Brad Shreve 00:00:03
Welcome to queer. We are John Berendt.

John Berendt 00:00:05
Thank you.

Brad Shreve 00:00:07
John, prior to writing midnight in the garden of Good and evil, you are a journalist, an editor, a columnist. You even did some writing for television. But Midnight in the garden of good and Evil was your first published novel. Am I correct?

John Berendt 00:00:22
In fact, to be completely correct, it’s not a novel, it’s nonfiction. But it’s been called a novel so often, I just don’t try to correct people.

Brad Shreve 00:00:30
Okay, actually, we’re going to talk about that. So that’s good to say. It did well is an understatement. As a first book, it was a massive bestseller. You are on the New York times bestseller list for well over 200 weeks, and you are a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. John, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but that is not typical of most first time writers.

John Berendt 00:00:52
That’s what I’m told.
Brad Shreve 00:00:54
Did you have any inkling you had really done it well?

John Berendt 00:00:59
I knew I had done it well for my own purposes, by my own judgment. I didn’t know how it would fly with the public. I had no idea how it would be received. But when I was nearing completion of it, somebody asked, how it’s going? I said, I think people are going to enjoy the book. I don’t know how many people will read it, but I think those who do will enjoy it. That’s all I knew. To be perfectly fair, if someone who read the book was fair about it, they like it. They enjoy the read. That’s as far as I went in my head. But my publisher was sure all along that it would be a bestseller. I said, you say that’s all of your new book people, and they said, no, we don’t. Yours is going to be a bestseller.

Brad Shreve 00:01:46
Okay, well, I want to talk more about this, but first let’s do our introduction and tell people what they’re listening to. I’m your host, Brad Shreve. I’m John Berendt, and queer we are.

Welcome to Queer We Are, the show where each week I talk with entertainers, activists, politicians, artists, and more of the most interesting LGBTQ people from diverse backgrounds. From their stories of success find motivation from the challenges they overcame and what they learned along the way.

My guest. John Berendt. Grew up in Syracuse, New York. He earned a bachelor’s in English from Harvard university. In 1961, he moved to New York City and was an associate editor of esquire at the age of 21. He was the editor of New York magazine from 77 to 79 and wrote a monthly column for esquire for over ten years. He also wrote for the Dick Cabot show for a few years, and I believe some other shows. I’m not sure about that. We’ll find out.

John Berendt 00:02:28
Also the David Frost show.

Brad Shreve 00:02:30
Oh, the David Frost show. Okay. But he’s most known for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. So, John, in your own words, what is success?

John Berendt 00:02:41
Success, it exists within yourself when you think you’ve accomplished the deed you wanted to accomplish, and it exists outside. When people say to you, well done, that’s successful. We can have one without the other. People can say to you, well done. And you can think stinks, and I know it, but the interior and exterior.

Brad Shreve 00:03:07
Forms of success and I don’t know any author or writer that doesn’t have imposter syndrome, which means how much people tell you you’re great, you don’t believe it, and think they’ve eventually figured out. Do you get imposter syndrome? At times?

John Berendt 00:03:24
Absolutely. Frequently. What kind of syndrome are you calling it?

Brad Shreve 00:03:29
Imposter syndrome.

John Berendt 00:03:30
Oh, imposter. Yeah. Right. Well, yes. I never thought of it that way, but I do think a lot of the fuss is ridiculous, and I am who I am, and it’s not what they think it is. So it’s imposter. Yes.

Brad Shreve 00:03:46
Now, you grew up in Syracuse. What was your life like growing up in Syracuse?

John Berendt 00:03:51
Well, it’s I kind of loved it. It’s a quiet town. I mean, there were a quarter of a million people in it, but everyone lived in houses, individual houses. And you knew everyone in your neighborhood? I walked to school. The weather was wonderful. It was a beautiful part of the world. But it also was a very Republican city, which meant that they were easily shocked by aberrant behavior, by unusual people, in seriousness, didn’t seem to me open to new ideas and strange ideas. And one of the strange ideas was homosexuality, and they were opposed to that, and they were horrified by it, and you better not be one. That was the feeling, although I don’t know how others reacted to that at the time. I certainly wasn’t talking to anybody about it.

