A Conversation with Elizabeth Berg about Open House
If you "could lift the roof--make for a real open house--and look
in-side,"what roofs would you lift? What do you think you would see?
Given my interest in things "ordinary," I would probably lift the roof of the people on my block. And what I would see are people involved in "ordinary" lives, which, for me, are extraordinary. I'm the kind of person who is entertained watching someone simply be themselves, whether they're putting their children to bed or making dinner or sitting at the table reading the morning newspaper. I like the myriad ways people reveal themselves, the great variation in the human species, as well as the remarkable similarities.
Is this what you're doing when you write--"lifting the roof"?
Yes. I look to find the heart and soul of people, of my characters. I look for the truth of them, and the truths about life that are presented through them.
Sam wants to "lift the roof" in a moment of isolation. Does writing allow you to ward off isolation? Or, is writing isolating?
Well, that's an interesting question. The answer is both. Writing is, of course, a solitary occupation. But for many writers, myself included, it's through writing that we make certain vital connections. Oftentimes I need to write about something in order to understand it. And it's on the page that I'm able to most accurately say the things I feel and believe.
Did this novel begin with a particular "roof" you wanted to lift or a character or a situation you wanted to investigate?
It began with an idea that I'd like to write about a woman who took boarders into her suburban home. I thought, hmmm, what might have to happen so that that occurred? And then it came to me that a divorce would do it: a woman gets abandoned by her husband, and wants to keep her house rather than selling it. And then the book became something else altogether, which often happens. You start out
to write one book, and then another one takes over. In the case of Open House, it became a story of a woman finding her way back to herself.
Is this where or how your novels usually begin?
It depends. Sometimes it's an issue I want to explore, like the power of women's friendships in Talk Before Sleep or changes that occur with menopause as in The Pull of the Moon. Sometimes a character's voice leads the way and makes the story emerge later: Katie in Durable Goods and Joy School.
What was unique to your experience of writing Open House?
Every novel is unique, because it makes its intentions known in its own way: at a certain point, it takes over and invents itself, and I'm just the typist. Every novel is the same for the same reason. One really different thing about Open House, though, is that after I turned it in, I decided not to publish it. It just didn't feel right. I kept it on the shelf for five years, then rewrote it, added a few things (the Martha Stewart thing, for example), and then let it be published.
The first sentence of the novel is "You know before you know, of course." Is it "of course"?
Seems to be so. Your heart knows before your head will let the information in.
Once Sam realizes that the divorce is really happening, she does some rather--well--extraordinarily embarrassing things. Do you ever--out of sympathy--want to stop a character from acting as she intends to?
I never want to stop a character from doing anything. I love when they "take over" and I feel like I'm just watching the show.
In a way, Sam isn't acting like herself. Is it difficult to write about a character who acts out of character?
No. Extraordinary circumstances make for different kinds of behavior. Part of a writer's job, I think, is to know her characters so completely that it's no more difficult to write them acting out of character than in it. It's that old thing about how you have to know much more about your characters than you ever present on the page. You may not ever write about what's in their refrigerator or their closet, or how they take a bath, or if they like poetry, or who their first love was, or how they would react in certain situations, but you should know it.
In the moment that Sam tells Travis about the divorce, you write two explanations: the explanation we all know Sam should give, and the response she does give. When you began to write, did you know which would actually come out of her mouth?
No. I like to let the characters lead the way. When I write dialogue, it emerges on the page as is. I don't plan it.
Sam leaves a tough question in the novel unanswered: How much truth are children entitled to? Do you have an answer to that question?
Oh, I wish I did. It's a hard question. And there is no definitive answer, because children are all different. Some are well equipped to handle difficult truths; others need more protection. Some have a great deal of empathy and perspective; some do not. It's not always a function of age, either--a younger child may be more philosophical or calm or secure than an older one. Our job as parents is to try to know our children as best we can, and then support them in the ways that they need it. And it's a really hard job. It might be impossible. But we try. And when they know that we really, really love them, it helps.
In a difficult conversation between Sam and her own mother, Veronica tells Sam that "your children never really grow up for you." Is this true of a child's experience of her mother, as well? Is an adult child ever able to relate to her mother not as a mother, but only as another adult? Is Sam?
I think it is in that moment that Sam does begin to see her mother as a person. She believes she understands why her mother has this impenetrable cheerfulness and crazy behavior--Sam has begun to see the fault lines. That is to say, she has come to understand her mother's vulnerability, and her defenses against her own fragility.
