The Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil author talks about his career and the book he’s not working on
Elegant and refined, John Berendt, who at 69 has already had success with two careers (magazine editor and author), is not retired.
He is enjoying life and “talking to people.” But he’s not writing a book. When asked recently at an Uptown gathering in his honor to elaborate, he said, “I always carry a small notebook in my back pocket so I can jot things down that appeal to me—a remark, an incident, a memorable person, an observation of one sort or another. This kind of ad hoc scribbling sometimes gives people the idea that I’m writing a book. But that’s not necessarily the case. Twice in my life, those notebooks have grown into full-length books. The one in my pocket right now hasn’t yet.”
Best known as the author of two number one best-selling works of nonfiction, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels, Berendt grew up in Syracuse, New York. He earned a bachelor’s in English from Harvard University, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon. After graduating in 1961, he moved to New York City where he was hired as an associate editor of Esquire at the age of 21. He was the editor of New York magazine from 1977 to 1979 and wrote a monthly column for Esquire from 1982 to 1994. Over the years, he has made a name for himself through interviews and articles he developed through taking notes during conversations and about noteworthy incidents. Using these skills, he created one of the most famous works of literary nonfiction in the past several decades. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was subsequently made into a blockbuster movie directed by Clint Eastwood, brought in significant revenue to the city of Savannah, so much so that Savannahians simply refer to it as “the book.” We were thrilled to find out that Berendt would be visiting New Orleans and that he would be coming back in March to participate in the Tennessee Williams festival.
I was beside myself when New Orleans Living magazine asked me to interview him. John Berendt was coming to my home! Yeah, I felt lucky, but after the euphoria wore off, the realization sank in. I had never conducted a formal interview in my life! For my virginal voyage into interviewing, I would perform in front of an expert. Would he detect my nervousness? Then I realized how I could make myself more comfortable. I had to create a diversion. When in doubt, especially in New Orleans, have a party. I would fill the house with all kinds of interesting people so Berendt would have a wonderful visit, meet interesting folks and become a good friend. No pressure.
Thus Uptown had a gathering. Young and old, single and married, gay and straight. Presidents of corporations and nonprofit organizations, restaurateurs, artists, housewives, doctors, students, politicians, Realtors, CPAs. I had it all. I thought it would turn out swell. And then New Orleans Living’s own designer extraordinaire, Carter Hooper, a friend of Berendt’s, told me a few stories of the parties Berendt has experienced and the people he’s met in New York. Truman Capote, Gloria Steinem. Double take. This guy is an internationally renowned Pulitzer Prize finalist. It started to sink in that John Berendt would not so easily be impressed. Intimidation began to creep in.
Yet as we sat down for the interview proper, he invited Hooper to sit with us while we talked. “It’s not because I’m afraid of you,” he said to me with a smile. Inside my own head, I knew he meant the reverse: It would be me afraid of him! Good to know that Berendt can be down to earth. I thus settled down and asked him questions. His answers were the stars.
Welcome, welcome, sit. Do you mind if I take notes?
Not at all. You can even use a tape recorder if you like.
Well, I broke my toe about an hour ago and my tape player is upstairs, so I can’t get it … do you mind?
No, no, that’s okay. Anyhow, I’ve discovered that the presence of a tape recorder doesn’t always guarantee that quotes will be verbatim, because a lot reporters don’t bother to go back and listen to their tapes. So those notes you’re taking by hand will do just fine.
Well, I will write what you say precisely, I promise.
Wonderful. I’ll hold you to it!
That reminds me of something I have been wondering about you … with what medium do you write? Do you use a laptop?
When I’m at home in New York, I use a desk computer . When I’m any where else, I take my laptop. But when I’m on the hoof, I just jot down notes on the notepad I always have with me.
Do you take notes at a party? Doesn’t that keep people uncomfortable around you?
I try not to be too obvious about it.
Have you ever come across someone in one of your books after it was published? How have they reacted?
Yes, my characters and I re-cross paths constantly. I’ve been back to Savannah and Venice many times since my books appeared. I’ve seen dozens of “characters” after the fact. Usually the greetings are friendly. The unhappy people don’t seek me out, I guess. Or they turn and run when they see me coming. Anyway, nobody has complained to me directly. Most people in Savannah are happy about the increase in tourism that the book has created. In Venice they neither need nor want any more tourists; they are overrun with them already.
Speaking of Midnight, that was written back in the ’90s, right?
It was published in 1994. I’d been working on it for seven years.
And then The City of Falling Angels, the book about the fire that destroyed La Fenice, the Venice Opera House, came out in 2005. Is it time to be writing another?
Probably, but I’m not writing a book at the moment.
Oh, well, I was hoping that your trip to New Orleans would spark an interest. It seems like a perfect fit to me … Savannah, Venice, New Orleans.
Well, I am talking to people. A writer is always looking for subject matter. Wherever I go, people assume I’m writing a book about the place. Charleston, Miami, Natchez, San Francisco. Even Bombay! “Are you writing a book about us?” people ask.
What about Katrina?
Some of the best American journalism in years has come out of Katrina. If I were to write a book about New Orleans, though, it would have a somewhat different focus. Katrina would inevitably be in the background, because it can’t be ignored. It’s part of the city’s persona now.
