Author Berendt mines gold

from Southerners' love of story

Everywhere he goes, people consider him an expert on the South, said John Berendt, author of the bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. "I'm not, but I've concocted an all-purpose reply," Berendt told an audience of alumni, faculty, students and friends at Emory Law School's annual Law Day luncheon March 22. Whenever someone asks him to define what's unique about the South, Berendt tells them that Northerners would say, "Mrs. Jones put on her coat." Southerners, however, would say, "Mrs. Jones put on her coat that was given to her by her third husband, who committed suicide."

Everyone laughs, mostly because they know it's true. Southerners love to tell a story, something Berendt discovered along with what he called the "utterly magical, beautiful" city of Savannah, the book's ever-present main attraction.

Obviously, he didn't start out to write a book about the murder trial of Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams, said Berendt. "The case, when I started following it, was not a landmark case." But four trials and one acquittal later, the case made the Georgia record books. And while some have called the book a nonfiction work that reads like a novel, Berendt stressed that his recounting of the trials themselves and the people involved in the case "was strictly nonfiction."

As for the threat of libel suits, Berendt said his many years as an editor prepared him well. Before the book was printed he sent a memo to his publisher's legal department with corroboration on "every single fact" in the book. "The legal department said they had never seen anyone do that before," said Berendt. As a result, he added, "no one has sued me-yet."

Berendt's Emory appearance seems to be part of a mini-renaissance for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; earlier this month, students at the University of Georgia Law School staged a reenactment of the book's third murder trial, with the trial's real-life defense lawyer and UGA alumnus Sonny Seiler giving commentary. Three years after its publication, the book is still compelling, said Berendt, because as the popularity of Court TV, John Grisham and the O.J. trials prove, "the law can be vastly entertaining." Filming of the movie version of the book, directed by Clint Eastwood, is scheduled to begin next month.

Berendt said he was asked to write the film's screenplay but declined because he had already spent years writing the book and felt he wanted to move on. He did meet with the film's producers, however, who tried to convince him that the book's "passive narrator" (Berendt) just couldn't be put on film. They proposed making the narrator a lawyer instead of a laconic writer. "I'm told that in the first draft the narrator takes over the case from Sonny Seiler and wins it," said Berendt, wincing. In the latest draft, the narrator is again a writer, although the filmmakers are insisting that the four trials be condensed into one.

-Elaine Justice

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