawn away." ("The Peeler")
"She jumped back and looked as if she were going to swallow her face." ("The Peeler")
"Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to the left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. She seldom used the other expression because it was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came to a complete stop. ("Good Country People")
If I were forced to pick my one Flannery O'Connor story above all others, I'd resist, but if pressed I'd say, "Well, okay: 'Revelation.' If you've never read any of her stories, start with that one, and if you aren't compelled to read all the others afterwards, then you'll never have to take my word about anything ever again."
Neuromancer by Williams Gibson -- Gibson is the man who invented the term "cyberspace," and this is the book that launched the digital science-fiction genre back in 1984, long before the Internet existed as we know it now. This dark, fast-paced novel is a visionary masterpiece. It's populated by hackers and cyberpunks, Gibson's creations that have since become fixtures in the electronic matrix. I was given the book in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was beginning to wrap itself around all of us, and I read it with increasing excitement -- and not without some difficulty. Gibson doesn't bother to explain his terms or lead the reader by the hand through the puzzling dislocations of his futuristic landscape. Neuromancer is pulp fiction, but it's guided by a hip wisdom about a baffling phenomenon that was only beginning to take shape.
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell -- I read these four books in my late teens and early twenties, which may have had something to do with my having been swept away by them -- by the sheer poetry of the writing, the sensuous atmosphere of Alexandria, the sexual tension, and above all the mystery and ambiguity.
Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver -- Carver's stories were a revelation to me when I encountered them for the first time in the early 1980s. His spare, minimalist style serves as a writer's manual for how to get more out of less. In a sentence, or even just a phrase, Carver establishes the mood, the nature of his characters and their predicament. He gives us clues instead of paragraphs of description or lengthy dialogue. I often put people on to Carver, especially when they've shown me something they've written that needs drastic paring down. Carver had something original to show the rest of us, and his early death is a real tragedy. My own copy of this collection (thirty stories arranged chronologically by the date they were written) is well worn.
The Aspern Papers by Henry James -- This psychological thriller is a Jamesian masterpiece and also one of his most accessible novels. It's about ambition, deception, invasion of privacy, and the shameless exploitation of the past. "You publishing scoundrel!" the ancient Juliana Bordereau shouts at the narrator when she catches him rifling through her effects in search of her love letters. James based this exquisite tale on a true story about Claire Clairmont, the former mistress of Lord Byron and mother of his illegitimate daughter, Allegra. Ms. Clairmont, living in Florence in extreme old age, was set upon by an unscrupulous American scholar hoping to lay his hands on her love letters from Bryon. In fictionalizing the story and moving it to Venice, James enriched the it and heightened its dramatic appeal immeasurably.
The Magic Christian by Terry Southern -- I include this quirky novel in my list, because it is a satiric gem and one of the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Terry Southern was a comic genius (Dr. Strangelove, Candy) who has never really been given his due. The argument of The Magic Christian is a simple one, namely: There is no limit to what you can make people do, given enough money. Everyone has his price. In this slim volume, Southern illustrates his point in a story that becomes increasingly bizarre and culminates in one of the most outrageous scenes in the entire American literary canon.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Kind Hearts and Coronets -- Alec Guinness playing eight members of the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family -- male and female, each one dottier than the next -- is a supreme comic tour de force that always delights me. But then I have a soft spot for Guinness. His Ealing Studio comedies -- The Lady Killers, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit -- serve up a world of understated British humor that I've always found gently reassuring.
Juliet of the Spirits, directed by Federico Fellini -- I have a weakness for Fellini's fantasies. The music of Nina Rota has a lot to do with the spell this picture casts.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
At home, when I listen to music, it's usually jazz. However, when I'm writing I can't listen to any music at all, because the rhythm of the music interferes with the rhythm and flow of the syllables, sentences, and paragraphs. Rhythm is as important to me as the choice of words. It often determines the choice, in fact. Sometimes when I've written a sentence that says precisely what I want it to say with exactly the right words, it still needs an extra syllable or two at a certain place. Ezra Pound once said that it's easy to imitate another writer's style, but it's impossible to imitate his rhythm.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, by Bernard Lewis. This is an even-handed discussion of one of the most confounding issues facing the world today. Most of us are dangerously ignorant about Islam and terrorism and have no way of distinguishing between them. Lewis offers a corrective.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I get the greatest pleasure giving books that I've read and enjoyed, because it means I'm not just giving someone a physical book but a reading experience that I've sampled and approved. It becomes a shared experience. Naturally that's the kind of book I like to receive, too. More than half the books I read are books people have recommended to me -- word of mouth. Well, my approach to gift-giving is word of mouth with the actual book thrown in.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I like to write at a fairly clean desk, but I'm almost never able to do it. I put all my research into loose-leaf notebooks, arranged by topic, character and story, and I line them up on a shelf. That may sound very organized, but somehow it doesn't prevent loose papers from accumulating on my desk anyway, forming heaps and piles over and under the books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and jotted-down notes that somehow make their way to my desk despite my efforts to keep them under control.
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?
By the time I decided to write my first book, I had already had a productive, 25-year-long career as a magazine editor and columnist. After graduating from college, where I had been an editor of the Harvard Lampoon, I was hired as an editor by Esquire. Later, I served as the editor of New York magazine and then wrote a monthly column for Esquire. As much as I enjoyed working for magazines, I never had the time to delve deeply into any subject. I'd work on a column or an article for a month or two and then move on to another topic. I was skimming the surface, and ultimately it was unsatisfying. So, in 1985, while supporting myself with my column and other freelance writing, I moved to Savannah, Georgia and started working on the book that turned out to be Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
My rejection-slip horror story is a very unusual one. I wrote Midnight under my own steam, without a contract, because I didn't want to be held to a deadline and owe a publisher a book or its money back. After seven years, I was finished. I sent the manuscript to my agent, who was one of the better-known agents in New York, and to my surprise, she turned it down. My agent, mind you -- not a publisher. She sent it back to me with a note saying it was "too local" and that she doubted any publisher would want to take a chance on it "in this market," whatever that meant.
The rejection did not upset me as much as it might have, because as an experienced editor I knew the book was at least publishable. So I gave the manuscript to another agent, who read it, loved it, and sent copies to five publishing houses, giving them three days to read it and make an offer if they wanted it. All five submitted bids, and I ended up signing a contract with Random House. I occasionally run into my former agent in New York, and I am cordial. I have no reason not to be. The way things turned out, I'm lucky she rejected it.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep a diary, but don't just list all the things you did during the day. Pick one incident and write it up as a brief vignette. Give it color, include quotes and dialogue, shape it like a story with a beginning, middle and end -- as if it were a short story or an episode in a novel. It's great practice. Do this while figuring out what you want to write a book about. The book may even emerge from within this running diary.
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