IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

John Berendt returns With 'Falling Angels'

‘Garden of Good and Evil’ author ‘wasn't in any hurry’ for new book
/ Source: The Associated Press

John Berendt is a very deliberate man. He parts his silver hair in a perfect line and wears a crisp, blue button-down shirt. As he sits in the living room of his Upper West Side town house, he chooses his words carefully and gestures sparingly, as if he is being interviewed by a bank manager, not a reporter.

Berendt's home, which took him years to renovate, is meticulously decorated and spotlessly clean, with a giant map of Central Park's Strawberry Fields — named in honor of John Lennon — mounted above the fireplace, pieces of art placed just-so on end-tables, and books neatly lining the shelves.

It's really no surprise, then, that Berendt writes with a similar fastidiousness. It took nearly a decade of painstaking research, interviews and writing to finish "City of Falling Angels," his follow-up book to the hugely successful "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." And if he hadn't had a deadline, he'd probably still be working on it.

"I wasn't in any hurry," Berendt says, a wry smile creeping across his face.

That may be a slight understatement. By 2003, his first deadline for completing the new book, Berendt had written just 75 pages. When his editor, Ann Godoff of The Penguin Press, called to check — "I'm just calling to take your pulse," she said — Berendt suddenly realized he didn't have the luxury of being an anonymous writer anymore, working at his own methodical speed.

"I said, 'I will promise you one thing: I will do nothing but write the book,'" he recalls. It was a promise he would keep — just barely. Berendt wrote right up to the last minute, finishing the day of the deadline so Penguin could get bound galleys to booksellers at this summer's annual BookExpo convention in New York.

Although she acknowledges a few moments of near-panic, Godoff says this is just Berendt's way.

"He's not only methodical, he's completely scrupulous. Everything is sourced and double-sourced," she says. "So I said, 'OK, John, you're a journalist, I'm going to give you a bunch of deadlines.' I knew if I laid it out for him, he'd respond."

The long-awaited "City of Falling Angels" hit shelves late last month, just in time for the holiday buying season. Thus far, the reviews are mixed. USA Today says Berendt "crafts a lean and elegant narrative," while The Seattle Times says it's a "book in desperate search of a center" and The New York Times says it "bogs down in minutiae, often involving subplots that occur largely offstage."

Nonetheless, Penguin is hoping that Berendt's sophomore effort will have the same success as "Midnight," the author's lyrical portrait of eccentric characters living in Savannah, Ga., that spent a record four years on The New York Times list of best sellers and inspired Clint Eastwood to direct a film version in 1997.

For Berendt, though, the pressure of following up on such a colossal — and completely unexpected — achievement was not what slowed him down.

He merely got lost in his subject again.

"Falling Angels" does for Venice, Italy, what "Midnight" did for Savannah, creating a love story of a place as it explores its hidden passageways, cafes emptied of tourists in the winter and characters like the Rat Man of Treviso and Ezra Pound's 90-year-old mistress — a woman Berendt met on his various sojourns to the city.

It's also part mystery, as Berendt searches for clues to the sudden burning of the city's fabled Fenice Opera House on Jan. 29, 1996, just before he arrived in Venice. He wraps his florid descriptions of the historic city around this event, which he says marked a symbolic moment for many Venetians.

"Suddenly, the people realized that although they once had 12 opera houses, they now had not one," he says. "The living city no longer had a living cultural aspect. It became crucial for Venice to rebuild the Fenice."

Delving into this psychological aspect of the people's lives proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of researching the book, Berendt says. While he can understand Italian and read it, he didn't want to feel handicapped by not understanding the subtleties of the language, particularly the words and phrases unique to Venetians.

So the workmanlike Berendt started taking killer language classes: three-hour intensive conversation drills with an instructor each day, that left him feeling "dizzy." These would understandably be followed by lively Italian lunches with a glass of wine or two, then a nap, the writer says with a laugh.

"By then, it's mid-afternoon and you haven't gotten any work done," he says.

The classes didn't last long. Soon, he began recording his interviews instead, translating the conversations himself or having someone do it for him. When he couldn't have a tape recorder with him, he would take notes and recount the conversations later with his interview subjects to make sure he got the wording exact.

Godoff, for one, was impressed.

"I think the truth is it was a great leap for John, to have him do it all in a foreign language and yet pulling it off as if he was the same careful observer he was in Savannah," she says.

Though he took some liberties with the sequencing of events in "Midnight" — which was technically nonfiction — Berendt says he stuck strictly to the script this time. Taking into account his meticulous nature, as well as his background as a journalist, this is not difficult to believe.

It does make categorizing the book a challenge, though. Some book stores shocked him by placing his first book in the true crime section because it dealt with the events and characters surrounding a real-life murder trial. At least one publication is calling "Falling Angels" a travel book. Berendt, who chafes at the labels, likes to call his style "literary journalism," written from the point of view of a magazine writer but without the traditional structure of journalism.

"Instead of 'just the facts, ma'am,' I build the scene," he explains.

It's a style Berendt has honed throughout his career. Brought up in Syracuse, N.Y., he was an English major at Harvard University, then went on to become a journalist, working as an editor at New York Magazine from 1977 to 1979 and as a columnist for Esquire from 1982 to 1994. He decided to write "Midnight" — his first book — because he wanted to delve more deeply into a subject than magazine writing would allow.

Berendt sees other similarities between his books. Though the cities he inhabits are widely divergent, they are both inward looking, phenomenally beautiful, isolated physically and emotionally, and culturally self-sufficient.

The settings give readers an escape "into a magical place." Many readers even sought to discover the real Savannah after "Midnight" was published, transforming the sleepy seaside town into a tourist Mecca in the late 1990s.

Although he came to fall in love with both cities, he may not play the outsider discovering a new place in his next book — which he is already planning. He won't discuss details but says it may be somewhere closer to the place he's called home for 44 years: New York.

Of course, knowing Berendt, his readers may be in for a wait. He won't be in any rush to get started.