Brad Shreve 00:04:57
And your friend Sean Strub, who founded POZ magazine, he is now mayor in a small town in a very red part of Pennsylvania. Did you ever expect to see something like that?

John Berendt 00:05:09
No. And I think it’s absolutely incredible that it’s happened. And Republican. It’s a very redneck and conservative part of Pennsylvania, even. And Sean is not just the mayor. He is married to a man, and they know that. They know where his house is. And I think it takes a lot of balls to do that, to carry that off. And he’s done it remarkably well.

Brad Shreve 00:05:40
It does take a lot of balls, and I know he is extremely proud of it, and I think it’s outstanding.

John Berendt 00:05:46
He should be proud of it.

Brad Shreve 00:05:47
Yes, I agree. So one thing I’m curious. Your first novel was in Savannah, Georgia, but you grew up in Syracuse. Did you ever consider writing stories in Syracuse?

John Berendt 00:06:00
No. The reason I selected Savannah and I wasn’t looking for a place at all, I simply I was living in New York, and at 1.1 of my best friends was from Georgia. And it came to pass that he and I and a couple of other friends went to Sabana, which he knew very well. He said, It’s a beautiful city. We ought to have a little trip there. So five of us went down to Savannah, and I was bowled over by the city, by the people. They were an odd lot. I was thrilled by that. So I didn’t just decide, I’m not going to write about seriously, I’m right about Savannah. I wasn’t even looking for it. I just happened to stumble upon Savannah and instantly fell in love with the place. I still love it. My friends here in New York who are from Savannah are from Georgia. They knew Savannah well enough to take a serrano to people they knew. Two people that I met then became chapters. Good enough became characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. One was Jim Williams, the star of Good of Midnight in the Garden of Good and evils. When I met him, he had already shot and killed his lover, Danny Hansford, even tried once and found guilty in his beautiful mansion, waiting for his appeal to come through. And that finally happened, and his conviction was reversed and he was put in jail. That conviction was reversed and he was let out. And he had four trials happen. But I met Jim Williams right away, and I also met the wonderful lawyer Joe Odom, who had constantly throwing parties in his house. And he would sort of squat in somebody’s house, people he didn’t he didn’t live there, but he was friends with people, and he would just when they were away, he would live in their house for six weeks, throw parties and genial. He’s a wonderful character. Anyway, so there are two characters right there that I met immediately on my first visit to Savannah. So I was well launched in my Savannah experience. This is an unusual thing. Also, you don’t normally have it all laid out in front of you when you start to write a book, and indeed, I didn’t either. But I had the elements in place, and then the other elements came into place as I lived through that whole experience.

Brad Shreve 00:08:44
Believe it or not, we have some people listening to the show that haven’t read the book or seen the movie, and I’m sorry for them. Can you give just a really brief synopsis?

John Berendt 00:08:54
All right. Savannah is a beautiful southern city off on the Georgia coast, surrounded by tiny woods and the ocean. It’s it’s far away from 300 miles away from Atlanta. There’s no really close city, so it’s isolated and it’s quirky, and it’s an inward looking city. It is absolutely beautiful. There are oak trees and Spanish moss lining the streets. And James Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia, landed there, and he laid out the first plan of Savannah, which was to have squares at even intervals like a chessboard. And those squares, they were open areas and used at first as gathering places for the community. Well, there ended up by the time I got there, there were 24 of such squares, and every single one of them had beautiful houses around them, and trees and vegetation was terrific. So that’s how that started. And it’s apartness from the rest of Georgia and the rest of America was palpable. They people in the Savannah did not care about going anywhere else. Few of them went to Atlanta. They had friends. Maybe Atlanta. Many of them had not been to Charleston. It was only an hour and a half away. So they were cloistered in their beautiful bower of a city. So that appealed to me enormously. It formed the universe of my book and it was all Savannah and no interruptions from outside. They say that Savannah is not affected by outside influences. Companies would try out their products in Savannah because it was a pure and uninfluenced city. The people were naive and they had never heard of this and that. So they were just the perfect subjects for experimentation. As I said, there were a lot of very strange people. If you read the book, you’ll encounter some of them.

