John Berendt: The interview

'I think of my first time in Savannah. It was the third week in March. And you know what happens then...'

PUBLISHED over 20 years ago, John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil remains as intriguing an enigma as the setting of the book itself.

Still labeled “non-fiction” though its narrative doesn’t always square with the facts, the seedy, shabby-chic underbelly it depicted awakened a worldwide interest in Savannah that can only be described as voyeuristic.

Berendt himself came in for a shellacking, both for the novelization of this true crime story and for his all-too accurate portrait of downtown Savannah society and its cliquish, coquettish way of blending the conservative with the libertine.

But the simple truth is that Berendt was way ahead of his time. And that might be what makes Midnight’s value so enduring.

Long before gay marriage was on anyone’s radar, Midnight’s central plot device —the murder of a young gay man by his controlling older lover, in a town with a powerful LGBT subculture—foreshadowed major societal changes in the ensuing two decades.

In the Kafkaesque murder case itself—Jim Williams was possibly the only American ever tried four times for the same crime —especially astute readers might also see a harbinger of modern America’s transition into a police state.

And the tourist boom Midnight helped precipitate continues to force Savannah to confront its age-old struggles with wealth inequality, racial tension, and self-identity.

We interviewed Berendt in advance of his special appearance March 3 at the Jepson Center, about the book, its impact, and any regrets he may have today.

»On the "three main characters" of Midnight, the core trio:

PEOPLE in Savannah were not only remarkable, they had a certain unique charm particular to that place. That charm created an atmosphere.

Those three people—Jim Williams, Joe Odom, and Lady Chablis—are the main creators of atmosphere in Midnight. They created the atmosphere for the town, and for me when I was there.

I was fascinated by Jim, by what a brilliant and engaging storyteller he was. He was bitter, funny, with that ironic humor so distinctive to Savannah.

I saw Joe Odom playing the piano all the time. I thought he was fascinating, charming, and so easygoing the way he just floated around town. Southern charm. I was very taken with him.

And later there was a third party, a third main character, Lady Chablis, who had her own ironic humor.

I in fact introduced Jim Williams to Joe Odom. I didn’t become friends with Chablis, but I did find her remarkable as well.

»On Midnight's infamous shifts in chronology:

THE only thing I moved around was my appearance on the scene. Clearly Danny Hansford had already been killed when I got to Savannah. Everybody knew that. I wasn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes.

When I sat down to write the story I had been there awhile. Jim was already out of jail and acquitted.

The way it happened was I was going to go down to Savannah with some friends, two of whom knew Jim. I’d heard the name “Savannah,” but didn’t know anything about the place except it had this romantic name. Maybe I’d seen a picture of the squares or something. They said, let’s go during the best time of year, the spring.

Then I got a phone call from Bruce Kelly, a guy from Wrens, Ga., up near Augusta, who knew Jim. He’s actually the guy who designed Strawberry Fields for Yoko Ono, a brilliant landscape designer.

He said, “We can’t go to Savannah—one of the guys we’re going to meet shot and killed his boyfriend.”

The first chapter of Midnight was exactly the way my first evening in Savannah happened. I went to see Jim Williams. The only thing is Danny had already been shot.

I describe it just as it happened. I remember it as being one of the most gorgeous evenings I’d ever experienced.

I wasn’t tape recording, and at the time wasn’t going to write a book. Of course right afterwards I wrote about it, furiously into the night.

When I decided to write a book about it, two years later I went back down there.

I thought: How am I gonna tell this story. Do I tell this the way I’ve told you? Well, that’s the way it happened, but it’s not the way to tell this story.

The best way to tell it is to introduce the reader to Savannah the same way I was, to be enchanted by it.

To seduce people first, as I was.

If it were to start with me going to see the convicted murderer, you’d just have to stay with the murder the whole book. Instead I wanted the murder to be like, bang, it happens—and you’re shocked by it, the same way people in Savannah were shocked by it.

I wanted to recreate the absolute, total shock people there felt. That’s why I did the rearranging I did.

»On the decision to write the book:

I WENT back to New York and eventually decided it was time to write a book. I'd already written magazine articles and columns and things like that.

Bruce Kelly said, “Why don’t you write about Savannah? You loved it there.”

I’d heard Jim got convicted a second time. I called the jail and explained who I was. They said, “We can’t put you through but he can call you collect.”

So he actually called me! And I explained I had met him two years before.

