Excerpted from Until the Real Thing Comes Along by Elizabeth Berg. Copyright © 2000 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Berg
Q:In an early moment of Until the Real Thing Comes Along, Patty identifies a similarity between artistry and motherhood. How similar–or different–have these pursuits been in your experience?
EB:The similarity is, I guess, obvious. Despite our desire to control them, children and books turn out to be what they have to be, namely, themselves. Also, they–both children and books–are what live on after you, hopefully. I do think that there’s an art form to parenting, and I have nothing but admiration for those who do it well. I think it’s harder–much harder–to be a good parent than to write a book.
Q:Once characters start leading their own lives, do you ever want to make them behave as you might make a child behave?
EB:I can’t really do that and be true to the way I write. I have to let characters develop in a way that’s rather apart from me, or at least from my consciousness. I have to let them go in directions they dictate. And I’m always interested in them, even when they’re “bad.” It’s kind of like coming upon someone in a store who is behaving terribly. You may disapprove of the behavior, but it’s so interesting you want to stand there and watch. I don’t feel compelled to interfere with my characters’ actions. I let them go because I trust that where they’ll bring me is the place the book needs to be.
Q:Does writing–like mothering–change with its object? Is your experience of writing different with each novel?
EB:Some aspects of writing are always the same. Each time, I start with a vague idea and then, through the writing of the thing, realize what it is that I’m really trying to get at, to say. With every novel, I learn things about myself as well as the world at large. There are differences, too, of course. Some books are more difficult to write than others. Talk Before Sleep was hard because I’d lost a good friend to breast cancer and writing the book brought back some pretty painful memories (though the book was very much fictionalized). Durable Goods was hard because my mission was so important to me–that of bringing compassion to a character for whom a lot of people might not have much sympathy.
Q:What was unique to your experience of writing Until the Real Thing Comes Along?
EB:This novel was harder to write because it was so foreign to my own experience. I got married at twenty-five and had children right away, so I didn’t have the worry that I would never get to have children. I do understand baby lust, though–I’m one of those people who are drawn to babies like magnets to iron–in stores, in restaurants, in parks. . . . Like Patty, I prefer the company of children. But baby lust wasn’t the only thing that inspired the writing of this novel. What I care most about was the notion of coming to terms with what we get versus what we want. And that’s the lesson Patty learns. She may not have gotten everything she wanted, but what she did get is enough. I think it’s a real gift to be able to say that what’s in your life is enough. It seems most of us are always wanting more.
Q:When you began to write did you know that it would be a baby that would “come along” for Patty?
EB:I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen. I did want to write about a delivery, though.
Q:You write about Patty’s delivery with real sympathy and humor and insight–just as you write about so many vital moments in women’s lives. Is it your intent to address these moments systematically?
EB:It’s not at all that contrived. It’s been said about me many times that I deal with “the real issues in women’s lives.” The first time I heard that, I thought, Well, maybe that’s true. Then, when I looked back at the books I’d written thus far, I thought, Huh. I guess it is true. I focus on women and their relationships in large part because I find women so interesting. And because we continue to get short shrift in so many ways, I’m glad to be part of something that draws attention to us. I’m really thrilled, too (honestly!), by the men who come to my readings or write me letters saying that my books help them understand their women, or those men who say they simply enjoy my work for its own sake.
Q:One twist of character that makes Patty so interesting a woman is that despite her longing for a “husband, a house, children, and a decent oven,” she fearlessly embraces her relationship with Ethan. Were you surprised by her decision?
EB:Well, she’s a stubborn woman, isn’t she? No, I wasn’t surprised by that decision. She says right off the bat that she is intractably in love with Ethan, despite everything. She wants to have a baby, and live in a home with the man she loves. The fact that he’s gay . . . well, maybe they’ll be able to work that out.
Q:Doesn’t even Patty’s career have a stay-at-home element to it?
