Author Marie-Helene Bertino grew up in Philadelphia and lives in Brooklyn, where she earned an MFA from Brooklyn College. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize, residencies at The MacDowell Colony and Hedgebrook, and an Emerging Writer Fellowship at NYC’s Center for Fiction. A former Associate Editor at One Story, she teaches at NYU, The Center for Fiction, The Sackett Street Workshops, and One Story’s Emerging Writer’s Workshop. Her stories have appeared in many journals, including the North American Review, American Short Fiction, and Mississippi Review’s Anthology 30, while her collection Safe as Houses received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published in 2012. Her debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, was released this week.
2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas is set in Philadelphia on the day before Christmas Eve and follows the twenty-four hour trajectory of smart-mouthed, nine-year-old aspiring singer Madeleine Altimari, her recently divorced teacher Sarina Greene, and a struggling club owner named Jack Lorca. Filled with a quirky, eccentric, and captivating cast, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas feels like a love song to Philadelphia and to anyone who has ever had a tough time and still maintained hope. Selected as a Barnes & Noble Fall ’14 Discover Great New Writers pick, it has been praised as “a recipe box full of wonders,” by Hannah Tinti, while Maggie Shipstead called it, “a marvel of the unexpected, a buoyant, swinging tale of interwoven destinies that Marie-Helene Bertino tells with verve, wit, and warmth.” Booklist said that “Bertino’s characters are spot-on, and her special brand of humor brings each one to life in this fresh and charming tale.” The novel is filled with sharp observations, irrepressible fun alongside poignant troubles, and magic in the most ordinary or unexpected places.
The city of Philadelphia is so integral to your story. Can you talk about place in terms of the novel? You live in New York City, but grew up in Philadelphia. How has Philadelphia infused your writing?
Hemingway said that every writer has to have a “built-in, shockproof, shit detector,” and Philadelphia gave that to me. Sometimes what I have to detect comes from others, and sometimes it comes from me trying to take the easy way out. Either way, the detector comes in handy at key moments.
How is Madeleine’s Philadelphia like yours? How is it different?
Madeleine’s Philadelphia is a complete figment of my imagination. I’ve never lived in South Philly, but would hear my family tell stories about what it was like many, many years ago. So, Madeleine’s Philly is tinged with a nostalgia for things lost.
Madeleine is told by her mother that the #1 rule of singing is, “KNOW YOURSELF.” How do you think that idea relates to novel writing?
I tell my students that knowing yourself is an integral part of the process of cultivating your own, idiosyncratic voice. What helps the writer grow helps the writing. Conversely, the problems in the writer will show up in the writing. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses helps enable your ability to do #2, which is LISTEN TO PEOPLE. You can’t truly listen to or learn from people if you’re sitting there, stewing in your own insecurities and doubt. Or, if your interest is to impress them with what you know. When you are moving through the world with a calm, steady base, you can be more in the world. And that’s an important vantage point to have if what you are interested in is writing about the world and the people in it.
Did you sing or play an instrument growing up? If so, what lessons from learning to sing or play an instrument do you find helpful as a writer?
I sang in church here and there, and with my brother, who plays the piano. It was important to my father that my brothers and I take at least six years of piano, because his brother, my uncle, was a jazz keyboardist. The only nice thing I can say about my playing is that it took so long for me to learn a piece, that by the time I did, it was memorized. In the final stages of the book I took guitar lessons. I loved it. It taught me that playing guitar is exactly as hard as I thought it was, and the people who do it well are exactly as talented as I thought they were!
Your opening line, “It is a dark, dark seven A.M. on Christmas Eve Eve,” has a beat to it and the snowflakes in the opening paragraph seem to dance, sing as the POV narrows from a broad angle to focus in closely on Madeleine shimmying in front of her mirror. Can you talk about how music or choreography influenced your structural choices in this novel?
Though writing has always been my first love, I grew up dancing and singing. In college, I painted nursery murals to make money. I was a music writer for a few years when I first moved to New York. There was a time in my life (hold me) that I considered making a living by directing for the stage. Every one of these things shapes the way I see a line, and the space around a line.
Let’s talk about those snowflakes. They do triple work. They are a deliberately misleading moment of calm before the story erupts. They somersault and listen to their own internal rhythm, and in that way they pre-reflect every person we come across in the story. Finally, when we first meet Mrs. Santiago, she is sweeping the snowflakes from her stoop, but they are refusing to land. When you think of how Mrs. Santiago ends up in the story, you will hopefully see the symmetry. These are ideas I learned not only from literature, but from dance, art, theatre…
You use repetition throughout the book so that some phrases are almost like a refrain, for example “It is a dark, dark seven” or “the way you know on a flight, even with your eyes closed, that a plane is banking.” Could you talk about the choice to have such repetition?
At one point Sarina says about the night: “It has contained so many chasms, it has achieved an echo.” When something contains structural complexity, or is listening to itself, it repeats or achieves rhythm. That’s why I felt it was appropriate to have a few different characters have the same feelings about knowing someone well.
