a conversation with betsy berne      
Betsy Berne

  First the obvious question: how much of you is in the narrator of Bad Timing?

There are elements, but a lot of it's made up. I think that's what fiction is; you draw on current and past experience and then other things creep in as you work on your book. It would be too self-indulgent--and the process would be so boring--if it were all drawn from reality.

A lot of writers advise that we "write about what we know."

This is definitely about what I know-- it's the worlds I've always been in, no question about that. But a lot of the characters are completely made up.

Your characters are great, so richly-drawn. Tell me about the mother--where does she come from? How does she function for you?

The mother's obviously drawn from somebody I know, but as far as her role, I don't know how she jumped in. I had no real idea of where the book was going. The family just kind of crept in there.

With my painting I always work from intuition, which is what I did with Bad Timing. I've never taken a writing class, and God knows why I even did this book.

I'm interested in your use of names. Why did you choose not to name your protagonist?

There's no real reason. When I started writing, I couldn't think of a name for her. I just wanted to write, and the idea of thinking of names didn't really come up. At first no one was named--at most they had initials. But then I decided I had to have names, but for some reason I just never wanted to name my protagonist.

Do you know what her name is, or any of the other nameless characters, like Joseph's wife or the neighbor?

No. The neighbor was always the neighbor. I once wrote a short piece that featured the neighbor character. A lot of this novel came from pieces that I couldn't get published. I was writing humor, and humor is very subjective and not always p.c. The neighbor was in a lot of those pieces and was just "the neighbor," as the brother is just "the brother." Names aren't that important to me. I suppose it might seem pretentious.

I don't think so, though it does seem deliberate.

I really work intuitively with my writing, as I do with my painting. When I first started writing, people would try to edit my work and I didn't know what they were talking about. With my early writing they'd say, "We have to rework the structure" and I'd think, "What is structure?" In painting no one tells you what to do.

I also found interesting the details that you do use to identify people: race, gender, sexual preference. Are the racial differences as definitive a part of your experience in New York as they are in your book?

I think people pretend that they're not but they are. It's not just race; it's class. I'm talking about New York, which is very different from the rest of the world. Where racism of any kind is concerned, people come from different classes and they have different experiences. They act differently, whether they're black or white, because they've been brought up differently. I know the generalizations are ridiculous, but everybody's thinking them; it's good to bring them up. I do have one good friend, and like the narrator and the neighbor, we're constantly talking about blacks and Jews. I also have a boxing teacher that I've been working with for about ten years. He's Puerto Rican, his wife is Chinese, there are Jews and blacks in the class; all we do is exchange racial slurs and it's hilarious. It helps.

It helps--to make racial differences a less taboo topic?

Sure. You might as well bring it out.

In the very beginning the narrator refers to the fact that she and the neighbor have these conversations and constantly impress themselves with their brilliance.

They know how ridiculous it is, but a lot of it is true. Cultural differences are cultural differences. They can't not have an impact. I went to public schools where there were all different races and classes. I prefer that. In New York you can really get stuck hanging around with one class of people.

Do you think this is true of New York more than other parts of the country?

I don't know. I've lived most of my adult life here, and I went to east coast schools that were pretty elitist, so I got stuck in that groove. But I also had to work a lot of crazy jobs where I met different people. I prefer a mixed bunch.

What do you think might have transpired if the narrator hadn't gotten pregnant?

That's a good question. The narrator got pregnant because I had to create a plot. I'm terrible at thinking of plots. I had a lot of things that I wanted to write about, and I needed a plot to tie them together.

You had characters in mind?

I had ideas about New York, the art world. I was thinking about people who create, writers, painters, and about how glamorously this world has always been portrayed in fiction, though it's really not. The whole marketing aspect, marketing yourself, can be such a nightmare. You don't choose a creative field out of some whim--it's really tough. It's brutal. Everything's about money. I wanted to talk about all of that, money, race, and class.