Brad Shreve 00:11:05
Oh, yes.

John Berendt 00:11:06
And it sounded people had a very nice accent and a very general place, even though there were murders that happen frequently. So anyway, there were those trials. And in the course of following Jim Williams at his murder case, I met all sorts of people in Savannah. Well, they didn’t all have to do with the murder case, but I found a way of winding them into my narrative of the murder and the follow up. So it does seem like although it’s a lot of different stories combined into a mass, it’s really several dozens of stories. And I just use them to bring Savannah to life. I don’t know if that Shaun had been reused before as such, but that’s my Motus operandi.

Brad Shreve 00:12:04
Well, yes, it’s as quirky as can be. People are all eccentrics and they thrive on the fact that they’re eccentric. But do they realize they’re eccentrics or just that everybody else is an eccentric?

John Berendt 00:12:15
Yeah, they themselves don’t realize, but what they do is they prize eccentricity in other people, sometimes not realizing they themselves were eccentric. And people like to talk about other people, particularly if they were weird or strange or eccentric. So the people who are eccentric and strange and weird and oddballs know that they’re admired, they’re loved, because people watch them talk about them and they feel embraced by the city and the people.

Brad Shreve 00:12:49
Well, one thing that surprises me is people seem there very worldly. They drink a lot. Not typical of a southern town, in my opinion. Now, I grew up in North Carolina, and it wasn’t a small town, but it wasn’t anything like Savannah. Are you familiar with the ABC stores in North Carolina?

John Berendt 00:13:07

Brad Shreve 00:13:08
Okay, so for those that don’t know, it is not legal to sell liquor in a liquor store, a grocery store or a pharmacy. The state runs what are called ABC stores, alcohol beverage control centers. And that is the only place that you can go buy alcoholics run by the state. And my vision of the south that I grew up in is a friend of mine had a father that lived in a small town of Liberty which had 2600 people, and it had an ABC store. But when he wanted to buy liquor, he would drive 10 miles to the other small town of Ram sewer so that nobody in his city would see him walk into the ABC store to buy liquor. And there were people in Ram sewer that would drive over to his town and do the same. That is my picture of the south. Everything is about appearances. And in your novel, it seems like everything is also about appearances but in a much different way.

John Berendt 00:14:05
Yes. More tolerance for the oddballs, for the nonconformists, more appreciation.

Brad Shreve 00:14:15
How important is church life to the folks in Sabana?

John Berendt 00:14:19
It’s very important, but not to everybody. We really committed churchgoers, for sure, and religious people. And I wouldn’t say that the town is run by the church, although the church has a big influence in Savannah, but it doesn’t cramp the style of Savannah at all.

Brad Shreve 00:14:45
One of my favorite lines in the novel, and to me, it kind of sets at the stage of what you were trying to portray Savannah as. And I can’t remember her name. She said most of the social set were more worldly than Mrs. Morland. Oh, we knew, said John Berendt. Of course we knew. We aren’t aware of the details, naturally, because Jim exercised discretion, which was the right thing to do. And we are talking about being gay. But all along we’d congratulate ourselves about Jim’s social success because of what it seemed to say about us. We thought it proved Savannah was cosmopolitan, that we were sophisticated enough to accept a gay man socially.

John Berendt 00:15:28
Absolutely true. And then he had to go and wreck it by murdering his lover. Yes.

Brad Shreve 00:15:35
That didn’t give a very good image.

John Berendt 00:15:37
As a matter of fact, most of his friends stood by him.

Brad Shreve 00:15:42
Oh, they did?

John Berendt 00:15:42
He was an absolutely charming person. Very smart, very successful. He was fun to be around. Also, unless you’re at the other end of his gun.

Brad Shreve 00:15:55
Is he still the only person that’s been tried for murder four times for the same case?

John Berendt 00:15:59
Yes, I’ve heard of any others, but he was, at the time, the only person.

