By Kate Tighe-Pigott
I first encountered Marie-Helene Bertino at the Brooklyn Book Festival a number years ago, where she talked about finding the right kind of surrealism for her story collection SAFE AS HOUSES. She has since published a spirited and uplifting novel filled with jazz and bravery, 2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS.
Reading her work I am struck (with envy) by how funny she lets her characters be–how energized, exuberant and wry; how can she capture the certain kind of silliness that comes after a tragedy? How does she get the reader to laugh too? In addition to that, though, Bertino’s surrealism, and her humor, entice readers into these incredible emotional depths, where the world is not fair, bad things do happen to good people, and lovers don’t connect.
Marie-Helene Bertino is the current Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellow at The Munster Literature Centre in Cork, Ireland, where she is teaching at University College Cork and finishing a new novel and collection
This interview was conducted by email.
Your stories are imbued with such humor and lightness that when they shed light on ‘the poetic horrors’ (to quote Madeleine’s mother from 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas), I’m all the more devastated. I’m thinking specifically of “Free Ham”; “Sometimes You Break Their Heart, Sometimes They Break Yours”; “North Of”; and “Carry Me Home Sisters of Saint Joseph.” Humor is clearly important to you. Why? How do you think of its value or role in your stories? And how do you integrate it into the fabric of a story, weave it into, or use it to obscure until the critical moment, some of the more painful stuff?
I suppose humor is important to me in my work because it has always been important to me in life. Plain life can be joyless, but pain with humor gives me hope. Like supernatural effects, which I also employ, humor can at its best (or, more accurately I suppose, at mine), access deep emotional truths in surprising ways. I like to toy with different timing on the page to see what effect it creates. I trim it, contour it, or omit it, depending on what the story needs. Sometimes I’ll be writing a story and think, this story needs another person’s sense of humor, like Manuel Gonzales or Ramona Ausubel, two writers I think are really funny. I’ll think, how would they write this line? Sometimes I think I’ve omitted humor and I’ll read the story out loud and people will laugh and say that was a funny story. I read what I thought was the saddest story I’ve ever written and everyone laughed. But then, I find authors who most people see as serious to be really funny. I consider Raymond Carver to be a very funny surrealist, for example. All those miserable people drinking whiskey and speaking in jokes
I asked about humor; now I have to ask about pathos. I tweeted you a few months ago, after I read “Carry Me Home Sisters of Saint Joseph” because I was weeping stupidly in the lobby of the YMCA here in Lexington. I resolved upon reading that story to try not only to make people laugh in my work (which I feel like I’m getting some kind of handle on), but also to make people cry. That said, I’m finding painful emotions harder to wrangle than humor. Any advice for how to do this well?
Man. I really don’t know. I’d read Jo Ann Beard or Louise Erdrich or someone else really great with emotion. Plainness seems to be an ingredient. Yesterday one of my students asked, Why am I supposed to revere Chekov? Prompting a discussion about idols, and blowhards, and I assigned “Lady With A Little Dog” so we could all meet next week and suss it out. Reading that story, I marveled at how well Chekov renders duality of feeling. Psychology. He just says the thing, plainly: I think this and also I think this seemingly contradictory thing. Never underestimate the power of a simple, declarative sentence.
One suggestion might be to write the effects of the pain to see if it might give you something useful. If you write: my back hurts, the reader thinks, so what? My back hurts and I deal with it. But if you write, I can no longer pick up my four-year-old girl, the reader sees the pain because we’ve characterized it. If I were to describe pain, I’d try to do so in a surprising and exact way. I don’t know. These things are hard. I wrestle, too.
Recently, my guiding question while writing has been, how can I be more honest? I was probably just coming to this when I wrote the story you mentioned, because I remember thinking, just get as close to the raw bone of her as possible, even if and especially if it gets weird. Revising then becomes an un-layering process, shaving closer and closer to the bone.
One of the unmitigated joys of writing a book and, in essence, sharing my experience–one I didn’t even know to dream of–was that readers would share their lives with me. Weeping can never be stupid, and thank you for telling me.
You’ve been publishing new stories since 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas came out in 2014 (“Edna in Rain”in Gulf Coast; “The Girls Who Love River Phoenix” [technically an essay] in Catapult; “Exit Zero” in Epoch and in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2016; “Marie-Helene Bertino Buys a Bookshelf,” Tin House and The Guardian Flash Friday; “Horses” and “Intergallactic,” Washington Square Review; “Marry The Sea,” TIME OUT NEW YORK). What has attracted you back to the short story as a form? What can you do in stories that you can’t do in a novel? And vice versa?
