Elizabeth Berg is the author of The Dream Lover, a lush historical novel based on the sensuous Parisian life of the nineteenth-century writer, George Sands.
Nancy Horan is the bestselling author of Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky.
NANCY HORAN: I know you were strongly drawn to George Sand’s story but you resisted writing a novel about her at first. What made you jump in and go for it?
ELIZABETH BERG: Well, the real answer, as you may recall, is that you wouldn’t! One day I read a little about George Sand on The Writer’s Almanac, and I got very excited about learning more. I especially wanted to know the “good stuff,” which is to say, deeply personal things about her character as well as her thoughts and feelings, even if those things were largely conjecture. I thought you would be the perfect person to write a novel about her; I so admired the way you provided intimate access into the character of Mamah Cheney in Loving Frank. So I called you to beg you to write about George Sand. I believe when you answered the phone I said, “Nancy! You have to write about George Sand! She’s so interesting!” You had just finished Under the Wide and Starry Sky, and you weren’t ready to begin another huge undertaking. And, of course, I assume you are like most writers and want to pick your own subjects, not have them thrust upon you. At any rate, you said, “You write it!” I told you I couldn’t possibly. But then the idea wouldn’t go away, and so I plunged in, buoyed up by the last words you said to me: “Oh, of course you can write it. It will be fabulous!”
NH: I think creating a voice for a real historical figure, particularly for someone who lived nearly two hundred years ago, is rather tricky. How did you arrive at the voice you used for George Sand? Did you pull expressions from her letters to integrate into the dialogue? Did you stick to language as it was used at the time, or did you feel free to use more contemporary expressions?
EB: You know, it is a tricky thing, and I did try hard to stay away from contemporary expressions, which, when you’re reading historical fiction, can take you right out of the story. In the end, I think the way the language thing worked for me was the way my other books have worked best: the less predetermined—-the less conscious—-things are, the better.
When I was nine years old, my family lived in Texas for a while. It took me about thirty–five seconds to develop a Southern accent, to incorporate “y’all” quite naturally into my speech. I came in one night and told my parents my friend and I had to stop playing because Sherry was “fixing to eat.” My parents exchanged amused glances, and I thought, What? What’s funny?
Anyway, what I mean to say is that things rub off on me. I have a tendency to imitate, to pretend, to dramatize, as I believe many fiction writers do. So when I read (i.e., “listen to”) a lot of a person, as I did when I read George Sand’s thousand–plus–page autobiography, Story of My Life, that person’s ways of thinking and speaking rub off. George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream of her; then, I thought, to dream like her. I know that might sound arrogant or at least unlikely. But I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.
NH: I find the foreignness of the past attractive territory to explore. Modern lives seem more daunting to portray in a fresh way, since so much is familiar terrain. Do you agree? Can you talk a bit about the different challenges and attractions of portraying modern lives versus historical lives?
EB: I agree that the past is wonderful to explore: evocative—-thrilling, really—-and quite necessary, when you’re writing historical fiction. But I find it much more difficult to write about the past than the present. I move through pages very quickly and easily when I write about modern times. When I’m trying to re–create something from so long ago, the pressure bears down upon me. So much to find out about, and to be responsible for! Clothes, language, the sounds of the streets, what bathrooms were like, how lamb was served, the tone of the newspapers, where one bought soap, the feel of a carriage ride over cobblestones. I spent a long time with my chin in my hands writing this book, wondering if I really should go on with it.
NH: George was considered a scandalous woman for her time. What do you think was particularly unusual about her? Do you think her reputation affected—-helped or hindered—-her career as a writer? How did it feel to write a novel about such a controversial figure?
EB: Henry James described coming up with the idea for a novel as creating a big “to do” around a character. When you write about someone real who was so controversial, the “to do” comes built in. But I am always interested in the backstory—-when someone is described as being scandalous, or out of order, or different, or demanding, especially when that someone is a woman—-and I am full of questions. What made her that way? What kind of vulnerability is behind great strength? What kind of sadness lives inside a person believed to be joyful? Or, conversely, what gaiety is there in someone viewed as being very serious? One of the things I learned in writing this novel is that the esteemed Russian writer Ivan Turgenev loved being silly. He was quite the party animal, as opposed to another of Sand’s close friends, Gustave Flaubert, who was like Eeyore the donkey in his depressive outlook.
