Elizabeth Berg, I'LL BE SEEING YOU

Elizabeth Berg, I'LL BE SEEING YOU

Zibby Owens: Hi.

Elizabeth Berg: Hi. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. How are you?

Elizabeth: I’m fine. Thank you. I want to tell you thank you for what you do. about you. Especially now, it’s so important. It’s so impressive. Thank you for including me.

Zibby: I’m delighted to include you. Thank you for thanking me. I love what I do. Every day is so amazing. I get to talk to women like you, but women from all over the world with so many interesting stories, novelists, nonfiction. It is so intellectually and emotionally engaging. I just love it. It’s like a dream come true.

Elizabeth: You give back to so many others. It’s such a good thing. Especially now, again, those good things mean a lot.

Zibby: Thank you for saying all that. I’ll Be Seeing You is so beautiful, your memoir. I was crying at times. It made me so sentimental, the way you write about your parents. It was absolutely beautiful, as I’m sure you know. Maybe it doesn’t hurt to hear again. It was just a sensational memoir about aging and caregiving and all the rest. Bravo. I loved it.

Elizabeth: I appreciate that on lots of levels, not least of which is the fact that writing something this honest is scary. You wonder if you’re betraying people in presenting them this way. Of course, there’s a section in the book about that. In the end, I thought it was probably worth it. From what I’ve been able to see so far, it really has helped people. I think there’s something about making yourself vulnerable about a complex issue that opens up a lot of things for people. I’m very much gratified by that.

Zibby: I’m grateful to your writing group who I know you discussed this with early to see what they thought about it. I’m glad they encouraged you to get over the line and actually put it out into the world because it’s true, sometimes you need a guide from other people. We all are going through this for the first time. We don’t know what to do. Having a guidebook like yours or just knowing someone else’s experience is so encouraging. It’s, of course, an issue for so many people, having aging parents. I was wondering, though, because you wrote it in a diary style — of course, it started in 2010. Did you write it at that time and then just leave it and wait until now? What happened? Tell me about the writing of this.

Elizabeth: It was a mix. For me as a writer, the way that I process things, the way I come to understand them is by writing about it. I wasn’t sure that I would publish it, but I wanted to remember. I wanted to just get it out. It can feel like an incredible emotional load that you’re carrying around going through these things. It struck me oddly that it’s a kind of parallel for what we’re going through right now in that you’re stuck in the middle. You don’t know when it’s going to end. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. There are so many sad and fearful things about it. The pandemic’s a little bigger than this, of course, because aging is a natural part of life. In the same way that what helped me go through this experience was to, as I say, get small and take it day by day, that kind of philosophy is also helping me get through what we’re all enduring now.

Zibby: Are you writing about it? I know you have a big Facebook blog and everything. Are you writing every day to record how you feel in the moment now so you don’t forget?

Elizabeth: No. With regard to the pandemic, no. I do post occasionally. Whoa, I’ve really been struck by how people need that too, not just from me of course, but from all kinds of sources where people are talking about it, getting it out there, expressing their fears, expressing their anxieties and their sorrows, but also expressing what is still joyful, the things that remain that can really nourish and sustain us and support us. People need that too. For example, the last post I did was about trying to formalize some of the things that I do that bring me joy like reading, like listening to music. I’m a person, like so many others, that says, I’m going to do that, and then I don’t do it. It helps if I formalize it. I say every Tuesday, you’re going to concert in your own house. I had on Benny Goodman the other day. I’m telling you, I am telling you, it is joyful music. I could just see those women standing at the big square microphone in their formals and swaying and singing these songs. It was a moment. It can be hard at a time of such crisis to take it in and have it. For me, it’s a matter of compartmentalization and saying, look, it’s okay if you have this moment of joy. You’re not taking away anything from anyone else. In fact, you’re building yourself up so that you can help yourself and others better, like a mom. If the mom doesn’t care of herself, forget about it.