EB:Yes, her longing, for a home is part of her character. She plays the house game; she sells real estate. Her fixation with houses is just another side of her domesticity. This is a woman who really cherishes the idea of someone caring for a house and a family.
Q:Haven’t houses been important in many of your novels?
EB:Definitely. That’s probably because they’re so important to me. After all, you can’t leave yourself entirely behind when you write–you show up in all of your work, one way or another. My house is my refuge. It’s the place where I keep the things that I find beautiful or meaningful–even sacred. Things that are comforting and things that are powerful. Spiritual things–coins for the I Ching and fetish stones. I have rocks on window ledges, seashells in the bathroom. I have quilts on the wall and other forms of art that I just love–a painting of a woman looking out of a window, a print that was used to make the jacket for the hardcover edition of Talk Before Sleep. I like clocks a lot, like their ticking sounds, and I have a few of those. There are books everywhere, and places to read everywhere. My favorite place to read is a chaise lounge that is situated by a window where I can watch birds come to my feeder. I like my house to feel like a place where I can just lie back and say, Ahhhhh, I’m home. I like a house to look orderly–I can’t stand messes–clothes thrown on the floor, stacks of old newspapers, unmade beds just bug me. I’m not really a terrific housekeeper–you wouldn’t want to look behind furniture or in the back of my refrigerator. But I like there to be an appearance of order.
Q:Is your feeling about your house complicated by the fact that you work there?
EB:Oh, no. I like to work in my house. I like to move between writing and domestic details. Knead the bread, write a few pages. Put in a load of wash, write some more. Make a tuna sandwich and eat it while I read what I wrote. I do have a shed in my backyard where I write in a very focused way–no distractions out there.
Q:Do you ever play the “house game”?
EB:All the time. Unlike Patty, though, I get pissed off if I find another house I like a lot better than the one I chose.
Q:Patty suggests that the “house game” reveals the characteristic that she likes most about herself. Is this the characteristic that you most admire in her?
EB:Well, I admire people who are loyal, but I think there is a lot of frustration in seeing someone cling so hard to something that is just never going to work. So, no, I wouldn’t say that it’s the characteristic I most admire.
Q:For a moment it seems that Patty won’t have to give up her love for Ethan. For a moment Ethan thinks that he “might try to act a little . . . straight.” Did you ever think he would succeed?
EB:Absolutely not. No. He was just overwrought because so many of his friends were dying. He alludes to that when he talks about all the funerals he’s been to, the weight of deciding what to do with all his friends’ things. . . . He just wants away from that. There is the fact that he and Patty were once lovers, as Patty is constantly reminding him. Still, he knows he’s not straight and never will be. Apart from that, I think there’s a lot of excitement around a pregnancy. Two of you are on a pretty amazing ride. I think what Ethan wants is to lose himself in that, at least for a while.
Q:What made you think to investigate a relationship between a straight woman and a gay man?
EB:Part of the reason is that I had that experience. In college, I was madly in love with a boy who didn’t admit to his homosexuality for a long time. He finally came out to me one night when I was over at his apartment for dinner. He had moved on to another girlfriend by then, so it wasn’t as devastating for me as Ethan’s coming out to Patty was. At that point, we were just good friends, and I was actually very glad for him that he could finally tell the truth about something that caused him such anguish. I felt sorry for his girlfriend, even though I was still mad at her for taking him away from me. The character of Ethan was very much modeled on that boyfriend, who was a study in elegance. What a wardrobe that guy had! What style! We remained good friends until he died recently. I miss him.
Q:Until the Real Thing Comes Along investigates many serious themes. Patty, though, seems to resist the difficulties that surround her–not only Ethan’s sorrow, but also her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Is this a defense?
EB:Not a conscious one. I think we all resist such hard things as a diagnosis of serious illness. We find it very difficult to bear that kind of information, so we disguise it for as long as we can. If you admit to a problem, you’ll have to deal with it. And you may feel unprepared to deal with it for a long time.
