A Conversation with John BerendtThe master of the nonfiction novel shares his thoughts on New Journalism and his favourite American writers with JANET TAY
JOHN BERENDT is the best-selling author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
(1994) and The City of Falling Angels
(2005). In 1994, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
, the true-life story of murder in Savannah, Georgia, was published with a small initial print run and little advance publicity but went on to sell more than two and a half million copies in hardcover, spent more than four years on The New York Times
nonfiction best-seller list (a record that still stands) and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
In his second book, The City of Falling Angels
, he explores another mysterious, derelict city, Venice, and its cast of aristocrats and lowlifes in the aftermath of the fire that destroyed the historic La Fenice opera house in 1996. “Amid this swirl of carnivalesque plumage, Berendt’s voice is gentle and tolerant, reveling in human complexities,” Adam Goodheart wrote in the New York Times Book Review
*You were an associate editor of Esquire from 1961 to 1969, editor of New York magazine from 1977 to 1979 and a columnist for The New Yorker from 1982 to 1994. Was it a natural transition from being a journalist to a published author?
Absolutely. As an editor, I did a fair amount of writing myself, in addition to advising writers on shaping their articles. I joined the editorial staff of Esquire
right after I graduated from college. That was during the 1960s, when Esquire
was pioneering the “New Journalism,” publishing articles by writers like Tom Wolfe, Terry Southern, Michael Herr, Gay Talese, Gore Vidal, Rex Reed, among others. The New Journalism was, and is, reportage—nonfiction—written in the style of fiction, using the literary devices that novelists and short-story writers normally use: extensive dialogue, at times even including the interior thoughts of characters (obtained through interviews, of course), detailed descriptions, action moving from scene to scene, and the story structured with a beginning, middle and end. The finished work reads like a novel or a short story, but it’s nonfiction. The intended effect is that the New Journalism style becomes more engaging than the old, but no less true. Both of my books could be described as New Journalism in style. They are sometimes called “nonfiction novels.” But it’s inaccurate to call them simply novels. Is there anything that you miss about being a journalist? Would you say that your experience as a journalist has impeded or benefited you as a novelist?
I don’t miss being a journalist, because I still am a journalist. I still interview subjects extensively, with and without a tape recorder, as any reporter would. And I conduct other sorts of research—reading newspapers, journals and books, consulting photographs, police records and so forth. If what you mean is, ‘Do I miss writing articles for magazines,’ the answer is no. I take so much time researching a piece and then writing and polishing it that I’d much rather spend that time working on a book. I find it so much more rewarding. I can get much deeper into a subject than I can with a magazine piece. I spent eight years working on my first book and nine years on my second. That’s total immersion, and it’s very satisfying.What is the biggest difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, if any?
Apart from fiction being essentially made up and nonfiction being true, there are a great many similarities between the two. Most good fiction comes out of real life, and sometimes it is extremely close to it. Novelists, after all, draw on their own lives in their writing. They base their characters and stories on people they have known and situations they’ve experienced; then they take it to the fictional level by using their imaginations. Fiction is liberating for a writer because the story does not have to be factually accurate; authors can impose words and actions on their characters in order to make a point. At the same time, for a fictional story to be believable, certain details must be true to life. For example, a story based in a hospital must get the medical details absolutely correct, and the hospital language and routine must be accurate as well.Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made you an overnight success in 1994. Did you anticipate how well the book would do when you were writing it?
I had no idea that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
would be received with such enthusiasm. I did have the feeling that if people picked up the book and read it, they’d like it. But I thought that it would be, at best, a cult success, because the story is so quirky. While I was writing it, friends asked me if I thought it would become a best-seller, and I told them there was no chance of that happening. My story had a black drag queen, a voodoo priestess, a gay murderer, a madman who walked flies glued to threads and planned to drop poison into the Savannah water supply. I was fairly certain I wasn’t writing a mainstream book, but it seems that during the eight years I was working on it, the mainstream widened enough to include all of the above.The movie version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil came out in 1997. How important do you think the role of the movie industry is in the promotion of literature? Do you think the increasingly commercial nature of the publishing industry will affect the quality of literature?
Despite the commercial nature of the publishing industry, there are still many publishing houses willing to publish literary books even though they expect modest sales at best. None of Flannery O’Connor’s books, for example, ever sold more than 3,000 copies, and she was arguably one of the most important American literary figures of the 20th century. That said, it is true that even the literary houses are always on the lookout for blockbuster books that will make a profit and subsidise prestigious books that do not. And even those publishers may place a limit on the number of literary works they publish. As to your question about the movie industry’s influence on the promotion of literature, movies always trigger massive sales of the books they are based on, whether they are commercial books or true literature. The City of Falling Angels, your most recent book, is set in Venice. How much research did you have to do when you were writing this book? Did you have to visit or live there?