Zibby: Yes. I know that all too well. Going back to what you were saying about music, you had such a beautiful scene in your book about going to the concert by yourself and sitting there and seeing an older couple in front of you, the man, I think his name was Walter, and the wife trying to help him down the aisle and how when everybody applauded for the beautiful symphony, you felt like you were taking that as applause for Walter and the wife and the little steps nudging up the aisle to get out and on their way. It was just such a precious moment. Of course, in your imagination, as you did throughout the book, you’re wondering what it’s like for them at home as you did for one of the nurses who gave a weary glance. Then you imagined her putting an afghan on her husband. I can just see your mind working. Tell me about that, first of all, music, and second of all, how your brain just seems to wonder. It seems like you’re always wondering about what comes after what you’ve seen.

Elizabeth: That evening was one of those times when you never know where inspiration or comfort is going to come. I admired that couple so much. I don’t know their ages exactly, of course, but I think they were approaching ninety. They were quite frail, but by god, they went out to the symphony. Not only did they go out to it, but they heard it. They felt it. It was so difficult for the husband especially. The wife was in a little bit better shape. He had his walker. He moved so slowly, but he came. To the second part of your question, I guess if you’re a writer, if you’re a novelist in particular, that is the way that your mind works. You’re incredibly curious and always wondering things and making stuff up. I’ve done that since I was a child. It could be a ladybug. Well, where’s she going home to? What’s her little house look like? That’s something that’s been with me all my life. Honestly, I hope it always will be because it makes life very rich.

Zibby: I do that too. I wonder if I see a family, what has just happened. What must people think of my family? Do they have it right? Do they know that this is my sister-in-law? It keeps it interesting, I guess.

Elizabeth: The gears are always turning for certain kinds of people. It sounds like you’re one of us.

Zibby: I noticed on your website — I could’ve read a book in the amount of time just to read the descriptions of all your books and motivation. You’ve written so many amazing books and so many best-sellers. They all seem to have a little piece of your own experience, even just a smidge, or the inspiration came from something inside you. I just wanted to hear a little more about that and how you embark on book projects.

Elizabeth: I think it’s inevitable that pieces of writers show up in their work. I’ll keep it to myself. I’ll talk about me because I don’t want to speak for other writers who might say, no, that’s not true for me at all. For me, I have to draw on my own life predilections and experiences in order to enrich the material I’m writing. What becomes the fiction part is the overarching theme of what it is that I’m trying to get at in this particular book or in this particular case. I do think, though, that writers write about the same thing over and over in different ways. For me, it’s love, loss, longing, and the search for home over and over and over again. Maybe everybody has those themes a little bit in their work. That’s because of the way I am, the way I turned out to be. It’s manifested in everything I write. Even though the stories are different, those themes are always there in all those books. Oh, my goodness, you had to do so much research.

Zibby: I loved it because I haven’t read most of your books. I’ve read some, of course. I was like, this one looks good. The one that looked really great that I was like, I have to order this right away, I think it’s called The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted.

Elizabeth: That’s a good one. That’s a fun one. That will be a good antidote to a sad one. That’s short stories. They all have to do in some way or another with food. It was so much fun writing them. I will tell you that there’s a couple in there that are sad. I think there’s two that are sad, but the others are pretty funny.

Zibby: I like reading about sad stuff too. I like all of that. Actually, I just started a new group and a new podcast called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight.”

Elizabeth: Moms don’t have time for that.

Zibby: I feel like maybe that we should have a book club for that podcast or something. That seems like a good place to start.

Elizabeth: Who doesn’t like to talk about food?

Zibby: I know. I know. We could talk about it all day. When you think about your longing for home — I know you grew up an army brat and all the rest. A lot of your writing in this book was about growing up and your dad and how your relationship with him changed over time. Tell me about how your constant relocation has affected that search for you and that need for belonging.