Another thing I wanted to talk about is the fact that, from my generation a lot of people died. Not just from AIDS, of course, but AIDS did take its toll. It's a weird thing, to be that young and to have your friends die--it changes things. So I wanted to write about all these things and I needed to tie it together with a plot--so I thought of a somewhat soap opera plot.

Does the presence of death alter the story, or alter who the main character is or who we are?

I think so. Once you've experienced death, you do change. While I've never had a relative die, I've had so many other people die. I really dread a family member dying.

Does it help to write about it?

I thought this book would help me, to write about so many of these things, but I'm not sure if it did. It's a hard thing to gauge. I haven't had a bad death in quite a few years, so I try to just shut it out. After you've personally experienced the death of a loved one, you hear about someone dying who's vaguely familiar and you don't even want to dwell on it. You try your best to help your friends when they've lost someone. If you've never had it happen you really don't know. Sometimes you think it's really bad, but you have no idea until the "real" one hits. That can really take you out.

To get back to the relationship between the narrator and Joseph: though there were some suspicions raised and a few near misses, they do manage to pull off their affair without truly getting caught. Is it possible to have as "safe" a tryst in New York?

I don't know. If two people are having an affair, who's really going to tell them that other people know? Who knows who's gossiping about you? Reputations are often inaccurate--that's part of what I wanted to write about too. I don't know if people can get away with affairs, but it seems that they do. What do you think?

Well, every tryst I've heard of I've heard of because the people didn't get away with it.

Right. It's an interesting thing. Who knows what people talk about? But I do think that some people want to get caught when they're having an affair.

You refer to the New York art scene as "brutal." Is it more brutal than it used to be?

I think so, especially when the money gets big. I have a friend who's an artist, a really great painter who's getting an enormous amount of attention. Today's media is publishing all these articles about pretty skinny artists and painters; she doesn't look like them, actually she looks better, so she's not getting the same type of press. It's a new low. All these "new" connections between artists and fashion are ridiculous--artists have always been visual and thus have always been interested in fashion to some extent, compared to literary people who are not that visual. It's really sick, as far as how women in the art world are perceived--this whole glamour thing--the media's creating a phenomenon out of nothing.

At one point the narrator's talking about her brother's music and explaining that talent often doesn't equal success.

I do think that. I know a lot of people in positions of relative power, art dealers and editors, don't agree, but some people just can't hustle. I was terrible at is--I still am. The breaks I got were mainly luck. If there was someone in the room that I knew I should talk to to further my career, I'd run the opposite way. Some people are natural hustlers; I think it can be pretty arbitrary. With writing it was easier. I was friends with writers because I wasn't a writer myself--so when I started I had a lot of connections.

Are you happy with how the book came out?

I think so. It's changed tremendously having gone through so many edits--which I allowed--to the point that it's barely mine anymore. That's the difference between writing and painting--paintings go through drastic changes but they're your changes. Maybe this wouldn't be the case if I'd known more about the writing and editing process going into it.

Have you learned a lot?

Yes, thank God. I have the tendency to take everything an editor says as the truth, so I probably did that a little too much with this book. But that's okay--it was an important experience, the only way I could learn. With paintings, the most "editing" they'll do is to pick certain pieces for a show over others. What interests me most about the publishing process is simply sitting in my room and writing. I'm not interested in the rest.

Do you have favorite books or writers?

I do. I love Bruce Jay Friedman; I started reading Philip Roth again and now I love him. I recently reread some Henry James and liked it; I never did before. I'll read anything. One book I've always loved is The Furies by Janet Hobhouse. I always used to read more women--Alice Munro is great--but I don't do that now. It's different once you start writing; I used to read for pure escape, and now that's changed.

Does the fact that it's no longer just a means of escape detract from the pleasure of reading?

Yes, somewhat. But I still love it.

--Interview conducted by Laura Buchwald

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    Photo credit: David Armstrong/Villard