BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John Berendt, author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,"
how much of this book in an interview will you not tell the audience because of the plot
and all that?
Mr. JOHN BERENDT, AUTHOR, "MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL":
I'd--in an interview, the same as on the book--on the flap on the
jacket, we didn't want to say who shot whom. I did want to say there
was a shooting here and there's a murder trial, but because the
murder happens in the middle of the book, I didn't want to reveal who
got it and who did it. So there's one thing I don't say. But
there's--and--you know, books ought to have a little bit of
suspense as you go through, and there's quite a bit--minor suspense,
major suspense, and you don't want to burst any of those bubbles
beforehand or in an interview.
LAMB: When people see this, it will be a couple weeks after we
recorded it, but what printing is this book in?
Mr. BERENDT: Right now, 86th printing. Random House--oh, you would
think, `Why don't they publish them all right away--print them all
right away?' It costs something to store a book in a warehouse, and
Random House has--and most publishers, I guess, have it
down to a science how many they need for the next few weeks and Random
House--every publisher has a code--and you're pointing to Random
House's right there--and you can tell because the first 10 printings
have no letter, no A, B, C. The teens have a B, the
20s have a C in it. And then you take the C or the D or the E or the
F to get what decade it's in, and then the lowest digit is the
second number. So if it's C987654, then it's 24th printing. That's
the code. And that's just Random House, and others have other codes.
LAMB: How many books was the first printing?
Mr. BERENDT: Twenty-five thousand. It was going to be 30. They
cut back all their books--this was January '94. They cut--they
did 25,000, then quickly another three. And then they were doing
five and seven and a half and ten and twelve, and now it's up to the 150
and that sort of thing. But they know what the demand is-
the bookstores are going to order--this is a science I
don't know much about, but the publishers know. So they
print enough, hopefully, to satisfy the demand.
LAMB: Over 160 weeks, when this is recorded on the Best Seller
List--did you ever dream of that?
Mr. BERENDT: No. I mean, I--people would ask me when I was writing
this book, `You think it's gonna be a best-seller?' And I'd say, `You
kidding? Look what's in it, the strangest kind of people.' I mean,
a black drag queen, a man who has a bottle of poison that could
kill everybody in Savannah if he put it in the water supply, and on
and on--odd, quirky kind of people. I was hoping for critical
acceptance. First I wanted people to say--or critics to say, `Yeah,
it's a book. This man, who writes columns and magazines and articles,
has written a book.' Then I hoped they would say, `It's a good book,'
and possibly, `It's a very good book.' But I wasn't really thinking of
I hoped I would--yeah, I didn't get an advance, so I was writing
a column in Esquire and other magazine things while I wrote
it, and I was even. I wasn't in debt and I just hoped that the book
would be critically accepted and it might make a little money, but
I didn't really even think about best-sellerdom. It didn't
occur to me to even hope for that.
LAMB: What is this on the cover?
Mr. BERENDT: That's a statue in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah,
and it's in a family plot. It is not a headstone, it's not a
tomb, it's ornamentation. And when Random House was designing a
cover, I said, `You ought to take a look at Bonaventure Cemetery,
one of the most beautiful places in the world.' So they sent a local
Savannah photographer out there. I thought that was very good karma.
Here I was, a New Yorker. I'd come down to Savannah, written a book
about Savannah and gone back to New York. And for Random House to
select a photographer from Savannah I thought was great because it
allowed Savannah to have some creative input into the book.
Anyway, he went out to Bonaventure Cemetery for two days looking for
something that captured his interests and he found this girl on the
second day. He had a very, very tight schedule. He had five days to
get the photograph. And he saw her and he took her picture, and he
did funny things in the darkroom to make her stand
out, and it's a magically, seductively beautiful photograph. It's
mysterious. It just captures exactly what I would've hoped for in a
Now as you--no, a lot of authors have approval of the cover.
That doesn't mean you can design it, but it does mean you can say,
`No, I don't want that one. Let's do another one.' I was worried that
I would see a cover that was OK, that I couldn't reject but that
wouldn't help the book. This cover is sensational, beautiful,
wonderful cover. I couldn't've hoped for anything better.
LAMB: Is that statue still in the cemetery?
Mr. BERENDT: What happened when the book came out is that tourists
went out to Bonaventure by the hundreds, posing with this statue. The
family that owns the plot was horrified--I can understand why--and
they removed the statue and it's been gone for three years. However,
recently, I understand--I'm very pleased about this--the family has
donated the statue to the local art museum, the Telfair Academy, and
it will reside inside the Telfair and it will draw a lot of people to
the museum and that will help support it. And that's
a--lovely, I think. It's become an icon that represents Savannah, and
you can see it on T-shirts and cups and charms and pins and flags
and all sorts of tie-in items that people in Savannah are
manufacturing to go along with this.
LAMB: By the way, I didn't get the number of books that actually have
been printed so far.
Mr. BERENDT: Almost exactly a million and a half--1,500,000--a
staggering number and we've kept it in hardcover for that
LAMB: Let's--before we talk about you a little bit, give us
just an overview of what people are going to read if they haven't seen
Mr. BERENDT: All right. I am the narrator of the book. I'm a
New York magazine editor and writer, go down to Savannah by chance on
a trip with friends, and I'm overcome by the beauty of the city. It's
a wonderful, magical city. And so I went back to New York,
and three years later...
LAMB: What year was this?
Mr. BERENDT: It was 1982. Three years later I decided, Well, I've
--you know, I've been writing magazine columns and I never was able
to get deeply into anything. I would, you know, skitter along the
surface and every month I'd have to do something different. It was
very challenging and lots of fun, but I'd wanted to wallow in
something I could get in deeply. I knew that I'd have to write a
book if I was gonna to do that. Question: What should the
book be about? And I looked at a lot of subjects and I thought back
to Savannah, and I thought, `What a wonderful place to set a book.'
The city is unusual, it's undiscovered--it was undiscovered. And
the people I met were extraordinary. And I also knew about the murder
The way I wrote the book, I took the liberty of putting the shooting
in the middle of the book so that you have met all the relevant
characters and you knew all about Savannah before it happened. So you
were surprised, as a reader--as surprised by this shooting as the
people in Savannah were. But, in fact, I knew before I started I had
that to work with. So that is what you do. You--it's really a
portrait of Savannah with a murder case thrown in. It all sort of
ties together. It's actually a lot of different stories and the trick
was to make it all sound like one. There were many
ways I was able to do that. The subtitle of the book is "A Savannah
Story," even though it's hundreds of them.
And the characters in the book--there's a chapter about a
character--but he appears in several other chapters later. So
in that way, reappearing characters tend to pull this together into a
community, tightening that community. And, of course, the
murder case is a continuing threat after it happens.
