Elizabeth Berg is known for her smart, bighearted tales about the lives and loves of everyday people, with having written Open House (an Oprah’s Book Club pick), The Story of Arthur Trulove, and other bestselling novels. Now, Berg turns her attention to the craziness of 2020 in her Scribd Original story The Days of Wine and Covid. In this socially distanced interview, Berg shares the thinking behind her story of marriage, human nature, and the weight of guilty secrets.
SCRIBD: Elizabeth, you wrote The Days of Wine and Covid in real time as the pandemic increasingly took over everyone’s lives. What prompted you to write a story about life under quarantine?
ELIZABETH BERG: Honestly? It just came. I hadn’t planned to write a story concerning Covid, but I guess it’s so much on my mind. Even if I don’t talk specifically about the virus, it’s hard to think that whatever I’m writing isn’t affected or shaped by it.
How much of Nan and Martin’s day-to-day mirrors your own? Lots of wine on the porch and dog walks?
I’m not much of a wine or anything-else drinker. I do love the shape of a martini glass, and I like to mix a martini and put in lots of olives, eat the olives, and then pretty much ignore the drink. So that part isn’t like me, the wine part. I do love sitting on the front porch when the weather is good. I like to watch the birds and the people who walk by. Also, I have a whimsical cat figure that I keep in a knothole of the tree outside my house, and he has season-appropriate things in there with him: He had a little pumpkin at Halloween, a turkey for Thanksgiving, and now he has a tiny train loaded up with Christmas presents. It’s fun to see people stop to look at him. The adults seem to like it as much as the kids do; they take pictures. As for dog walks, yup, that’s me. I have two dogs and they need walks four times a day. If it’s too cold, my poor partner takes them without me.
Readers might recognize Nan and Martin as the same couple from your 1996 novel The Pull of the Moon. The Days of Wine and Covid isn’t a sequel per se, but it’s also told from Nan’s perspective. Had you always planned to check back in with her to see how the marriage was going all these years later?
I hadn’t planned on it. The truth is, the less I “plan” my writing, the better it is. I started this story and thought, Oh, look, it’s Nan and Martin!
The big tension in this story comes from a secret Nan has been keeping from Martin. Without giving away the major plot twist, can you tell us how you came to this particular secret?
Writing is the way I come to understand things. In these fractious times, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how and why we’ve come to be this way. It might be best to leave it at that.
Though The Days of Wine and Covid is set during the pandemic, it’s really about something else: the complexity of human nature. For instance, Jerry the next-door neighbor is someone many of us would take a knee-jerk dislike to, yet you give him dimension. Your writing is notable for its empathy and heart. How have you managed to maintain that in these times of polarization and distrust?
I think it behooves all of us to remember that most people are mostly good. And I’ve always believed in the worth of trying to understand how someone got to be the way they are. I believe, too, that no matter how different you feel you are from someone else, you still have something in common. And so you start there.
You’ve also managed to keep your sense of humor with this story, starting with the title. What makes you laugh these days?
Oh, gosh, more than you would think. Laughing these days is serious medicine. My grandson makes me laugh. My dogs. Certain ironies in life. And Jerry Seinfeld’s book Is This Anything?, which my partner reads to me every night. Also: Schitt’s Creek. Not long ago, I watched Blazing Saddles again. I have now seen that movie about ten thousand times. It always makes me laugh.
A great escapist fantasy plays out toward the end, involving an RV. Where would you go if you ran away by RV?
Well! I would go everywhere. I love the beauty and diversity of this country. I like best just to follow my nose and see what happens. The fantasy part is the RV. I could never figure out how to do the things RVing requires. But to get in a car and go? That’s something I’d love to do again. In time…