A Conversation with Elizabeth Berg
Q: When did you first start writing? Did you take writing in college? How long after you began writing serious fiction did you attempt a novel?
A: I always wrote as a vehicle for expression, but did not try writing for publication until my mid-thirties, at which time I started writing for magazines. I wrote essays and then short stories, then moved into novels. I did not take writing classes in college; rather, I concentrated my energies on dropping out. I attempted my first novel after I’d been writing stories for a couple of years.
Q: When did you write Durable Goods—where were you? Where did the first idea for this novel come from? How long did it take you to write it? Were you surprised by its enthusiastic reception?
A: I was living in Massachusetts, sitting at my desk one day writing a nonfiction snippet about how it felt to move so often, about what it was like being an army brat. That little section, which is in the novel, was so full of feeling for me, I knew there was a lot of material to be mined. So I began writing a novel. I wrote it very, very quickly—the material just wanted to rush forth. I think I might have finished it in about three or four months. I was thrilled that it was so well received.
Q: How many novels have you written since then? What are your feelings about Durable Goods now as you look back after having written so many other books?
A: I am currently in the middle of my thirteenth novel. I have also written a collection of short stories and two nonfiction books. I know that sometimes it happens that a novelist is embarrassed about their early works. For me, it’s the opposite: I believe Durable Goods is the best thing I’ve written.
Q: These days, Katie’s father’s actions could land him in custody, and his children in foster care. But when Durable Goods takes place attitudes were clearly different. Could you talk about what parenting was like back then?
A: The novel takes place in the very early sixties. At that time, I don’t think children’s feelings and needs were taken into consideration as much as they are now. Parents disciplined more often and more ferociously. Parents didn’t pay so much attention to their children’s opinions or desires. This was across the board. But in a military family, things could be exacerbated.
Q: The title comes from a passage in the novel— but why did you you choose this specific title? Did you have any other ideas for titles? What function do you think a title performs for a novel?
A: The title came as a suggestion from my agent. I had wanted to call it The King of Wands, which is a tarot card of a man who appears very fierce when in fact he is tender. Another consideration I had was Customs of the Service, which is a kind of guidebook for armed forces etiquette. I think titles are extremely important for novels: They can set the tone, tip you off, serve as shorthand for what the essential contents are.
Q: Cherylanne is a great character, especially in how she uses beauty tips as a form of power and control, connection and communication, a way to be in the world. Where did she come from? Did you consult a huge stack of beauty magazines as you were writing the book?
A: Cherylanne is a combination of fact and fiction. I knew two girls growing up who were obsessed with beauty tips and social etiquette. I admired and feared them. I looked at some old magazines for product names, but mostly I relied on my memory and then fictionalized.
Q: At certain times, both Katie and Diane blurt out things that they know will probably make their father hit them. They say these things anyway. Are they somehow playing a part, however unconsciously, in the dire cycle of family violence?
A: I think the girls blurt things out because they can’t help themselves. Sometimes they just need to rebel, even if they know they’ll suffer for it. They do it to stand up for themselves, to subconsciously prove that someone is on their side and looking out for them, even if it’s only themselves; and they do it because, in the way of all adolescents, they are testing boundaries.
Q: Durable Goods is thematically dense: It’s about friendship, family love and family damage, grief, growing up, forgiveness. Such themes can be intentional or the by-product of telling a story, depending on the writer. How about you—what were you consciously trying to write about? What theme, if anything, surprised you when you were finished? What issues and themes have you returned to, expanded on, embroidered in subsequent books?
A: I never think much about what “themes” are in my novels. I start out with a broad idea of what I want to look at, and then let the book happen. I like to keep it pretty dreamy and vague when I’m writing it. When it’s done, I see things that I hadn’t seen in the writing process. With Durable Goods, I meant only to write about being an army brat. What emerged was a story about compassion—the need for it, the expression of it. I also learned a lot about what my feelings for my father are. I grew up afraid of him, but I came to understand that his heart is huge and that he is in fact a very sensitive man. I would have to say that I return to compassion in many if not all of my books. And the importance of friendship. Most of all, I want to show the great glory in our ordinary lives, in our ordinary selves.
