AUTHOR JANET BERLINER - A DEEP BLUE INTERVIEW WITH A FASCINATING LADY
DBJ: You’ve lived in a lot of places, spent time with a lot of famous people, worked a lot of different jobs…what, so far, have been the pinnacles? The Best place…the most memorable person or people…the best job? Why?
JB: When e. e. cummings wrote: "For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it's always ourselves we find in the sea," he spoke for me. My best place, always and ever, smells of the ocean. When I shut my eyes and wish, I see myself on a tiny sandbar—a no-name island in the Caribbean. The beach and water are idyllic, the barracuda friendly. The only humans I meet are from a secret military installation. They’re friendly, too. I suppose I could find out the name of the sandbar, but I’d rather move on to another place and time: Grenada, West Indies.
I loved writing a novel in Grenada. The house we rented was a blink from the beach. Average temperature was 84 degrees. The water was the way I like it: body temp. I swam three times a day, drank a lot of beer, danced often, walked a lot, ate mangoes and drank coconuts on the way to the water and on the way back. THAT is living. The island is 22 by 12 miles. There’s a rain forest and a volcano and fewer than 100,000 people who all seem to be related, both by blood and through their joyous spirits. The only way you can starve is if you’re too lazy to fish or pick fruit. What could be bad and, yes, I want to go back.
Great questions, Dave, but I could write a book, am in fact doing so, about the most memorable people I’ve met. I mean how do I choose between Ray Bradbury and Joyce Carol Oates, or Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte? David Copperfield, maybe? Sir James "Son" Mitchell, the former Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines? Do I select the famous or infamous?
The only thing I can do is ask myself who my choice would be if I could only have met one, in which case the answer is a whole lot easier: My grandparents.
All right. Officially that’s two people, but really they were two parts of a single unity. She was a survivor who taught me how to be one, and a storyteller who compelled me to be one. Warm and tough and loving, and watching me now, smiling and saying, “You’d better say us.” Opa, my grandfather, taught me all I needed to know about panache. He was an unfailingly good person; he laughed a lot; and he taught me to play cards. They are my idol.
The best job? Oh boy. The truth sounds so trite, so should I lie? What the hell. Truth is stranger than, and the truth is that I’ve enjoyed them all because I’ve either refused to do anything I don’t like or found something to like in what I had to do. Hey, I’m a Pollyanna. Do me what. I can’t pick one, but I can pick a category: Any time I’m writing under contract, for money, with intellectual and editorial freedom, I’m a happy puppy.
Why? Because I’m writing under contract, for money, with intellectual and editorial freedom.
Am I boring you? G-d I hope not.
DBJ: You’ve been a best-selling author, an editor, a journalist, and an agent. With all of that experience behind you, your answer to this one should be significant to any sane writer reading this. What is your take on the state of modern publishing…where do you see it going?
JB: Easy one. I see it going in circles.
If I had the time, I’d track the cycles on a spreadsheet: The same but different; non-fiction; mysteries, westerns, science fiction. Add to the list and then write them over again. Or venture into a different but related arena like STARS. Put a fix on the so-called sexiest females of the last seventy years. Pin their pictures on the wall and step back. See what I mean? Gamin, followed by big boobs, followed by blonde, ousted by Rita Hayworth and her red hair, ousted by….
It’s all about patterns and cycles. That said, at the moment it’s all about that which is media driven, that which pleases the conglomerates, and people who are media-genic (ugh). Notorious is good; having a catchy title is good.
Do I have any advice? Write as well as you are able at all times and write what you want whenever you are so privileged. Most of all, if anyone knocks writing for money, I advise a swift and vicious blow to the head.
Oh and one more thing: It helps to know the right people. Sigh.
DBJ: Why – of all the places you could choose to live working as an agent and author – did you choose Las Vegas, and what is the truth in the rumor it’s just to get a walk-on part on CSI?
JB: Starting at the back end, it would have to be a drive-on part. Maybe I’ll do a script for a wheelchair murderer and then beg for the part.
Now, about Vegas.
Many years ago, I faced a difficult personal decision: where to live after separating from my husband of almost three decades. I asked a dear friend who happens to be a psychiatrist for advice. He said, "I can't tell you where to go. I can tell you that you should always run to, not from."
I'd never really thought it through before, but I realized then that I had always obeyed that creed.
When I was 8, I won a national writing contest in South Africa. My theme was "Brotherhood and Freedom." When I turned 12, I had a theme birthday party. We had to dress in costumes that reflected how we saw ourselves. I had no problem making a decision; I dressed as a Gypsy. When I turned 21, my Gypsy feet and political bent drove me from South Africa to the United States in search of the freedom I'd written about at the tender age of 8.
Amazing how some things don't change. I am still a writer, I remain a Gypsy at heart; the search for personal freedoms continues to motivate both my work and my travels.
What does any of that have to do with living and writing in Las Vegas? In my case, everything.
In 1992, I sold my Bay Area, California, home, put those possessions I could not or would not sell in storage, and set out on the freighter 'Amazing Grace' to fulfill a longtime ambition. I went to live in the West Indies. I loved it there and wanted to stay, but the huge cost of doing business with the Mainland—those were pre-email days—determined otherwise.
En route back to my California storage unit, I received a phone call from my agent telling me that I was to appear in Los Angeles the following day for a meeting with Michael Crichton about a project I had proposed over a year before. I had all but forgotten about the proposal and fully forgotten about one I had sent to David Copperfield around the same time. Of course I figured I'd simply leave my things in storage and make a left turn toward Los Angeles.
Nothing is ever that simple, at least not in my life. I arrived at the storage unit to be greeted with the news that the State was planning to flatten the storage containers and anything left in them . . . the following day. Apparently the letter telling me about this imminent destruction of the remainder of my personal affects had gone astray. I had arrived with only hours to spare, hours I couldn't fully utilize because of my rendezvous in Santa Monica.
Immediately, I called a moving company and instructed them to come to the site. They sent a truck within the hour. Within two more hours, my possessions had been loaded.
"Where to?" the truck driver asked, pulling out paperwork.
"Where to?" I repeated, not having the vaguest sense of an answer. Then I remembered what my psychiatrist friend had said. "Always run to, not from."
Was there a place that drew me to it? Somewhere I could live La Vie Boheme: The Gypsy Life. I needed to feel free to be anyone and anything I wanted to be? A writer, a poker player, a political maverick, even simply one of life's observers.
Fortunately my long-suffering companion understood when, as my grandmother would have said, my next words went directly from my lung to my tongue. "Vegas," I said. "I'm going to Las Vegas."
We met with Michael Crichton, then came here and found an apartment. The first night waiting for the moving truck to arrive, we watched the implosion of the Dunes from my balcony. With barely time to unpack. We returned to Los Angeles for a month of interviews and such tight deadlines that I ended up at St. John's Hospital facing a serious health crisis.
On New Year's Eve, against everyone's better judgment, I talked myself out of the hospital, along with a tank of oxygen. The journey back to Vegas seemed infinitely long, since it was delayed by Barbra Streisand's broken-down car and helicopter rescue to her venue here. While all of that was happening, Los Angeles was hit with an earthquake. The hospital I had been in tumbled down, leaving only the accounting department fully functioning.
I was awoken the next morning by a telephone call.
"Hello. This is David."
"David Copperfield. Get your tail over here. I'm ready to talk to you."
My instincts had not steered me wrong. I had, after all, run to Las Vegas for a reason. Two reasons, David Copperfield's TALES OF THE IMPOSSIBLE and BEYOND IMAGINATION, neither of which I believe would have been successfully completed had I not been Johnny-on-the-spot.
With the books out on the shelf and all of the hoopla behind me, I began to wonder, was it time to move?
Not yet, apparently. By what appeared to be sheer coincidence -- I believe that everything happens for a reason -- I met Buddy and Lezlie Greco. Buddy's music is my music, so could I help but say yes when he approached me about working with him on his autobiography? Not bloody likely.
That's the good part.
The bad part is that at about the same time my elderly mother, who was living in Europe, took desperately ill. I brought her to Las Vegas. Here, she lived eight months beyond her doctor's dire predictions. Meanwhile, I was given the word that I should no longer fly. I had always needed to travel, to seek new experiences to refill the emptiness that comes at the end of a major writing project. But I find long journeys by car difficult, and though I love ocean voyages, Vegas is hardly a harbor town. Was it time to hand over my Golden Earrings and be a Gypsy no more or can I be a Gypsy, a writer, a maverick in Las Vegas for a little while longer?
