Listening to the People: An Interview with Meredith Berlin

Having read Seventeen magazine back when I was young, I probably stumbled over Meredith Berlin‘s name on the staff list many times, never knowing that someday in the future, our paths would cross with this series! But here we are, and I’m interviewing the former editor in chief about her debut novel, Friends with Issues, which released last year with Warren Publishing. One reader said the book “continues in the long line of the Jacqueline Susann/Helen Gurley Brown genre but with a fresh and knowing perspective,” also calling it “a big-sister variation on Sex and the City.” Many readers appreciated the character development and strong bonds of friendship showcased in the book. The most entertaining comment regarding the novel came from an Amazon reviewer who said, “And boy, do these friends have issues!” What a compliment to the book and Meredith’s writing.

Welcome, Meredith!

Christina: Congrats on the publication of Friends with Issues. Where did the idea for the book come from?

Meredith: I was editor-in-chief of several magazines in the 1990’s including Soap Opera Digest and Seventeen. I chose to stop working full time when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), but there were other issues. I had a lot of feelings about having three small children and working an hour away from home. What if something happened to them and I wasn’t there to help in time? Yes, I had and could afford good childcare, but that didn’t totally ameliorate my fears and guilt.

As I spoke to other women, I learned I wasn’t alone. That guilt was pervasive among the working women I knew. If we were at work, we felt we should be home, and if we were at home we felt we should be at work. I wanted to tell that story.

In the nineties, I kept reading interviews with celebrities (often informed by their press agents) that being a mother was the greatest thing that ever happened to them. The answers weren’t nuanced. Yes, becoming a mother is one of the greatest things that happened to me and many other women, but it’s also hard and complex. No one was talking about that. I wanted to.

I also wanted to tell a story about the sexual desires of women, the complicated lives of successful women, and the choices we make as we approach middle age. Everyone I knew who was the same age as me was pondering those things. I overheard conversations that had great dialogue and wrote them down. Finally, I wanted to tell the story of three women who were strong, committed but not perfect. The idea for the book came from listening to the people I knew.

Christina: The book is set in 1997. Why that year in particular? Could the story have been told in a different year or decade?

Meredith: The book takes place in 1997 because that’s when I began writing it. As I continued to write it over the years, I chose to keep it during that time period.

Yes, the same story could be told now. The issues of identity, sexuality, motherhood romantic love, and work are evergreen. But the nineties were  interesting to me.

Tech began appearing in our lives but it wasn’t pervasive. We weren’t texting each other—we were talking to each other. That adds more dimension and feeling to interactions. Women in “big” jobs were not as common then, but my characters are all in high powered jobs or becoming entrepreneurs. Women claiming their sexuality wasn’t discussed much then—if at all.

Discovering that they weren’t necessarily heterosexual was rarely talked about. Romantic love between middle-aged people was not commonly portrayed. I  felt those themes were important to write about. Also, the magazine business was vastly different. Online major magazines were only dreams. I wanted to show how a magazine was created in “the old days” with much less tech and much more person-to-person teamwork.

Christina: The novel is about three women: Brooke, Elizabeth, and Susan. How did you go about crafting characters who were distinct from one another? Do any of them resemble you? What was your goal in featuring three women?

Meredith: Okay! Second things first! I have MS and was an editor-in-chief of magazines (like Elizabeth), and I had a hobby that became a business as a jeweler (like Brooke), creating one of a kind necklaces, rings, and bracelets in gold and silver. All were handmade. I sold them in galleries and small stores and certain people in the entertainment business in Hollywood purchased them, again like Brooke.  I’ve known men who have some of the qualities that Nick has, but not all of the qualities.

We writers overhear real dialogue between people that’s poignant, hilarious, provocative, or true. I knew women who had bits and pieces of Susan, Brooke, and Elizabeth, but as many writers will tell you, once you begin a story, the characters take on a life of their own. I can’t tell you why I exactly chose three women—it wasn’t planned. I can say that Nick turned out to be 180 degrees different than I imagined him to be when I began the story. So did Susan. And Brooke? She was never a strong woman when I started out, but I cheered her on, and she became something different. These characters appeared in my dreams over time, and they told me what to write.