Q:Was it difficult for you to write about Alzheimer’s disease–a disease that destroys an individual’s ability to use language?
EB:I drew from the knowledge I gained working as a nurse to patients who had various kinds of senility. I know what it’s like to be in a conversation where there’s an eerie feeling that something is a little bit off. It’s very seductive, in a way–I mean, you’re having a normal conversation (even the most profoundly confused patients can sometimes say things that make a lot of sense) and then all of a sudden it’s crazy talk. And yet sometimes you can still feel right with them. As though you’ve been led into this fog with them, as though you’re standing there together, holding hands. And there are some people who, in their senility, are sort of normal but for the fact they can’t remember anything. I had one patient, years ago, whom I cared for for several days in a row. Each day, I would wake her up and she would see the flowers beside her bed and she would say, “Oh, did someone send me flowers?” And she’d be so happy. She was a gentle woman, continually delighted. I used to think, well, if I have to be senile, let me be like that.
Q:Until the Real Thing Comes Along investigates the complexities of intimacy. How is it that Patty establishes intimacy so effectively in unexpected moments–with her clients and manicurist–but struggles to be intimate with her dearest friends and family members?
EB:That’s part of her character. And a characteristic she shares with a lot of people. They say that they can’t find someone with whom to be intimate, but it’s almost as if they don’t really want to. You begin to wonder if they really want a relationship. They fulfill their need for intimacy in different ways. Some may have an ability to be intimate up to a point, but not beyond. Just like some people can perform so beautifully in front of a large crowd, but they’re shy one on one. Of course, characters don’t always reveal themselves to me. If I were to know Patty as a real person, that’s something I would wonder about. She says she really wants this, but where’s the evidence? She stays in love with a gay man. She turns down perfectly reasonable suitors. She meets her needs for intimacy in other ways.
Q:Patty is concerned not only with intimacy but also with privacy. She worries, for instance, about the headlines that might be written about her most private concerns and posted on women’s refrigerators across the country. Are women watching other women’s lives that carefully?
EB:People are watching other people’s lives. It may be that women are the most careful observers, that they watch more intently than men do. But is watching enough? It is a mission for me to break down the barriers between the public and the private because I think it makes for terrible loneliness when we hold these intimate concerns to ourselves. If we could admit things to each other, if we could say them, wouldn’t we lead more satisfying lives? For instance, I don’t like parties, but I would go to parties if there were a corner where individuals were revealing their deepest truths. I’d be right there. It’s superficial chatter that I can’t do.
Q:Doesn’t that sound just like Patty?
EB:Yes. And I guess that’s what I always go for in my books, a kind of deep intimacy. I like when the Berkenheimers get stoned and get really honest. In my own life, what I prize most and aspire to are intimate and honest relationships. That’s reflected in my work.
Q:In your novels, such relationships occur most often between women. Do you think women are better at that kind of intimacy?
EB:I’ve had this discussion so many times! I was once complaining about a man to a really good woman friend of mine who’s very wise. She said, “Oh, honey, you can’t ask men for that kind of thing; they don’t have it in them. They’re wired differently than we are. For some of the things you want, you need to ask another woman.” This is a woman who’s been married a long time, by the way. I think she’s right. I think men and women are very different, and it makes for problems when we ask each other for things we simply can’t provide. Women are talkers and processors, pretty thorough and careful. Maybe we’re naturally better at intimacy. On the other hand, a lot of times I think I should lighten up and watch more football.
Q:What is the “real thing”?
EB:For me, the “real thing” is whatever it is that makes you feel you can stop looking, now. You feel a sense of satisfaction even if the thing isn’t perfect. (And let’s face it, nothing is ever perfect.) You feel at home, in the most profound sense of the word.
Q:Is that what you hoped your reader would understand by your title?
EB:Actually, I changed the title. It was going to be called Ms. Runner-Up, and then it was going to be called Life on Earth. But when the book was optioned for film by Goldie Hawn, the screenwriter called it Until the Real Thing Comes Along. I liked that title, so I used it, too.
