No one expected even one week on the charts, let alone 209 and counting. Not John Berendt, who thought he had written a good book but not necessarily a popular one. Not the first agent he went to, who declined to represent it because she thought it wouldn't sell. Not the publisher, whose first printing was nothing to brag about. Not the bookstores, whose initial orders were modest.
Reviewers liked it, some of them very much indeed. But they didn't predict huge success either, knowing all too well what sells in America. Usually, it's not a collection of character sketches built around a gay murder with a starring role for a black drag queen against the backdrop of a Southern city that many people couldn't find on a map of Georgia.
Nonfiction bestseller lists tend to be full of the familiar: celebrity autobiographies and syrupy anthologies, guides to financial success and self-improvement, jokes by comedians. Look at the previous record-holder: Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." In the '50s, during its years of triumph, everyone wanted to think positively. But "Midnight" doesn't explain anything like that.
It's not that there are no explanations. There are too many at least a dozen. Since Berendt is the author, he gets to offer the first one. And since he's the author, he will naturally lean toward how compelling the writing is.
"Basically, I view writing as entertainment, even if it's deadly serious," he says, drinking iced tea in a hotel cafe here. "I believe in giving the audience a payoff every so often, in surprise, suspense, hilarity or whatever. Writing is theater. You're not just putting stuff on paper, you've got to pull in an audience."
He's 58, intense and loquacious, a lifelong editor and columnist who hit it big the first time out. Berendt spent much of his career editing and writing for Esquire, starting back in the '60s when Esquire had the sort of cachet and reader devotion that the New Yorker only aspires to. Esquire taught him to rewrite and rewrite and refine, to get as much information into as few words as possible. He would work days on a simple headline.
Most books seem dashed off these days, hazily researched and sloppily edited. They're too long, because neither writer nor editor has the time to make them short. Many of them began as magazine articles, and in a perfect world they would have stayed that way.
"Midnight" didn't start with a magazine piece, or a fat contract that Berendt was under instant pressure to meet. He had no contract at all, in fact. He was free to write and rewrite his story until he got it right, a process that took seven years. Maybe the 2.5 million people who have bought a copy were responding to its craftsmanship.
They also may be responding to the hybrid nature of "Midnight." As the author's note in the back of the book says, "certain storytelling liberties" were taken with this "nonfiction." This has gotten him in trouble with people who believe in the purity of nonfiction, but it gives his tale the juiciness of a novel. "I wrote in unconnected stories, and the trick I played is to make it sound like one," Berendt says.
The most vivid element in the book isn't a person; it's the lush, isolated, eccentric, beautiful city of Savannah. A small but significant percentage of the people who read the book are compelled to go there; post-"Midnight" tourism is up nearly 50 percent. Many more fans appreciated discovering a place that wasn't overly familiar.
A distinct minority view holds that the book is so successful because it's so bad. "I'm forced to conclude that this was one of those cultural phenomena where people buy something or go to see something because it somehow became fashionable," a Minneapolis reader commented to the online bookstore Amazon.com. "And, once having been duped, nobody wants to admit it, so they continue to recommend it to others."
Design has contributed to the book's long-running appeal. It's taller than most books, with a lovely dust jacket showing a cemetery angel. "It helped, believe me," says one of those involved in the book's publication. "Too many books are butt-ugly. This one looks like a gift."
There's another reason why no book has been on the bestseller list this long. ("Midnight" actually fell off the Times list twice, in the fall of '95 and '96, when the big Christmas books appeared. Then in January it went back on.) When paperback publishers buy reprint rights from the hardcover houses, they issue their cheaper copy as soon as contractually possible. Any hardcover that is still on the list after a year naturally falls off.
But in these days of conglomerates, the paperback and hardcover publishers are often under the same corporate roof. That means that if a book is still ripping along a year after it was first published, the paperback can be postponed indefinitely. This happened not only to "Midnight" but also to Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" which is still on the hardcover bestseller list after nearly two years.
Another oddity about bestseller lists is that, since many stores now heavily discount those titles, books that get on the list tend to sell even more. If they sell enough, they can then begin selling in the price warehouses, which move vast quantities of only a few titles.
In the same way some people are famous simply for being famous, "Midnight" has started to sell copies just because it's been selling so many copies. It's popular enough to be a safe gift. Sales spiked upward last month. Father's Day, of course.