Elizabeth: It really does have an impact, particularly on sensitive children. I went to one high school reunion in my life. I went two years of high school in Germany and two years in St. Louis, Missouri. In Germany, it was a bunch of army kids all going to this actually quite good school there. It was they who wanted to have the reunion only because we’re so small. They said, if you went to Ludwigsburg American High School between the years of this and this, come to a reunion. It wasn’t the typical 1966 reunion. One of the things that happened at that reunion is that a large group of us got together and talked about that notion of what it feels like to be uprooted all the time. How does that impact your personality? We all agreed that, here’s what it does. You become a fake. You seem gregarious. You seem like you’re wide open and ready for friendship, but you’re always holding back because you know you’re going to have to leave. I think that that can bleed into relationships in general. You have that kind of reserve against — you can’t invest fully in everything around you because you’re going to be pulled away from it. It’s just too devastating, so you invest a little bit. I was really struck with how every single person in that rather large group agreed with that.

Zibby: That’s very interesting. Is that why you mentioned in the book how you feel like you fail at your relationships, like with your partner now even and that he’s very patient with you but that you failed in your first marriage? I was wondering because you didn’t elaborate on that. I found myself thinking, what does she mean? How did she fail? How is she failing now? Can you give us a little more?

Elizabeth: Okay, we’re just going to deliver the goods here. Because I’m always one step away from saying, fine, the end, we’re done. It’s very easy for me. I’m sorry to say. It’s a real character flaw. It’s very easy for me to get to that place of saying, forget it, we’re done. I’ve been there so many times with a place. We’re done with this place. We’re leaving. Then the other part is it really is true that my parents had what my agent calls a Reagan marriage. They really laid the gauntlet down. I don’t expect in my lifetime to see that kind of love and loyalty again. Boy, as you know having read the book, it was tough for a while. Holy moly, it was really tough for a while. I think the redeeming part of reading this book is to see how it got worked out, that it ended, and it ended as well as it could have.

Zibby: Wow. That was part of the power of it, watching the changes that go on with somebody else and how that love still manifests itself even in the smallest of gestures. That’s one of those things that made my cry, the little lunches, just these little moments at the table.

Elizabeth: You know what got me the most out of all of those moments? The flyswatter. My dad who was this mighty army guy who scared the hell out of everybody mellowed in his older years. Then at the end when he went to what was essentially a daycare center, although we called it the VA center, he made a flyswatter decorated with a daisy. Now flyswatters have a whole other meaning, but never mind. We won’t talk about that. Here she has this essentially useless flyswatter all decorated with flowers. Who would want to keep that? She said, “Your father made that for me.” She set it aside. Oh, man, I had to stand really still for a moment after that one. There were lots of those.

Zibby: When he was trying to change the battery in the hearing aid and you and your sister, you were rooting for him to do it. It’s not just these moments. It’s somehow the way that you’re writing about them, how you’re so in the moment. The fact that you and your sister — that moment from the outside might not have been so noticeable that he’s in the kitchen and you guys are waiting, but there’s actually all that unspoken stuff, is what you write about. You capture it. It’s so powerful.

Elizabeth: We were both watching him so intently. Please let him have at least this. Let him be able to change his own hearing aid battery, but nope.

Zibby: Are you working on another book now? How can you follow that up with something? It’s so personal.

Elizabeth: I think in part because of the situation in which we find ourselves, I’m uncharacteristically scattered. I wrote another Mason book. I wrote these books that take place in a fictional town. There are now three of them. The first one is The Story of Arthur Truluv. I wrote two more. I wrote another one of those. I’m very taken with nonfiction suddenly. After having written ten thousand novels, I’m very taken with nonfiction. I thought about doing a collection about old boyfriends. If there were a party and if there were a group of women talking about old boyfriends, I would so be there. I think that whenever we reveal things about the relationships we had with old boyfriends, there’s a commonality, but there are also delicious differences. I’ve written three. I wanted to do, in essence, a life in boyfriends, how I was at the time, how they were at the time, how these relationships shaped me. In at least two instances, I went back after many, many years and had conversations with these guys. One was a musician. The other, the one who took my heart, ran over it with a tank, and then stepped on it, that guy — we all have one of those. Many of us do anyway. Boy, that was an interesting conversation. That’s another thought. Then I have a lot of ideas that I haven’t fleshed out. I guess I’m happy at this age that I still have ideas.

