BY ALP RODOPLU (HIST/MA)
Alp Rodoplu: Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography “Les Mots” has two parts: “Reading” and then “Writing.” With two books published and a third in progress, are you now in the writing chapter of your life?
Dr. Sandrine Berges: If it’s about novels, I’m still reading. If it’s about reading philosophy, well, I’m reading that too; but I spend more time writing now.
AR: Do you enjoy writing?
SB: Sometimes I do, sometimes I hate it.
AR: For me, it’s often a painful process.
SB: Yes, it’s horrible; it hurts. But sometimes it’s very pleasant, and it can be very satisfying. Since I started writing books, I’ve been enjoying writing a lot more, because you have more control when writing a book. Once your proposal is accepted, you basically do what you like. As long as it’s competent in the end, it will be published more or less as is, with minor corrections but nothing crazy. I also enjoy writing books because there is a lot of planning involved. I really like planning. With books you plan your time, decide which chapter to work on, to read for and prepare, and keep it all neatly in color-coded folders — I love that.
AR: Do you know exactly what it is you’re going to say when you sit down to write? Or is the writing process, even though you have a plan, also a process of discovery?
SB: I like planning, but that doesn’t mean I like to stick to my plan. I first write a proposal that has a summary of all the chapters prior to doing all my research. So, I have a vague idea. When the proposal gets accepted, then I plan it in more detail. But when I get it written, it often looks very different. Once I complete a chapter, it influences what the next chapter is going to be like. So, plans always change. What doesn’t change are things like the time I initially allocated per chapter, per section or per revision — that doesn’t change, that’s what I stick to. And the color-coding, of course — that doesn’t change either.
AR: Where do you write?
SB: I have a nice office at home. I write there, occasionally, when I can. I write here [in the office]. Mostly at the table and always on a computer. I take notes on paper.
AR: In the summer when you go off, do you write then?
SB: I don’t go off very much. We have the kids, so when we go on holiday, we’re not working. We don’t have retreats and write for three months, which would be lovely. Where we go in Wales would be perfect for writing.
SB: Yes, because you don’t want too much sun if you’re writing. You don’t want to be thinking every five minutes, “I could go and have a swim now,” and in Wales, you’re not going to think that.
AR: Do you get distracted easily when you’re writing?
SB: Yes and no. I don’t stop myself from checking my email or going on Facebook; but that doesn’t normally stop me from writing. And because of the kids, I’m quite used to writing and answering questions about Teletubbies.
AR: When you sit down to write, how long do you normally spend? Your “research day” really seems very important.
SB: My “research hours.” Yes, and if I happen to be working in here, and students come, saying, “Oh, you were here, so I thought I’d come in and see you,” I’m often not so happy to see them if it’s not my office hours, because time is really precious. One thing I’d really like to do but can’t is write early in the mornings, because normally I’m a morning person, and my mind is clearest in the morning. I also like the idea of writing when everybody is asleep. Unfortunately, Max [one of Dr. Berges’s children] wakes up the second I do, so I can’t really do that.
AR: Do you ever find it difficult to start?
SB: I find it difficult to start a new piece. Bill will tell you that the first couple of days of working on something new, I usually have all sorts of existential drama going on: I can’t figure out how to start it, I can’t get in the right mood for it, and I think I will never be able to write it. And then it’s all right, it works out. It’s sort of like getting used to it, getting to know it and getting into it. But that’s happening less and less. I really just get down and do it. If I get really stuck, I’ll go get some coffee or tea, and then I go back to it. Usually it’s not about getting stuck, but about getting brain-jammed — when I’m writing too many things that don’t make sense any more, I just have a little pause and start afterwards.
AR: I want to ask you about language, because you write in English, and that’s not your native tongue. Do you encounter problems? Or do you find it easier because it’s not your native language?
SB: I really like the way English is simple and deals with short and clear sentences. That is something I really enjoy doing. I don’t think I write differently, but very occasionally I think I have terms or phrases, or attitudes, that are a bit French. Bill points out to me that I say “of course” a lot when I write, and that it’s a bit French. That’s like assuming that everybody knows, and if you don’t you’re an idiot — and that is a bit French. I try not to do that.
AR: Can you go without writing? Would you miss it tremendously?
SB: I would. It’s habit now. I don’t think I would go without writing.
AR: Do you think your kids will pursue careers where they’ll have to write?
SB: Not Max; I don’t think he’ll want to write, plus he really likes to draw. Charlotte, perhaps; certainly she can write — she can write in three languages.
AR: Lastly, any advice to aspiring writers here at Bilkent, particularly with regard to the writing process?
SB: That you need not be discouraged; you just need to sit down and do it. Sit at your desk, and don’t stop and think it’s too hard — it is, but you can still do it. Keep a note of what you’re doing. Not to lose stuff. Not to decide what you’ve written is bad and to get rid of it. Just keep it, keep a version of it, even if you want to start again from scratch. Look at it a few days later, go back to it. It might not be as bad as you think, and there are probably things you can reuse. And you have to be mechanical about it. It’s a professional thing. It’s not just creative, it really isn’t.