Q:Do you often have title troubles?
EB:Well, yeah. I come up with titles that my agent and editor don’t like. For example, Durable Goods was supposed to be The King of Wands, after a taro card that features a character who appears very tough but is in fact quite vulnerable. Range of Motion I wanted to call Telling Songs. In that novel, the husband and wife sing to each other every night. Their songs began as a joke but became very meaningful, became a way for expressing the richness in their lives. The novel that’s coming out next summer will be called Open House, but I wanted to call it The Hotel Meatloaf. Now, what’s wrong with that title? [Laughs] Wouldn’t you pick up a book called The Hotel Meatloaf? Of course you would. Especially if it came with a scratch ’n’ sniff sticker that smelled like meatloaf, like I had wanted. I also wanted the moon on the jacket of The Pull of the Moon to glow in the dark. It’s up to my agent and my editor to save me from my own tackiness, I guess.
Q:Do you have trouble with endings?
EB:Never. I love writing endings. Sometimes I’ll know the last line or the last scene of a novel long before I’m finished with it. I’ve written the last page of the novel I’m working on right now even though I’m still a good fifty pages from the end. I already know what I’m moving toward.
Q:Do you ever anticipate that your readers might say, “Please just write a few more chapters”? Have you ever changed the ending of a novel to satisfy readers’ expectations?
EB:I don’t think about anyone when I write a book. I can’t. It would freeze me up. I write for myself. Then when the book is done, I worry about everyone else. I’ve never significantly changed an ending, and any changes I have made have to do with what I think, not with what I think others will think. When I finish a novel, I always feel satisfied that it’s ended where it should end. In Until the Real Thing Comes Along, Patty hasn’t found a marriage, but she has come to understand that what she has will do. The last line is “Or by themselves.” She’s speaking about the roses that look beautiful next to each other, but also alone. That’s meant to signal her acceptance of her single state: It’s viable. It’s fine. I have had readers ask about sequels. Many readers have wanted a sequel to The Pull of the Moon because they want to know what happens to the husband. Interestingly, I had written a letter from him to his wife that I thought I might include as an epilogue. I didn’t. But my readers always ask, “What did he say?” Readers have also wondered if I’m going to write a sequel for Durable Goods and Joy School. I never thought I would, but, lately, I’ve been thinking about it. Still, a sequel is never a matter of dissatisfaction with an ending.
Q:Are you influenced by your readers’ responses?
EB:I’m affected by them, but not influenced in my writing. I have to write what I want to write, not what I think people want to hear. It’s so mysterious, what people want, anyway. It seems to me that if you try to second guess what people want, you’d only be wrong. And even if you weren’t, if you don’t write from a place of personal truth, if you don’t write to please yourself, what’s the point in writing? A lot of my work deals with serious subjects, and I’ve been deeply moved by the stories that women have told me about the friends they’ve lost or the challenges they’ve faced that my novels have recalled. I get a great deal of satisfaction from knowing I’ve pleased readers, and I suffer when I feel I’ve disappointed them. But in the end, always, I have to write for myself.
Q:What is the most surprising responseyou’ve ever received?
EB:Overwhelmingly, the responses that I get are positive. However, I once received, in the mail, a mangled tape of Talk Before Sleep with a letter in which a woman said she’d had no idea that there were lesbians in the book and that she was furious. So, she had returned the book to me, returned that “filth” to me.
Q:How do you deal with responses like that?
EB:Her response was so vitriolic that it was disturbing. I wanted to talk with her, but she hadn’t left a number. It was, of course, an unusual response. Perhaps the real question is, How do I deal with a lousy review? Happily, I haven’t gotten a whole lot of bad reviews. Still, when I do, I think there’s a good lesson to learn. I think it’s helpful to read bad reviews because it keeps you rooted in the real world. There’s something about taking the bad with the good that’s good for the soul. I don’t mind them so much unless they’re completely off. If the reviewer didn’t understand what I was trying to do at all, or if my intent is misinterpreted, then I get a bit discouraged. I’ve learned, though, at this point, that reviews don’t make a whole lot of difference to people outside of the industry. A lot of critics had a problem with The Pull of the Moon. They found the central character too self-involved. And, yet, it is, next to Talk Before Sleep, my most popular book.
