I would eventually see that certain kinds of melancholia are natural for many artists, and not only melancholia but strange kinds of behavior that are difficult for anyone who is not an artist to understand, let alone embrace.
George Sand in The Dream Lover
Elizabeth Berg has been one of my favorite authors for a very long time. She’s amazingly talented and prolific, even though she didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her mid-forties. Durable Goods came out in 1993, and almost every year since then I’ve had the pleasure of reading a new Elizabeth Berg novel or short story collection. Some years she even published two books. I was disappointed last year when no Berg book appeared on our store shelves.
“Aha!” you say. “She’s turning into a slacker.” Actually, no. A couple of years ago, Berg decided to change gears and write a historical novel. As she tells it, one day she was reading about George Sand in The Writer’s Almanac and became curious about Sand’s life and times, particularly what she calls “the good stuff” — “deeply personal things about her character as well as her thoughts and feelings.”
Berg called her friend Nancy Horan, author of two biographical novels (Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky) and implored her to write about George Sand. In a conversation with Horan (which appears at the back of The Dream Lover), Berg said to her fellow author:
I thought you would be the perfect person to write a novel about her; I so admired the way you provided intimate access into the character of Mamah Cheney in Loving Frank . . . I believe when you answered the phone I said, “Nancy! You have to write about George Sand! She’s so interesting! . . . You said, “You write it!” I told you I couldn’t, possibly. But then the idea wouldn’t go away, and so I plunged in, buoyed up by the last words you said to me: “Oh, of course you can write it. It will be fabulous!”
Horan was right — it is fabulous. Readers will be captivated by Berg’s lovely and perceptive rendering of George Sand’s brilliant and tumultuous life. Sand, born Aurore Dupin, left her unhappy marriage to become an independent woman — and eventually the first female bestselling author in France. The questions Berg raises through her imaginative portrayal of Sand’s inner and outer lives are as relevant today as they were in 19th century France. Must one pay a price for fame and success? How can a woman balance motherhood with her career? What does it mean to be a female artist?
“Tell me, George. Do you wish you’d been born a man?”
I thought for a moment, then said, “In my youth, I wished that. I very much admired my father and I wanted to be just like him . . . But now I find I don’t wish to be either man or woman. I wish to be myself.”
Berg “plunged in” by reading Sand’s very lengthy autobiography, Story of My Life, and found that Sand took hold of her imagination:
George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream of her; then, I thought, to dream like her. I know that might sound arrogant or at least unlikely. But I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.
Berg was kind enough to answer my questions about The Dream Lover, even though she’s on an exhausting month-long book tour. The tour started here in Chicago, and Lake Forest Book Store was thrilled to host a luncheon (at a French restaurant, of course) and an evening event at a nearby library on publication day.
I have to admit I knew very little about George Sand before I read The Dream Lover. I knew two things: that she was an 18th century French writer and that she wore men’s clothing. I suspect that’s much as most of your readers know. The character you brought to life is, as you say, “a mass of contradictions”. How would you compare the process of developing George Sand’s character on the page to the process of bringing a completely fictional character to life? And is any character completely fictional, or do they all incorporate elements of people you’ve known?
You’ve heard the phrase,” You can’t make this stuff up!”, right? That was my experience in writing about George Sand. Her life was so interesting, so full of outrageous incident, such tragedy, such scandal, but also such joy and tenderness and catharsis I could never get away with trying to suggest such things would be plausible if I were writing about a fictional character. Truth really is stranger than fiction!
How do you think modern readers who’ve never read the work of George Sand before would respond to her work (in translation)? Is there a particular novel that you would recommend? And are her works still widely read by the French?
I don’t think George Sand is widely read by anyone, actually. But one book I would recommend is Lettres d’un Voyageur, which is Sand’s travel writing and contains some of the most ravishing descriptions of Venice I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Also, if you’re up for a loooooong book, try her 1,000+ page autobiography. It’s fascinating, and one of the things I liked best about it is the way that she respects where she came from, and devotes a great deal of space to her grandparents and parents. I also recommend her letters, especially those between her and Gustave Flaubert.
Did your research involve any travel to Paris and/or the French countryside, or any study of French?
I’ve been to Paris. I purposely did not go to Nohant, because I wanted to see it as it was, not as it has become. Now that I’ve finished the book, however, I’m dying to go. I minored in French in college, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of it.