Finally, the book has offered endless opportunities for promotion. Every newspaper and travel magazine seems to have done at least one article on Savannah keyed to the book. Berendt has been on "Good Morning America" five times. The occasion for his visit here was a talk to the American Library Association convention.
His promotional efforts aren't relentless, but they're certainly continuing. This is the reason selected by his editor, Ann Godoff, for the book's success. "He's a remarkable advocate for his work," she says.
The trouble with promotion is not only the time it takes, but that it's hard to pay attention to your next work when your last is still being avidly consumed.
"Being on the list is a distraction," Berendt says. "Not an unpleasant distraction, but nonetheless a distraction. I will find it a whole lot easier to concentrate on my next work as soon as it falls off."
He expects that to be soon. Last Sunday, "Midnight" was No. 12. Many good writers don't get so far in their whole careers, but Berendt notes, correctly, that his book is "just hanging on." With the weariness of a condemned man anticipating the inevitable, he's ready for it to be over.
Once the puzzle of how "Midnight" got so big is answered, a second question presents itself. Will John Berendt ever finish another book? Better yet, should he?
Retiring undefeated does have its merits. Harper Lee is venerated partly because she never followed up on "To Kill a Mockingbird." John Knowles is largely forgotten because he wrote so many forgettable books after "A Separate Peace."
An old friend, Gay Talese, waggishly believes Berendt should quit while ahead. "I told John something to the effect of: 'Never write again. The success of this book is so inexplicable, so illogical, so mystifying, that it does not provide a basis on which to build anything.'
"Since he's going to be competing with himself, and since there's no way you can compete with this book, it defies all logic in the world of letters, in the world of commercial literature, to try to do it when he could otherwise devote himself to managing a boy's basketball team in some downtrodden part of the inner city, or being a charitable leader of wayward taxi drivers assailed by the Giuliani administration, or running a religious order outside of Bosnia somewhere with Richard Holbrooke, or just lying on his couch and fantasizing about Hillary Clinton. He could do many good things with what's left of his life, but the least worthy would be to deal with a book publisher."
Except for the money. Berendt didn't write "Midnight" to score big, but he made a fair pile anyway, even spread over the seven years he worked on it and the 4 1/2 since it appeared. At the standard royalty rate of 15 percent, he makes $3.75 a copy. Multiply that by 2.5 million, throw in more boodle for film rights, audio sales and translations, and you have enough to buy a nice spread in Savannah.
It's not enough. "I can't possibly walk away from the advance they're going to have to give me at Random House for my second book," Berendt says.
He adds that the publisher, which makes twice what Berendt does on each copy of "Midnight," "has already told me, 'We're going to have to give you back some of our profits from the first book when we sign you up for the second.' That's the way these things work in cases like this. They'll be giving me the equivalent of maybe 30 percent royalties instead of 15."
Godoff, the editor, was noncommittal on this point. "It's not a question of giving back. We'll look at his new property, and say, 'This book by John Berendt is worth this much money.' " Anyway, Godoff adds, "if he really felt it was just about money, he would have given me an idea a long time ago."
But he needs a worthy idea. There have been intriguing possibilities. He met a man who had been in jail in Louisiana, and the man's girlfriend said the prison also housed what used to be called a leper colony. The lepers didn't appreciate being confined with criminals and refused to talk to them. "You don't know rejection until you've been rejected by a leper," the girlfriend said, so Berendt went and checked it out.
He heard of a very old couple who had been confined to the leper colony and then, in the 1940s, escaped through a hole in the fence and drove around the country pulling an Airstream trailer. It seemed a picaresque tale to Berendt, with interesting sidelines: As if the couple didn't have enough trouble being lepers, they were banned from hotels because they were thought to be Jews. But the husband died before Berendt could interview him, and the woman's memory proved nonexistent. Another dead end.
His new fame hasn't helped here. "I was an unseen person in Savannah," Beremtdt says. "Now, wherever I go, people are sure I'm writing a book about the place, when I'm not even interested. And people come to me with proposals. I talked to a guy yesterday. The stuff he told me was riveting, but I don't want to collaborate with anyone."
Berendt's in Venice now. He's hopeful he found a story he can immerse himself in. He doesn't want to say for publication exactly what it is. He also sounds a little doubtful it would work out.
"I have a standard to apply I have to be excited by the place, the story and the characters," he says. Listening to him, it seems entirely possible that nothing will ever be good enough.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Back to the top