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Genie Bernstein

Genie makes her home in Athens, Georgia, and shares with her husband their joyously combined family of six children and fourteen globe-trotting grandchildren. She is a featured columnist for “Georgia Connector,” Georgia's premier regional quarterly magazine. Skating on the Septic TankTelling Stories, is a collection of her popular magazine essays based on family. Awarded South Carolina’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, her work also appears in anthologies, magazines, newspapers, plus one novel. So far. Believing that writing is magic, Genie is an avid encourager of writers. She speaks at conferences, book groups – truthfully, to about anyone who will listen.



SP: What does your typical writing day look like?

Genie: I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t write as much as I should. Reason being, when I write that’s all I want to do. I don’t want to eat, sleep, cook, clean, or be social. I just want to fall into the fictive dream and stay there. But that’s not realistic for me as a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. So, I collect stories and do a lot of what I call “noodling,” writing in my head. When I was in a mystery-writing phase, my daughter caught me at this on a trip through the countryside. I noticed a boarded-up fire tower and went to a place in my head wondering how hard it’d be to drag a dead body up there, how long before it would attract buzzards... I came back to reality when she yelled, “MOM, STOP IT!”


SP: How do you work in your writing and promoting?

Genie: I have a website, a Facebook page, and a magazine column following, but mostly I promote in ways that bring me more enjoyment than money. I participate in a critique group of fellow writers who were mentored by Harriette Austin at the University of Georgia. We continue her workshops, market each other’s books, do signings together, speak to book groups and writing conferences, and promote writing. I particularly enjoy festivals and art centers where I meet readers for impromptu exchanges of ideas and feedback.

SP: Tell me how and why you got into writing fiction? How long have you been doing it? And how do you go about creating a story? Elaborate here.

Genie: Deep down inside I have always known I’d be a writer. I come from a story-telling family in the same area of Georgia as Joel Chandler Harris, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Walker. In fact, segregation cheated me out of going to school with Alice. But it took falling out of the sky to make my writing a priority. My 1976 engine failure experience is entitled “Bolt in the Blue” in my 2015 story collection Skating on the Septic Tank. Therapeutically, after I captured the emotion of that incident on paper, I stopped breaking out in hives whenever I talked about it. When Private Pilot Magazine published the story in 1992, I enrolled in writing classes and got and met Harriette Austin, the great encourager.

But that is non-fiction, which comprises the stories in my quarterly magazine column in Georgia Connector Magazine, and my latest book Skating on the Septic Tank, Telling Stories.


I started writing fiction in 1995, at age 47, after I retired from property management. Ideally, I would have started decades sooner, but those years were not wasted. Not at all. I am a sponge. I have been sponging up characterization all my life - dialogue, mannerisms, peculiarities, psychological traits, everything from an errant mole to total lunacy. When I sit down to write, the characters show up, and with them comes the story. It’s magic! Complete and utter magic.


An example of the magic: I wanted one of my characters to be a smoker. He refused to smoke. Every scene I wrote with him smoking ended up in the trash. Eventually, he wore me down and I made him a former smoker, now addicted to nicotine mints. He was good with that.


SP: Tell me about the protagonist and antagonist of your latest book. What are their goals in the story?

Genie: My first published book, Act on the Heart, is a contemporary romance/romantic intrigue. It features dual protagonists, because the male partner in the romance just about took over the book. Beginning with the idea of two flashy male birds vying for a female, I set out to create two men of Hollywood royalty, whom any woman would want. And one woman who chooses between them. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with one of the men myself.

The antagonist is a mentally ill woman. She is the wife-in-name-only of one of the men and obsessed fan of the other. She is enraged at the new woman who draws the interest of the men and decides to kill her.

The goal each protagonist has is the same everyone has in real-life – love, validation, and happiness – whether that be in the form of romance or acceptance of themselves as is.

The goal of the antagonist is to possess the focus of her erotomania, at all costs.

SP: Which do you prefer, character-driven stories or plot-driven stories and why should readers care? Which do you write?

Genie: I prefer character-driven stories. Plot-driven stories feel contrived. I write stories about people, going about their everyday lives, whatever is normal for them. The plot calls upon them to find the courage to survive -- physically or emotionally or both -- during unexpected circumstances. I like for readers to imagine themselves in some sort of similar situation. I think readers want that, too.

Settings cannot be overlooked as characters that drive plots. My novel travels the world, but the primary setting is Georgia, specifically Athens with its diverse population and avant-garde music scene. I had great fun contrasting it with Hollywood and letting my characters choose.


SP: Tell me about your story point of view preferences, tense preferences, and any other thing of interest to you along these lines as we delve further into the mechanics of creating a story.

Genie: I usually write the same story in the first and third person to see which feels right. I like first-person narratives for short stories, but I find that hard to sustain in book-length. Third-person omniscient is more natural for me in writing novels. I’ve become a bit obsessive about staying in active voice and not wandering into passive. I don’t know why I have such a tendency to do that in first drafts, but it jumps out at me in rewrites.


SP: What are your all-time favorite books – top three? Why? Don’t skimp here. Explore it with us? Tell us what genre they are. Who is your favorite author, if different from your favorite book?

Genie: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This multi-layered story of strong characters caught up in strife and struggle, love and betrayal, conflict and harmony, set amid societal complications, reveals something new every time I read it. I am fascinated with the author, painfully shy Charlotte Bronte, who wove the heavy subjects of class, sexuality, religion, and feminism into the story. And her uncanny ability to sustain it all in a first-person narrative.

Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton. From page one, this book is poignant and funny. I die laughing at the old woman backing up to sit down in her chair and getting stuck because the seat was at the upholsterers. And then I completely lose it over the dog catcher’s reaction when spies her through the screen door: “…Damn, she didn’t have no neck at all. That was the littlest person he’d ever…”  The first question I asked Edgerton at a book signing was how in the world he came up with that predicament. He said his mother had done that, gotten stuck in a chair without a bottom.  Like I say, “Life Is Research.” (another story in my Skating on the Septic Tank collection)

Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I can’t express exactly why I am so taken with this book, but once I picked it up, I just fell into it. Ultimately a murder mystery, but the mood set by the author with his charismatic monks, their individual jobs, inaccessible monastery, maze library, guarded manuscripts, ornate and symbolically carved doors – all captivating. I know friends who can’t “get into it” but it spoke to me.

I choose O’Henry as my favorite short story author. His works have lasting resonance, and at the heart, I am a short story writer. Dick Francis and Tony Hillerman are my favorite book-length authors. I always learn something special and unexpected from the characters in their books. Francis educated me about the world of horse racing, and Hillerman brought the Four Corners area to life so well that by the time I went there it was familiar.


SP: What do you find is the most difficult thing about writing fiction? The easiest thing? Elaborate.

Genie: The most difficult thing about writing fiction is the same as writing anything: Time Management. The easiest thing is falling into the fictive dream, that peculiar state of consciousness where I become an observer recording the story as it plays out in front of me. There is a disconnect between that and my real-world life. I find it jarringly impossible to jump from one to the other.


SP: Tell me about your travels. Where is an interesting place you’ve been? Do you travel to research your stories, or is research important to you for your stories?

Genie: My story, Life Is Research, speaks on this subject. But, to your point, I have enjoyed a moderate amount of travel, visiting family throughout the U.S., vacationing in the Caribbean and Bermuda, attending professional conferences, and spending a recent summer in Shanghai.  All interesting, but I was especially taken with Gibraltar. We entered from Spain, via train from Madrid and walked across the border, which turned out to be the airport runway. They raised a barrier arm when it was safe, and we ran across. Our purpose there was for my husband, a primatologist who studies and teaches Animal Behavior, to observe the Barbary Apes. Exiting a cable car at the top of “The Rock” we noticed a woman with a banana. Naively trying to peel and feed it to the wild monkeys, she was attacked and lucky to only lose the banana. Her interaction with them dovetailed nicely into my husband’s field of study. And, by the way, The Rock is not solid. Not only is it riddled with WWII armament caves, it has an entire amphitheater inside. Who knew?

SP: What kind of stories do you refuse to read?

Genie: Dystopian – there’s enough real-world stuff to worry about without “going there.”


SP: Finally, the most important question – DC or Marvel? Or does that even matter to you? What is your favorite comic book character ever? If none, just make something up!

Genie: I grew up with them all, but Superman stands out as a favorite. My friend, Bobby Nash, writes for what is known as graphic novels. I asked him why the creators/colorists/artists didn’t write their own stories. He said, simply, “They can’t write.” More than comic books, I was attached to the newspaper comic strips I’d grown up with. When Beetle Bailey disappeared from my local paper, I said if they dropped Blondie, I’d cancel my subscription. They did, so I did.

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Doing The Wash


Water sprayed the clothes as I dropped them into the washer and my tears flowed in with them. There was barely a load, my son had packed the rest. Engorged duffels. Army green, official and bound for the other side of the globe.   


I was proud but my heart, my broken heart, knew the truth. My boy was gone. He would come home a man. This was a good thing, right? All those times he and I read The Jack Tales about how Jack went off to slay giants and seek his fortune, I never once considered Jack’s mother.

Before dropping the last shirt into the washer, I used it to stem fresh tears. He was there. A trace of cologne his sister gave him reminded me of yesterday’s good-bye. Bending from his lofty height to embrace me on tiptoe, each holding onto the other fiercely, treasuring it up in our hearts. “Mom,” he’d said, eyes brimming, “I love you. You’ve always been there for me.”

“And I always will be,” I declared, knowing I would die trying. Knowing he was going far beyond my reach.

How did my mother bear it when my brother left for Viet Nam? How long did she cry into the tub of her old Kenmore on the back porch? When Daddy went overseas with Patton, did my grandmother’s tears run through the wringer of her machine? In turn, had her own mother’s heart spilled onto her washboard over the son called into World War I? And the Civil War. How many matriarchs in my family stood in yards and bawled into cast iron wash pots as their boys marched away?

I sank down on the little bench beside my washer and tried to figure out how this had slipped up on me. He spent eight months in training, earning a uniform full of decorations. I looked at his tee shirt in my hands. I don’t have to wash it today.

His soccer ball was my undoing. When I moved the car into the garage, and he didn’t bring out his bags, I’d gone back into the house and found him kneeling on the ball, forcing air out of it. With a familiar hand-in-the-cookie-jar grin, he mumbled something about having room and maybe needing it. My mind’s eye saw him as an eight-year-old on our way to the first of what turned out to be a decade of soccer fields. I remember saying, “I don’t know a thing about soccer, do you?”

“Nope.” His grin that day wrinkled his freckled nose as he held tightly to that first soccer ball. Now it was going with him where I could not.

As we drove across Athens, I tried not to see him drinking in his familiar places, memories to cherish when he was far away. The ram’s horn that synagogues sound on Rosh Shoshanna is symbolic of Sarah crying out in agony when Abraham took Isaac to the mountain. I understood. I could have made that sound.

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