I am interested, too, in paying it forward in a way. I do writing workshops, not lately of course. What I want to do, my legacy in a way — here’s a big secret, not that secret, but kind of secret. What I would like to do is provide a writing retreat house where a group of women could come and know that all they were going to hear is support and all they were going to do is have time for themselves. Each woman gets a room. I want to put fresh flowers in there. I want to have books everywhere and a big dining room table that they can gather around and share the day’s work with. I did share some of this. In large, to become not just a writing retreat, but a gathering place for women who could disconnect for a few days and come back to themselves and be offered cooking classes, painting classes, just a place to enrich themselves. I kind of want to do this. I like to rescue houses because you know, search for home, search for home. I find these wrecks and transform them into what they used to be. There’s a little one I got that’s, oh, my god. My partner, who’s the guy who does construction, said, “Don’t go in there. Do not go inside there.” It’s really bad, but it’s a cute little house. I want to turn that into a cottage. I’m really taken with cottages. That’s a place where I want to provide this. I guess it would be my legacy, this place for women. No men allowed, only women.

Zibby: I think that’s amazing. I would love to stay there in a peaceful room with fresh flowers and nothing but connection and dialogue and time for self. That’s a dream. I don’t think I could extricate myself from my life, but boy, that sounds heavenly. By the way, on your last book idea, there’s a memoir called Five Men Who Broke My Heart by an author named Susan Shapiro who actually taught me a class at The New School was I was twenty-something. It’s sort of the same way. She goes back and talks to her five loves of her life and sees what happened to them.

Elizabeth: Is this an older book or a newer?

Zibby: It’s older.

Elizabeth: I’m so , Five Men Who Broke My Heart.

Zibby: I think I have it behind me. I can find it in a minute. You should check that out. It’s good. Also then, Laura Munson is an author, I don’t know if you know her, but she just had a book come out called Willa’s Grove. In it, the women go to a retreat similar to what you’re talking about, but it’s fictionalized. She actually runs retreats. They’re not in a cottage. They’re in Montana, I think. It’s the same kind of idea where she has women come and connect, but not only a couple. She has bigger groups, I think. Anyway, you might want to just, in your comp, research.

Elizabeth: That is so interesting. See, there’s no new ideas. It’s just the execution.

Zibby: That’s not true. It’s not true.

Elizabeth: In a way, it is. It’s all in the execution. One of the most interesting things I ever did as a writer was to be given a sentence that someone else came up with. The sentence was, “It wasn’t until she got outside that she realized her socks didn’t match, but somehow that didn’t surprise her.” When I was given this sentence, I thought, I don’t like that sentence. I don’t want to write using that. Three different authors got that sentence and were told, write a story using that as the first sentence. They were so remarkably different, so remarkably different, all incredibly different directions that we went. In the same respect, for a woman to write about five men who broke my heart, if you wrote that book, if I wrote that book, she writes that book, they would all be so different.

Zibby: Very true. I would probably want to read all of them.

Elizabeth: Me too.

Zibby: What advice would you have to aspiring authors? You’ve done every genre. You’ve been a successful, prolific author for years. What is the secretly, truly? How do you do it? What advice can you give?