He said, “I might be interested in cooperating with you. I really want my story out.” So I flew down.

Jim actually saw very few people in jail. He didn’t like to be in such reduced circumstances. He always wanted to be on his own turf, where he could entertain people, and control people.

He was like a lion. He wanted to be in charge and on his own territory at all times. He was sort of a control freak, really—that’s just how it was with him.

I rented a carriage house on Jones two doors down from Joe Odom. I remember I could hear Joe’s piano down the street, the sound coming in on the night air. It was just the most magic atmosphere, all of it.

Jim was released shortly after I got there and out of jail, and the entire time I was working on the book he was available to me and very cooperative.

»Savannah's influence on the story:

THE whole time I was completely taken with Savannah and the absolutely gorgeous town that it is. It was the most remarkable, winsome, beautiful town I'd ever seen in America. And the people had a marvelous charm and an ironic sense of humor that was fresh to me. I was absolutely intent on capturing that charm.

I think of my first time in Savannah. It was the third week in March. And you know what happens then—the azaleas bloom.

The whole place was a flower bowl. The whole city was in bloom. The smell was delicious. It was magic, like a dream.

»Disappointed Savannah upstaged Midnight's characters?

NOT a bit! Because I agree. The context being Savannah makes the whole story work so much better. I don't have any disappointment. Savannah really made it work, much better than Altoona, Pennsylvania, would have.

Those characters were so enriched by the setting. The city has to get the credit. Savannah comes first. Then the characters, remarkable as they are.

»Publicity's impact on Savannah:

I WAS concerned at a couple of points. Initially, when the book first hit, I was nervous it would change things, and it didn't for a long time. I went back to Savannah frequently in the early days, speaking to groups and things like that. I noticed things stayed pretty much the same.

Of course, with two of the main characters having died—Jim and Joe—it lost a little flavor for me. But Savannah remained Savannah.

I noticed back then they kept the tour buses outside of the squares, and they weren’t allowed to park in the squares, had to turn their engines off to so they wouldn’t blast fumed into the streets. They handled it pretty well.

And then—I’m not sure how many years into it I noticed something change—I was back in Savannah, at a picnic in one of the squares.

A woman came up to me and said, “Mr. Berendt, do you know what’s happened since your book? I’m now the only Savannahian on my street.”

I said, “You’re kidding.” I never thought that would have happened. It was always Savannahians on the streets, not out-of-towners.

It seems like what’s happened is that a lot of people visited Savannah, and then decided to stay and bought houses there. I have to say I’m not entirely thrilled about that.

»How much attention is too much attention?

I HOPE Savannah won't turn into the kind of tourist spot like New Orleans, or Venice, Italy, which I've written about. What happens all over the world these days is that the super rich can afford not just a vacation home, but a vacation home for each season. They're not just buying one or two homes anymore, they can afford five or six homes!

Where do they buy them? Places like Venice and New York. The Times just wrote about the ultra-rich buying up billions of dollars worth of apartments around Central Park, just to have them to visit occasionally. They don’t live there.

In Venice you can ride down the canals at night, and all the palazzos are dark. Those apartments are owned by people who live somewhere else. They come to Venice maybe a couple of times a year for a few weeks. It can really depopulate a city.

So these places begin to cater to tourists only. It’s a worldwide phenomenon now. But where do people tend to do this most? In places where tourists also tend to congregate.

»On being a Yankee who has joined the ranks of great Southern authors:

I HAVE actually been referred to as a Southern writer. It's the highest form of compliment I could receive!

What you most want to achieve in writing is a voice of your own. Gore Vidal once said the most important thing a writer can find is their own voice.

When writing Midnight I decided the narrative form should in some way be similar to the narrative form in Savannah. That’s a bit strange because I’m from New York!

But nonetheless I found it appealing—that sort of rolling, run-on story narrative that gets more bizarre as you go along, with all these entertaining details and shards of things happening.

I wanted to use that for my voice. So I became a Southern writer!

»About the new Midnight Metabook app:

WHEN I wrote the book I didn't want any photos. I wanted readers to have the experience of reading a novel, and it's up to the author to create the pictures in your mind.

The sort of traditional murder story with graphic photos I didn’t want. But with the app we sort of have what I didn’t want! (Laughs) We have pictures of all the participants, crime scene photos, audio interviews.

What happened between the first publication of the book and today was the digital revolution. Now, reading a book, if you want more information about the subject, you just click and there it is.


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