One of the sessions I attended at the Texas Book Festival in Austin this past weekend was an interview/discussion with authors Elizabeth Berg and Amanda Eyre Ward. I had just finished Ms. Berg’s book, The Year of Pleasures, and I read Amanda Eyre Ward’s Forgive Me a few months ago, so I thought hearing them speak about their writing lives would be fun.
And it was.
First though, I’ll tell you something about my enjoyment of Ms. Berg’s book. Elizabeth Berg is a wonderful writer. By that I mean, she writes beautiful sentences and paragraphs and descriptions. She made me slow down and pay attention to the prose itself, something that not all authors can do. The book itself, The Year of Pleasures, is about widowhood, about investing yourself and your life into one person and having that person taken by death. What do you do? How do you survive?
Ms. Berg’s protagonist, Betta Nolan, answers those questions by starting on a journey, a roadtrip from Boston to the Midwest. And when she reaches the small town of Stewart, Illinois, near Chicago, Betta finds, not exactly answers nor comfort, but a place to start living again. She does things that look from the outside to be crazy, that could be disastrous. She buys a house after looking it over for fifteen minutes. She reconnects with college friends that she hasn’t seen or spoken to in almost thirty years. She lets neighbors and chance acquaintance into her home and into her life. All of these steps toward life lead to stumbles and to near-falls, but also to a sureness and confidence that Betta can live a life even after the death of her beloved John.
I enjoyed almost every minute of reading A Year of Pleasures. I won’t hesitate to pick up another of Ms. Berg’s novels; in fact, I’m looking forward to it. However, I must insert a little warning; in one scene in the book Betta decides to date a man she meets and then decides that she “needs” to have sex with him. And then we get to see the results of that rather unwise decision —in detail. I wish the author had left the details out, but Elizabeth Berg’s writing is all about the details. I can see how she would feel compelled to tell us about Betta’s disastrous date. I just don’t enjoy reading about someone else’s sex life. Certainly not details. ‘Nuff said. Most of the book is not about sex.
At the Book Festival, Elizabeth Berg came across as both charming and distinguished, a writer about my age, a beautiful lady, who has spent quite a bit of time thinking about and working on her craft. She said she had no idea after college what she wanted to do and tried quite a few things. Then, one night she had an epiphany: she would become a nurse! So she went to nursing school and did become a nurse. She said of that era of her life, “What I learned from being a nurse is that the ordinary is everything.”
That’s what I meant about Ms. Berg’s celebrating the details. She also said something to the effect that “writing is acting on a page.” In other words, the characters she creates are not exactly herself, but she is acting them out as she writes. I thought that was a delightful metaphor, although perhaps she she got it somewhere else. I don’t know.
Amanda Eyre Ward is a younger writer with fewer books to her credit than Elizabeth Berg, but she, too, seems to have thought carefully and deeply about what it means to be a writer. I enjoyed her personality, and her quizzical answer to many of the interviewer’s questions, (insert rambling but interesting thoughts), then “It’s confusing!” I read Forgive Me in August, and here’s what I said about it then: “I didn’t manage to review this novel, set in New England and in South Africa. It was readable, but I found it hard to connect with the characters.”
After having heard her speak, I’m ready to try another of Ms. Ward’s novels, but since her latest is a book of short stories, Love Stories in This Town, I’ll have to go back and try one of her earlier novels. Any suggestions?
Oh, Elizabeth Berg said her favorite of her sixteen or so novels is her first, called Durable Goods. (She also said not to tell the other books.) I like the title of one of Ms. Berg’s books: The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted. But I got the idea that it’s a book of short stories.
I don’t read short stories. Is anyone else a fan of either of these writers?