Elizabeth: In a way, I had an advantage in that I never took a writing class. I didn’t do the literary journals, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or any of that. I didn’t know anything about that stuff. I read a lot. I read a lot. I had always written from the time I was a little kid. I entered into this whole publishing world with a great deal of naïveté which I think, in the end, helped me. As to your point about it, a succinct piece of advice — this really is straight. It’s absolute truth. Don’t try to imitate anyone else. Your voice is so valuable. Your point of view has its merit. Your way of expressing that point of view should come from you. That’s what’s interesting, is to really know a person. I can’t abide small talk because to me, it’s a lot of noise. I don’t want to engage in it. I don’t want to hear it. The same thing in writing. I don’t want to see somebody being manipulative or calculating. I want to see inside them, truly, even if they’re talking about other characters.

I’m standing here at my desk. I have these little quotes around. One thing that I put on here is truth, love, and risk. Those elements are something I always want to be in whatever work I do. If you want to write and you’re a little nervous about it, remember that nobody has to see it at first. It can be just for you. The truth is that when most of us write, we get to the point pretty early on when we think, oh, boy, this is great, I want to show everybody this. If you’re afraid of that, don’t worry about that. It’s okay. You can be afraid. In fact, if you’re nervous about it, it’s probably a good sign. If you’re taking a risk in whatever form that takes and you’re a little nervous about it because you’re thinking, I don’t know if this is any good, it’s kind of strange, it’s probably pretty good. Be yourself first and foremost. Understand, too, that the Nobel committee is not going to come and knock at your door and say, have you finished your book yet? You have to get it out there if you want to be published. You have to take that chance of submitting and being rejected. If you’re rejected, you have to remember that reading other people’s work is subjective.

If you get rejected, it might have nothing to do with how good your work is. It might have to do with — let’s say you submitted a novel. It could be that they just bought a novel on this theme and yours is even better, but they can’t buy it now because they just bought that. You have to keep it church and state. You have to concentrate on your writing and what it is that you’re trying to do. When you’re all done and if you want to be publishing, you want to submit, at that point, think about marketing and all that other stuff. Frankly, I think it’s better to let other people think about that entirely. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “I have this great idea,” and they’re already thinking about marketing and how much money they’re going to make and that they ride in the beautiful car to go to the signings, and they haven’t written it yet. The joy is always in the writing. That’s always the best part, is getting from what’s in here out there. The other stuff, it’s nice. It’s wonderful to be on the best-seller list. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But it doesn’t top that feeling of having gotten something out that you needed to get out. Blah, blah, blah, that was a long answer.

Zibby: I loved it. I’m hanging on your every word. Thank you. That was great advice. I’m sure that there’s somebody out there who just heard that who really needed to hear it today, so thank you.

Elizabeth: I’m glad. The other thing, of course, as you know, is read. Read, read, read.

Zibby: Yes, I do.

Elizabeth: Not only do you read, do you know how many interviews are done — can I just say this? — how many interviews are done where the interviewer obviously has not read the book? You understand that right away as an interviewee. You glean that information pretty quickly. Then you know how you’re going to have to structure everything. You actually read the book. Not only did you read the book, but you remember everything about it. I know you do that with all your books. That’s an incredible talent.

Zibby: I try. I can’t get through every book I have on the show. Sometimes I haven’t read more than fifty pages. When I love a book, as I did yours, I love it. I can’t remember anything about my life. College, forget it. If you want to ask me something about your book in five years, I’m going to remember it. It’s the weird twist of memory. At least I can use it now. Anyway, thank you. This has been so nice. Thank you again for your book. I’m going to give it to so many people and recommend it and whatever. Thanks for spending your time with me today.

Elizabeth: I truly appreciate it. Thank you. Again, thank you generally for all you’re doing.

Zibby: Keep me posted on the cottage. Maybe by the time you have it rolled out into the world I’ll have older kids and can get there.

Elizabeth: Vintage quilts in every room, I’m just saying.

Zibby: All right. Thanks so much. Buh-bye.

Elizabeth: Bye.

Elizabeth Berg, I'LL BE SEEING YOU