Brad Shreve 00:16:07
I want to talk about the book and the transition to the movie. But first I have a question for you. How do you define happiness? John.

John Berendt 00:16:17
Happiness is the absence of worry. Looking forward to events coming up in your life, having friends you treasure. But the worry part is really important. All these things could be all your ducks could be in a row and something’s eating at you. You’re worried about this or that which will temper the happiness. But happiness is to have everything going your way and often in the future, everything you can see, Rosie, that’s happiness. That may not be the happiness as you would describe it or other people would describe it, but that’s what came to mind first when you asked me.

Brad Shreve 00:17:03
Well, I asked you earlier about success, and I believe the same is true as happiness. It’s subjective.

John Berendt 00:17:08

Brad Shreve 00:17:08
There is no one answer.

John Berendt 00:17:10
Absolutely. And thank God, because as far as success is concerned, a person can be successful and no one else will know it or congratulate him or confirm that he was successful, but in fact, he’ll know.

Brad Shreve 00:17:25
Along the same lines, a lot of people see a real backlash against the LGBT community going on right now. I must say, Florida is the prime example. What gives you hope, talking about just the future for LGBTQ people in general?

John Berendt 00:17:43
Well, I think enormous strides have been made, I mean, to the point where the transgender phenomenon is fairly common now. Now, they’re transgender people. I don’t most of them or many of them claim that they are not homosexual. They are living their lives as they were intended to in another body. I know if I understand that or not, but I understand that they’re sincere about it. However, I would say that’s an enormous stride right there. And the acceptance of the idea of gay. I mean, if you go back to when it was accepted, you be hard pressed to convince anyone from those days about convince them what the scene is now, how frequently you encounter gay, this or that or people or thing. Is there a phenomenon in every kind, every part of life, on television, in the movies. Not God, remember? I remember Elizabeth Taylor. I forget the name of the movie. She said the word shit. It was traumatic for most of the viewers. That was the first time that happened. Now, give me a break. The words are just unbelievable. So a lot of progress has been made in many ways that people don’t think about. And what shocks people has changed as well. Things that were incredibly shocking, the world shattering, are now commonplace. And there’s a lot about gay and gay phenomenon and gay people that has to do with that, that falls into that category of it was once shocking, now it’s not.

Brad Shreve 00:19:40
Yeah, along those lines, I live in the California desert, but I drive an hour to Loma Linda because the medical care is so much better there at Loma Linda University. When I first signed up for them, I was a bit concerned, though, because it is a 7th day Adventist operated church. So I thought, Are they going to be gay friendly? What am I going to feel like? And I read their history. They were adamantly against people being openly gay on campus and could be expelled. There was no gay groups on campus. That was unheard of. This was a very, very short time ago. Now, on that campus, there is a very active LGBTQ group. In addition, this year, they had their first sex reassignment surgery. And I’m sorry for my folks out there if I’m not getting the term right I apologize, but that is astounding.

John Berendt 00:20:34
So you’re asking me how I feel about homosexuality today and gay today. Look at what we’ve just been talking about. It’s mind blowing. The changes, the acceptance. Even people who don’t like can’t stand. They never would have known. They wouldn’t have heard the words. Any reference to that in public life and TV and radio and movies. It’s just now pervasive and people are coming to understand it better whether they like it or not. And the people who are turned off by it, I’m becoming used to it too. I think a lot of people have been brought around to accepting in some form, accepting homosexuality, increasingly.

Brad Shreve 00:21:28

So something I’m curious about that’s different from the movie to the novel. In the movie, John Cusack’s characters John Kelso, I believe it is.

John Berendt 00:21:37

Brad Shreve 00:21:38
In the book, the narrator never gives his name and it’s kind of assumed it’s you.

John Berendt 00:21:44
Yes, it is.

Brad Shreve 00:21:46
Okay. So I love that style of writing. And you call it nonfiction, but I call that and what I think is commonly used it’s similar to like, in Cold Blood. Is literary nonfiction or creative nonfiction?

John Berendt 00:22:01
Both. Literary nonfiction I like very much, and creative nonfiction I like almost as much. But literary nonfiction is what I’d like to think of it as being.

Brad Shreve 00:22:11
That’s what I think of it as. So I was really surprised to see that solicited under nonfiction because clearly it’s not I mean, you weren’t there at the events. But I love that when a person puts themselves there. I had a guest on six months ago that did that in his book, and it was great. It was all from his standpoint.

John Berendt 00:22:27
What I did was I didn’t make it up. I would interview people over and over and over again and far and wide so that I would build up factual aspects of whatever incident I wanted to write about. And so I really had a huge sick notebook of remarks and recollections by people who were at the scene here or there. I relied on what I was able to get from people who were there in Savannah where it mattered and where the story happened to go. Creative nonfiction means you’re making it up. Literary nonfiction doesn’t have that implication. So I prefer literary nonfiction. It’s all very high sounding title anyway.

Brad Shreve 00:23:18
And it sounds like what you did is took the things that you learned from the locals and you created the narrator character.

John Berendt 00:23:26

Brad Shreve 00:23:27
And that’s common because otherwise you could have 60 characters in a book like we do in real life and nobody would know what the hell who was who.

John Berendt 00:23:36
So if you tie people, string people together on a narrative thread, they’re much easier to remember. And their influence, their effect on the story or the mood of the story continues. I would introduce a character and then I come back to him later during the course of the story.

Brad Shreve 00:24:04
Well, I’m going to tell you something I saw on YouTube that made my blood boil. And I don’t mind telling you about a bad review, and I know you get occasional bad review, but her bad review is ridiculous because she says for a true crime novel, it took forever to get to the true crime. And she said and then I heard an interview where the author said that some of it was fictional. And now I just want to toss the whole book aside. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. And I was just dumbfounded. And I normally am not antagonistic on social media, but my response to her was please read In Cold Blood by Truman Kompodi. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thomas or The Liars Club. Mary mary Hawk. And I ended it. Very mean. In the future, I suggest you stick with genres you understand, because in this instance, you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about.

John Berendt 00:25:03
Well, thank you. I’m so glad there was a bit of a frufra about that. As soon as the book came out, reviewers were universally favorable and even more than favorable. But at a certain point, after the book had been on the bestseller list for years, jealousy set in, and people got on their high horses and took potshots at the book, and I had to get used to it. And one of the things that they focused on was the fact that it wasn’t all sickly speaking nonfiction. I had said at the back of the book, I had said that I had taken some storytelling liberties, but none that changed the flow of events or the characters.

Brad Shreve 00:25:54
The interesting fact to me that you put yourself in the story meeting oh, I’m sorry, I forget the name of Jim Williams.

John Berendt 00:26:01

Brad Shreve 00:26:03
Yes. You put yourself in the story meeting Jim Williams and getting to know him before he was he murdered the young man, and you didn’t meet him until after that occurred.

John Berendt 00:26:14

Brad Shreve 00:26:15
I like that you put yourself in before that because I didn’t feel like I was reading a textbook. I felt like I was a part of the story.

John Berendt 00:26:23
I’ll tell you how I did it and why I think it works. I met Jim Williams at his house. He’d been convicted of murder, and he was out on appeal. And then all the action happens after that. What I did was I put myself into the scene before the murder happens. And so the audience gets used to used to these characters and gets the feeling of Savannah. In other words, this was this this shooting did not happen in a vacuum. But if I had started the book by saying, I went with Furnace to Savannah and we went to see a man who’d just been convicted of murder, where’s the suspense? None. It’s gone. So I thought, I like I always like to write that word. So why don’t I meet him before it all happens. And it took some turning around. But I interviewed people, many, many, many people for every scene that I wrote. And I got it as close to the factual truth as I could. All the air would have gone out of what I wanted to use as suspense. When this very prominent man in the most beautiful house in town up and shoots a kid and kills them. If I said that in the first sentence, that had happened. All right, okay. That’s a fact. But if I bring it up and bring it up past the set middle of the book, I was either cocked up already after the book came out, it was at Tina Brown’s house, and a lot of writers were there, many of whom I knew. And then Tom Wolf came over to me is that he hadn’t spoken to me since the book came out. And he said congratulations. He said, Boy, it took a lot of nerve to wait to page it 175 for the murder. I said I had to introduce all my characters first. Then I felt like it. He said, Good for you. So it was it was a it was a literary ploy. I felt once the murder happened, no one would want to meet anybody new who wasn’t involved in that case. So all the quirky people I wanted to introduce casually and gently into the story, they would have been mowed under by the excitement of the murder trial and the mood change of the murder trial. So I had Savannah at his most charming, bucolic, lovable, charming city and these weirdos popping up and boo with the murder.

