The Five-Minute Interview: Author and Mason Alum, Professor Berg
Posted: March 6, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am
What began as an intriguing feature for the Washington Post has turned into a first book and glowing reviews for Mason alumnus and professor Scott W. Berg, MFA ‘97.
His book, “Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.,” published this month by Pantheon, tells the tale of the complicated Pierre L’Enfant and the 11 months he spent as architect of the nation’s capital.
Berg, who is an assistant professor of English at Mason, holds a BA in architecture from the University of Minnesota, an MA from Miami University of Ohio, as well as an MFA in creative writing from Mason. He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post.
What made you decide to take on this project?
Two things: serendipity and fatherhood. A long time ago, I took an urban design class as part of my architectural curriculum at the University of Minnesota, and in that class we spent a couple of days on Washington, D.C., and its designer. When I moved to the D.C. area for graduate school at Mason in 1994, I was pleased to know just a little about the design of the city, thanks to that undergraduate course.
Then, a few years later, I began to write for the Washington Post. They were nice enough to accept my pitch for a long feature story discussing the ways the modern Washingtonian’s experience of D.C. was so pervasively influenced by the work of one extraordinary man who spent only 11 months on the project more than 200 years ago. Researching that article helped me to appreciate the competing dramas of triumph and tragedy in L’Enfant’s story. I know I wanted to turn the tale into a book proposal at some point.
That point arrived when Carter, our first son, was born in October 2002. It occurred to me then that if my career as an author of books was going to begin, it needed to begin soon. I spent the Christmas holiday that year putting together the proposal and sold it in February. Then I wrote the book.
How long did it take to research and write the book?
Counting the work I did on the Washington Post article, a little over four years.
Is there anything you learned about L’Enfant or the Founding Fathers that surprised you?
Very little didn’t surprise me. Each major character in the book – L’Enfant, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, etc. – has been trapped inside a schoolbook version of himself [that I’ve held] for so long. No matter how much you resist those versions, they’re trapped inside you to some degree – until you really do a lot of reading about them. For the book, I looked at both the primary documents in their respective papers, as well as secondary biographies and other books.
Washington was revealed to be much more of a visionary than I’d ever imagined; and while I’d known that Jefferson was a master at using others to do his political work for him, I had no idea how adept he was at remaining hidden behind a curtain while events seemed to just somehow work out to his liking. Jefferson especially became essentially a new person to me, less a stereotypical renaissance man and more the complex personality whose vision of America – and what a city should be in America – was a dominant, though often unseen, force in L’Enfant’s story.
I could go on about this, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that these important historical figures are very messy, complicated and compelling people, which is a pretty appealing discovery to make.
Do you have a new appreciation for the city of Washington after writing the book?
Yes and no. Yes, because Washington’s uniqueness is more evident to me than ever. It is unlike every other American city in its design, its origins, its meaning, its history. No, because the D.C. of L’Enfant and Washington’s dreams has been such elusive quarry, cropping up every so often, in the patronage of Ulysses S. Grant in the 1870s and with the work of the McMillan Commission in the early 20th century, especially, but more frequently being squashed under the sheer weight and scope of the federal government and the recent reluctance of presidents to identify themselves with the city for fear of being cast as beltway insiders.
With degrees in architecture and writing, you have a unique background. Which helped you more in the writing of this book?
Writing! Though a degree in architecture was invaluable in navigating ideas and terminology, my interest in the subject helped me every bit as much as my actual background, if that makes sense. But 30 years of practice at writing, from the miserable novels I wrote in junior high, through the short stories and novel I wrote in grad school, and through the journalism I wrote for the Washington Post, provided the tools that allowed me to approach the book as a narrative in need of telling, and telling in a certain approachable but, hopefully, intelligent way.