When Elizabeth Berg sat down to begin her latest book, she found herself in every writer’s worst nightmare: She was blocked. The author of over 20 books, including “Talk Before Sleep,” “Open House” and “The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted” couldn’t come up with a story.
“For the first time in my life, I was having trouble writing,” Berg said in a recent phone interview from her home just west of Chicago. “My oldest daughter said ‘Why don’t you write about that?’”
And so she did.
Helen Ames, the main character in Berg’s new book, “Home Safe,” is a writer of some renown, who finds herself without a husband and without the considerable nest egg the couple had accumulated over their decades-long marriage.
“In retrospect, I think it made sense that she [Helen] would need to have a reason why she couldn’t write,” Berg said. “She had a lot on her plate with Dan’s death and the dent in her savings account.”
Along with the death of her husband and the missing money, Helen is also dealing with the inevitable separation from her youngest daughter, Tessa, who is trying as gently as possible to cut the apron strings, even as her mother stitches them back together every chance she gets.
This part of the story was also close to Berg’s heart.
“When my older daughter, who lives near Boston, read the book, she called her sister and said, ‘I’m reading about you,’” Berg confessed.
Even though Helen has a looming deadline for a new book, she can’t write, and Berg knows why.
“If there’s something that is really hurting you or bothering you, it just gets bigger and bigger,” she explains. “You have to stop and take care of it. Until Helen figures out how to live without Dan and she finds the missing money, she can’t write.”
Although the teaser on the book jacket implies a more complicated reason for the missing money, it’s really pretty simple.
“It’s like that O. Henry story, ‘The Gift of the Magi,’” she said. “The book jacket is a little imprecise. Dan was really just going to give Helen what she had always wanted.”
This is not really a spoiler, but skip the next four paragraphs if you want to try to solve the mystery.
As Helen and Tessa work on their relationship, Helen discovers that Dan has built a house for them on the Pacific Coast, completely furnished, landscaped and boasting a lovely tree house in the back yard.
“I want a house like that,” Berg said. “To me, the house was another character. It was Dan talking and them talking together.”
The author said she actually drew a blueprint for the house.
“I really had fun doing it,” she said. “I looked at lots of books and dishes and plans for tree houses.”
Berg’s books are not action-packed, and some critics have called for her characters “to do something – like send them to Cape Cod.”
“I’m interested in thoughts and feelings, so my books are very quiet and interior,” she said.
You won’t find Berg writing about vampires or teen-age wizards, although she is “happy for anything that makes people read.”
Berg’s books are incredibly satisfying because they make you think, wonder and put yourself in the characters’ shoes. Her people may not be perfect, but they never stop trying to work things out.
“Home Safe” is Berg’s first release at Random House, and she’s very pleased with the partnership.
“They’ve treated me really well,” she said.
“What happens when I have a book come out is they send me a cover,” she explained. “I can approve it or not.”
With “Home Safe,” Berg told her editor not to change a thing.
“What I loved about it was it was so artfully precise,” Berg said. “It absolutely evokes fragility, vulnerability and safety.”
Berg says that writing is a “pretty nice way to make a living.
“You write in your pajamas. My mailman thinks I’m sick all the time,” she says with a laugh.
Berg also believes that writers are born, not made.
“If you have to think about it too much or try too hard, it’s never any good,” she said. “It’s magical. That’s the way it really happens. I’m just the typist.”
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