And there's one character named Joe Odom, who pops up
regularly, commenting on my progress through Savannah, making funny
jokes about my writing this movie, and never pays attention to the
fact that it's going to be a book. To him, it's a movie. We're all
gonna get to be in it. If we're in what he's writing, it will turn
into a movie and we'll all be in it. So from the beginning through
the end of the book, there's this sort of Greek chorus of this
character, a real person, commenting on my progress. So it all pulls
together, and it's a narrative about my experiences in Savannah
and a lot of unusual things happening.
LAMB: Jim Williams, one of the principal characters, is dead. When
did he die?
Mr. BERENDT: He died in January 1990.
Mr. BERENDT: Well, the first--the papers--what happened is that he
came down--he was at home. He came down to get the paper and make
himself some tea or coffee, and he collapsed behind his desk and
died--what everyone thought at first was a heart attack. But the
irony is that he died in the very spot where he would have fallen if
Danny Hansford, the man he killed, had actually fired a gun at him, as
he claimed, and hit him. He'd have fallen right where he
eventually died nine years later.
LAMB: Where were you when you heard of this?
Mr. BERENDT: I happened to be in the Atlanta airport on my way from
Miami up to Atlanta, through Atlanta to Savannah. I'd gone to
Miami for--I don't know, I forget what. And I got the word that he
had died. So I--and I was on my way back to Savannah anyway, and I
went back and--so he died. In fact, that's the end of the book.
Well, there you go, there's some suspense right there. But
the--before--what happens before is suspenseful, so...
LAMB: How close were you to him when he died?
Mr. BERENDT: I--he was very forthcoming. He was one of the best
interviews I ever had in my professional life in magazines. I mean,
he was very forthcoming, he was very funny, very articulate and, like
many Southerners, a wonderful storyteller. That's the one thing I
noticed about Southerners--they tell stories all the time. The
story might last one sentence, but it's part of the tradition of
communicating; you tell stories and it's charming. It enlivens
life and it certainly enlivens literature. So I borrowed that
technique in telling the story. The narrative style of my book is
storytelling. And so he was terrific.
I wasn't--we weren't bosom buddies by any means, but he was very
friendly with me. I read him a couple of chapters. He
agreed to cooperate with the book, but I said to him, `You know, you
may cooperate and all that, but you won't see the book until it's
published. You will have no editorial rights.' But as I was writing
it, I would read him chapters that I knew he wouldn't have any problem
with, and a couple of them about himself. And he was very pleased and
impressed, and he said, `You know, when I agreed to let you do this
book, I didn't know whether you were going to do a cheap, sensational
book or a very careful literary one. I didn't care because I
wanted my story out. But now I see you're doing a very careful job
and don't you let anybody rush you,' he said, which I thought was very
good. And so--and I didn't let anybody rush me. I didn't have an
advance. I didn't owe the book to a publisher. So I took my
time, and it took seven years.
LAMB: How old was he when he died?
Mr. BERENDT: He was 59.
LAMB: Joe Odom died in 1991 of what?
Mr. BERENDT: It turns out to have been AIDS. I did not know. He
had a double life. He'd married three times and he died of AIDS. He
died after the time frame of my book. I didn't include it. I
thought--I could have, but I thought that's just one more issue to put
in the book that's very full already, so I didn't.
LAMB: You dedicate this book to your parents.
Mr. BERENDT: Yes.
LAMB: Are they alive?
Mr. BERENDT: They're both alive.
LAMB: Where do they live?
Mr. BERENDT: They live outside Syracuse, New York, in a town
called Manlius. And they really did instill in me a great
respect for literature and for books and for writing. My mother wrote
a novel in 1951 that was based on our family. It's called "Small
World" and she used her maiden name, Carole Deschere, and Simon &
Schuster published it in 1951. And my father has, for 30 years, been
writing a book and--a very scientific book, philosophical book, and
he's still doing it.
And--so anyway, but I've always--writers were always held in great
esteem in—at home, and reading. My father read to me and
my sister. He read "The Swiss Family Robinson" and he read "Tale of
Two Cities," a number of other books.
LAMB: What do they think of all this?
Mr. BERENDT: Well, they're thrilled by it. And, in fact, my
mother wanted to--and father wanted to see every clipping that there
was. And I said, `You know, I'll give you a fax machine, it's a
whole lot easier, instead of going and mailing something every
time there is something.' `No, no, we don't want a fax machine.' They
don't--the whole technology thing was horrible. So I said, `Trust
me.' So I gave them a fax machine and they can't live without it now.
So I send them everything that comes by that I can, you know, get my
hands on, I fax to them. So they've kept in touch and we talk all
the time. So they feel very much involved and they're thrilled, of
course, with what's happened.
LAMB: I was watching on this network overnight a panel of
William Styron and Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. And one of the
people in the audience asked, `Can any of you name literature that you
would recommend today, any books at all?' and Kurt Vonnegut said
"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." What does that feel like?
Mr. BERENDT: Oh. It's beyond words. It's a thrill.
LAMB: That's the only one, by the way, that was recommended, as
Mr. BERENDT: Really?
Mr. BERENDT: That's a great thrill because I'm a fan of his, as you
can imagine. You know, somebody said to me--you know, when the book
came out, it got good reviews and then it got onto the Best Seller
List and people said, `How do you feel?' I said, `I feel wonderful.'
And then something else might have happened and, `How do you feel
now?' I said, `You can only feel so good and nice things happen all
along.' Now that, what you just told me, is just a thrill, and I feel
as good as I can possibly feel and I'd probably bust if I felt any
And it--what it is, actually, I spent seven years doing this, taking a
long time, and friends were saying, `Are you ever gonna finish this
book?' And people in Savannah thought after a while that I wasn't
really writing one. I mean, I'd gone down there in '85, and by '88,
'89 there was no book and there were rumors in Savannah that I
really wasn't writing one, that I was becoming an eccentric, just like
all the other people in Savannah, and my quirk was that I was
supposedly writing this book I really wasn't writing.
And I--you know, it began to be a little bit pressure-filled. I mean,
friends were saying, `Do you think you'll ever finish? This is
getting to be serious now.' So now that--I did spend the seven years
and the book has been received very well. I feel that I didn't waste
a moment, that all--every moment of those seven years was well-spent.
LAMB: How did you live financially during those seven years?
Mr. BERENDT: Well, I wrote a column for Esquire...
LAMB: Every month?
Mr. BERENDT: ...every month. And I wrote annual
reports for big corporations on occasion, two or three a year, and
that was very good to do if you need to earn some money. So that
pretty much covered my expenses. I mean, it didn't provide any
extra, but it meant that I could live fairly comfortably in
Savannah, you see. Life is--or has been not too expensive.
