An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With Betsy Berne
First-time Random House Author of Bad Timing
By Doris Booth
One in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!
Betsy Berne is the author of Bad Timing, a hip, knowing funny/sad first novelthe story of an affair, set in the rarefied climates of Manhattans art, jazz, and magazine worlds. (Villard Books; spring 2001).
"I'd been a painter . . . Then the art market crashed and I had to think of a better way to make more money."
AUTHORLINK: When did you begin your writing career, and what prompted you to do so? Is there a special story behind your decision to become an author?
BETSY BERNE: It's hard to believe but I started writing as a way to make money about five and a half years ago. I'd been a painter and usually had part-time no-brain jobs to help support myself. Then the art market crashed and I had to think of a better way to make more money. I also had a lot of writer friends who had always encouraged me to write.
Then I ran into an acquaintance, Tom Beller, editor of Open City, a literary journal, and suggested quite innocently that he run pictures by a dead photographer friend of mine. He said he would if I wrote something to go with it. I told him I wasn't a writer but he said just do it (God knows why) so I did and people seemed to like it. Then I submitted a humor piece to The New Yorker about six months later and they ran it, which was an enormously lucky and bizarre break. I continued to paint and also write for The New Yorker which was very difficult, and then began writing for The New York Times magazine, Vogue and other womens' magazines. I wrote humor and whatever else they asked me to do.
Again I was very lucky–and I knew a lot of people in the business. In fact I had no idea how lucky I was. Then it started getting harder to publish my real work, the humor pieces, because humor is very subjective and most of mine is not PC so instead I got more and more stupid assignments. That's why I started writing the novel–so I could say what I wanted to say without being censored. When I started the novel I stopped painting because I could not write for magazines, write a novel, paint and also hustle all of the above.
"This particular friend was extremely helpful because he would critique things in a very abstract way . . ."
AUTHORLINK: Who was the greatest influence on your decision to write, and in what ways did they encourage you?
BETSY BERNE: At first several writer friends of mine encouraged me, but as time went on, only one of my writer friends really stuck by me and helped me learn. I really knew nothing about 'how to write' or the editing process or all those things you're supposed to know, like structure or whatever, having never studied writing. I was operating from pure instinct. This particular friend was extremely helpful because he would critique things in a very abstract way, so as not to squash me. Of course I wanted specifics–I wanted him to tell me exactly what to do, line by line, but he was smart enough not to.
AUTHORLINK: How did you find your first agent?
BETSY BERNE: My first agent, Binky Urban, called me after the New Yorker piece came out.
"I sent the book to about 10 or 12 agents who were suggested to me by an editor at The New Yorker."
AUTHORLINK: How did you find the agent who sold your work to Random House?
BETSY BERNE: After Binky hated my novel, I sent the book to about 10 or 12 agents who were suggested to me by an editor at The New Yorker. I got plenty of rejections, but two were interested and I chose Jennifer Rudolph Walsh–primarily because she got the book instantly, even suggested the title which had been my original title that I'd discarded for some reason–plus we had a genuine rapport.
AUTHORLINK: What aspects of your work caught your editor's attention? Voice? Characters? Marketing concept? If Random House was not your first publisher, who was, and how did you find them?
BETSY BERNE: I think Jennifer liked my voice and we share a similiar sense of humor, perhaps black humor, which I could tell the first time I talked to her. It certainly wasn't a marketing concept; she knew it wasn't going to be some huge money-making kind of thing. Jennifer chooses books she truly believes in; she has an enormous amount of integrity. And yes, Random House is my first publisher.
"[My agent has been] incredibly important…. she understands me and my writing."
AUTHORLINK: How important has your agent been in guiding your career?
BETSY BERNE: Incredibly important; she sold my book very quickly to a good house. And she understands me and my writing. She does not bullshit; she is very down to earth and very very realistic. She does not raise your expectations to unrealistic heights which is smart. As far as other aspects of my career, magazine work, etc., I try not to bother her because she's so busy. Most of it is easier to do on my own–at least so far.
AUTHORLINK: Who are your favorite authors? What you like about them?
BETSY BERNE: I like Bruce Jay Friedman because he is so funny and has an incredible voice. I also like Joy Williams because she is so smart and eccentric and a real writer.
"To me, the important thing is doing the work . . ."
AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to be a published author? Is this your first book,or one in a long career? Tell us a little more about your writing career.How long did it take you to publish your first work?
BETSY BERNE: It is my first book so I've only been a published author for a couple of weeks, so I don't know. I also have a high-pressure job, which has been particularly hellish lately so I've been distracted. I guess I should be really excited but I've already been through one 'artistic' career, painting, and all the ups and downs, so I try to keep my expectations low as possible to avoid disappointment. To me, the important thing is doing the work; that is where I've always gotten my thrills so I can't wait until I can get back to what Im working on, an alleged second novel. It didn't take me very long to get the book published; only a month after I submitted it–again I was extremely extremely lucky and Jennifer is like a bulldog. Plus I paid an editor at The New Yorker to edit it before I tried to sell it partly because it was so unwieldy and my friend who was helping thought it would hasten the process. He couldn't take it anymore–and rightly so; he'd already gone far beyond the call of duty. So the editing took a while because the editor was so busy. And then it was a year and a half before it came out. The only other thing to say about my writing career is that I have a writing job I do from home (I write and consult for Calvin Klein) which allows me to make a living without worrying about making big bucks writing novels–although it also interferes–bigtime– with the writing of novels."