Christina: Readers love to hear about an author’s journey to publication. Would you share a little bit about your journey and how you came to find Warren Publishing?

Meredith: My journey to publication was long. I first finished the book in the early 2000s. I had an agent who believed in the book and sent it to all the big publishers. She set up an auction because she was convinced it would be a huge success, and she knew the publishing business well. She had once been an editor at one of the big five. No one was interested. I was heartbroken. I spent days in pajamas watching old Audrey Hepburn movies. Then my agent died, and I put the book away for about fifteen years.  I did freelance writing and learned to make jewelry. The jewelry studio became my second home.

In 2016 I had dinner with a friend. The late Robert Rorke, who died last year, worked for me as an editor at both Soap Opera Digest and Seventeen. He had recently published a book titled Car Trouble (Harper Collins). It was great. We had both been wanting to write books forever. I asked how he finished it and got it published. He said three words to me “I was determined.” That was it. I was inspired. Sometimes all it takes are three words to take you out of your funk. Easy/not easy. But he sent me on my way. Then I started to watch Big Little Lies, Wait! That reminds me of my book—successful, rich women who are friends and have problems. Obviously, my book is not at all like Big Little Lies, but the idea that you could show glamorous wealthy women who didn’t have to suffer because they were rich (often that’s the case in fiction) further inspired me. Finally, I moved from New York to Florida, a few minutes away from my old college roommate. She belonged to a writer’s group and insisted I join. Over the next two years the women in that group helped me edit the book, commenting on every sentence. They helped me.

After that, I found a few editors who worked with me to trim it down and fill it out. I was ready for an agent. I couldn’t find one who understood the story or wanted to take it on, but I do have an excellent entertainment lawyer who represented me when the time came.

I learned (through my writer’s group) about hybrid publishing. The idea appealed to me. I could keep 100 percent of the rights. If I went with the right house, they would offer me the very best in editing and design. The manuscript was accepted by several of them, but I chose Warren because they had been in business for over 40 years. It was owned and operated by women. Their backgrounds were in the business, and they believed in the book. I’m so happy I made that decision. They cared about the book, did fabulous edits, supported my decisions, and gave honest answers when I had questions. Next, I hired a PR firm, which was expensive but also an investment in myself and the “business” of being a writer. I stand by that decision.

Christina: As you said, you’re a former editor-in-chief of Soap Opera Digest and Seventeen. How did you decide to go from editing to writing a novel? What did your time as an editor teach you in terms of your own writing?

Meredith: Well, I always wanted to be an editor and writer. I fell into editing, then worked my way up to being editor-in-chief. I LOVED those jobs. I loved helping other writers and editors. I understood the business side of magazines and that my main job was to please the reader. I loved choosing and creating covers with the art director and staff. I loved working with writers and editors on coverlines. I liked managing the pace of a magazine, what pages in “the book” worked for which articles and ads. Magazine editing taught me about the importance of telling a story that resonates. It taught me about the power of one word, one sentence, one title. All of that informed my ability to be a writer—tell more story effectively with fewer words.

Christina: Does your time as an executive producer inform your writing at all? What’s one of the greatest lessons you learned while working in television?

Meredith: Working in television taught me about glitz, glamour, celebrity and the very hard work that goes on behind the scenes. How can I say this—it’s all a mirage and it’s all real. It’s magic. Television helped me write credibly about the entertainment business in this book, There are a few characters who are “in the business” and I know those people in real life. In the end, TV is storytelling—good characters, good script. But what IS good? A show that moves the audience, that keeps them asking for more. That’s what soaps do. They keep you hanging on because the characters and their stories are addictive. A good book does the same.

Christina: You’ve been living with MS for over twenty years. Does the disease affect your writing, and if so, how? Do you write as a form of healing? How can the community help you in your quest to advocate for others living with MS?

Meredith: Multiple Sclerosis. Ahh. When I was first diagnosed in 1999, I was devastated. No! Every scary thought you can have about living with the disease was planted in my brain. The day I found out, my husband told me. The doctor told him instead and left it to him to tell me. Can you imagine? New York City in 1999 and the doctor still thought t was my husband’s job to tell me. I still can’t get over that one.

