Suzanne Berne: Don’t Be Afraid Of Getting It Wrong

March 1, 2007
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The Ghost at the Table
by Suzanne Berne
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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Suzanne Berne
Author of The Ghost at the Table

by Ellen Birkett Morris

March 2007“

A writing teacher once said to me, 'Whatever you do, don't show your readers your price tags.' The Ghost at the Table is so dense and has so many layers of inquiry on my part that I hope the price tags don't show,” said author Suzanne Berne.

In The Ghost at the Table, Berne has created a richly layered psychological drama that explores family relationships with nary a price tag in sight. It is her third book published by Algonquin. Her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won England's prestigious Orange Prize.

“When I started writing I wish someone had said to me 'don't be afraid of getting it wrong.'"
—BERNE

Berne owns up to her price tags, offering up frank anecdotes about her struggles to write and to get it right. Ghost began as a historical novel and took eight full drafts once she settled on the book's focus. She retained some material from each of those drafts in her finished product.

“When I started writing I wish someone had said to me 'don't be afraid of getting it wrong'. You probably will, but that is not wasted work,” said Berne.

Berne was drawn to writing as a child and but it wasn't until she was a senior at Wesleyan University, and a short story of hers won a MS. Magazine contest, that she began to think seriously about trying to make a career as a writer. She graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she continued to publish short stories in magazines and small journals.

"My experiences in Iowa gave
me a great deal of respect
for the importance
of details. . ."

—BERNE

She thrived in the culturally-rich atmosphere of Iowa City, which was filled with writers of all types. "It was a great place to develop what Flannery O'Connor called 'the habit of art'. I'm not sure I would have gotten into that habit without it," said Berne.

She also received valuable advice about the craft of writing. "My experiences in Iowa gave me a great deal of respect for the importance of details," said Berne. "Especially the importance of being truthful about what you're trying to describe." She cited an instance in class where she described a train going around a corner and was reminded that a train could only go around a bend.

After completing her degree, Berne wrote nonfiction essays, articles and book reviews for publications including The New York Times. "Writing nonfiction taught me to pay attention to the line of argument I was putting down," she noted.

"The exercises I teach in class
are the same ones I use
when I am stuck."

—BERNE

 

 

 

Berne's first novel, which took five years to write, was never published. "It is still one of the mysteries of my life why I wasn't sufficiently discouraged," said Berne.

Instead, Berne set out to prove herself and ended up writing two books that were named New York Times Notable Books, A Crime in the Neighborhood and A Perfect Arrangement.

A Crime in the Neighborhood had been rejected 14 times when Algonquin editor Shannon Ravenel agreed to talk with Berne about the book. Ravenel explained that the book set up expectations that it did not fulfill. "She told me to go back and use what I had already made to make something happen," said Berne. She did, and the book won the Orange Prize.

She enjoys the support of her agent, Colleen Mohyde of The Doe Coover Agency, who she met through a friend in 1990. Berne describes Mohyde as a "good editor and trusted advisor."

In addition to writing, Berne teaches creative writing at Boston College. She said her teaching keep her focused on the mechanics of writing. 'The exercises I teach in class are the same ones I use when I am stuck."

". . .she had a draft of a novel
that "was terrible, very
mannered and studied."

—BERNE

The premise for The Ghost at the Table sprang from a series of articles on writer's homes that she was writing for the New York Times. While visiting Mark Twain's home in Hartford, she was surprised to learn that he had daughters. While their portrayal had been sanitized, she was fascinated to learn that the daughters were gifted and neurotic and that they had a complicated, often contentious, relationship with their father.

Thus began her quest to write an historical novel that explored Twain family relationships. Two years later she had a draft of a novel that "was terrible, very mannered and studied."

The greatest challenge in writing the book was her decision to place the story in modern times, which Berne said was akin to turning an ocean liner around in mid-journey.

She unlocked the secret of her book when she realized that what she was most interested in was her identification with the daughters. She began a book, set in modern times, in which two sisters both identify with the Twain daughters and embody some of the traits they might possess if they lived in modern times.

". . . your version of someone
else's life will always be
more about you than
about your subject. "

—BERNE

The book centers on the sisters, Cynnie and Frances, and their differing versions of their upbringing. They gather at Thanksgiving with their elderly father present and grapple with differing version of the past, which include suspicions about their mother's mysterious death twenty-five years earlier.

Berne explained that given the same series of facts two people will always choose to emphasize different areas as they impose their own perspective on events.

“Frances and Cynnie each have an agenda. Each sister has her own view of the past and her own idea of what the weekend will be about. Each believes she understands the other sister and they're both wrong. The point is that your version of someone else's life will always be more about you than about your subject,” observed Berne.

"A story is a story
and the truth of it
lies in why
it's being told."

—BERNE

She believes that whenever you have a first person narrator you will always have an unreliable narrator, citing the character Cynnie, who seems trustworthy at first but not necessarily so later in the story.

“I guess I want the reader to decide that the "true story" is the story that the person who tells it believes is true, because that is the version she or he can live with,” said Berne. “It doesn't matter if no one else believes it's true. A story is a story and the truth of it lies in why it's being told.”

In preparation for writing the historical novel, Berne had read numerous biographies and made four visits to the Twain home. She was eager to have Cynnie and Frances visit the house but could not work out the scene. She remembered hearing a story about novelist John Fowles as he was writing The French Lieutenant's Woman. He was working his way up to a scene where the female lead character confronted the male lead character. When he could not come up with the right words he had her remain silent. So when the sisters visited the Twain House in the novel it was closed. "They don't get in. It is another version of the past that is closed to them," said Berne. "So they make up what they don't know."

"I rewrite a paragraph until
it becomes two paragraphs.
I rewrite a chapter until
it becomes two chapters."

—BERNE

She described her method of writing as rewriting. "I rewrite a paragraph until it becomes two paragraphs. I rewrite a chapter until it becomes two chapters. It is all about mining those early details. When you go over something you can see how many ways you can take things," said Berne.

Like many writers, Berne works in the mornings, in her case after her taking her children to school. "I just sit there and eventually, if only out of boredom, I will write something."

Her second novel, written when her children were small, was literally written sometimes in five or ten minute increments over a period of time. Berne put a check mark on the calendar each day that she was able to carve out a few minutes to work.

"Each novel has its own
timelines and set
of complications.
You start over again
each time."

—BERNE

To get herself started on a novel, she assigns herself a topic, usually something she hasn't ever written about or thinks she won't be able to write about. "My first task was to write about a murder, my second was to write a story from multiple points of view, my third, which I failed at, was to write an historical novel. For my fourth book, I'd like to try a love story," explained Berne.

“Each novel has its own timelines and set of complications. You start over again each time,” she noted.

  Suzanne Berne lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughters. She teaches creative writing at Boston College. Her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won Great Britain's first Orange Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times and the Edgar Allan Poe first fiction awards.
About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris