Suzanne Berne: The Dismantled Lunatic Intercom Years
Suzanne Berne is the author of four wonderful books, including A Crime in the Neighborhood, and, most recently, Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew. She was also my thesis advisor in college. In Ten Girls to Watch I made up a thesis advisor character, and the person I made up is pretty great (read the book July 31 and you’ll see!) but Suzanne Berne still wins. Lucky for all of you, a decade of pestering from me still hasn’t scared her off. Here, she answers all my questions about how she got her start and the trials and tribulations of her twenties.
What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
Alas, what I thought really wanted when I graduated from college was to be adored and admired by my boyfriend at the time, whose feelings toward me remained skeptical. In my spare time, when I was not brooding about this, I wanted to be a writer.
What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? Was there anything that made it particularly awesome or awful?
My first “real” job after college was as the classified ads manager of a weekly newspaper in Connecticut. What made that job most challenging were the personal ads, which were often mailed to the paper with a check and were also sometimes unprintable. In those prelapsarian days, I could not e-mail people to suggest alternate wording for their classified ads; I had to telephone them. For instance, I recall telling one man that he might get more replies to his ad if he revised “No fat chicks” to something like, “Welcome willowy types.” That conversation quickly became unconstructive. People also complained if their ads were unsuccessful, so I spent hours apologizing to angry customers who hadn’t sold their snowshoes or their beagle puppies (I was also the paper’s receptionist). Eventually I had to quit.
What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it?
I had my first apartment—one I didn’t share with a roommate–while I was in graduate school. It was behind what had been a small private mental institution and had once been the caretaker’s quarters. Beside the door was a panel of buttons that presumably once opened or closed doors remotely, and there was a dismantled intercom that made faintly lunatic noises whenever the wind blew. The apartment was over a garage and was extremely small; to get to it, you had to climb a flimsy outdoor iron staircase then walk along a kind of open catwalk that was treacherous when icy, but the apartment itself had lots of windows and was very charming. Except for the cockroaches. They were huge and entitled, unimpressed by the “roach motels” I bought and set around the living room. One of them was the size of a gerbil and used to prance around when I had people over for dinner, making the floor shake.
Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?
My early twenties were when I was in grad school, and also when I was falling in love with the man who became my husband. But for a while we lived far apart and so we spent a lot of time visiting each other. I remember driving across Nebraska to meet him somewhere and having to spend the night alone in a town that was hit by a tornado. I sat for an hour in a motel basement with an elderly couple from St. Paul, who were very nice. Then the next morning I got in my car and drove on. This experience seemed unremarkable to me then. I expected climactic events like tornados to pass by and leave you unscathed, just slightly inconvenienced.
Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
When I was 27, I published an essay in what used to be the “Hers” column in the New York Times Magazine. I remember feeling embarrassed when it appeared because the essay was about being flashed and I’d never envisioned my “big break” as involving something so undignified. My mother was also embarrassed. She kept saying, “So many other things have happened to you! Perfectly nice things.” I had to agree. But I began writing travel articles and book reviews for the Times not long after that essay, and people would tell me they’d seen and article or a review I’d written, and I would feel briefly famous.
How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”? Maybe not in a big way, like “Now I’m a gazillionaire!” but maybe more like “Yay! I no longer live with a roommate who leaves her socks all over the kitchen floor.”
Well, my “I made it” moment came when I had an infant and a two-year-old, so socks on the kitchen floor would have been an improvement in my domestic situation. My first novel was chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover book and they brought me to New York to give a reading at the big store they had at Lincoln Center and put me up in a fancy hotel across the street. I was still nursing, however, which meant I had to bring my daughter along. The reading went well; lots of people came; one of my sisters was there to hold the baby. But she began to shriek the instant I was done and my sister had to hand her over. Unwisely, I’d chosen to wear a long dress. So instead of basking in my glorious moment, I scuttled off to a supply closet, where I had to pull off my dress and huddle on the floor with the baby, surrounded by bits packing tape and paper clips, and by the time I’d reassembled myself and her and emerged from the closet, almost everyone was gone.
Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
You know, there wasn’t—and I’ve wished so often there had been someone to take me in hand. When I was in college and grad school I had writing teachers I liked and admired, but I didn’t know any of them well enough to be able to see how they conducted their lives as artists. And I could have really used a mentor who had kids! These days a lot of women (too many women, frankly) write about balancing motherhood and artistic careers, but when I had small children I didn’t have a clue how it was done, especially because I was also teaching. And most of the writers I revered and was trying to emulate were childless, at least the writers who were women.
But I remember something Toni Morrison wrote once about finding time to write however you could, and she said, “Don’t make the bed. It needs to air out, anyway.” I took that as a kind of mantra, believe it or not.
While Suzanne wasn’t lucky enough to find a mentor in college or grad school, I was lucky enough to find her. Not only was she my first real writing teacher, she also helped sad, unemployed college graduate me find babysitting jobs and cat-sitting jobs. She helped me find my way to grad school. She encouraged me for years and years and years before I had much of anything to show for myself. I couldn’t be more grateful. A big thank you to her for this interview and so much more.