Q: Do you think Durable Goods has a hopeful ending? Do you really think Katie’s father can change?
A: I do think Durable Goods has a hopeful ending, reflected in the fact that Katie asserts herself in asking her father to stop at the A&W, and he complies. Also, his bringing the puppy when he comes to get her is a kind of acquiesence on his part. He’s lost Diane; he’s learned something from that. Katie is aware of that.
Q: What do you think saves Katie from being flattened by her circumstances? What kind of life do you imagine she goes on to lead?
A: Katie is a character full of great hope and love. Where her resilience comes from is a mystery to me, but it probably has to do with how much she wants to love. As for the life she goes on to lead, that issue is addressed in the third book featuring Katie, True to Form. This novel was written because a fan told me she “had to know” what happened to Katie. I believe this novel lets you know what she will become.
1. Durable Goods is a first-person narrative. What effect does this technique have on the telling of the story for you? Who is the novel’s narrator, and what are some characteristics of her narrative voice? How does Berg’s writing capture or evoke the character of adolescence?
2. Throughout the story, Katie sometimes calls her father “Dad,” but most often refers to him as “he” or “him.” It is clear that Katie and her sister are talking about their father, even though they never mention his name. Likewise, their mother also remains nameless throughout the novel. What does this tell you about Katie’s relationship with her father and the evolution of her relationship with her mother?
3. Katie’s father is a conflicted character. Though he is abusive and neglectful, he is not completely villainized. Discuss Berg’s characterizations of Mr. Nash, as a man and as a father. How did you feel about him at the end of the book? Were you ever sympathetic toward him, as Katie becomes at the end of the novel, when she recalls him standing out in the rain without an umbrella?
4. Katie is an astute and insightful observer of people and situations. At one point she comments, “Sometimes, it seems to me that the only thing in the world is people just trying.” How did you interpret this statement? How is this sentiment reflected in and woven throughout the novel?
5. There are several themes laced through the novel, such as the ways people cope with loss and grief and the different kinds of relationships between women. What are some of the underlying themes in this book, and how does Berg capture or express them? What literary techniques does she employ to convey the themes of the novel?
6. Discuss the title Durable Goods. Where is this phrase mentioned in the story, and what meaning does it hold for Katie? For her father? What meaning does it have for you?
7. The novel is shaded by a deep sense of spirituality. Katie speaks often of her relationship with God, andwe see how that relationship is affected by the loss of her mother. How does Katie reflect on religion? How does this help her cope with a sense of grief?
8. Grief and loss are ongoing themes in the book, on several levels. What sort of losses do the Nash girls suffer throughout the book? How do they cope with them? How does their father cope with his grief? Give a few examples by which it becomes clear that communicating pain is considered taboo in the Nash household. What impact does this limitation
have on the relationships within the Nash family?
9. Describe Katie’s friend Cherylanne and her family (Belle and Bubba). How does the apparent disparity between the two girls and their families help to shed light on Katie’s character and situation?
10. Berg’s writing has been described as both “quiet” and “delicate.” With respect to Durable Goods, how would you interpret these descriptions? Do you think they are accurate? How would you describe Berg’s style in this novel?
11. Durable Goods is imbued with a sense of immediacy. How does Berg make the reader feel present in that particular time and place with Katie Nash? Select some passages that were particularly telling or successful in creating a sense of setting. Did Berg’s technique in creating a literary atmosphere enable you to feel more connected to her characters?
12. While Katie’s situation is unique, she is truly a universal character. Did you find yourself able to identify with her? If so, how, and at what points in the story did you feel most connected? Did you identify with any of the other characters? How?
13. The end of the novel is infused with both hope and sadness. Did the end of the book leave you wanting more or wondering what would happen to Katie, Diane, and their father? How did you feel about Katie’s decision to return home? What do you predict will happen to the family at this point in their story?