Gustaf Berger recently finished penning his novel, “Death Postponed,” which was released earlier this year. The Gazette conducted a question-and-answer session through email with Berger about the book. (The session has been edited.) For more information about the book, visit gustafberger.com.
Q: In your column in the March 10 issue of the Gazette you wrote about your “return to writing.” Why did you stop writing? And what has your journey as a writer been like?
A: My older sister was the writer in the family. I wanted to make money, and figured I could never be as good as the writers I enjoyed, so why try? In my late 40s, after my business went under, I began writing short stories and I loved it. Then I started a novel, but got stuck and decided I was too old. Plus, I was broke. I left New York for a business opportunity in Boston and became too busy to write.
In 2009, after going bankrupt a second time, I took up the quill again and haven’t put it down. I write every day. It’s often frustrating, joyous, and satisfying all in the same session. But it’s lonely, and trying to get published was pummeling my self-esteem until I began using the rejections as motivation to write better and submit more.
To date, I’ve had six short stories published amidst 400 rejections, one novel published after 86 rejections, and three other books, which drew nothing but rejections. Welcome to the writer’s world. It’s my home.
Q: How would you describe your new book, “Death Postponed,” to your average reader?
A: At the risk of offending, if you’re an “average” reader, go away! Please. You others, read on.
The idea for the novel came from one of the 9/11 short stories I wrote about two guys who decided to scam their insurance company for five million dollars after one missed his appointment that morning at the World Trade Center. I had to find out what happened!
“Death Postponed” is a twisty tale of desperation, duplicity, love, and sacrifice that travels from the ashes of ground zero to horse country New Jersey, from the deserts of New Mexico to the beaches and casinos of the Bahamas – journeys full of self-discovery, danger, and death – postponed?
Kate Flora, an editor and friend, said it better than I could: “In this post 9/11 tale of scammers and survivors, the author’s deep affection for his flawed characters draws us in and holds us there, wondering: How will this all turn out?”
If you read my novel, please don’t reveal the ending.
Q: What was the writing process for the book? Was there a lot of research involved?
A: The events of 9/11 were witnessed by nearly every adult. Who doesn’t remember where they were when they first heard the news? And since the story is about people who perpetrated a crime, trying to use a tragedy for their personal gain, I didn’t need to reconstruct the event in any great detail and had only a minimal amount of research to do. I’d also done business at the World Trade Center and knew the layout.
For research on locations, guns, insurance fraud, statutes of limitations, insects, little girl’s nail polish, etc. I visited locations, questioned a friend from the NYPD, read articles online, and used Google maps, videos, and pictures. I have a curious mind and enjoy learning all kinds of things.
As to my writing process, it was a chaotic mess that would take pages to detail. I’ll summarize:
The first draft, which nobody would read, had 80 characters and was written entirely in dialogue. What did I know? I had to learn how to write a novel, so I read books and articles, took workshops, and received extensive feedback from teachers and editors who taught me the basics of the craft and more. And I wrote and wrote and wrote, revising the manuscript 10 times over a five-year period. It’s a dandy tale now, and it’s down to 25 characters.
Q: What writers have influenced you and how so?
A: I believe the subconscious influences writing, so probably everything I’ve read figures into the mix. Consciously, I emulate no one. Not that I haven’t tried. I loved Thomas Wolfe’s prose; it’s uniquely his. For a writing course years ago, I wrote a short piece imitating his style. Totally panned and rightfully so. Nobody can do Thomas Wolfe. If you’ve never read him, peek into Look Homeward Angel. I used the cynical, obsequious voice of the protagonist in Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger for a shady Brooklyn businessman with better results. It wasn’t much of a stretch for this New Yorker.
I read with a writer’s eye, noticing things I didn’t know before I began writing. Point of view, story arc and structure, time shifts, how a character is introduced, and so on.
I’ve tried to learn from Elmore Leonard’s offbeat characters, crisp dialog, and advice to leave out the parts people don’t read. I’ve copied Andre DuBois III who uses unlikely sensory descriptions as metaphors: the smell of cold steel.
I admire Annie Proulx’s spare prose and mood-setting descriptions. I hate Cormac McCarthy and Junot Diaz because their writing is too damn good.
Q: What was your previous professional life and how has that impacted you as a writer?
A: I’ve largely been self-employed, mostly in the closeout business. By the time I was 44, I had two failed marriages, two distressed children, numerous affairs, and virtually no friends. I’d been kicked out of graduate school, fired from nine jobs, had gone through an addictive gambling phase, smoked marijuana all day, paid off buyers, policemen and insurance companies, never declared cash income on my taxes, and was heading toward my first bankruptcy – it got worse!
I eventually grew beyond those youthful peccadilloes, but they’ve provided ample fodder for my writing. My experience working alone and doing things my way made the transition to writing comfortable.
Q: What brought you to Jamaica Plain?
A: I met my sweetheart, a JP resident since 1980, through a Boston Globe personal ad just before the turn of the century. We’ve been together ever since. I love it here, surrounded by creative and socially conscious folks who vote like I do.
Q: Where can people buy “Death Postponed”?
A: Locally at Papercuts JP, Tres Gatos, and Brookline Booksmith, plus Amazon and other online stores.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: While we were visiting a friend in Pakistan in December, I bought a black burqa that cloaks me from head to toe. In my current work in progress, a thriller, the protagonist from New York wears it as a disguise after escaping a Pakistani jail. As I’ve said, I love research. If you ever see someone wearing a burqa, sitting in front of Caffe Nero on Centre Street, stop by and say hello.