Brad Shreve 00:29:05
Now, see, I write mystery novels, and there are mystery authors that write similar to what you did. For the most part. An editor will tell them you need to start right in the action. And they would have started with the murder. I don’t like to compare books to movies. It drives me crazy when, say, oh, the movie wasn’t as good as the book. They’re two entirely different things. Your book was 400 pages. You cannot fit 400 pages in a two hour movie.

John Berendt 00:29:31

Brad Shreve 00:29:31
So to me, it’s apples and oranges. But I will say, what people that watched the movie really missed is the first half of the book is not about the murder. The main character in the first half of the book is Savannah.

John Berendt 00:29:45
Yeah, absolutely. Kurt Vonnegut said, my favorite part of your book is the first half before the murder. I can understand why. And, you see, if I’d had the murder first, nobody would be content to just settle back and learn about this quirky town so that it was impossible. And I realized that right away. So I took the air out of the tires before we got going, and I was able to get in all the lovely, sweet stuff before the action that we hyped up to the murder case. It was eventually.

Brad Shreve 00:30:22
Yeah, but here’s your skill, John. As I was reading the novel, I’ve read it again before he came on. I’d read it years ago and remember, I loved it, but I never remember details. Like, once I’m done with the book, I can tell you I loved it or I hated it, but I can’t tell you the details. So I went back and I read it again. And as I’m reading it and I thought, there’s not a whole lot of story going on here other than learning about the city of Savannah and learning about the eccentric people, the quirky people, and getting to know them. And I was loving every word. And I thought, in another writer’s hands, this would bomb big time.
John Berendt 00:31:04
Well, maybe. Because the fact of the matter is, if you want to do a book about the murder, forget all the well, there were some quirky characters involved with that, but the the mass of them that I put in the book were not at all involved in the murder, so they wouldn’t be in the book. Most charming eccentrics that I encountered. And I wove into the narrative. First of all, I don’t think a writer would necessarily meet most of those people. So there’s an element of the book that just wouldn’t exist in somebody else’s telling of the story.

Brad Shreve 00:31:42
And I know the answer to this, but I’m going to answer it anyway. The man that was paid $10 a day to walk the dog and then continued to be paid after the dog died, pretending he was walking the dog, that really is true.

John Berendt 00:31:57
Yes, absolutely.

Brad Shreve 00:31:59
It made me laugh.

John Berendt 00:32:01
Mr. Glover, that’s incredible, wonderful character. And I would see him frequently in the movie. Clint Eastwood did something ridiculously. He had this man walking down Bull Street with his dog and a leash that stood up. I mean, it was a heart. It stood in midair from his hand and with the collar standing up like a halo. And so he walking. That is an interpretation of my story that is completely ridiculous. Mr. Glover did not he walked a dog, but he didn’t have a leash after he died. And people would come up to him and say, how’s the dog? He said, it was fine. He’s very happy and frisky.

Brad Shreve 00:32:49
And I noticed that because that whole invisible dog walk thing with the collar, that was really a gimmick that people were buying like 20 or 30 years ago. And when I saw that, I thought, I don’t remember that being explained in the book. I thought he just walked. So I’m glad that you cleared it up for me. That did not happen.