George Sand had to change her name to succeed as a writer — and today, I am sorry to tell you, many men won’t read books they perceive as being “chick” books. (This includes about 90% of literary fiction.) Why do you think this is? I find women to be much more catholic in their reading tastes than men, and I’m always wondering why.
Well, I guess the simple and unfortunate answer is that women are still second-class citizens, still often times not taken seriously, not given the respect (or salary or recognition) that they are due. A lot of people are tired of hearing that, but their ennui doesn’t mean the problem isn’t real. I make a concerted effort to support women writers—and women in general. That’s all I can do.
If we could have a glimpse of your personal library, what would it look like? How is it organized?
Like most writers, I have a gazillion books: literary fiction, poetry, essays, memoir, non-fiction titles, graphic novels. Organized? No. It is a mess. Once, I hired three college girls to organize my library and they made it worse. Help!
Could you tell us about your writers’ group(s)? Do you see yourself as part of a literary community in Chicago and how would you characterize that community?
My writers’ group is made up of seven women who meet weekly at a study room in the Oak Park Public Library. Not all of us are there every time, but we try to be. Anyone who brings pages reads them aloud and is then critiqued by the group. We are kind, but honest. Supportive and fun. Often times, we bring good food to share. I love that part. If only dogs could come to the library, it would be perfect. I do see myself as part of a literary community in Chicago, and am interested in working with others to convince publishers to send us more authors.
In your interview with Nancy Horan, you say, “I hope readers will finish the last sentence of The Dream Lover and say to themselves, Boy! That was a good read!” What have you read recently yourself that made you say that? Do you have any favorite historical novels?
Well, I loved Loving Frank, of course. Favorite recent reads include Rachel Joyce’s Perfect, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (volumes 1 and 2) and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. I thought Akhil Sharma’s Family Life was astonishingly good.
As you well know, an author’s work doesn’t end when her book is published — a whole new phase of her job begins. How do you feel about that — do you enjoy promoting the book, which involves social media and public speaking?
I love meeting people who read and like my books, and am so grateful when someone comes to a reading and says, “You know, I’ve never come to a reading before. This was fun!” I’m not nuts about doing interviews on the phone when I can’t see the person’s face; it makes me nervous. I’m not nuts about hanging around airports day after day. But I AM nuts about room service, and the fact that my wonderful publisher is willing to send me on the road.
I’m sure readers would love to hear about your Writing Matters events. Could you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start them? I know you’ve mentioned that you are trying to gain some visibility for under appreciated authors. I’ve always wondered why some books “take off” and others — just as wonderful, if not more so — don’t find their audience.
Writing Matters was inspired because one day I was talking to a friend and extremely good writer, Leah Hager Cohen, about a book she had coming out. I asked if she were coming to Chicago on tour; I wanted to go to one of her readings. She said oh, her publisher didn’t tour her. She didn’t sell enough books to warrant a tour. Here is a brilliant writer (and wonderful, kind and engaging personality) who got a rave review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Here is someone who is such an inspiration to read, so talented. I told her, “Well, you’re going to come to Chicago now, because I’m going to do an event for you.” With only three weeks to plan, we rented the Hemingway Museum, got food and flowers and wine , made posters to advertise and programs to hand out, and voila: Writing Matters was born. At the first reading, we had 75 people, at the second, 150.
We’ve now completed a year’s worth of every-three-month readings, and next time we’re doing something different in that we’re having a children’s book writer: the delightful Amy Krouse Rosenthal. (The time after that, I’m shooting for highly esteemed poet Charles Simic.) I wanted Writing Matters to serve author, community, and audience, to make it an elevated kind of book signing that would be a real evening out. All proceeds go to buy books for children who would otherwise not have them; currently we give the money to Magic Tree Bookshop to set up an account for the kids at Hephzibah. They can go to the bookstore and pick out whatever book strikes their fancy. It’s really rewarding to see authors get the audience they deserve, audiences to get the authors they deserve, and to serve the community not only by buying books for children but by advertising (for free) local business and restaurants that we like on our programs. There is always a reading by a kid for a warm-up act, and there is always a surprise of some kind. It’s a lot of work to produce, but totally worth it.
I recommend you check out Elizabeth Berg’s Facebook page, which is an absolute delight — many of her posts are actually essays, and I think you’ll find them inspiring and uplifting.