Would he still love me, I wondered. What if I had to be in a wheelchair? Would I still be able to be kind of mother I wanted to be for my children? So many worries but I was also relieved. All the different symptoms I’d had over the years—symptoms that were never diagnosed correctly—finally had a name. MS. My husband didn’t leave me. He says he was more in love with me than ever (what a guy!). When I asked him what he would do if I had to be in a wheelchair he said he would push the wheelchair. That line ended up in my book.

was a different mother to my children in a superficial way. I couldn’t go to every soccer game, I couldn’t be part of every carpool. But I could still do homework with them, take them on excursions to museums, go on family vacations,  attend parent teacher conferences and more than anything, I think, I taught them simply by being their mother that a person’s disability is not something to look away from. (One of my sons, who’s a neurosurgeon now, says he wanted to be a doctor because I had MS.)

I don’t want to sugar coat what it’s like to have this disease. Every day was not a piece of cake. There were times that my legs just stopped working. I’d have tingling in my arms and legs. Migraines. Brain fog. Lack of balance. And an exhaustion that can’t be defined. With MS your whole electrical system can just shut down. The symptoms would come and go. Often the meds I had to take were worse than the symptoms. Add to that, I was being treated for Central Nervous System Lyme disease at the same time. I was a mess but I also felt strong and courageous on some days, defeated on others. Sometimes the illness wins out the day and that’s just the way it is. Mind over matter doesn’t always work.

How did it affect my writing? Sometimes not at all. But when that exhaustion sets in I have to get into bed. Working through it, toughening it out, doesn’t work. In a way that’s a gift. You can allow yourself to stop. I can’t write when I’m exhausted. Brain fog is real. Try continuing a story when you don’t know where you were or what it was about. Even if you began the manuscript it takes a while to remember where you were going with it. Sometimes my hands shake and it’s hard to even type. But I am not in a wheelchair. Sometimes I need a cane. I understand that things take longer for me to accomplish now and I accept it.

Do I write as a form of healing? Yes. Put it this way, without writing, reading or making jewelry I wouldn’t be the person I am. I need to write to be me. MS is a disease that most people know about but don’t necessarily know what it entails. Not everyone has swallowing problems. Not everyone has mobility problems. The person next to you might have MS and you wouldn’t know it. So I guess I would just like more people to be informed about the disease.

Christina: What’s next for you?

Meredith: Right now I’m healing from a terrible car accident that happened last year. That’s my prime goal—to get better. My days are filled with all kinds of therapy—physical, cognitive, PTSD. But I’m also beginning to try and tell another story. I am scribbling in drips and drabs. And one of the joys of my life is my two-year-old granddaughter. Those grandmothers who bore you with every picture of their baby? That’s me!

Christina: One of the questions many readers have for authors is if they have any pets? I know you once had a beloved Golden Retriever. Do you have any others?

Meredith: Pets! I’m an animal lover and I married an animal lover. Over the years we’ve had seven dogs, six horses and three cats—sometimes all at once. Oh, and guinea pigs. And fish. So many fish. But when my beloved Golden Retriever, Crosby, died two years ago, my husband and I were firm that we would never get another dog. We couldn’t take the pain of losing another animal. Our cat died last year, too. But after a few months my husband changed his mind. And together with my adult children they started The Campaign. My 92-year-old mother joined in. “You have to get another dog.” Every day I heard it from one or the other. My husband even said he would do all the work—feeding, walks, etc. (that was a big lie, but I knew it.) This past September we adopted an eight-week-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.  Toller, for short. Basically, they look like mini Golden Retrievers. She’ll get to be about 40 pounds. Her name is Georgia, her fur is red, her eyes are green and she can be a little terrorist. Seven-month-old puppies have a lot of energy.  I don’t know what I’d do without her. This Georgia is Always On My Mind. I should also mention: a Golden Retriever puppy named Crosby makes a cameo appearance in my book!

Friends with Issues - Berlin, Meredith

Meredith can be found in multiple places!
Instagram: @meredith_berlin

Thanks to Meredith for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author or artist who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.


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