I think what was unusual about Sand was the way her male and female qualities existed side by side, the way she was fluid about assuming the character of a man or a woman, sometimes simultaneously. Also, she was a mass of contradictions: she advocated strongly for women but didn’t like being around them all that much (with one notable exception). She was called bold but in fact was very shy. Her strongest desire was for love, but she had a pattern of having (or making) relationships disintegrate. In her time and even now, she was both reviled and adulated. She created her own god, renouncing the ideas found in organized religion, yet in her youth she wanted to be a nun.
Her reputation may have helped her as a writer, but I think it was mostly her great talent. And in any case, her reputation changed. In her own small hometown of Nohant, she went from being disapproved of—-even reviled—-to being called “The Good Woman of Nohant,” and she was deeply mourned by everyone from peasants to princes after her death.
As to how it felt writing about her, one phrase will do: challenging but exhilarating.
NH: George’s relationships with women, especially the women in her family, were very complicated. What connections do you see between George’s relationship with her mother, Sophie, and George’s subsequent relationship with her own daughter, Solange? With other people? With the actress Marie Dorval? Chopin? What might these relationships say about George herself?
EB: This is a very complicated question with a simple, two–part answer, as I see it. If you do not get the love you so desperately need early in your life, you search for it ever after. And whatever your experience of love was in those young and vulnerable years, you tend to reenact it in future relationships. Sand’s mother was by turns loving and cruel, or at least indifferent; so Sand was with her own daughter. In Sand’s relationships with men, she tended to go quickly from being passionate to being maternal, because she felt that if men needed her, they would not leave her. For Marie, she served as a man who loved with the intensity and devotion and sensitivity of a woman. I think it takes an enormous amount of insight and hard work to make yourself step out of or away from dangerous patterns that you adopt unconsciously early in life, but it can be done. That George Sand was happy and at peace with herself in her later years (after so many years of experiencing deep depressions and suicidal ideation) attests to that.
NH: Was it daunting to write about another writer? Did you reach any new understandings about the art of writing by studying Sand’s works and her comments on the subject? Do you see yourself any differently, as a writer, now that you’ve written this book?
EB: It wasn’t daunting to write about another writer, but it was daunting to write about someone so fiercely intelligent, and whose prose was so startlingly lucid and precise. I didn’t reach any new understandings about the writing process; rather, I had my own methods validated. Sand did not plot, she was wildly prolific, and she wrote from the heart. I can, as they say, relate to that.
NH: You re–create so wonderfully life in Paris in the 1820s and ’30s, and in the French countryside near Sand’s family’s estate at Nohant. What did you find about these places, this era, that inspired you? Was it liberating to write about an era different from your own?
EB: It was great fun to imagine how the sights and sounds of the city of nineteenth–century Paris would collide with the pastoral life Sand lived at Nohant. My challenge was to present the charms and allure of both lives. Sand loved and needed the intellectual and artistic and political life she had in Paris, but she needed equally the gifts of nature that she found in Nohant.
I was inspired by all the revolutionary goings–on in Paris at that time, and the way that roles of women were challenged, the way that socialism kept trying to assert itself, the way that artists—-writers, musicians, painters, poets—-gathered together in salons for entertainment that was the opposite of virtual reality. Would that we had such salons today! I wanted to be there in those salons, and one of the joys in writing this book is that I was.
As for the scenes of nature, I’m a nature and bird lover myself, so all of that came pretty easily.
NH: What do you hope that your readers will take away from this book, and from George herself? What do you feel is most important about her relevance today?
EB: George Sand’s struggle to become and stay herself, in all her permutations, was of paramount importance, and that idea is still relevant today, whether you’re a man or a woman. How is it that we find our deepest truths? What directions in life serve to move us toward our highest purposes? How do we accommodate and respect changes in ourselves? What do we owe the earth, and each other? How can we focus on appreciating the small gifts we are offered daily, for free, and relieve ourselves of the never–ending quest for more, more, more? How can we honor (and use!) what makes us different from others, rather than be ashamed of it? What is the best way to love and be loved?
All of these questions percolated in me as I wrote about George Sand, and I would be happy to have people who read the book take away the idea that answering such questions is not only our duty but our great pleasure. I would also like readers to consider whether it is true that we owe it to ourselves, and to those we love, to live in truth, even when it’s hard—-perhaps especially when it’s hard. If I could wish for one more thing, it would be that George Sand’s prose would be appreciated again, and that she would be understood as someone who was a bit more than the ruthless cigar–smoking nymphomaniac she is often portrayed as.
Finally, honestly, I will tell you that I hope readers will finish the last sentence of The Dream Lover and think to themselves, Boy! That was a good read!