Although her relationship with Veronica is difficult, Sam relies on the "truth" communicated across generations. Is there wisdom that can be communicated only across generations? Is there wisdom that only older women--like Lydia--possess?
Wisdom is a funny thing. I think some children are very, very wise, and some old people are not wise at all. It seems to me that, more than anything, wisdom is a gift some people are given.
In her search for women to share her experience or to offer wisdom or empathy, Sam seriously considers calling the author of a novel she's just read. Has such a reader ever called you?
Yes. Many times.
How did you respond?
It depends on the caller. Most of the time, they're very kind and considerate, and they just really want to tell me how much a book has meant to them. And that's nice. But sometimes I get someone who wants me to write a book for them, or read their manuscript, or do some other favor, and they can be very pushy. That's not so nice.
Have you ever called another author?
Many years ago, when Erica Jong's Fear of Flying came out, I tried to call her. I called New York City information, got a number, dialed it, and then hung up. I wanted to tell her how much I loved the book, but I was afraid I'd be bothering her and/or sound like an idiot.
Did you know, when you began to write, that David would ask to return? Were you afraid that Sam would take him back?
No. When he said he wanted to come home, though, I knew Sam would not take him back. Especially since the only way he could ex-press appreciation of her was to note what she did for him.
Is there a moment when you knew Sam was strong enough to stand on her own?
Well, it was a slow evolution. But something big happened when she lay in the bathtub listening to Janis Joplin.
Does divorce always result in what Sam calls a "psychic limp"?
I can only speak from my own experience. I will always have a raw place inside me from that experience.
Where does a character like King come from? Does he just walk onto the page?
Actually he did just walk onto the page.
What did that feel like? How did it happen?
It felt completely natural. I have no idea how it happens. You're asking an "under the hood" question, and I'm a person who doesn't think very much about technique. In Escaping into the Open, I tried to explain all that I know and believe about the writing process. But it's mostly . . . I don't know, magical. I mean, how would you explain how and why people fall in love? Why we crave chocolate or salt? (Or, my favorite, chocolate and salt together?) Those things are just in us. I don't think about or try to manipulate or analyze the creative process when I'm writing something. For me, that would be death.
When did you know that King and Sam would be instrumental in helping each other find their way back to themselves?
Again, you're assuming I know what I'm going to do. I don't. I just get out of the way and let it happen. When Sam first met King, I didn't know who he was going to be for her.
As King helps Sam find her way back to herself, he asks her to remember a time when she "wanted to know everything." She remembers herself as a little girl. Why is it that she has to look back so far? Why do women so frequently seem to lose themselves during adolescence?
It's not that she has to look that far back. It's just the memory that occurs to her at the time he asks the question. To answer your other question, I think women often lose themselves in adolescence because of boys--because of our desire to shape ourselves so that they will be attracted to us, and because boys sort of take over in general. That has certainly been well documented!
When King explains to Sam why his job isn't astrophysics, he talks about the "limitations of words." Is this something that you know about through writing? Are there moments where you want to say "red" and come out with "chartreuse"?
As I mentioned before, the place I come closest to speaking the real truth is on the page. But I also believe that the deepest things are very, very difficult to express, no matter how articulate you are. The eyes hold so much. A touch. A sigh. The translation is so difficult and so often inadequate.
Do you ever stop writing for a while because, as King says, "when I'm away from it in the specific, I'm better able to see it generally"?
I never stop writing unless my life circumstances force me to. It has nothing to do with publication. It has to do with the fact that I must do it, and that I love doing it.
When and how did you learn that Open House had been selected as an Oprah Book Club book?
I was sitting at my desk on August 16 when the phone rang and a producer told me the good news that Open House would be the September selection. She said that Oprah said to apologize for not calling herself--she was in court that day. I thought, oh, man, Oprah doesn't have to apologize for anything.
What was your book club discussion experience like?
It was enormously gratifying. The women who appeared on that show were so honest and so giving, and I feel they helped other women who have been through or are contemplating divorce. There was such pain expressed, but also such triumph. Women laughed and cried during that discussion--who could ask for a richer emotional experience?
All of the individuals discussing Open House at that meeting were women. When you write, do you write for women or with women in mind?
I write for myself. But I am very interested in women's issues, and I seem to tend to focus on them.
How do you think that the men reading this novel--or any of your other novels--respond?
Most of my readers are women, but more men are starting to write to me and/or come to readings. A lot of men have told me that my books help them to understand their women better, and that makes me feel great.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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