A Conversation with Elizabeth Berg
Q: When did you first start writing? Did you take writing in college? How long after you began writing serious fiction did you attempt a novel?
A: I always wrote as a vehicle for expression, but did not try writing for publication until my mid-thirties, at which time I started writing for magazines. I wrote essays and then short stories, then moved into novels. I did not take writing classes in college; rather, I concentrated my energies on dropping out. I attempted my first novel after I’d been writing stories for a couple of years.
Q: When did you write Durable Goods—where were you? Where did the first idea for this novel come from? How long did it take you to write it? Were you surprised by its enthusiastic reception?
A: I was living in Massachusetts, sitting at my desk one day writing a nonfiction snippet about how it felt to move so often, about what it was like being an army brat. That little section, which is in the novel, was so full of feeling for me, I knew there was a lot of material to be mined. So I began writing a novel. I wrote it very, very quickly—the material just wanted to rush forth. I think I might have finished it in about three or four months. I was thrilled that it was so well received.
Q: How many novels have you written since then? What are your feelings about Durable Goods now as you look back after having written so many other books?
A: I am currently in the middle of my thirteenth novel. I have also written a collection of short stories and two nonfiction books. I know that sometimes it happens that a novelist is embarrassed about their early works. For me, it’s the opposite: I believe Durable Goods is the best thing I’ve written.
Q: These days, Katie’s father’s actions could land him in custody, and his children in foster care. But when Durable Goods takes place attitudes were clearly different. Could you talk about what parenting was like back then?
A: The novel takes place in the very early sixties. At that time, I don’t think children’s feelings and needs were taken into consideration as much as they are now. Parents disciplined more often and more ferociously. Parents didn’t pay so much attention to their children’s opinions or desires. This was across the board. But in a military family, things could be exacerbated.
Q: The title comes from a passage in the novel— but why did you you choose this specific title? Did you have any other ideas for titles? What function do you think a title performs for a novel?
A: The title came as a suggestion from my agent. I had wanted to call it The King of Wands, which is a tarot card of a man who appears very fierce when in fact he is tender. Another consideration I had was Customs of the Service, which is a kind of guidebook for armed forces etiquette. I think titles are extremely important for novels: They can set the tone, tip you off, serve as shorthand for what the essential contents are.
Q: Cherylanne is a great character, especially in how she uses beauty tips as a form of power and control, connection and communication, a way to be in the world. Where did she come from? Did you consult a huge stack of beauty magazines as you were writing the book?
A: Cherylanne is a combination of fact and fiction. I knew two girls growing up who were obsessed with beauty tips and social etiquette. I admired and feared them. I looked at some old magazines for product names, but mostly I relied on my memory and then fictionalized.
Q: At certain times, both Katie and Diane blurt out things that they know will probably make their father hit them. They say these things anyway. Are they somehow playing a part, however unconsciously, in the dire cycle of family violence?
A: I think the girls blurt things out because they can’t help themselves. Sometimes they just need to rebel, even if they know they’ll suffer for it. They do it to stand up for themselves, to subconsciously prove that someone is on their side and looking out for them, even if it’s only themselves; and they do it because, in the way of all adolescents, they are testing boundaries.
Q: Durable Goods is thematically dense: It’s about friendship, family love and family damage, grief, growing up, forgiveness. Such themes can be intentional or the by-product of telling a story, depending on the writer. How about you—what were you consciously trying to write about? What theme, if anything, surprised you when you were finished? What issues and themes have you returned to, expanded on, embroidered in subsequent books?
A: I never think much about what “themes” are in my novels. I start out with a broad idea of what I want to look at, and then let the book happen. I like to keep it pretty dreamy and vague when I’m writing it. When it’s done, I see things that I hadn’t seen in the writing process. With Durable Goods, I meant only to write about being an army brat. What emerged was a story about compassion—the need for it, the expression of it. I also learned a lot about what my feelings for my father are. I grew up afraid of him, but I came to understand that his heart is huge and that he is in fact a very sensitive man. I would have to say that I return to compassion in many if not all of my books. And the importance of friendship. Most of all, I want to show the great glory in our ordinary lives, in our ordinary selves.
Q: Do you think Durable Goods has a hopeful ending? Do you really think Katie’s father can change?
A: I do think Durable Goods has a hopeful ending, reflected in the fact that Katie asserts herself in asking her father to stop at the A&W, and he complies. Also, his bringing the puppy when he comes to get her is a kind of acquiesence on his part. He’s lost Diane; he’s learned something from that. Katie is aware of that.
Q: What do you think saves Katie from being flattened by her circumstances? What kind of life do you imagine she goes on to lead?
A: Katie is a character full of great hope and love. Where her resilience comes from is a mystery to me, but it probably has to do with how much she wants to love. As for the life she goes on to lead, that issue is addressed in the third book featuring Katie, True to Form. This novel was written because a fan told me she “had to know” what happened to Katie. I believe this novel lets you know what she will become.