John Berendt 00:33:08
When I met him, the dog was alive. No, I can’t remember, but when I met him, he was just walking and he had maybe watched the dog earlier in the morning. I don’t know. But I explained it, though. I did talk about the dog when you first. Meet Mr. Glover. You don’t hear about the dog. Here’s what it is. I had heard about the dog and I figured he’d get around telling me about the dog, who was a visible dog walking along with us. But we didn’t get around it, so we talked about so many other things that when I said goodbye, he hadn’t brought up the dog and I hadn’t either. So if you look for that in the book, you’ll see that it arises on one of our subsequent strolls down Bull Street. And that’s woven and he explains it. It’s very sweet.

Brad Shreve 00:34:05
One thing that the movie missed is there’s a scene where Mr. Glover goes to the judge and says, you don’t have to pay me money anymore. The dog has died. And the judge pretended. He’s like, no, he’s not. He’s sitting right there. And Mr. Glover said, oh. And he continued to play the game so he could get paid. The judge is the one that egged him on. That’s not explained in the movie. So he kind of just looks like a crazy man. And that bothered me. Originally, I thought you wrote the streamplay, and I found out I was wrong. But you sold the movie rights. Did Clint East would buy them or the studio?

John Berendt 00:34:43
His company malpasto. He bought it and he went to Warner and said, I’m going to do this movie. And they said, Fine. So I guess they bankrolled part of it. I don’t know how about that word? But it was his decision. He bought it and he got to deal with Warner Brothers.

Brad Shreve 00:35:02
The reason I ask is I know of two authors. One is renowned mystery author Lawrence Block, who was one time president of The Mystery of America. The other is Mr. Stephen King. And both of them said when they sell a movie, they let it go because they are not movie makers, they’re novelist. Stephen King seems like he’s not doing that as much more he seems much more active in his productions because he’s been very unhappy with some of them. A friend of mine had dinner with him and he begged her not to ever go see Children of the Corn. I’m presuming you had to release some control as well. How did that feel? Was that really hard?

John Berendt 00:35:41
I accepted the inevitable before it even started. I knew that they were spending millions of dollars on this movie and I had signed away rights and they had every right to do what they wanted. I mean, I could be furious. I could have spoken out about things that I didn’t like over. They were offensive to me. But I was ready to see huge changes made in the story. And my case is perhaps not unique, but unusual because I knew Clint Eastwood movie of Midnight, The Guardian, The Good and Evil, was going to be a resounding success. Or at least it would publicize the title of my book to the point where it hyped sales for a long time. Well, that’s exactly what happened. Clint eastwood’s movie midnight came out the week after week before thanksgiving of 90 98, and there were two weeks before and after christmas in which the book sold a quarter of a million copies in hardcover both weeks each week. So I knew that this was coming. Well, I wasn’t going to get in the way of this this free train, and it was a huge financial boost. As you know, the book was already on the best seller list for four years over four. But over that two week period, it increased the level of sales at that point. And it’s still selling very nicely. I think it’s about 50,000 copies a year.

Brad Shreve 00:37:22
Not too shabby.

John Berendt 00:37:23

Brad Shreve 00:37:24
Now, John, when did you come out?

John Berendt 00:37:28
It’s a very gradual thing. I made no pretense of being straight. I would go out to dinner with girls, women, and men, and when I came to New York, I hadn’t come out. But I hung around a lot of gay people and I made no pretense. I didn’t present myself as either straight or gay. But clearly when I was with gay people, I was joining the fun and being part of it. I just thought that a statement of my being gay was an intrusion. I was uncomfortable about it, but I’ve never pretended to be an idiot. But since I became an adult,

Brad Shreve 00:38:14
Be yourself and eventually people will figure it out.

John Berendt 00:38:16
Well, it didn’t take much figuring either.

Brad Shreve 00:38:21
No. Again, I’m going to bring up something I read online. It was some asked questions, so I can’t remember which one it was, but somebody asked, is John Berendt gay? And one of the first responses was, didn’t you see the movie? John cusack has a girlfriend. He’s not gay. And then the next response was, and I don’t know if you can tell me if it’s true. John went to school with barney frank, so of course he’s gay.

John Berendt 00:38:46
Well, it’s true. Barney Frank was in my class at Harvard, but that reasoning is bananas because I went to school with Frank, I’d be gay.

