Elizabeth Berg's novels are perennial bestsellers, including "Talk Before Sleep," her 1994 novel about two friends, one of whom is dying of breast cancer, and "Open House," which was an Oprah pick.
Her new novel, "Once Upon a Time There Was You," is about a divorced couple who come back together when their daughter faces tragedy. It is set partially in St. Paul, and if you're familiar with W.A. Frost restaurant, or Wabasha Avenue or the Mississippi River, you'll feel a pleasant jolt of recognition as you read. Berg will be in town next week for two public events. Here, she discusses her new puppy, her connection to the Twin Cities, and what it means to be labeled a writer for women.
Q Your new book is set in San Francisco and St. Paul. But you live in Chicago. What is your connection to the Twin Cities?
A I was born in St. Paul and then my dad, who was a lifer in the Army, re-upped and we started moving around all over the place. But our home state was always nominally Minnesota. My parents are both from there, and we used to go back every summer, and I went to college at the University of Minnesota. I lived for a time in Minneapolis and there always seemed to be a subtle or not so subtle rivalry between the two towns, but I've come to a very full appreciation of St. Paul. I think it's terrific.
Q What was it that brought you to writing? I know you spent 10 years as a nurse, so what made you make that switch?
A I always wrote. It was how I came to understand myself and the world. But I wrote in the form of journals and letters. When my daughters were 4 and 9, I wanted to be home with them more, so I thought I'd try writing for magazines, and that, in fact, is how I started out, by writing personal essays for magazines. After a few years I started writing short stories, and then I moved into novels, and here we are.
Q You make it sound so easy.
A It's not as hard as some people imagine. The hardest part might be taking the risk to send your stuff out.
Q What is your writing process?
A I get up, get some coffee, and hunker down at the computer in my office. I like to work as early in the morning as I can, and not be distracted by things like the terrible headlines in the newspaper. I like to stay as close to the sleep state as possible. And then I'll work for four, sometimes five hours, punctuated by walking the dog -- now dogs, plural.
A My porn is Petfinder.com. I look on it all the time because I like to look at the puppies, and I was doing that one day, when, bam! There was my dog. I had to have her. I had to have her. She is half golden retriever and half Brittany spaniel. My dog thinks this is about the worst idea in the universe, but he's getting better. I had to go out on tour for four days so I hired someone to stay here with her, and that poor woman is probably in a rest home now.
Q What was it like, having your book picked by Oprah?
A Oh, well, that was a happy day. Of course it increases your sales exponentially. So that's one nice part. But it also was a kind of wonderful way to be acknowledged. She does such a classy job, you feel like the Queen of Sheba. It was totally out of the blue, totally unexpected and that made it all the better.
Q The Chicago Sun-Times once said your books are somewhere between Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman. Do you worry about being pegged as a women's writer?
A When people ask me if I mind being called a writer for women, or a woman writer, if I take offense at that -- I take offense at the thought that it should be offensive. I think there's light fiction and heavier fiction, more literary fiction, but the term "chick lit," I think, carries a kind of a negative connotation. I don't see a parallel in the work that men do, for example. No dick lit, as they say.
I think that one of the things I learned as a nurse is that it's always the little things that matter most -- it's family ties, and people's routines and the small life they live within the larger life they live that really matters in the end.
That's what I'm interested in, the interior landscape of people and relationships and aspects of love -- not only romantic love (I'm actually not that interested in romantic love), but relationships, whether it's between a man and a woman, or a daughter and her mother, or the relationship to the self.
I think it's difficult to navigate through the world at times, and the things that keep us grounded and joyful are those relationships we have with other people. We seem to need each other.
Q Do you believe in happy endings?
A In real life? You know, I think I do. I was getting all set to say, "Oh, come on, of course not," and I couldn't help it, it just came bubbling up. Yes! I do! Just don't ask me for proof.