LAMB: Let's go back to the beginning. You were born where?
Mr. BERENDT: Born in Syracuse. My parents were both Manhattanites.
They were born and raised in Manhattan, moved up to Syracuse. My
father represented an industrial coatings company and traveled a bit
in central New York, so we lived in Syracuse, a nice, medium-sized
town for some little kid to grow up in. And I went to public schools
in Syracuse and then I went to Harvard and was on the Harvard
Lampoon, and came to New York to get a master's in English literature.
And I was approached by Harold Hayes, who was the editor of Esquire
then--'61, the end of '61--and I was asked if I wanted to be an
editor of Esquire. And, of course, I did want to be. He said,
`Well, we've got other candidates. Here's six months of
Esquire. Critique them and give me 20 ideas for pieces.' And Esquire
then was in its great glory days. It was a large-sized magazine
and Norman Mailer was writing for it, and every name you could
So I didn't--I thought, `Well, it's funny. He called me up. I don't
think he's got any other candidates. But I'll go on home and
I'll'--and I went home and I--up to Columbia and I wrote a critique
and I wrote 20 new ideas and I handed them in. And he said--what
he had said originally is, `When you give them to me, I'll get back
to you in two weeks.' And I thought to myself, `I'm going to make
these so impressive that he'll have to call me up the next day and
give me the job,' which he did. But I later learned--when I had lunch
with him, an old high school friend of mine, Michael Herr, the author
LAMB: He endorses your book on the back, huh?
Mr. BERENDT: He does. And I'll get to that in a minute. Mickey--we
call him Mickey. He calls me Johnny; for me, he's Mickey. We grew up
from, you know, grade school right through high school and I
admire him enormously. He said, `When did you get your job at
Esquire?' And I said, `December.' He said, `Well, that's when I was up
for it, too.' So it turns out the only two candidates were two men who
had gone to high school together, grammar school and high school
together. Neither one of us knew that the other one was a
candidate. And he went on to write "Dispatches" and several pieces of
that appeared in Esquire in the '60s, and it's a classic.
But you mentioned--he did write a blurb on the back. There are
four blurbs. Two people I knew beforehand and two I had never
met. So that's the--that's how blurbs work. Sometimes you ask a
friend, tentatively. Well, Mickey asked me if he could read my book,
and he did and he said he loved it. And then I told my editor at
Random House that Michael Herr loved my book. She said, `Do you think
he'll write a blurb?' I said, `I can't ask him to do that. I
just--I'd be so embarrassed.' She said, `Well, I don't know him as
well as you do.' So I called him up and he said, `I was waiting
for you to ask. Of course I'll write a blurb.'
LAMB: And he said, `John'--and is it--Berendt (pronounced as
BEH-rent)? Is that the...
Mr. BERENDT: Berendt, yes.
LAMB: `John Berendt has written a gorgeous and haunting blend of a
travel book and a murder mystery. It is enchanting and
disturbing and deeply atmospheric.'
Mr. BERENDT: Bubbly quote.
LAMB: Those kind of things work?
Mr. BERENDT: I think so. He's held in great esteem. I think all
of the four people who--and, you know, if you're--there's certain
things that make you buy a book. You've heard--maybe you've read a
great review, an interesting review; maybe a friend has said, `You're
going to enjoy this book,' you're not sure. You go to a bookstore and
you hold the book, you look at it and maybe you do it two or
three times in a bookstore. The cover might tip the balance.
Certain things tip the balance. If you've been told good
things, you hear good things, something might tip the balance and make
you think, `All right, I'll read it.' And that's where a blurb that
catches your eye or impresses you might come into play. I don't
think, because of a blurb, you go out and buy a book, but it could be
one of those things that just make you buy it rather than put it back
on the shelf.
LAMB: Who named "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"?
Mr. BERENDT: Well, that's the title I came up with. Because I
was an editor at Esquire, we always spent a lot of time thinking of
just the right title for the pieces. And so I gave all of my chapters
titles, just to add more atmosphere. Well, in one of the chapters I
go with the murdered defendant and his voodoo priestess--I mean, a
law--a very expensive lawyer, but he also hedged his bets and hired a
voodoo priestess. Well, she took us to what she called the flower
garden, because he wanted her to put a curse on a district attorney.
So--there it is, Chapter 18, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and
Well, she said to me and to him, `We're going to go to the garden,'
she said, which is the graveyard. And she said, `We have to go at
dead time. Now you know about dead time. Dead time lasts one
hour--half-hour before midnight to a half-hour after midnight. First
half-hour's for doing good. Second half-hour's for doing evil. Seems
like we need a little bit of both tonight. We best be on our way.' So
that's in that chapter. And I sat down, I wrote the chapter, I
thought, `OK, title. I should call it "The Garden." "The Garden's" a
wonderful image. She called it sometimes the flower garden, but "The
Garden"'--loved the word `garden.' And midnight--I mean, `And at the
stroke of midnight,' she said, `you can scoop up graveyard dirt. It's
powerful stuff to throw on someone's porch to put a curse on them.'
So I thought, `Well, we were there at midnight. "Midnight
--Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."' I mean, all of this
seemed to have come from what she had told me. And I put that down as
a title for a chapter and I thought, `Ooh, wait a minute. You know,
that's--Savannah is a garden city of these wonderful squares,
and it's got good and evil.' And I thought, `What could be better? I
mean, `midnight's' also a very evocative word.' It's an eight-word
title, very long--longer than most others. I thought, `Well, this may
not be commercial.'
So when I sold the book to Random House, I said, `I'm not going to be
a prima donna. If you don't think "Midnight in the Garden of Good and
Evil" is commercial, it's too long, tell me and I--and we'll--I'll try
to think of another word,' and they said, `Don't change it on our
account. We think it'll work.' And on top of that, my editor said,
`You're going to have to have a subtitle to explain what this is
about.' So I said, `That's easy, "A Savannah Story."' And originally,
that was going to be on the cover. That would've made 11 words. But
the designer of the cover, Carole Carson, who's utterly brilliant,
decided it didn't need to be on the cover. "A Savannah Story" is
inside on the title page.
LAMB: And you can see it right here. Go back for a moment to
Syracuse. What were you like in high school?
Mr. BERENDT: Very conservative--not politically conservative, but
socially conservative. We wore, you know, white bucks, chino pants,
button-down collar. This was the '50s; this is what you did.
LAMB: What year did you graduate?
Mr. BERENDT: From high school in '57, from college in '61. And
Syracuse was--I mean, it was very conformist. Maybe that's why I'm
drawn to such crazy, weird characters. I'm delighted by them because
they break the mold, their freedom, they, you know--and it's something
that--it's--not unsafe, but, you know, I mean, I'm not--it's
hard to say 'cause Syracuse was a very conservative place. People
live according to the book.