Brad Shreve 00:38:59
I guess if you’re in a classroom and barney frank is sitting there, that means everybody’s gay. I don’t know. It spreads like a disease. Back to syracuse. Your mother wrote a book called small world, and I guess it was based on your family.

John Berendt 00:39:14
Yes. My name was Bruce, as a matter of fact.

Brad Shreve 00:39:19
Bruce? Well, that’s kind of a nice, masculine name. What was she before she wrote the novel? Was she the traditional housewife?

John Berendt 00:39:28
No, she wasn’t. Never once as long as I knew it. She never went to the beauty parlor. She combed her hair and wounded into a bun. Very pretty. She was a very beautiful woman, but never went to the hairdresser. The term hairdresser never was heard in my house. My father didn’t go to a hairdresser either.

Brad Shreve 00:39:48
Well, back then, men went to Barbers.

John Berendt 00:39:51
Yes. She played the piano beautifully. She was an intellectual and admired by those who knew her. And she was admired for that, for her brilliance and for her beauty. But she was shy. She had no ambition to emerge from herself. She had quirks. She could not cross the street in a cross section across road. She would have to cross four streets in order to get across one. So that no traffic would be coming from behind her as she crossed the street. Does that make sense to you?

Brad Shreve 00:40:39
Yes it does.

John Berendt 00:40:40
She would have to go four crossings instead of one. That’s what she was doing now when.

Brad Shreve 00:40:46
She wrote the book. Did that have an impact on you?

John Berendt 00:40:49
Yes, because I was in school, I was in junior high school at the time. I was eleven when it came out. And no one else in our class or in my school had a mother who had written a book. And so I was extremely proud. And the newspapers had a couple of features on us because we were the we were the characters in the book. And in fact I wrote one page of the book.

Brad Shreve 00:41:14
Oh, you did?

John Berendt 00:41:15
My mother had found a notebook in which I had wrote Jotting and it happened that my sister was given a watch and I was not. And instead of complaining about it and demanding one I wrote it in my notebook and my mother found it. And so what it said, the one page said my description nine years old. It was eight years old at the time of 214 Cambridge Street, Summer School, 34 people in class, ms. Mosier as a teacher, scar on left eyebrow and right arm, no watch.

Brad Shreve 00:41:54
And that was it.

John Berendt 00:41:55
That was my description.

Brad Shreve 00:41:58
And she worked from there.

John Berendt 00:42:00
Well, she put that in the middle of just one little incident in the book. And she told me at some point, you know, I saw this thing in your, on your desk and I think it’s wonderful and I want to put it in the book. And I said oh, wonderful. I was very pleased. My first published work, by the way, she wrote about us and her Bruce, after he wasn’t given a watch, wrote his feelings on his notebook. She found it. I didn’t show what you were, I didn’t complain about the watch. But I wrote it down. And so she put it in the book.

Brad Shreve 00:42:33
Before that. What did little John want to be when he grew up?

John Berendt 00:42:37
A movie star.

Brad Shreve 00:42:39
Oh, that’s small thing too.

John Berendt 00:42:42
Yeah. I didn’t know why or how. Because movie stars admired. That was the reason, I suppose. It was very glamorous and very handsome, very beautiful. So it wouldn’t hurt to be a movie star, I thought quickly got over.

Brad Shreve 00:43:00
So you said maybe I won’t be a movie star and get the glamour and the money. Instead I’ll write a Pulitzer Prize novel that sells like crazy off the shelves. That’s a good backup plan. Listeners. My guess is John Berendt and I suggest you read the book and see the movie. Read the book first because think it’s a beautiful picture of savannah and it is so engrossing. And then I say watch the movie. Put blinders on and accept it is not going to be like the book but it’s still a damn good movie. So I think you’ll be very happy with both of them.

John Berendt 00:43:35

Brad Shreve 00:43:36
I hope you agree with that, John.

John Berendt 00:43:37
I do, yes.

Brad Shreve 00:43:40
I really want to thank you for being my guest.

John Berendt 00:43:42
I’ve enjoyed this enormously. Thank you for having me on.

Previous post
Next post
Related Posts