The attraction never waned—the short story is my first and true love. I might go out and dance with novels, but I come home to short stories. I like small things. I am a small thing. Steven Millhauser wrote (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/books/review/Millhauser-t.html), “Smallness is the realm of perfection.” What do short stories do to me that novels can’t? Shut my constant thinking off and wreck me in twenty pages.
Let’s talk for a minute about “The Girls Who Love River Phoenix.” This is a lyric essay inspired by the TV show Stranger Things, and is imbued with a sense of nostalgia for the narrator’s youth, not only that, but also a sense of growing and amorphous horror at how time passes, how the past slips away, how people become obsolete. The owl keeps hooting tech terms: (Google, Millennial Hot Take, Internet). Taking this story together with “Edna in Rain,” (in which it’s raining Edna’s ex-lovers) as your most recent published work, are you thinking a lot about time? If so, what are the contours of this and how is it impacting the work you’re producing now? If not, what are your latest obsessions?
I did a reading at West Georgia University last year and a young woman approached me to sign her book and said, Do you believe that time is just a construct and there is no such thing as past tense? And I was like, Yes. She was like, Really when you think about it everything is happening at the same time. And I was like, That is literally all I think about. And she was like, Me too, and she took her book and left, and I called out after her, I love you.
Time and identity and how it can be manipulated on the page is affecting everything about the new book: character, person, tense, you name it.
“Girls Who Love River Phoenix” is creative nonfiction, and your other work is very much fiction. However, many of your stories employ a first person protagonist who is female, and center on break ups, Catholicism, music, and lost fathers. I’m not asking what of your work is specifically true (I would never), but I’m interested in how you approach balancing reality with fiction, how you infuse your characters or stories with elements from real life? Another way of asking this might be: Do you first try to depict something from real life and then obscure it with fiction? Do you first try to depict something totally fictional (maybe the unicorn from “Exit Zero”?) and then imbue it with emotions from real life? Or a mix of both?
I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. I am an alien who was briefly involved with Bob Dylan, and I am in charge of a selfish, bratty unicorn. My stories are memoir. Perhaps one day I will broaden my creativity and write realistically but for now I’m stuck with my own perspective.
You are currently in Cork, Ireland as the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellow. How is Ireland treating you? What is it like to write in a totally different place? Is Ireland creeping into your work at all?
I am incredibly lucky to be here. Ireland and The Munster Literature Centre and UCC is treating me beautifully and giving me a master class in rain. I had no idea there were so many different kinds of rain. Gales, mists, howls, suspended rain, rain falling on only half of the street. I’m already sorry to leave. So far it hasn’t crept into my work but only because I came here in the finishing stages of two books. Influence is usually on a seven-year delay for me.
Without giving away details of your current project, what are some elements of craft you’re excited about trying? What are some ways you’re excited about growing as a writer?
The novel I’m currently writing has a character who has transitioned in it, and her experiences and have guided me into the realization that I must write the novel while aware of perspective on four different planes concurrently: the protagonist’s point of view, this character’s point of view, the book’s point of view, and my own as the writer’s. Even presenting her on the page is a way of “deciding” on her, so I had to hash out how I would handle these issues, how I would attach words to her character that honored all four perspectives. The book has become an object with an eye on itself. It’s been really fun.
What are you reading right now?
Does “listening to” count? 2 Dope Queens and student work.
Can you recommend an emerging writer whose work you’re enjoying?
I’m in residence in Cork with a wildly inventive writer and editor named Tom Morris, whose collection WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING is reminding me what lovely things a story collection can do. Each story furthers and populates the town of Caerphilly, in South Wales, so that I feel I live there, too. I also recommend the stories in PEN’s Anthology of Best Debut Writers, which I judged with Nina McConigley and Kelly Link. It contains the first published stories of twelve writers who will continue to write amazing things. https://books.catapult.co/products/pen-america-best-debut-short-stories-2017
Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS and the story collection SAFE AS HOUSES. Her work was a Barnes & Noble Fall ’14 Discover Great New Writers pick and an NPR Best Book of 2014, and has received The O. Henry Prize, The Pushcart Prize and two Pushcart special mentions, The Iowa Short Fiction Award (judged by Jim Shepard), The Mississippi Review Prize, Outstanding Collection by The Story Prize and inclusion on the long list of the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook Writers Colony, and NYC’s The Center for Fiction. She has been featured on Symphony Space NYC’s “Selected Shorts” radio program and is an Editor-at-Large at Catapult. She is the current Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellow at The Munster Literature Centre in Cork, Ireland, where she is teaching at University College Cork and finishing a new novel and collection.