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Tuesday, June 22

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Interview Sat Sep 17 2011

Elizabeth Berg: An All-Too-Brief Interview

My interview with Elizabeth Berg was simply not meant to be.

What was to be a nice chat in Oak Park turned into my sitting in Oak Park, glumly drinking a no longer enjoyable pumpkin latte and brooding over my rotten luck.

No Berg. And me without her phone number.

After some unfortunate pestering of various publicists, I learned that my interviewee mistook my name on her calendar for an author (not really, I'm afraid) who she wanted to hear give a reading (alas, but one can dream). Being quite busy that day, she thought, "skip it."

Needless to say, when an intrepid publicist finally reached her, she apologized profusely for the error, and was happy to answer some of my questions via email.

I give you: A Brief (Email) Interview, wherein we discuss her as a writer, and her new book, Once Upon a Time, There Was You.

I understand you were a nurse for a while - when, how and why did you make the transition to writing? What is the writing process like for you - if you could describe how it feels, what it does to/for you, etc.

I was a nurse for ten years. I had always written, and I'd always gotten a lot of encouragement from friends and teachers who said, "You should be a writer!" So I decided to give it a try--mostly because I wanted to have a job where I could stay home with my daughters. I began sending out personal essays to magazines, though I also kept working as a nurse. But at some point, I saw I could make my living as a writer and decided to stop working as a nurse. As for the writing process, it's a joyful mystery. As E. B. White once famously said, I don't like to look under the hood.

Which character (and/or book) do you see the most of yourself in? The least?

Most: Katie Nash. Least: All the others.

How have you changed as a writer, or how has your style changed, since you started? If it has!

I don't think I have changed much, really. I'm still writing about the same issues: love, loss, the meaning of home and family, the importance of friendship, the fragility of life.

[SPOILER] Did you know going in that John and Irene wouldn't get back together? Or, at what point did you "learn" that they wouldn't, while you were writing?

I didn't know, going in. I wrote it to see what would happen if two people who were once with each other every day but now were estranged, were forced back together. Would they remember what they used to love about each other? Would they feel justified in having made the choice to separate?

Food was a huge presence in this book, and has been in others (e.g. The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted) - tell me about food. What is it about food that makes it so evocative/provocative?

Oh, well, it can serve as metaphor for everything. And it's a regular presence in everyone's life: we all have to eat. What/how/when we eat tells others a lot about us.

In the early scene between Irene and [her friend] Val, when she's about to ditch the wedding, her father peeks in to say it's time and she seems to instantly change her mind, or find some sort of resolve to go through with it. What happened there? What happened between "I'm not doing this" and her response to Val's question, "no"?

She's just so ambivalent. She knows John is a good man, and her father's voice tips her over into the side of oh, I'll just do it. And she was affected by Val's words, too: if you do this, it's permanent. Everything between John and you will be over.

You have three paratextual quotes that start the book off - the first two are really self-explanatory. Tell me about the third one, in relation to the story.

For me, that quote simply acknowledges the fact that for some people, love is absolutely terrifying. And often not possible. They can't handle it. There is something buried deep inside them that they won't let anyone touch, and that makes it impossible for them to enjoy the kind of free fall into trust that love requires.

To learn more about the recent literary event featuring Berg and fellow author Jacquelyn Mitchard, click here.

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