Excerpted from When Love Calls, You Better Answer by Bertice Berry. Copyright © 2005 by Bertice Berry. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Who would believe that a book narrated by a woman’s dead aunt could be so lively, fun, and engaging? That’s the secret behind novelist Bertice Berry’s new novel, WHEN LOVE CALLS, YOU BETTER ANSWER
Aunt Babe is back to guide her niece Bernita, who is looking for love in all the wrong places–and with all the wrong people. But before she can find a mate, Bernita will have to learn about loving and accepting herself. With her consummate wit and wisdom, the incomparable Bertice Berry addresses a host of powerful topics in this sparkling new novel.
Bertice recently took some time to talk with BLACK INK about her new book.
Black Ink: Tell us about the narrator of WHEN LOVE CALLS–Aunt Babe is a fun, lively character, and most surprising of all, she’s dead! What inspired this surprising approach?
Bertice Berry: I love Aunt Babe. I was working on something else, and up came Aunt Babe. She was rather annoying. I was trying to be my sociologist self, doing research, and here comes this crazy dead woman. Writing is an amazing gift. It enables you to work through memories that have long been forgotten.
When I finished the book, I told my mother about these great characters. She said, “My Lord! How do you know about Aunt Babe? She was dead long before you were born.” When I described the Aunt Babe from the book, my mother told me that I was “dead on.” I loved her choice of words. So I said a prayer of thanks and realized just how true Aunt Babe was when she said that life comes back around and hugs itself.
BI: Your fans have come to love the wit and wisdom you infuse into all of your novels. Are there things you learn about your characters, and yourself, as you explore the topics of love and family that are at the heart of every one of your novels, including this one?
BB: Okay, I really didn’t want to deal with this out loud, but when I started writing this book, I was just about to get married; by the time I finished, I was divorced. The book lasted longer than the marriage. In the midst of all of those things, my mother was seriously ill, and life was rough. For the first time in my writing career, I needed an extension. I didn’t want to take one but the folks at Broadway are so good, they insisted that I take the time I needed to do what had to be done. Had it not been for Janet Hill, my editor, and my manager and sister, Jeanine Chambers, I would not have been able to complete a book about love when my own life was so full of pain.
Much of what Aunt Babe said was the wisdom that I needed. Okay, so much for the outpouring of my own soul. I got through it, and so did the book. I know that others will heal when they read Aunt Babe’s truth.
BI: Another theme of WHEN LOVE CALLS is the importance of African American ancestors. Could you tell us about this idea and how connecting with family history is an important part of your work?
BB: So important. This idea has led me to research for my next project. I feel that we have to make family wherever we are. Much of our present-day pain can be found in our ancestry. What you don’t know is already hurting you.
BI: Tell us a little about Bernita Brown, the subject of WHEN LOVE CALLS, and why she’s so unlucky in love. Is she based on anyone you know?
BB: Bernita Brown is all of my girlfriends and me. I took the first name from my grad school buddy, Bernita Berry–I often do that with names and spirits that I like. Bernita has a hard time seeing the truth because her past has clouded her vision. Aunt Babe would say that when your life is low, you can’t help but to hook up with a low life. Bernita’s feelings about herself lead her to make choices that are in accordance with the way she feels.
BI: While there are many humorous moments in this book, you also address more serious topics. How do you find a balance?
BB: Life needs the balance. Whenever I encounter pain, I find a way to laugh. I must. Balance is the key to a whole life. Humor is my way to getting and staying there.
BI: You have such a varied background: stand-up comedian, sociologist, motivational speaker, and of course, writer. How do you find a balance, and how do your past experiences inform your novels?
BB: I’m also a gallery owner (it’s really a front; we use the proceeds from the gallery to help others), and a mother. I balance all of this by living one day at a time. I get so annoyed when other people ask me where I am going to be in a day or two. I am where I am right now. I will soak up the life and spirit of that moment, use my late nights for long-term planning, my early mornings to feed my spirit, and my day to live. There are plenty more hours in the day than we actually use. If we remove the negative things, we will have double the time for the positive.
BI: What’s next for you? Will Aunt Babe and Bernita make future appearances in your books?
BB: I sure hope so. I am working on several other book ideas, a documentary, and a few other projects. From time to time, my manager Jeanine and I use the voice of Aunt Babe to describe something or someone who has plucked our last and final nerve. “He’s like a toothache on a toothless man, really ain’t no point in having pain for something that no longer exist.”
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Did Aunt Babe remind you of any of your relatives or ancestors? How did your understanding of her change throughout the novel? What is the effect of having someone from the spirit world narrate Bernita’s story?
2. What do the “dogs” in Bernita’s life have in common? What similar tactics do they use to lure her? Have you ever fallen for these tactics?
3. At the beginning of chapter seven, Aunt Babe says that Tyrone’s marriage proposal was more like a business proposition. At the end of the novel, we learn about his childhood and how it put a gulf between his true self and the man his family expected him to be. What might have kept him from becoming so calculating? Why was Bernita willing to settle for such an un-romantic proposal?
4. Do you think Jimmymack a typical man? Is he typical of the men Bernita grew up with? What determines our expectations of the opposite sex? What is the best way to tell whether real love is calling?
5. Re Member spins fantastic stories about his past life and Bernita’s. What made his tales so appealing to her? What did she want to believe about her roots?
6. Are Van and Tricia able to separate fact from fiction? On some level, do they believe the lies they tell each other, and their congregation?
7. If you were to write a letter in the spirit of the ones written by Douglas and Bernita, would you write to yourself, someone in your future, someone from your past, or God? What would be the heart of the message in that letter?
8. Bernita’s first experiences away from family occur at college. How did this chapter prepare her for the world? What “education” could she only receive by facing her past?
9. Bernita struggles to break free from people who want to use her. What lessons does she have for communities and other segments of the world that strive to break free? How does she embody the process of liberation?
10. What do Douglas and Bernita share in terms of family history and dating? What finally gives Douglas the courage to pursue Bernita, instead of the other way around? Why does she hold out longer than he does?
11. Who is your version of MaBisha? What makes certain friendships outlast any separation?
12. Chapter twenty-two begins with Aunt Babe’s rules for communicating with the dead, which include “speak when spoken to, show respect, and don’t walk away until you’ve been dismissed.” When Lola at last brings Aunt Babe and Bernita together, the reunion falls short of those rules. How would you have reacted if you had been in Bernita’s shoes? Which of your ancestors would you most like to meet?
13. Chapters twenty-four and twenty-five feature Bernita’s ceremony of forgiveness. If you were to have a ceremony like hers, whose names would be on your forgiveness list?
14. The novel’s closing chapters return to Aunt Babe’s generation, with revelations about Goody and Buster in particular. What does this legacy mean for Bernita? What opportunities does she have for a fulfilling life–opportunities Aunt Babe could not enjoy?
15. When Douglas and Vernon discover that they are blood brothers, the novel’s family ties are complete. Douglas is also able to sell a painting for a million dollars (which Bernita uses to help those in need) while Van and Tricia face eviction. What would the world look like now if this much joy and justice could prevail? What can we do to answer the call of love–not just romantic love–and tap its true power?
16. How does When Love Calls, You Better Answer enhance the complete collection of Bertice Berry’s novels? How does its message compare to that of the other three?