I’ve known Anne Bernays for about a dozen years and have always been impressed not only by her talent but also by her generous spirit. As a well respected teacher and supporter of other writers she is legendary. What I didn’t know about her until this interview is that she is also a woman of few words when speaking about herself.
I’ve been a published writer for 53 years. Ten novels, three non-fiction books (co-author), scores of nationally published essays, travel pieces, book reviews, op-eds. Writing teacher since 1975. Writer-in-resience at Emerson and U.Mass Boston. Endowed Chair at Holy Cross (with my husband, Justin Kaplan). Writing Instructor in fiction at Harvard’s Nieman foundation for over 20 years.
Pat: Which term, Novelist or Teacher, best describes you or are the two intertwined and dependent upon each other? Has the aging process caused one to supersede the other?
Anne: Up until a few years ago the word novelist always came first. I haven’t published a novel in over three years. But I have never stopped being a teacher; in fact, I’m teaching more than ever. Of course getting older has something to do with output. I find I have neither the energy or, I confess, the desire to write another novel. I’ve recently published a short story and a couple of personal essays. That’s okay.
Pat: Over the years most of us have found that our way of working has been forced to adapt itself to a number of life changes. Are the adaptations to the aging process any more or less difficult?
Anne: I’m extremely fortunate in that I have very few physical signs and signals of ageing. My father lived to 103, my mother to 88. As far as I can tell, I haven’t had to make any physical adaptations simply because I’m old. Mental adaptations are something else again.
Pat: Have you had to adjust your ambition to what you now see as possible?
Anne: I adjusted my ambitions before I was through with the middle ages. I’m never going to be regarded as one of the finest American novelists. That’s okay too, so long as I turn out a couple of good ringing sentences a week.
Pat: Do the ideas keep coming and do they grab you with the same intensity as when you were younger?
Anne: Ideas not only grab me with the same intensity, they seem to come to me on sturdier wings and there are flocks of them. That doesn’t mean that I take every idea and turn it into prose. But I like having them; they are what a Yiddish speaker would call a Mitzvah.
Pat: Is there something you have on the back burner, some unfinished manuscript, that you definitely plan to address at some point?
Anne: Nothing on the back burner if by that you mean something already started and left unfinished.
Pat: Have you been tempted to try new genres or ways of expression?
Anne: As for new genre, a visual artist can switch from paint to clay to wood, to iron filing, to whatever. A writer has only the alphabet. I am, though, thinking of a children’s book to be called “The Man Who Couldn’t say Yes.”
Pat: Are you ever concerned that there won’t be enough time?
Pat: Is it more difficult to begin?
Pat: Do you find it harder to promote your work? Do you feel that your age works against you in the literary marketplace?
Anne: I haven’t had anything promotable in several years so I can’t really say. I was thinking of asking my agent to send out my next story under a pseudonym. I’m imagining an editor saying “What’s this? A story by Anne Bernays? I thought she was dead!” Not farfetched at all.
Pat: Do you keep to a writing schedule and a particular process?
Anne: I’ve always written in the morning. First draft in longhand, subsequent drafts on the computer. Still works for me.
Pat: You have encouraged many writers over the years. Is there someone or some group that encourages you?
Anne: No encouragement from anyone except my agent. My late husband, a writer to whom I was married for almost 60 years, encouraged me. Sometimes I imagine him over my shoulder when I write.
Pat: Are your energy and creativity linked
Anne: Energy and creativity are inevitably linked. Like the horse and carriage, you can’t have one without the other.