What authors do you like? Who have you been reading lately?
I have actually been reading a lot of Indian writers lately—Jhumpa Lahiri, Indra Sinha, Vickram Seth, Salman Rushdie—but I am also intrigued by the New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite.
Oh, Poppy Brite! My book club is reading her next month, I can’t remember which title.
Is it Exquisite Corpse?
I don’t know. That doesn’t ring a bell. Why? Are you reading that one now? Do you like it?
I am currently reading Are You Loathsome Tonight?, but Exquisite Corpse is very good. Violent and erotic. She is able to handle some of the most bloodcurdling moments with great skill, moments that would be simply lurid-tacky if written by a less gifted writer. She’s very good and very brave. I’d really like to meet her.
Wow, that’s high praise coming from you. I will put it on my reading list, too.
Now, don’t hate me if you don’t like it. It is very, um, violent. Disturbing.
Okay. Let’s switch gears back to Midnight. How do you feel about being a Pulitzer Prize finalist and not winning? How political is the process?
It’s not political at all. Midnight was a work of literary nonfiction. I rearranged some events that took place before I was there. The murder actually happened earlier. I clearly stated in the Author’s Note that I took some storytelling liberties. That may have had some bearing on the board’s decision. In fact, I know it did. One of the board members said so in an interview a few years ago. Midnight was one of three finalists in the general nonfiction category. How do I feel about not winning? I suppose, if I’d known in advance that I’d been a finalist, I’d have hoped for it and then been very disappointed. But luckily I didn’t know, and so I wasn’t giving any thought to it. I found out later that I’d been a finalist. And I thought that was pretty good all by itself.
So how will that affect your style in your next book?
It won’t affect my style at all, though I have to admit that for my Venice book, I was careful not to take any literary license. Not that I regret having done so with Midnight. I told that story just the way it should have been told. If I had to write it over again, I’d do it the same way, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer.
So you are looking for factual stories about New Orleans?
[Smiling] Yes, I deal in nonfiction. But I am not writing now; I am just here talking to people. I enjoy poking around eccentric people, and there is no shortage of them in New Orleans. According to Time magazine I’m a “weirdo magnet.” I’m very proud of that description.
And planning to give a seminar at the Tennessee Williams festival?
Yes. I’ve been asked to give a master class on the topic of sense of place, and I’ll take part in a panel discussion on Southern Gothic.
Well, you are the king of that! Tell me, do you think writing is a skill or a learned behavior?
You have to have some native ability lurking somewhere inside you—an ear, a discernment about words, an appreciation for language. But writing is a skill that one has to develop through practice, observation and experience.
I know your mother published a novel when you were a boy. Small World. Do you think you inherited talent from her?
I was very proud of her when her book came out. I was 11 at the time, and the story was based on our family—my parents, my sister and me. It showed me that you could put real life down on paper and make a book out of it that everybody could read. It was the first time I thought that one day I might want to be a writer. But I think I inherited an appreciation of books and writers from both of my parents. My mother and father were always reading books, and my father often read to me and my sister before bedtime. Not just stories. He read us whole books. Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, Robinson Crusoe, A Tale of Two Cities, The Swiss Family Robinson, Lad: A Dog.
I Googled your mother’s book. Do you know what it’s going for? A couple of places in Europe have it for $750!
Is that right? [Smiling to himself]
Do you have any copies of it?
Yes I do. About 20 or 30 I think.
So what’s a girl got to do to get one?
Cough up 750 bucks.
[Laughing] That’s got to make you proud. How about the movie of Midnight? It has so many differences from the book. You must hate that!
Not at all. I always knew the movie would be based on the book, but not an exact replica of the book. So I was not surprised by the differences. And there is another very satisfying side to the movie. It came out in 1997, a week before Thanksgiving and ran right through Christmas, which happens to be the period each year when 40 percent of all the book sales each year occur in America. The movie catapulted the book to number one for the whole Christmas book-buying season and basically bought me a townhouse in New York. That’s reason enough to love it. But fundamentally I have no problem with the movie. There are certain things in it that I really do love.
So what is next for you? Midnight has been published in 26 languages and sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Is such a huge success in your past permanently self-defining? Are you going to try that again?
I’ll never be able to replicate that success. So for me, Midnight will always be the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It was a bit daunting to start work on a second book, with that one looming over me. At first I was holding every sentence I wrote up to the standard of Midnight. Then finally I told myself to get over it and just write the damned thing. And that’s what I did.
And with that we decided to go “talk to people.” The book club folks came to chat with him; the after-Saints game crowd high-fived him over their glasses of beer; the people who had seen the movie but not read the book gazed at him from afar and wondered if he ever talked to John Cusack or Kevin Spacey. (He had.) John and I stepped to the martini bar and had a drink together before mingling.
I made it through my first interview. And whether John Berendt noted my nervousness was beside the point. I realized it wasn’t about me at all. I felt like resting on my laurels. But would Berendt? He kept me guessing and I kept hinting to him about writing something about New Orleans. How good it could be for our community! As I watched, I noticed he was not taking any notes. But he was indeed “talking to people.”
– Myra Van Hoose