LAMB: Did you write...
Mr. BERENDT: Not that book, but the book.
LAMB: Did you write in high school?
Mr. BERENDT: I did. I was one of the editors of the Nottingham
Crimson--not Crimson, Bulldog--it's the Harvard Crimson. Nottingham
Bulldog. It's amazing how many schools have bulldogs for
mascots--many, many, many, many. I don't know why. I guess it's
tough--I mean, team tough.
LAMB: Were you recognized then as being a writer?
Mr. BERENDT: Sort of, yes.
Mr. BERENDT: By people in my class, but Mickey Herr,
Michael Herr was thought to be a genius then and he was. He was a
wonderful writer. My experience as a writer was one of learning
and getting better and better and better. Michael Herr started from a
very high level of brilliance in writing, was someone I always
admired, but the message of my career is that you can get better.
Well, he has gotten better, too, but, I mean, I really became--I was
awkward and I didn't quite--now--and as I went along writing
for Esquire--and with a brilliant editor, Harold Hayes, running
Esquire and wanting all of us to be able to write in the style of
Esquire--the voice--he kept saying, `Voice--the voice, the tone of
Esquire was to be knowledgeable and irreverent.' And that was
the personality of Esquire in the '60s. And he insisted that
all of its editors be able to write in that style.
And we also--all of us--we signed articles, we edited them, but we
also wrote features that were unsigned in the magazine, so they were
the house voice. We all had to be able to write that way. And
among the editors then was David Newman, who, with Robert Bent
wrote "Bonnie and Clyde" and did the "Superman" movies. So
we--he had a pretty interesting staff put together in the
'60s. And Clay Felker was on board. He later founded New York
Magazine. It was an exciting place to be.
Anyway, I developed writing talents at Esquire that I didn't have. I
mean, getting as much as I could onto the page in as few words as
possible, keeping the reader interested--it's all entertainment, even
if it's deadly serious, not a laugh in the piece or the book. I
consider writing to be a form of entertainment and I use the word in
the best possible sense--to seize the read--get hold of the reader's
attention and keep it. In a magazine, there are all kinds of
things competing for attention. There are ads, there are cartoons,
there are other pieces you can flip through. Someone reading a
magazine is not as committed to reading the magazine as someone who
sits down with a book is committed to reading the book.
LAMB: How did you get into Harvard?
Mr. BERENDT: I applied and crossed my fingers.
LAMB: But had you been an A student?
Mr. BERENDT: I had been a good student. Also, I had extracurricular
activities. Harvard was interested in a well-rounded student, not
LAMB: What were they?
Mr. BERENDT: I was on the track team--I was not very good, but I was
on the track team. I was on the newspaper, on the--various little
things like that. And I had--I was a volunteer worker after
school at various places in Syracuse and I was a good student. So I
had a number of the other things besides grades, too. And also,
you're interviewed by the traveling representative, and if you
can make a case for the fact that you're not just a grind and a
successful one at that, I suppose, they were more interested in you.
LAMB: What did you study at Harvard?
Mr. BERENDT: I studied English literature, like half of the other
people. This was what you did when you didn't know what you wanted to
be. At first I thought I wanted to be an architect. I loved to
design. So I went and talked to the head of the architecture
department. And he laid out all the courses I would take as a
freshman, a sophomore, a junior and a senior. I said, `Thank you very
much,' walked out and never went back because I wanted to pick my own
courses. So English literature was something I wanted to do anyway.
I wanted to read English literature and--it allowed me a certain
amount of freedom in picking other subjects I could study. But if I
had been --you know, an undergraduate headed for an architecture
degree, it was all laid out and that was too rigid for me, so I didn't
do that. I thought, `Well, if I want to be an architect, I'll do that
LAMB: How'd you get on the National Lampoon?
Mr. BERENDT: The Harvard Lampoon.
LAMB: I'm sorry.
Mr. BERENDT: Harvard Lampoon--well, I went out for it. What you do
is you go out for the Lampoon as an undergraduate and the
competition goes on for a number of weeks and
you write--each week you write a short story or an essay or as--in my
case, I wrote doggerel poetry.
LAMB: Did it have to be funny?
Mr. BERENDT: Oh, yes. It had to be--the Lampoon was
funny. It hoped to be funny anyway. And I was selected. And then we
had what was called Phool's Week in which you are humiliated.
It's their form of, you know, what fraternities do in
other colleges. It was a little more elevated. We were told we had
to wear black eye patches and walk around Harvard in a black suit for
a week, which we did. And you could see these people in black eye
patches--I almost got hit by a car crossing the street. But--and we
had to do things like--one of the--we call `phools,' P-H-O-O-L-S, as I
remember. This is the great institution that Robert Benchley was on
and that John Updike was on.
But nevertheless, you had to go through this humiliating few days. I
don't know that they still do it. I don't think so. And play little
tricks in public, like lock all the gates of Harvard Yard, all 19
gates, with big chains just before night classes were released so that
big crowds would gather at each gate trying to get out. Well, this
was hilariously funny to undergraduates. So that's how I went out
for the Harvard Lampoon. And then for my--for four years I was an
editor of the Harvard Lampoon. And it culminated in 19--just before I
graduated in 1961.
We had done--in my junior year, we had done a parody of the Saturday
Review, a magazine most people don't know about anymore, but it was a
wonderful literary magazine. We did a parody of it, and the editors
of Mademoiselle in New York saw that parody and liked it a lot. And
they got in touch with us just in my senior year and said, `Would you
do a parody of us, of Mademoiselle, as our July issue? You be the
editors of our July issue. We'll pick the clothes, but you can parody
us with the photographs and the articles, and we'll pick the clothes
because we want to sell these clothes through the magazine.' And we
said, `Of course.'
They brought five of us down to New York and we did a parody of
Mademoiselle. There was--and that was the July 1961 cover--or,
rather, issue of Mademoiselle. And it was kind of smart of them to do
that because the July issue of all magazines is not a good sell. So
they got a lot of interest in that July issue by simply having us do
it. And we had a girl--a very beautiful model on the cover wearing
the Tam o' Shanter, or whatever they had picked for her. And she had
a fly on her nose and people would try to brush it off on the
So it attracted a lot of attention and articles were written in
newspapers about it, and that's where Harold Hayes of Esquire thought
of hiring one of these people. So he called Mademoiselle, he said,
`Which of the people who did that do you think I should go and have a
look at?' And they said, `Well, John Berendt.' As it happened, I had
just then, that summer, graduated from Harvard and was in New York at
Columbia about to get a master's in English, and he saved me from
LAMB: You didn't get it?
Mr. BERENDT: I didn't. No. I'd be a teacher if I had.