Until I find a pea green boat to take me back to Grenada or the next place calls to me, there is sand and waves at Mandalay Bay, a waterfall at the Mirage, baguettes at the Paris, bagels and cheese cake at New York New York, gondolas at the Venetian . . .. And there is much yet to do here. I have two Vegas novels to write--one set near Area 51 and the other in Death Valley and the Strip. I also have this huge dream of a novel and a TV series set in and around The Fremont Street Experience. There are countless great musical talents living and retired in our town. I'd have them teaching street children song and dance routines and performing them on Fremont Street.
Anybody listening out there?
DBJ: You’ve worked on some amazing collaborations, most recently the novel ARTIFACT with F. Paul Wilson, Matthew J. Costello and Kevin J. Anderson. Can you tell us how that book came about, what the process was to create such an ambitious work and get it published?
JB: Back in 1995, while I was waiting for the first of my two anthologies with illusionist David Copperfield to hit the shelves, I was having dinner in the coffee shop at the old Maxim Hotel here in Vegas. On my way to the bathroom, I passed by an area where they were shooting a commercial with Evel Knievel (who was part owner of the hotel), so I stopped to talk to him. He reminded me that he had started out his adult life as an English teacher and suggested that I do a book with him like the ones I was doing with David. I said I'd have my people call his people and went back to dinner.
About a month later, I was in New York, at the Fashion Café, for the official launch of the Copperfield book and spoke to some of the authors who had done stories for me. Kevin Anderson, Matt Costello, and Paul Wilson were there, and agreed that an adventure book with Knievel-like daredeviltry sounded like fun. Eric Lustbader, S.P. Somtow and, later, Mickey Spillane were also interested in participating.
"My people" and "Knievel's people" never managed to get together on the project, so Kevin, Matt, Paul, and I decided to do the book as a novel, each contributing part of the story, then working together to make it a cohesive whole. Mickey, Somtow, and Eric were all off to other projects, and seven authors would have been really unwieldy for a novel anyway. Even with four authors, New York was skeptical at best. "You're proposing a novel with a single voice? Authored by four name authors?" Think raucous laughter. "It's been tried and it can't be done, Berliner."
I'm here to tell you it can be done. My friends and I did it in ARTIFACT.
To start things off, I grabbed a few elements from my life and tossed them into the pot. Before I moved to Las Vegas, I had lived in Grenada for a year. I decided that some of the book should be set there. It's an amazingly beautiful island, with wonderful people, and a really great old prison for the prison break scene. Better yet, I could steal from the lives of my friends there, one of whom spent an entire four years of Communist rule in a cell in that prison, and another who was a fellow ex-pat South African.
Kevin wanted to do a story with a deep-sea drilling rig and eco-terrorists, and Matt and Paul had ideas about diving deep-sea caves and finding a strange, otherworldly device. All of the elements went into the pot and the four of us stirred them around until an outline popped out and peopled itself with the various characters that we created from the fabric of odd folks we had met during our travels to places around the Caribbean and South America.
Now about the M.O., or maybe I shouldn't give away all of my secrets.
Eh, what the heck. Here's he recipe we used.
Take four authors who like each other and care about the caliber of their work. Tell them certain parts of their anatomy are in serious jeopardy if they don't deliver what they've promised, when they've promised it. Take the three novellas they produce, write a framework, cut the novellas into pieces and knit those pieces into one garment, writing transitions and making certain that the ultimate voice is a singular one. Polish. Send it to everyone for input. Discuss, fix, edit, polish again. Let it simmer. Then do it again.
We were looking for that Clive Cussler adventure feel, which is why I was so delighted when Clive praised the book as "Full of action with terrific characters and a fast moving plot."
Of course, it helps that Kevin, Matt, Paul, and I have a lot of years of experience working with other writers, so we don't fall into the potholes that often wreck the axel of a collaborative vehicle, like getting our individual egos too wrapped up in a particular scene or character. More than anything, it helped that we were determined that the book would be fun, and we would stay friends, or we'd just chuck the whole thing. Our hope was and continues to be that readers enjoy it as much as we enjoyed writing it.
DBJ: The standard question: You have to have a new idea for a novel in 24 hours. You can have transportation to anywhere you want to go, a selection of all the works of the great writers, or a selection of all the music of the world. Which would you choose for inspiration, and why?
JB: This one was best expressed by John Masefield’s Sea Fever
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like
a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
(or a pea green boat or a catamaran . . .)
Janet’s collaborative novel with F. Paul Wilson, Kevin J. Anderson and Matthew J. Costello – ARTIFACT – is available now. Follow the linked image below, and don’t miss her monthly installments at www.storytellersunplugged.com.