Since what I write is nonfiction, 90 per cent of the time I spend on a book has to be research. I started working on The City of Falling Angels
three days after a fire destroyed the La Fenice opera house in Venice, and I finished writing it nine years later. In that time, I made 18 trips to Venice, where I lived in a rented apartment. My visits added up to two full years living in Venice. For Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
I lived virtually full-time in Savannah for about six years; that whole project took eight years. For both books, I submerged myself in the place and the story for a good long time. I’m never in a hurry.What are your thoughts on book tours and the need for authors to constantly promote themselves? Do you think without these efforts, books are a tough sell?
There is no doubt that book tours, which can be exhausting, help sell books. If all goes well, the author becomes the subject of newspaper and magazine coverage and is interviewed on radio and television. Crowds show up at book signings. Something has to bring the book to the attention of readers, whether it’s the reputation of the author, the nature of the subject, its newsworthiness, or publicity generated through book tour itself. The best hope is that the book will eventually inspire favourable word of mouth. It’s been my experience that a recommendation from a friend means more to the reading public than a good review.Will this be your first trip to Ubud, Bali? Had you heard of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival before and have you attended any other literary festivals in the U.S. or other parts of the world? Do you think literary festivals are necessary for the benefit of writers and readers alike?
I’ve never been to Bali before and had not heard of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, but over the years I’ve attended about two dozen literary festivals. They are proliferating like crazy in America and all over the world. They give readers exposure to writers and vice versa, and they also provide an opportunity for writers to meet each other. At the Jaipur Literary Festival in January 2008, for example, I met Indra Sinha, whose Animal’s People
had just been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. I picked it up and read it right there at the festival and was enthralled by it. Sinha will be at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival as well, and I look forward to seeing him again. I wouldn’t say literary festivals are necessary, but they are pleasant, often stimulating, and as far as I can tell they do no harm.What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I was introduced to literature by my parents, particularly my father, who read aloud to my sister and me such books as Treasure Island
, The Count of Monte Cristo
, A Tale of Two Cities
, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils
and The Swiss Family Robinson
. When I started to read on my own, I launched into Dickens, beginning with Nicholas Nickleby
and moving on from there to other Dickens books. My parents emphasised the importance of the classics, so that’s the route I took. Who are some of your favourite American writers? And why?
When I read Truman Capote I am struck by his sense of the dramatic, by his dazzling imagery, his playfulness, his daring, and his ability to entertain no matter what he is writing about. I admire Tom Wolfe for his stylistic originality, for the intelligence and depth of knowledge he brings to everything he writes, for the uniqueness of his perceptions, for his sense of humour and even for his abundant confidence.
Other favourites are: Edith Wharton, whose novel The Age of Innocence
is her best and one of my all-time favourite novels. Though written in 1920, it reads as though it was written yesterday. Wharton’s character descriptions are among the best by any writer. Flannery O’Connor is one of the half-dozen finest American writers of the 20th century, in my opinion. A very dark humour runs throughout her stories, and she has an uncanny facility for describing people’s faces in highly original and imaginative ways. Philip Roth: his novels always cut to the heart of social issues; they are brilliantly written and structured so that you become deeply involved and cannot put the book down. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels have a cult following. His humour has abundant charm and a strong element of fantasy, which he uses very effectively in driving home his moral message. Toni Morrison’s Beloved
is deeply moving, even shocking, and yet written with tender insight. It has been voted the best American novel of the last 25 years in a poll among critics and writers, and I agree. Tennessee Williams: though he is best known for his plays, his short stories are marvellously colourful and entertaining. Over the years, I’ve given copies of The Collected Stories of Tennessee Williams
as gifts to dozens of friends. I admire Cormac McCarthy for his crisp, stark imagery and his pared-down writing style. (I don’t care much, I must admit, for his odd tendency to leave out quotation marks, though graphically it does underscore the unadorned leanness of his prose.) Hunter S. Thompson: he brought his unconventional life into his writing and became his own best subject. He was truly the hippest writer on the American scene.What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just picked up a short book of nonfiction—Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor
—having read (I can’t remember where) a mention of it by Salman Rushdie who said it was one of the best books ever written and that he had been tipped off to it by the publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, Sonny Mehta, who said it was the best book he had ever read. It’s about the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. I expect to read it in one happy gulp. JANET TAY
is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine