John Berendt asks good questions. Not that this should have surprised me, but the journalist in him doesn't turn off. Before this interview, he sat across Tenth Avenue on the third floor of our City of Books location and signed first editions of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (he knew the firsts by sight; the cloth binding is always green, he informed us, not black like the later editions). Afterwards, we walked over to the Annex and for fifteen minutes I couldn't get a question in edgewise; he wanted to know anything and everything about Internet bookselling. Finally, when he'd digested enough information about our peculiar corner of the bookselling world, we talked about his book.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, his first and (thus far) only book, is an insightful, intelligent, fun-to-read story of eccentricity and murder in Savannah, Georgia. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, it spent more time on the New York Times Bestseller list than any previous fiction or nonfiction title, ever - and that's really just the start. Savannah's annual tourist traffic has increased by 46% since Berendt's exposé was published. They've given the author two keys to the city - in case he loses the first one, I guess.
A childhood friend who now lives in Atlanta had recommended the book to me years ago, but I resisted until a couple weeks before this interview, at which point I really had no choice but to read it. I read it, finally, and I loved it; I was engrossed. Two days after meeting Berendt, I watched that same old friend get married - just up the coast from Savannah. Next time, Sandy, I won't wait four years to read books you recommend.
Dave: What was the process like, creating this book?
Berendt: I would focus on something - a person. Then I would do a chapter, approaching it as if it were an article for a magazine. It was nonfiction, writing using the fictional techniques novelists and short story writers would use: ample description, transitions, a lot of dialogue.
But I would focus on one chapter, not knowing where it was going. I didn't write it in order. In the first part of the book, each chapter more or less introduces one person. Then sometimes a character already described in his own chapter will float through to tie it together.
I lived in Savannah for five years. I was going to come down for three weeks at a time every so often, but I soon realized that I really had to be there to stumble on things, to have things happen in front of me, to hear the perfect phrase. So I went down there in '85 and stayed for five years, going back to New York rarely, just for days at a time. It unfolded. The book evolved, more or less. I didn't know how it was going to end.
One reason I didn't have an advance was that I didn't want to be committed to a timetable. I didn't know how the book was going to turn out. The story hadn't finished yet. In fact, I moved down in '85, and the trials for the murder case weren't over until June of '89. So that didn't solve itself. Then, Jim Williams [the murder suspect], six months later, he died. Well, that gave me a nice ending.
Berendt: Yes, because also he could have caused a lot of problems. He loved to cause trouble. He had a very evil wit, but he wasn't around when the book came out.
Dave: Did he read the book at all while you were working on it?
Berendt: I had read him some of the chapters. He agreed to cooperate. I said, "Well, you're not going to be able to read the book until it's published. You certainly won't have any editorial input, except through these interviews with me."
So I read him four or five chapters or more, and once or twice he would say, "That was walnut, not oak," or whatever, but he never actually had any pages in his possession.
Dave: When you were reading these chapters, was this before or after he was charged with murder?
Berendt: I started after the whole thing happened. In the book, I put the murder in the middle for narrative purposes, then at the very end I explain that I've changed some things around. But when I went down and started working on it, he'd been tried already; he was in jail.
I'd met Jim Williams, the first time, in 1982. He'd been convicted six weeks prior. He was out on appeal. And we had an evening just like the first chapter, when he told me stories - but he'd been convicted already of murder. That was not how I wrote it in the book.
So then I went back to New York. Three years later I decided I'd write a book, and I thought, "What about Savannah? What's happening to Jim Williams?" The conviction had been reversed, and he'd been tried a second time. He was in jail. I visited him in jail briefly and decided I'd write the book. The second trial was reversed, again, of course - he got out just as I was arriving again - and he was out the rest of his life. So he was available to talk to me and introduce me to people.
Dave: Joe Odom, throughout the book, constantly talks about himself as a character.
Berendt: And he did.
Dave: It must have been strange to be writing a book about all these personalities, coexisting with them, when they all knew you were writing about them.
Berendt: Everybody knew. I was there writing a book. Joe would introduce me and say, "Hey, I want you to meet Johnny B. He's here writing a book about us." People knew. And I would say, "I'm here writing a book." People thought I was very strange, that it would never sell, that no one would ever publish it.
Dave: It seems like Savannah was the perfect setting - because of all the eccentricity, certainly, but also because who other than people that eccentric would feel free to be themselves under the microscope of someone who was about to tell the world?
Berendt: They began to forget about it. They didn't see a book after two or three years. At first they might play up to me, but not later.
Dave: Were you physically taking notes in front of them?
Berendt: I always had a notebook in my back pocket. I'd duck behind the corner or, with some people, just take it out and start writing.
Dave: You were in Savannah just a few days ago to celebrate the release of the book in paperback, right?
Berendt: It was on Good Morning America. I go down there frequently, and they're always marvelous. They make a big fuss. They had "Breakfast in the Park with Berendt" right after the tv. I signed books, and there was a speech by the mayor. So that was a big deal.
Some people say the book embarrasses Savannah because it's about strange people, "morally deficient people." The right wing doesn't like it. But they've given me the keys to the city twice. I've made a lot of money for the city. Basically, they like it. And it's very complimentary, even though it's about a murder.
Dave: Four years on the Bestseller list - in hardcover. And now it's in paperback.
Berendt: Is it going to sell, do you think?
Dave: I can't see any reason why it would stop selling, but who's left out there who hasn't read it?
It's a great book, though. I lent it to someone else here who gave it to his wife, and the next day he came in and said she'd read 200 pages. It's a story, so filled with characters - people make the Flannery O'Connor connection, largely because of Savannah - but I can't think of a novel that contains as much character. And this is nonfiction.
