Suzanne Berne, who won the U. K.’s Orange Award for her 2014 novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, took a firm hand in talking about herself as a writer when she came to the South End library on March 19 to talk about her latest work, The Dogs of Littlefield. She didn’t really want to read from her latest book of crime fiction, but instead hoped to make the case for why novels matter.
“I could have done any number of things in my life, and done them fairly well,” she told the audience. “But I decided to devote my life to being a novelist.” One reason to celebrate novels is that they offer privacy, she said. “When you read a novel, It’s between you and the writer. There’s no intermediary. As soon as you turn the page, you become ‘them.’ You’re alone in your chair with ‘them’ in a mysterious collaboration. You, the reader, dance to the writer’s words.”
Berne, who is the fiction editor of The Harvard Review, acknowledged that, nowadays, novels face stiff competition from other forms of storytelling, including the many excellent television productions. “Unlike novels, they offer fine transitions, swift character development, easy flashbacks and efficient productions. You don’t have to sit through long passages about dress and place and time,” she explained.
“Art is inefficient,” Berk countered. “It takes a long time to make and to understand.” She added that in fiction “the process of perception slows down the acquisition of information so you slowly build up sympathy for the characters’ flaws and terrors.” The New York Times reviewer of A Crime in the Neighborhood described Berne as a master at the craft of psychological menace.
Berne was influenced in her literary life by the 19th-century Russian writer and theorist, Viktor Shklovsky, who spoke of art as a technique that would complicate that very easy and quick perception of things we now expect. He favored slowing down speed and efficiency of the story-telling, resist the cliches and habitual ways of describing our lives that we, said Berne, in our times have come to rely on. Shklovsky spoke for the kind of writing that makes “the stone stoney.”
Viewing her own work from the perch of the editor, Berne brought copies of the first couple of pages of a draft that eventually became The Dogs of Littlefield. The story is a social satire about a near-perfect place close to Boston where dogs are suddenly found poisoned to death. The Boston Globe said the novel was a near-flawless satire of middle-class America. And Berne agreed her early draft wasn’t “terrible” as opening pages go: It had something to set the reader on edge, an ominous ‘it’ and an ‘attitude.’ “The sentences were smart and clever,” she added somewhat ruefully, “but this came at the expense of telling a story: The narration was not ok.”
So she began to think of how to “unmuffle” the opening pages. She wanted it to be a social comedy about a perceived menace that exists in a place like Littlefield that everyone considers ‘ safe.’ To narrate it for that effect she created characters who could judge the residents from the point of view of an outsider, including locals who were seen as outsiders for not fitting into the local corset of norms, or those who felt like ‘the other’ for a range of reasons. “I am intrigued by matters that locals are absorbed by, which are big to them but small to the world,” Berne said. “Certain places can be seen as safe, but can any place be safe, and is trying to feel safe a good idea?”
She wrote six drafts of the novel. “Things are never finished,” she said. “They are abandoned.” Berne is currently working on a novel set on a remote New Hampshire lake that involves a reclusive and difficult elderly woman from Amsterdam who summons her estranged daughter and her daughter's unhappy college-age son to help her when she sprains her ankle. The visit does not go well.
A Crime in the Neighborhood, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Book of the Month Club and a Quality Paperback Book Club selection. Berne’s earlier novels are The Ghost at the Table and A Perfect Arrangement. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in magazines such as Ploughshares, Agni, The Three-penny Review, Mademoiselle, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, and The Quarterly. She teaches creative writing at Boston College and the Ranier Writing Workshop.