Amy Levin has facilitated the Literature & Medicine program for Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois for three years. After this year’s discussion of the novel, Range of Motion, Amy and the group participants had the opportunity to ask author Elizabeth Berg a few questions about the novel, writing, and nursing.
A Strong Presence: An Interview with Author and Nurse Elizabeth Berg
This year I selected Elizabeth Berg’s novel, Range of Motion, as a reading for the Literature & Medicine group I facilitate in Illinois. In many ways, Berg’s works are ideal choices for Literature & Medicine groups; she is both an accomplished author (several of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and two were ALA Best Books) and a former nurse whose writing frequently features health care professionals or medical issues. I have heard Berg read from her work several times in the Chicago area, where she lives. Open, friendly, and personable, she writes at once with humor and compassion, surrounding the protagonists with an array of always-interesting minor characters. I particularly enjoy Berg’s capacity for catching the intimate details of everyday life — for instance, the fragrance of spices cooking — even when her characters are in the midst of crisis.
I invited her to come speak to our Literature & Medicine group after we read the novel. She was enthusiastic about the idea but was ultimately unable to schedule a time. Instead, she graciously agreed to answer several questions that the group and I submitted by email. The interview below is the result of our email correspondence.
Before you read the interview, it will be helpful to know a little about the book: Range of Motion focuses on a young mother whose husband is injured in a freak accident by a falling icicle. As he lies in a coma for many months, Lainey tries to come to terms with a wide range of emotional responses, the effects of the accident on her children, and her insistence on maintaining hope when many of the professionals are pessimistic about her husband’s future. The experiences of three other couples serve as counterpoints to Lainey’s struggles. Her friend and neighbor Alice is watching her marriage dissolve; another man, Ted, also visits the hospital where Lainey’s husband lies, coming to see his own stricken wife; and Lainey keeps catching mysterious glimpses of the life of a previous inhabitant of her home — a ghost, perhaps? Another distinctive feature of the book is that parts of it are told from the perspective of the husband, Jay, as he lies in bed unconscious.
Our Literature & Medicine group discussion ranged over a number of topics, including such questions as: How do we maintain normality in times of crisis? What is normality anyway? What makes a good nurse? How is bad news communicated in the hospital? How important is the faith of relatives in an individual’s recovery?
Our email conversation follows:
Levin: Do you miss nursing? What did you think were the best and worst aspects of the job?
Berg: I do miss nursing. It’s such an important job and it’s so rewarding. The best parts were the interactions with nurses and patients, the care and concern you saw daily. I think nurses and teachers are the best people in the world. The worst parts were having to work three shifts, being underpaid and undervalued. And impactions.
Levin: The "ghost woman"--did Lainey imagine her, or was she really there? Why did she disappear when she did?
Berg: The ghost woman was "really there," whether she was in Lainey’s imagination or not, if you know what I mean. In the world of the paranormal, who knows what’s really true and what isn’t? She came to comfort and advise Lainey in a very specific way and “left” when Lainey no longer needed her.
Levin: What was the purpose of including so much about Alice’s marriage? What difference do you think it made for her husband to be gay?
Berg: Alice helped show more about Lainey and was herself an interesting story, at least to me. But I don’t plot my books. I show up at the desk every morning and the story tells itself. That her husband was gay surprised and interested me. It probably didn’t make any difference; the main point is that he didn’t appreciate Alice.
Levin: One of the participants said that she thought “every nurse should read the book to relearn her job.” How did being a nurse contribute to your writing this book?
Berg: Please thank whoever said every nurse should read the book! As a nurse, I often cared for people in comas, and I always felt such a strong presence, a deep awareness. I wondered what it would be like to write from the point of view of a person in a coma. . . . that was the little seed of an idea that made for the whole novel.
Levin: Can you tell us a little more about your creative process and how you go about beginning a book?
Berg: The books start with the smallest things, as I described in [the previous answer]. It’s a feeling I have, vague but persistent. Or a voice I hear. Or an issue I want to write about in order to know how I feel about it. I write to learn, to understand. It’s a selfish process — I do it for me, really. I try not to think about who’s going to read it, because if I do that, it can make me feel paralyzed. If anyone’s interested, I did a book on everything I know and believe about writing called Escaping Into The Open. Basically, I think writing is a mysterious process, almost a holy one. The less you open the hood and try to understand the mechanics, the better off you are. And as a writer, the more you can stay true to your own truth, your own vision, your own voice, the better writer you’ll be.
Thanks so much for choosing one of my titles.
Eye Witness is a column devoted to the stories of Literature & Medicine participants. We invite you to submit short essays about your experiences in the seminars, and to share your reflections with a larger audience.
Literature & Medicine has received major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.