"I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be a writer…."
AUTHORLINK: Did you ever think you would be where you are today as an author? What was your vision for your career, and how does it compare against reality?
BETSY BERNE: I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be a writer although, come to think of it, I did want to be a writer until I was about eleven when I got a C plus in a creative writing class. Then I decided (by process of elimination) that I wanted to be an artist. It only hit me that I'd become a writer when my first agent hated the novel and I was scared I wouldn't be able to sell it and then I thought, "What was I thinking? Who did I think I was? Why did I do this?" And really all I wanted to do was paint again. I'm sure my story does not compare with reality in any shape or form. I am an aberration: I lucked out and who knows if it will last.
AUTHORLINK: Where or how did you get the idea for your first book?
BETSY BERNE: I wanted to write about a certain kind of NY people–the people who create–artists, writers, musicians–and I wanted to portray it the way it really is–not very glamorous. At least in NY, it's not. It all comes down to money and race and class–like everything else–so I wanted to write about that. I also wanted to talk about the effects of all the early deaths my generation experienced. And I wanted to write about a love affair where the complicity between men and women is acknowledged, instead of having the woman being the sad sack victim. I needed to tie all this together with a plot and I'm terrible at thinking of plots so I came up with a somewhat soap opera plot.
I have a little office in my loft where I work; a little dungeon."
AUTHORLINK: What are your writing habits? How many hours per day do you write?Describe your writing environment? Do you have a special place where you write? Do you have special quirks about how you work?
BETSY BERNE: My writing habits vary depending on how much work I have to do for my job. I guess I try to do it as much as I can; sometimes its better at night, sometimes in the day. I usually exercise in the morning so I can concentrate better and also stay seated since I'm antsy and used to doing more physical work (painting). I have a little office in my loft where I work; a little dungeon. My strange quirks are probably no different from anyone else's and not that interesting.
AUTHORLINK: How important is it to read other authors while you're working, and when you're not working? How important is it to read the classics? Why?
BETSY BERNE: I've always been a reader; reading has always been my favorite escape. I'd rather read than go to a movie. So I will read anything, fiction or non-fiction. I do like to read books that might help me subliminally with what I'm trying to write. I guess it's important to read the classics and I wish I'd read more of them. I've missed a lot; it's embarrassing what I haven't read and I wish I could read more of them now. But it takes a certain kind of concentration that is hard to find in NY. When Im out of NY I try to catch up and read classics.
". . . don't be a writer unless you really like to be alone and really love to do it and need to do it."
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice or insights for newcomers trying to break into publishing?
BETSY BERNE: I have no advice because the way I did it was so weird. I guess I would say don't be a writer unless you really like to be alone and really love to do it and need to do it–because the business part is very arbitrary.
"They're [the publishers] looking to make money like everybody else."
AUTHORLINK: Do you perceive New York publishing to be a closed society or an open one? What do you think publishers are looking for today?
It probably is a closed society although I can't really vouch for it since I knew some publishing people before I was a writer, in fact, probably because I wasn't a writer, and as for what publishers are looking for today, I guess they're looking to make money like everybody else–and some are trying to publish good books too.
". . . it's nice to get some respect."
AUTHORLINK: What's the best thing about being a published author? The worst thing?
BETSY BERNE: It's better than saying Im working on a novel and getting those 'Oh sure–and who isn't?' looks from people. Otherwise I guess it's nice to get some respect.
The worst thing is that I have gotten mostly moronic reviews–not that they're particularly bad–just stupid. They get the facts wrong and completely misunderstand the book but I'm hoping I will get one review that does get what I was trying to do with the book. And of course its great to get responses from individuals who do get the book or can identify with characters or whatever; that's very nice.
"I have no idea what good writing is; I only judge by my instincts."
AUTHORLINK: Why do you think so many writers get rejected, and so few become published? What elements of good writing would you guess are missing from an aspiring writer's work?
BETSY BERNE: I guess because the book business is not equipped or willing to take as many risks especially since now they are mostly big conglomerates even more desperate to make big money. I have no idea what good writing is; I only judge by my instincts. Im terrible with all the terminology and analysis so I am the wrong one to ask. I don't even know why they published my book.
AUTHORLINK: How did you learn your craft? Through reading? Conferences? A university? Mentoring? A combination of these, or other means?
BETSY BERNE: I must have learned through reading because I never took a class. And then once I started, I learned through doing it–although I still have a lot to learn. Also, worse comes to worse, I have the one friend who still reads things.
AUTHORLINK: What would you do over again if you began your writing career now?
BETSY BERNE: The whole thing has been such a fluke. It's a strange thing to finally reflect on this career I never expected; I honestly didn't plan anything. I just went along with what happened because I thought I should so there is nothing I would do differently–except maybe not do it at all because I am also very passionate about painting.
". . . aside from acdtually writing the book, the publication process has been hell."
AUTHORLINK: What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you on the way to getting published?
BETSY BERNE: Once I was buying a bunch of books and the guy at the cash register said, 'Boy you read as much as I do; we should probably both be writing books.' So I said, I actually did write a book and then I told him the name. Who knows if he believed me but it was kind of funny. Otherwise, aside from actually writing the book, the publication process has been hell.
"…I would still rather paint"
AUTHORLINK: If you could choose any career in the world today (knowing what you know now), what would it be?
BETSY BERNE: I think I would still rather paint since I have more experience, I know what I'm doing, and I prefer the physicality of painting. So hopefully I will eventually.
This is one in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!