Berendt: They just seemed to just pop out. Joe Odom had extraordinary charm. In spite of the fact that he would cut bad checks and get into business deals that lost people a lot of money, they all still loved him. The Jim Williams was this marvelously malevolent character who had a very wicked sense of humor. He told stories brilliantly. Lady Chablis is another. Those three people were extraordinary.
And then there were the minor characters who were strange: the guy with the bottle of poison; the old man that walked the invisible dog.
Dave: What didn't get in the book?
Berendt: I shoehorned practically everything in. But there was an inventor, Rueben Ware. He had invented Sara's Magic Carpet Cleaner - his wife is Sara. It would take out a spot and not leave any mark. It would also clean your windshield and do all these other things. You could gargle with it, I don't know, all sorts of things. A very funny, wonderful guy. He wrote all these little books. He was always busy. I took lots and lots of notes, and I would have written him in, but I already had an inventor, the guy with the poison. So I decided not to use him.
I asked Reuben, "If these inventions are so good, why aren't you rich?" He said [in a rich Southern drawl], "I've been on the doorsteps of it many times!"
Dave: What was it like to live down there?
Berendt: I loved it. It was a very comfortable, beautiful, place to live. Slow-moving. I just liked it. Warm weather. I developed friends. I was in clover: I was writing, I would jog, make dinner - all the things I would do in New York. And I had a car for the first time.
Dave: Since you finished the book and it's become this massive success . . . well, for instance, I found a Lady Chablis web site promoting her book, Hiding My Candy. How have your relationships with these people evolved?
Berendt: I don't see her very much, but I did see her on Tuesday. I am in touch with the friends that I made there, whether they were in the book or not. I see Emma Kelly, The Lady of Six Thousand Songs. Lee Adler I saw in the park the other day. He's not happy with the book, though he's come around a little bit because it's made him famous. His wife hates it; there's nothing nice about her in the book. But he's become very cordial to me. Sonny Seiler, the lawyer with the bulldog, Uga - I see him occasionally.
Dave: What do you read?
Berendt: I read what friends tell me is good. This explains the book's success, partially. It got very good reviews. Good reviews will get you a readership right away, but that's it. The review or the article appears one day in a magazine or a newspaper, then it's gone. Word of mouth is a continuing phenomenon, much more powerful.
I'm reading Memoirs of a Geisha right now because two people told me it was wonderful, and it is. Am I right, isn't Memoirs of a Geisha the big summer read? It's Vintage also, and they told me that it sold 500,000 in hardcover and a million-five in paper. Mine has sold two and a half million in hardcover, so is there anybody left? I don't know.
I'm just as happy to have sold the hardcovers. I have to sell four paperbacks in order to make what I make for one hardcover.
Dave: What about the move from magazine writing to producing a full-length book?
Berendt: I hadn't written things exactly like this in narrative. I'd written essays. But it's the same kind of style. When I worked for Esquire after college, the New Journalism was just then getting itself born, and that's the style that I love.
Dave: And at Harvard you wrote for the Lampoon. What were you doing there?
Berendt: Doggerel poetry. I wrote one short story.
Dave: It was fun, probably.
Berendt: It was.
Dave: What writing did you grow up on? What writing taught you how to write?
Berendt: I really didn't learn how to write until I was out of school. I was hired by Esquire because of the things I'd done for the Lampoon. We did a parody of Mademoiselle, their "July issue," that was seen by Esquire. That's where I learned to write.
Harold Hayes, who was the editor of Esquire at the time, was very particular about how the copy read. Very often we would do pieces that weren't signed, the "house-written" copy, in the voice of the magazine. Like a four-pager with photographs or drawings and you'd write the text to go with it, unsigned. He wanted it to reflect the tone and the voice of the magazine. Knowledgeable irreverence and sophistication. Very, very sharply written, getting as much information on the page as possible - with a certain attitude. We really worked very hard.
Also he realized that the short bits of copy in a magazine were the most important because someone could thumb though a magazine and only read the short text and captions just to get an idea of the titles. They might put the magazine down meaning to come back to it but never look at it again. Yet in their mind, later, they'd think they'd read it. We sometimes spent two weeks on the titles. It was very carefully done.
Dave: I read a story about the movie adaptation of your book that said the producers were going to make the main character a lawyer instead of a writer.
Berendt: Oh, that was just one of the changes they considered. I got a phone call one day and they said, "Guess who's going to play you?" I said, "Who?" And they said, "Jodie Foster." They wanted Jodie Foster to have an affair with Joe Odom. It just got completely out of control.
Dave: In an interview, you thanked Clint Eastwood for taking time from his busy schedule to make a ten million dollar commercial for your book.
Berendt: I did say that. I think Clint may have seen it, and I'm not sure he would have been too happy. I was just hoping that the movie would come out while the book was still in hardcover, and it did. But I had very little to do with it. I didn't want my name on it. It wasn't my product.
Dave: What do you want to do now?
Berendt: I want to write another book that's as much fun to write as this one. I don't have any illusion that the next book I write will be anywhere near as successful - it's impossible. So what I really want is for the book to be engrossing and fun and exciting. And it would have some of the same elements. It would have a very good story with some suspense in it. Surprises - I love surprises. Very unusual, compelling characters. A place that creates an atmosphere. It could be a building or a farm or a jail, not necessarily a city. And humor, that's the tough part. It has to be something that I enjoy doing.
Dave interviewed John Berendt prior to his appearance in Portland on July 14, 1999.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State