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Savannah behind him, author looks to Venice

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Readers and watchers of best-seller lists might be forgiven for starting to suspect that John Berendt was a one-hit wonder.

After all, it has been more than a decade since his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was all the rage in 1994. Now, his highly anticipated The City of Falling Angels is arriving in bookstores. Whatever happened in between?

"The first two years were taken up with dealing with the aftershocks of Midnight's success," Berendt says. When things began to calm down, "I began to think I should write another book."

Midnight was inspired by a true-life murder investigation in Savannah, Ga. This time, his inspiration came from Venice. Three days before he arrived there in January 1996, the city's only opera house, the Fenice, was destroyed by fire.

Berendt, 65, says he soon realized that his next book could rise from the fire's ashes.

"One thing I decided when looking for a story was that I might just as well pick a place that's as dazzling as can be, like Savannah. I couldn't find another Savannah."

But Venice, he thought, had everything going for it. And the city's location satisfied his desire not to write another book set in the American South.

"I didn't want to write a book that was a pale imitation of Savannah," he says. "I didn't want to constantly have to measure up to the first one."

With an idea in place, he began his research for what would become The City of Falling Angels. And as he did when writing Midnight, he split his time between his home in New York and the city at the center of his book.

He soon was caught up in the ancient city's dramatic vistas and residents.

"Venice is one of the most theatrical cities I've ever seen," he says. "And the reason I think the cover of the book is so apt is that people look at it and say, 'Oh, that's a proscenium stage; that's the Fenice,' but it's not. It's an arch in the arcade of San Marco Square, and it's typical of the theatricality of the look of the city. Since it looks so theatrical, it encourages people there to live out their drama and to exaggerate to themselves, at least, about their lives."

Berendt spent four years "digging around," compiling 100 audiotapes and 23 loose-leaf notebooks "about everything and everybody by topic, by character, by story." He began writing in 2002 and finished this spring.

The book tells the story of the Fenice fire, the investigation into its cause and the rebuilding of the opera house.

And just as Savannah was a major character in Midnight, Venice and its history, art and colorful residents are a key part of the story.

Berendt says he's pleased with the way the book turned out and already is thinking about writing another. But he declines to talk about his ideas.

"In my head I'm thinking, 'Where would be a nice place to spend time, off and on, for a few years?' It doesn't mean it has to be a glamorous place or beautiful place but somehow compelling and interesting."

For now, he's touring the country promoting The City of Falling Angels.

And what about the inevitable questions about how it stacks up to Midnight?

"It probably will get to be a burden," Berendt concedes. "But I can talk about it. It's a reasonable question, and anyone who has written two books is going to have the comparison made."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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