Q:What advice would you give to beginning writers?
EB:To trust the process. Writers are born, I think, not taught. You can hone your technique, but what makes a writer is a certain sensibility. You simply have it and it doesn’t go away. This is why I advise people not to despair when they encounter what is known as “writer’s block.” There are seaasons. There are times when you’re rich inside and times when you’re poor inside. During the poor times, you have to learn to trust the process. You have to learn over and over again the lesson of just waiting. It returns.
Q:Do you turn to other writers for support in your own writing?
EB:I do have a writers’ group. It’s a wonderful thing. There are six of us. We meet weekly. It offers camaraderie. For someone who writes for a living and talks to herself a little too often, it’s good to have others’ responses. It’s also motivating. We bring up to ten pages each. You don’t want to arrive without your ten pages. And it’s a good sounding board. When you establish a group of individuals you trust and admire–and it takes a while to build up the trust–it becomes a wonderful place to try things out, to really take risks. It gives you an opportunity to see if your work speaks to other people. It gives you a chance to hear as you read aloud–and we do read aloud–if your work does what you intended. You hear things when you read aloud that you simply don’t hear in your head–repetitions of words, references that are unclear, concepts that you understood when you wrote them but not when you read them.
Q:How do you revise?
EB:I revise, but not extensively. I think a lot about what I’m going to do before I do it. I think in the shower and when I’m walking. There is a point when a book begins writing itself. It’s almost as though I see a scene and then write what I saw. I hear lines of dialogue. That’s when I know it’s okay–when it’s writing itself. It’s like a flower opening. It opens by itself. It’s unexpected and, oftentimes, surprising.
Q:What is your greatest success as a writer?
EB:Of every novel I’ve written, someone has said, “I’ve read all your books and this is my favorite.” Every one is the favorite of someone. I’m really thrilled by that.
Q:Is there an overarching theme to your writing?
EB:I have often said that writers write about the same thing over and over. Certainly, I do. Not that books aren’t about different subjects. Still, there are themes that surface again and again. I guess, for me, it’s always the theme of the extraordinary in the ordinary. That, and life-affirming messages.
Q:What are you working on now?
EB:A novel called The Courtship of Falcons, which is about a fifty-something-year-old visiting nurse taking care of a dying patient. He’s a man she had a terrific crush on in high school, when he was super-stud and she was, as she describes it, the ugly girl who “everybody liked and nobody wanted to hang out with.
1. In the prologue Patty describes her "house game," a game about choice and commitment that reveals the "characteristic" Patty likes most about herself [page 3]. What is this characteristic? Is it the characteristic that you admire most about Patty?
2. How is Patty's work as a real estate agent related to the "house game" she describes? Why is she such a "lousy" [page 16] real estate agent? What significance do houses have for Patty? For her clients? For her family?
3. The novel records Patty's glimpses into others' relationships--her parents' relationship, Artie and Muriel Berkenheimer's relationship. How do these relationships serve as models for Patty? In what ways do these relationships exceed her expectations? In what ways do they fall short?
4. As Patty describes her parents' marriage, she insists that "everything they have, I want" [page 46]. Still, she's surprisingly unaware of the details of their courtship and life together. She didn't know that they had fallen in love at first sight [page 44]. She hadn't heard that they never had a honeymoon [page 152]. Does this lack of awareness surprise you? Why? Why not?