LAMB: So how many years did you write for Esquire?
Mr. BERENDT: I was at Esquire from the end of '61 through '69. Then
I worked f...
LAMB: What--by the way, writing what kind of column?
Mr. BERENDT: I didn't write a column then. The column I did
starting in '82. I always--when I left Esquire in the end of '69--I'd
been there seven or eight years--I always kept touch because it was
like my home, my first home as an adult. And I would write pieces
through the years after that even when I was writing for Dick Cavett.
I wrote--I would pre-interview people for--first, David Frost and then
Dick Cavett. And then I freelanced for about four years. And then I
wrote--then I became the editor of New York Magazine for two years and
LAMB: The editor?
Mr. BERENDT: The editor. That was a wildly exciting period of time.
LAMB: Clay Felker there then?
Mr. BERENDT: Clay had left, you see, and Rupert Murdoch had bought
the magazine and installed Jim Brady as editor and he was there nine
months and then he went over to the New York Post, and I was hired as
editor. I was an old friend of Clay Felker's, and I still am a
good friend of Clay Felker's. But I took over and for two years
was the editor. And it was very exciting. It was a weekly magazine,
very high pressure. And I probably didn't delegate authority as much
as I should have. I wanted to control every word that--I wanted to make sure
that we didn't cut too much out of that piece I loved because I wanted
to, you know, have -- you know, as much going for us as possible. And
I really did oversee everything. So I was there two years and then
I was fired by the publisher. It turned out who--he wanted to be an
editor, but he hadn't been brought up to be one.
LAMB: And who was that?
Mr. BERENDT: That was Joe Armstrong. And Rupert Murdoch, after
a few months of him, got him--sent him on his way.
LAMB: Is that the first time you--and only time you've ever been
Mr. BERENDT: Yes.
LAMB: What'd it feel like?
Mr. BERENDT: No, I had been fired--oh, it felt --I felt terrible
and I felt it was unjustified. And I have a feeling that Rupert
Murdoch thought so, too, because shortly after that, he asked me if I
would write his annual report--and I did it twice--for the New--the
News Corporation. That was fascinating. I got along with Rupert
very, very well.
Mr. BERENDT: Oh, I don't think we agreed politically, but he
wasn't sticky about that. He and I respected him on certain
important levels. I mean, he said to me at one time--you know, he
publishes The Sun, the News of the World, these two bare-breasted
newspapers in Britain--and the New York Post can be pretty
racy--but he also has The Times of London and various other quite
He said to me--after I'd written his annual report and showed him the
draft, we were in London together, he said to me, `The secret is,
John, I've never been ashamed of anything I've ever published.' And
it's interesting. The New York Daily News had tried to go up against
him. The Daily News was a morning paper, the Post was afternoon. The
Daily News was locked in a battle with him, and they opened an
afternoon paper to go head-to-head with Murdoch in New York.
And he was a pretty racy afternoon paper. He called it the popular
press. It wasn't down market. He'd call it the popular press. It's
a nice way to describe something like that. But the Daily News went
after him head-to-head and they were ashamed of the kind of raciness
they were gonna have to do and they didn't do it. They pulled back.
They put out a morning paper in the afternoon, which doesn't fly, not
in New York.
So he - and while I was writing this report, they closed
the Daily News afternoon paper. And Murdoch said to
me, `They were ashamed of it. They weren't behind it. I'm not
ashamed of what I do. It has an audience. I may not like it, but
it's for them. If the audience likes it, then I'm not ashamed of it.'
LAMB: The book--it--you look back at the beginning, are there two
or three moments where something happened in the media that made a
Mr. BERENDT: After the book came out, you mean?
LAMB: Yeah. In other words, say--if you look...
Mr. BERENDT: Oh. I thought you mea...
LAMB: No, if you look back and go through the--you know, kind of a...
Mr. BERENDT: Yes.
LAMB: What am I—I can't find the word...
Mr. BERENDT: Yeah.
LAMB: ...but you--looking back, why did this all happen?
Mr. BERENDT: Why did it become so successful? Well, basically,
Random House tells me it's a word-of-mouth thing, meaning that it
doesn't really need the media. Well--but it does. I mean, I can see
that when I go on, for instance, "Good Morning America," sales of the
book the next week spike. And I don't mean just "Good Morning
America," but any national television or radio does have an impact.
But you can do that just so many times. If the book doesn't deliver
to enough people, doesn't, you know, strike a chord, people won't talk
And I must say that while I was writing this, as I mentioned earlier,
I was aware of its being an entertainment. And I wanted to say
everything I had to say, but I wanted to hold the reader. And each
chapter--I wanted in each chapter for the reader to get something out
of it--a little thrill, a little surprise, and so it's
manipulation, but the kind of manipulation that --you'd be a
fool not to put into a book that's supposed to hold people's interest.
And what you have is a lot of elements in this book that prompt people
to talk about it. There's this incredibly seductive city of Savannah
that people--generally had not heard much about. There are
amazingly wonderful characters with ironic senses of humor that I had
not encountered before. The Lady Chablis, Joe Odom and Jim Williams,
three characters, larger than life--I didn't have to help them in
order to make them.
You know, Philip Roth -- wrote the book "Counterlife" and he has a
major character who's a novelist. The novelist complains that most
people are not fully formed literary characters. They don't give you
much to go by except the initial impression, then it's up to the
writer to make them compelling and interesting. Well, that may be
true, but if you're a novelist, you can make up anything you want.
You can start with a germ of an idea. If a person suggests something
to you, you can add to it.
I stumbled into a mother lode of literary characters in Savannah
that--who needed no help from me to be absolutely depositable in a
book as they were and speaking in the way they spoke.
So I was lucky. A lot--that's luck.
LAMB: But looking back again, was there a review? Did The New
York Times review?
Mr. BERENDT: Yeah. I'll tell you--no. There were certain very--to
me, very important--there was--Jonathan Yardley had a rave review
in The Washington Post that amazed me because I know how prickly he
can be. And I even wrote him a letter and I said, `I know how
sparing you are of such praise,' and I said, `All I can say is thank
you,' and he wrote me a nice letter back.
LAMB: Was this early in the...
Mr. BERENDT: Very early. It was within a couple of weeks. The New
York Times Daily did not deign to review my book. And it's...
Mr. BERENDT: Never did. The Sunday Times didn't review it and
didn't review it, and Random House said, `You know, you ought to look
at this. This book is getting good reviews all over the country.' Now
a publisher can do that. They can say, `Please look at the book.'
Well, now they can't control the reviews. The review could damn
the book. But they can say, you know, they have--they know the
people at the book review, so they can say, `Look at this book. You
should look at the book.'