In addition to music, holidays are a reoccurring theme or setting for several of your stories, for example this novel and your stories “Free Ham” and “North Of” are set around the holidays. How do holidays work as a setting or anchor in your fiction?
Thanksgiving and autumn are my most creatively fertile times of the year. I have to refrain from setting everything in November. I could write a whole collection of stories that take place on Thanksgiving Day, and that would make for an extremely boring collection. One thing I find interesting about holidays is how much people expect of them, and therefore how disappointing they can be. I’ve had much more festive feeling times on a random Wednesday, which is my favorite day of the week, because no one suspects it of anything much, and then—bam! Something magical happens. I deliberately chose to set the novel on the day before the day before a holiday for that reason. It’s supposed to be a day of planning and prep, a day no one expects much of, but then—bam! It turns out to be THE DAY.
You spent twelve years writing this sharp, tight narrative, while writing and publishing other stories along the way. How did the novel evolve over the time? How far did it go from your initial concept?
It began as a poem about two friends walking home from a dance and was based on late nights I had in Philly. Then, it was a novella from Lorca’s point of view. I have countless “master copies” of this novel from over the years, as the point of view shifted and matured, as the characters grew and changed and, in some cases, absented themselves. I titled the novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas before I knew what would happen at 2 a.m. That is the time that bars close in Philly, and I knew something would happen, but I didn’t know what, so I listed all sorts of nutty possibilities. Alien invasion! Musical number! Dream sequence! It could turn out to be a hallucination being had by a dog! Zombies! I had a strong hunch I would end two or maybe all three of the storylines in a “story” way, that is to say, on a dissonant note where nothing is “wrapped up.”
The other night I ate at my favorite restaurant in my neighborhood. There was a new item on the menu—homemade, flat pasta with lemon zest, butter, and pasta water. It looked really simple next to the more complicated dishes. When I asked about the noodles, the owner told me, “If you want to see what this restaurant really does well, order that.” He was reverent about the dish, and this is not a reverent man. It was tempting to be salacious for the sake of “proving something” with my first novel. My desire was to sing a simple song well.
Does it go without saying? It was the best pasta I’ve ever had.
The novel is structured around the events that happen during a twenty-four hour period. Why did you decide to structure the book this way?
Because that simple choice (that took me forever to make) built immediacy and significance into the story from the get go.
Speaking of simplifying things, what dead darling did you have the most difficult time cutting in revision?
There was a joke about people who can’t play jazz going home and sulking with their dogs named Django. I cut it out as I softened Lorca’s character a bit. But it was a good joke.
What plot change did you make in revision that was the most surprising to you?
I had an ending on Lorca that I didn’t like for a long time. It was he and the crew walking to the diner, but there was no shape to it. Then, one day I walked my dog at magic hour. The two older guys who own the bodega on my corner were in the middle of the road trying to get this model plane to fly. They were with two young men around age 16. The plane would not cooperate. It would fly for a second then crash, they’d hurry over to it, right it, it would fly for a second, they’d hurry over to it, etc… I was like, there’s the fucking end of my novel. I said it out loud, to my dog. It was a gift from the world or it was unrelated to everything and was a big coincidence. I’ve never seen them fly a plane before that day and I’ve never seen them to do it since.
You have said that when you are teaching and reading student work, you always consider that when critiquing that work and giving feedback, you remind yourself that when you are talking about someone’s work, you are talking about his or her heart. Could you talk a little about that idea in terms of teaching novel writing?
Working as an editor at One Story, I had a precious perch from which to watch a lot of authors make their first forays into publishing. Some writers play their cards close to their chests. Some are very open and honest about their journeys. Some are lovely. Some are grumps. Hopefully, all of them are invested in their work in a meaningful way. Whether you believe that you should never tell a writer anything positive, or whether you believe the exact opposite, it’s normally true that when people write fiction, they are exposing important parts of their interiority. And, that’s something I take seriously when I handle their work.
I know this is an impossibly hard question for a writer to answer as there are so many brilliant writers to consider, but which writers have been the most influential in terms of your development as a writer and which writers do you love the most?
I can trace very specific lessons I’ve learned to specific things other writers have said. Here goes: Tom Robbins said the only success with which a writer should be meaningfully concerned is whether or not their verbs say to their nouns—gotcha! I learned from him to always check to make sure your noun can’t be turned into a verb. Example: The boy lawnmowered past the church. Haruki Murakami said in an interview that he uses Stephen King’s structure with his own content. That’s how he is able to ratchet up tension in a scene where a man makes spaghetti. In White Noise, Don Delillo has a character call the hair of another character’s wife, “important.” I strive to make adjectives work that well. Lorrie Moore (I believe) once said: sometimes you just have to get your characters in their coats and out the door. I think of that in times when I am being too precious about connective tissue in a story. The list goes on and on…