5. Is Patty similarly unaware of events in the lives of her dearest friends? Why? Why not?
6. Although intimacy with her dearest friends and family members seems, at times, to be a real struggle for Patty, she is surprisingly intimate with her real estate clients, neighbors, and her manicurist. Artie Berkenheimer invites Patty to use his "breast glasses" [page 84], Sophia predicts Patty's pregnancy [page 118], and Amber offers friendship as well as advice [page 187]. What makes Patty so successful at establishing intimacy in these unexpected moments?
7. Patty admits that "sometimes it's hard to be [Elaine's] friend. A lot its hard to be her friend" [page 29]. Why is it hard? Do you blame Patty or Elaine for the rifts in their friendship? How satisfying is the friendship they offer to one another? What are the barriers to their friendship? Are these barriers surmountable?
8. Ethan and Elaine are united in encouraging Patty to pursue her relationship with Mark. Ethan encourages Patty to "just try" to make the relationship work [page 56], while Elaine insists that Mark is "the best thing" to happen to Patty in a long while [page 60]. Does Patty "try" to make the relationship work? Do you sympathize with Ethan and Elaine's insistence that Patty "try" harder? Or do you sympathize with Patty? Why?
9. Patty admits that she had never known the "real" Ethan during their engagement. She "could get close, but not there" [page 11]. Does she ever know the "real" Ethan? Does she ever feel that Ethan knows her "real" self?
10. Patty and Ethan both have certain hopes and expectations about the relationship a straight woman can have with a gay man. At what moments do these hopes or expectations converge? At what moments are they clearly in conflict? Is Patty fair to Ethan? Is Ethan fair to Patty?
11. Ethan insists that Patty's behavior during the pregnancy is "definitely" [page 170] his business. Is it? What claims does he have on her behavior? What control should he be able to exert over Patty's life? Over their daughter's life?
12. In a disturbingly frank conversation, Amber tells Patty that she feels Ethan is "running away from something" [page 186] by moving to Minneapolis. Although Patty dismisses Amber's comment, she later questions Ethan about his motives [page 192]. What are Ethan's motives for moving? What are Patty's motives?
13. Patty insists that she wants a conventional home. She says, "I thought all you needed was a husband, a house, children, and a decent oven, and you could be happy" [page 50]. However, the life she creates for herself is anything but conventional. How do her parents and friends respond? Are you surprised by Patty's choices? Are you surprised by others' responses? Why? Why not?
14. Amber offers Patty a firm and difficult directive--"Be careful with your heart, kid" [page 187]. Is this possible for Patty? For any woman? What are the risks of failing to follow Amber's directive? What are the risks of succeeding?
15. When Patty's father tells Patty of her mother's Alzheimer's disease, she realizes that she had known all along. When did you know? Why didn't Patty acknowledge what she knew?
16. As Patty's pregnancy advances, she becomes increasingly aware of human mortality. Artie Berkenheimer acknowledges his cancer. Patty's mother suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Ethan's friends struggle with AIDS. How does this overwhelming awareness of disease and death impact Patty's experience of pregnancy? How does it shape the expectations she has of relationships?
17. In the early paragraphs of the novel, Patty distinguishes between what is imaginary and what is true. Although she acknowledges that she has a rich imagination, she admits that "what I never imagined was the truth" [page 8]. How powerful is imagination? What are the limits of imagination?
18. The novel's concluding image, "the creak of the rocker, the luscious fact of my sleeping daughter . . ." [page 240], is extraordinarily reminiscent of an earlier, imagined scene, "Here I am in a little bedroom in my little cottage . . ." [page 16]. In this way, the novel demands that we compare the real world Patty has built for herself with the imaginary world she had envisioned. How do these worlds--imaginary, real--compare?
19. Why is the novel titled Until the Real Thing Comes Along? What is the "real thing"? Does the "real thing," in fact, "come along"? Does Patty's definition of the "real thing" change over the course of the novel? Does yours?
20. Patty imagines that God's definition of "human beings" is that "they are supposed to make what they want out of what they are given" [page 240]. Is this a definition with which you agree? How successful a human being is Patty?