Well, it had been looked back by a pre-reviewer who didn't know what to
make of it. But the second in comma--I'm told--this is only
thirdhand. I'm told the second-in-command of The New York Times
Review--Book Review took it home, read it, and said, `Yeah, we gotta
review this.' So they gave it to a reviewer, a newspaper reporter in
Houston, who loved it, and there wasn't a single negative word in the
review. It was a lovely review.
LAMB: Things happen after that? Any differences?
Mr. BERENDT: Yes. But also, Random House sent a copy of the
book--before it was published, they sent it to "Good Morning America,"
and it just happened to land on the desk of someone who read it and
who loved it and who got in touch and said, `We would like John
Berendt to do--take us on a tour of Savannah, meet all these
So they were talking with me on the phone and I would tell them who
would be good to include and after a while, after several days of
this, I said, `By the way, who's going to interview me?' They said,
`Nobody. After talking to you, we can tell that you're gonna be a
guest reporter, guest correspondent.' I said, `Well, great.'
So I think it was the first week the book was out, "Good Morning
America" had me on for a good six to eight minutes--I forget--and
I--they pre-produced it and they taped it, they did a beautiful
job. And they--I went around Savannah going to major characters and
major--well, you're outdoors in Savannah. It's a beautiful
setting. And that had to be important in getting the word
So I would say--and The New York Times finally--as I say, they did
review it in the March 13th issue of the--which was about six
weeks after the book had come out...
Mr. BERENDT: '94. But it already had been on the best-seller list,
so without The Times, it got on anyway. And so those
two--well, those few that I've mentioned were certainly
important. And it all--cumulative. I also was on "This Old
House," which is amazing, 'cause they don't ordinarily talk about
books. What happened was that for some reason the producers of
"This Old House" decided to go and redo a house in Savannah. I don't
know if it was because of my book or not, but they were gonna spend
seven or eight weeks in Savannah, in a town house, completely
redoing it, as they do, showing you how to do the
doorsill and the--I don't know--plasterboard or whatever.
And they took a house right across the
street from Mercer House where the shooting happened in a beautiful
square, Monterey Square. And they asked me to come onto one of the
programs and take them on a tour of Savannah. So I did. I showed
up and they said, `We'll do six or seven minutes.' So we started out
and we got to six or seven minutes, it was going beautifully. They
said, `Let's keep on going.' So for 18 minutes, I was on "This Old
Well, what we did not know at that point was that that was the biggest
--that was the PBS show with the biggest ratings on PBS, because you
get not only the PBS viewers, but you get all the house-building
viewers who join PBS to watch it. Ten million viewers watched "This
Old House." It was a year and a half ago. So we were well into
it--the book's run on the best-seller list, but amazingly, that was a
very powerful show. So there--yes, I would say media certainly helps.
And also, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which
caught some eyes here and there, too.
LAMB: This is the audio that--this is just the little one. I'm
going to reach over here--I've got the bigger one, which is
the unabridged, which is a lot of cassettes. How's this doing?
Mr. BERENDT: Very well. That just came out last week, so we
don't know about that. That's the unabridged. But the one you held
up first, the abridged one, has--that has a--you know, Publishers
Weekly has--an audio best-seller list and that's been on it for
many, many weeks. They have--Random House has sold 70,000 of those
and it pains me because it's abridged. So now we have the unabridged,
which I prefer, naturally, as an author, I would prefer the
LAMB: But you didn't read it, though. You have an actor read it.
Mr. BERENDT: I didn't read it. I wanted to, but my agent said,
`You're gonna be in a--in the studio for a month. You'll hate it.'
Besides, the people who did the unabridged--it was first done by
Recorded Books, which is a different company. Random House, knowing I
was pained by an abridgement, bought the unabridged version over there
from Recorded Books and has repackaged it as their own unabridged
LAMB: And several months ago, you ended up on the cover of The Weekly
Standard magazine, owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Mr. BERENDT: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Did that have anything to do with why you got on the cover?
Mr. BERENDT: I don't think so. Daniel Wattenberg, who's the
writer--oh, they do say it. What is it? `The hottest non-fiction
book of the '90s.' I like that. That's about all I liked about that
piece. What he did was to go to Savannah and talk to people in the
book and he came across one character who took issue with my
portrayal of her. I must...
LAMB: Mandy and Hernandez.
Mr. BERENDT: Mandy. I should say--and it's perfectly
fair to say so--that she said that, you know, she was--she had
no choice but to be public about who she was because people came after
her to see her because she was a character in the book. Actually, her
name isn't Mandy. She could easily have remained private. Her name
is something else. At any rate...
LAMB: Are you not allowed to say that and I can if I--Nancy
Mr. BERENDT: Nancy Hillis. Yeah.
Mr. BERENDT: Perfectly nice person, but she has been very active in
promoting her appearance in the book. She opened her house to
tourists for $5 a tour and she gave the tour, she
had a gift shop. She flew to California to ask Clint Eastwood if she
could be in the movie--Clint Eastwood is directing the movie. So
she's been very energetic in promoting herself as Mandy, which I
applaud. I mean, I don't blame anyone in the book for saying
they're in the book and making money from it. I mean, I encourage
any character who wants to, to go ahead and, you know, use it. It's
She was annoyed at me because we had did a jazz show. I was
approached by the organizers of the New York Jazz Festival and
asked if I would take part in a jazz show called "Midnight in the
Garden of Good and Evil," based on Johnny Mercer's songs. And Johnny
Mercer was a Savannahian. And they said, you know, Margaret Whiting
will sing and Gerry Mulligan--when we first--Gerry Mulligan would
open the thing, playing a solo, "Midnight Sun." And I said, `Of
course.' And I would read a couple of passages.
We then took that on the road last fall to eight cities in 10 days.
Now Mandy was sorely peeved at me because she wasn't included in this
road show of Johnny Mercer's songs. She is a singer and she
wanted--now I had nothing to do with selecting who would be in it, but
she was sorely peeved. And that's probably why she unloaded on me and
said that a lot of what I had in the book about her was exaggerated or
Well, I don't--I didn't exaggerate that much about her. I mean,
she said that she did not have an affair with Joe Odom, another
character. My impression was that she had a brief one. But, you
know, that was my impression. I built on that for the...
LAMB: The question here, though, is why do you think this ended
up in The Weekly Standard? Of course, we ask ourselves: Why are we
doing this on a BOOKNOTES, a show usually about politics?
Mr. BERENDT: Yeah.
LAMB: Do you know why we're all drawn to this?
Mr. BERENDT: Well, that--I haven't figured out why they did it
because it really--there's--what--`Where's the beef?' is what
most people said after reading that supposed exposé. The author of
the piece spent, I think, he said later, 20 minutes with this
character. And I have to say that when this came out--shortly after
this came--hit the stands, it was revealed that this character had, in
real life, been promoting herself as a former Miss Tennessee.
Well, the Tennessee branch of the Miss America Pageant
found out about it and told her--and sent her a letter and said they
would sue her if she continued to promote herself as a former Miss
Tennessee because she had not been. So that does speak to her
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many times you've been interviewed in
the last three years?
Mr. BERENDT: It's over 100 times. Never at this length, I must tell
you, on air.
LAMB: And what do you think of the media looking at it from the other
Mr. BERENDT: I'm amazed at the inaccuracies that creep into print.
There are interviewers who tape interviews with me, and I can tell
when they haven't listened to the tape because there are certain
locutions I simply never utter and they find their way into print.
And on occasion, recently, I have very politely asked if I could hear
the quotes attributed to me--no offense meant, but it's very easy to
get things wrong. And I have been horrified when I've seen a draft of
a piece using words I haven't uttered in describing certain things
involving other people. So I've been able to correct some things.
But that has astonished me. But there have been several really
wonderful pieces. I'm not saying that they were that laudatory,
but they were very beautifully written and funny and--no, but I've
--there's been a lot of good writing, but I have been struck by how
much inaccuracy I've seen.
LAMB: When's the movie come out?
Mr. BERENDT: The movie is--the target date is November 21st, which
is astonishing. Clint Eastwood, who's marvelous--I mean, he was in
Savannah from May 5th to June 15th shooting in Savannah, and then he
went to California to do some indoor shots for the next month and
he was finished by the 14th of July. That's fast. He's famous for
being fast and he's very--he's always ahead of schedule and under
budget. And now he's editing the film and, by God, he may very well
be done in time to release it November 21st, which means, Warner Bros.
tells me, that he'll have to have a finished print by November 1st.
Scary. It's scary how fast...
LAMB: When do you get to see it?
Mr. BERENDT: Well, I guess I'll see it shortly after November 1st.
I have been very careful not to be too present during this. I was
asked early on if I would write the script and I knew that that was
the bad thing to have--that I shouldn't. I'd have to tear my book
apart, leave things out, compress things. And the book works. I
had no assurance that my script would work. So I thought, `Let's
leave well enough alone. Let's let someone else do it.' And John Lee
Hancock, who's a very good writer, took it and wrote a script, and he
did make certain changes. I knew he would. I knew he'd have to.
For one thing, they told me, you know, `The movie of this book, it's
gonna be hard to get it all in.' Well, I knew that. If they put
everything into a movie, it would be 25 hours long. That'd be the
movie I'd write, 25 hours. And so they're smart they didn't
hire me. So they said, `You can't have four trials.' There were four
trials in this, all about the same shooting. `You can't have four
trials in a movie. It just--you can't hold the suspense. So we'll
have one.' I said, `Hmm. Really? I mean, you can't ever have a story
that has more than one trial? Can't you do a trial in half a minute,
sort of a flashback?' `Can't do it.'
Also they said, `You're a passive narrator in the book. That works
for a book very well because the reader can sort of look through your
eyes and identify with you. But in a movie, you can't do that. You
can't have voiceover. You can't have somebody wandering around
through Savannah, as you did, barely getting involved in the story but
being in the present all the time. You have to get more involved.'
And I said, `Well, gee, I really can't write this book--or this movie.
But I understand what you're gonna have to do, go and do it.'
I did say to them, `If you want my character more involved,
one route you can take is that I did'--I didn't report this in the
book, but I did get so fascinated with the murder trials that I would
advise Jim Williams, for the third and fourth trials, certain things
he should ask his lawyer to put emphasis on and a character or
a witness or two to call. And--so I was more interested in the
defense strategy simply because I was fascinated by it.
So I said, `You can go that route and make the'--John
Cusack plays me in the movie, by the way--`you can make him more
involved in the strategizing.' Well, they may have gone a little
too far, I don't know. But on that level, you can
be--the narrator could become more of the story.
LAMB: Daniel Wattenberg says at the end that you told him that you
think that Jim Williams shot Danny Hansford, killed him.
Mr. BERENDT: Well...
LAMB: You know, being--that--we know he killed him...
Mr. BERENDT: Yes.
LAMB: ...but it--but...
Mr. BERENDT: The question was: Was it...
LAMB: ...was it murder?
Mr. BERENDT: ...self-defense?
Mr. BERENDT: Was it self-defense? In the book, I never say what I
think about anything. You can tell I'm delighted by all these
characters, but I never say, `This is good and that's bad.' I never
say that 'cause I realized early on when I started experimenting with
how the tone--how the narrator should speak, I realized, `These
characters are so wonderful. Just let them tell their stories.'
So when it got to Jim Williams, I felt the preponderance of evidence
against him was convincing. I knew him very well. He did, at one
point, confess to me, a semi-confession in the book--that is on tape, I
have it--where he says, `It didn't happen the way I said in court that
it happened.' His story to the DA and in court and all the trials
was that he and Danny Hansford--here I am, ruining the suspense, but
still, there's plenty of things that are suspenseful in the book.
They went out to see a violent horror flick, came back at midnight
and were drinking. And Danny Hansford flew into a rage, as he was
wont to do--and he was a 19-year-old kid and Jim was about 50--flew
into a rage, kicked in the TV set, smashed a few other items and Jim
went to call the police. And they grappled a bit, and so he didn't
call the police, he called a friend and they sort of talked a bit.
Danny Hansford then went out of the room, smashed a clock, did a
little more damage in the house--smashed a grandfather clock, that is,
came in with a gun and shot at Jim, said, `You're--I'm leaving
tomorrow, but you're leaving tonight,' shot at him twice and missed.
Jim then grabbed a gun from the desk drawer, fired at him and
killed him--three times, bang, bang, bang.
The DA said it didn't happen that way. What happened was that Jim
Williams shot and killed Danny first. Shot him, walked around the
desk, two more shots into his--back of the head and the back--in his
back, and then went and did the--Jim Williams faked the damage in the
house, and then he got another gun and pretended--and shot at his own
position from where Danny Hansford had been standing, faking two shots
from Danny Hansford. That's what the DA said. And then he put the
gun under Danny Hansford's hand.
Well, there are about nine serious points of evidence that support the
DA. I won't go into all of them, but the defense was able to
knock down a couple of them. But I find it troubling that there is
still some evidence that is not accounted for by the defense and
it seemed to me that Jim Williams was provoked, definitely, by
Danny Hansford. Hansford was running wild. A month earlier, he
had taken a gun and fired it into the floor of Mercer House, setting a
precedent for himself that he would grab a gun in Mercer House, that
Danny would, the kid would.
So anyway, my--I hope I'm not getting too confusing here,
but--throwing too much evidence around. But I felt that--I was
convinced that, while provoked by an outburst of anger by Danny
Hansford, Williams was not shot at first. That's my own private
LAMB: Let me ask you about the writing. Where did you physically
write this? And you said it took you seven, eight years. Was that
seven or eight years to actually get words on paper?
Mr. BERENDT: Seven years. I would interview people constantly.
The first year, I interviewed people on tape and without tape--I
mean, really heavy interviewing to get it all right away. And I
didn't do any writing the first year.
LAMB: Where were you living then?
Mr. BERENDT: I was in Savannah. I moved to Savannah in 1985. From
'85 to '86, I just interviewed, researched, spent hours at the Georgia
Historical Society reading up. And I hadn't written anything. Then I
began to write and talk and see things happen. As I was--so from '86
to '90 in Savannah, I was writing and researching and finding--I
always carried with me a little notebook, and I always do, right here.
This is always in my back pocket.
LAMB: Is this--this size?
Mr. BERENDT: Yes. Always in the back pocket, so that I'd be ready.
I was going to be in Savannah three weeks at a time. I decided
at the outset I'd go down there for three weeks, spend three weeks
there, then come back to New York for a few months, write, and go back
down there for three weeks. Then I realized when I was down in
Savannah that things would happen if I was simply there and it would
make sense to stay in Savannah. So I got a full-time apartment in
Savannah and for five years I was there. And things just happened.
You know, I would go and I'd meet people trying to get some
information about things I knew about, but in the course of everyday
events, I'd stumble on something that was wonderful and I felt
should be in the book. So I really put myself in Savannah. I was in
no hurry. I didn't owe anybody the book or the money back or the
advance back 'cause I hadn't gotten any. So I wrote--I got an
apartment, and I describe an apartment in the book that's a carriage
house downtown. Actually, I wasn't there for very long. I
moved--after I was in that place, I moved to another apartment in an
apartment house. I didn't want to go into housekeeping detail, so
I left that move out of the book.
But I was on a fourth floor of a small apartment building that
Johnny Mercer's father had built. And I had a view of all of downtown
Savannah, the historic district. I was just above treetop level, so I
had near, medium and distant views of steeples and
cupolas and trees, and I could see summer storms barreling up the
Savannah River, big clouds in the summer. It was just
wonderful. I was right on Forsyth Park, a very beautiful park.
So I wrote there while I was--most of the time I wrote right there
looking out at all of this.
LAMB: On what?
Mr. BERENDT: I had a computer. I wrote on an early Apple. Then
I kept upgrading as I went along. And that's where I wrote, taking
my time. I'd get up, first thing I would do, I would have
coffee and sit right down. Unpresentable--no shower and...
LAMB: What time?
Mr. BERENDT: I'd get up around 8 or 9, and I would--I'd write
or I would organize notes or I would make appointments to see people,
but always would start--always do some writing. And, of course,
every month I'd have to do my Esquire column. So I'd break away and
do research for my Esquire column and write that. And then when I
sent that by FedEx, and later by fax, when I had a fax, when faxes
became, you know, widespread, then I'd turn back to the book, and
sometimes it would take me two days to get back into the rhythm of it
because I'd have to steep myself into the information on the chapter I
was working on and get into the rhythm and the flow and the ambiance
and I'd start out and it wouldn't work. For two days sometimes it
would take me to come down from having written the Esquire piece to
get back into the book.
LAMB: Your next book--you know, everybody's speculating a city and
all that. Are you looking for a city or have you found a city?
Mr. BERENDT: I have been looking and I've told all my friends,
`Even if you think it's a hairbrained idea and you have one for me,
please tell me.'
LAMB: So you haven't decided?
Mr. BERENDT: I haven't decided. I've looked all over. I've been
all over. I've--in fact, I'm going in a week to Venice. I've
spent several months in the last two years in Venice. At first, I
went in February of '96 and I wanted to look for a book--I mean, you
talk about magical cities--well, Venice has been discovered, but it's
this wonderful, wonderful town--city. And I realized immediately that
my Italian isn't very good and it would be very frustrating to write a
book in Venice because it's hard to get information, if you are a
reporter, as I am, you know, to ask specific information--you know,
and people talk too fast. It was--I became depressed. But I was
fascinated by Venice, as I have always been. I went back
in June of '96 looking for not a book now but maybe an article
for The New Yorker and I thought I could focus on not just the
Fenice and fire but other things--but particularly the
English-speaking expatriates of Venice--fascinating story.
So I went back again this past February interested in the Palazzo
Barbaro, which was owned by an American family for 100 years and a lot
of films have been shot in it. "Brideshead Revisted" was shot, part
of it, in there; "Wings of the Dove," which comes out this fall, part
of it was shot there; Henry James stayed in the Palazzo Barbaro. It
was owned by a Boston family. A fascinating story. But then I realized
not quite what I wanted, even for an article.
Then I stumbled on something really marvelous and it relates to a
Henry James short story--actually a novella called "The Aspern
Papers," set in Venice. It's about an old, old woman and her maiden
niece who lived in a broken-down palazzo in the far distant quarter of
Venice. She had been the mistress of a great poet, Jeffrey Aspern,
for that read, Lord Byron. And Henry James wrote this wonderful
story. Into Venice comes--and this is, like, 1880s it's supposed to
happen. Into Venice comes a scholar of Jeffrey Aspern's who didn't
know that this mistress of Jeffrey Aspern's was still alive. But
now that he knows she's alive, he wants those papers because she
must have a treasure trove of Jeffrey Aspern's papers.
So he schemes and plots and gets into the house--convinces the two
old ladies to let him rent a room and he'll fix up their cars and
would--actually, well--all he wants is the letters of Jeffrey Aspern.
Well, one thing happens after another and the old lady dies. And he
confesses to the young `old maid' niece that he wants the letters and
he's a scholar and she says, `You can have them if you marry me.' And
he's horrified and he said, `No, no, no,' and he leaves the house and
he wanders for a day on the Lido and he comes back and he says, `Yes.
I've decided. Yes, I will marry you.' She says, `It's too late. I
burned the letters, every one of them. It took an awful long time.
There were a lot of them.'
Well, something along those lines has happened again in Venice, and
it's not an easy story, and I'm gonna try to get it. I'm gonna go
after, in a week from now, trying to get it.
LAMB: And when do you think you'll have another book?
Mr. BERENDT: I don't know. Whenever I get the idea for it,
it will take a long time to do it. I'm very slow and very ponderous
and very careful.
LAMB: We are out of time--over time, actually. "Midnight in the
Garden of Good and Evil" is the name of the book. Our guest has been
John Berendt. Over 160 weeks on the best-seller list. Thank you very
Mr. BERENDT: Thank you.
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