Improv and Inversion: An Interview with Marie-Helene Bertino
Words By Marie Helene-Bertino, Interviewed by Dani Hedlund
Editor’s Note: This interview originally appeared in F(r)iction #2, released in September 2015. It is available for digital purchase in the F(r)iction store.
What I find so fascinating about 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas is that you have such a diverse cast of characters: a nine-year-old wannabe jazz singer, a grade-school teacher, a jazz musical. You even have a dog! How did you come up with such a diverse cast?
Well, I’ve always been interested in wandering points of view. When I was in a Master’s program, I studied with Michael Cunningham, who wrote The Hours. He would say that every minor character is a major character in a different story. That stuck in my mind. When I was writing the first drafts of Cat’s Pajamas, I wrote through Lorca in first person, but I realized that viewpoint was going to feel very myopic. So then Madeleine came through, and the third piece was Sarina and Ben. I needed to finesse the connective tissue between those characters, so I loosened up the prose a little bit and let the point of view take a walk. I was thinking, what about the person who’s passing by, what about the grocer who was there every day?
So very much like jazz, I let the point of view improvise a little bit. I always tell my students that a character is what they observe.
In conclusion, I realized I was really interested in the people who my characters were passing on the street. Since the book itself is about voice, it stood to reason that that many people would have a voice in the story. And what ended up bubbling to the surface was the voice of Philadelphia. I realized that the voice of the city itself was trying to speak. It’s a very gritty, opinionated city. It felt predestined that the city would want to speak for itself.
Did you ever have a problem in the writing process differentiating those voices in your head? How did you keep everything straight?
In the original drafts, the first part was just Madeleine, the second part was the same 24 hours but told from the point of view of Sarina and Ben, and the third part was just Lorca. I worked with a really smart editor who said, “You’re not going to like what I have to say, because I think it’ll take you a really long time to do this, but I think you should interplay the characters and layer them over one another so that you’re only going through that 24-hour period once.”
I knew, A) she was right, B) they would probably take on their own voices. The book got really exciting for me when I started layering the characters against each other.
That is to say, I did each character one by one, and I think that’s why they stayed consistent when I put them next to other characters. They were formed alone.
There’s a moment when you have Sarina and Ben in separate places and you tell their stories simultaneously, to the point where you use parentheses to keep everything in one paragraph. What inspired this experimental approach?
I love parentheses so much. Do you know the EE Cummings poem, “I carry your heart with me”? In the poem, the person carries his loved one’s heart within his own. The first second half of the line is enclosed in parentheses. The line literally carries the person’s heart in those parentheses. I love it when prose reflects its content. Those things are not by accident. Ben is very literally carrying Sarina inside of him in those moments, and vice-versa.
The romance angle of your book is primarily driven by Sarina and Ben; however, they spend most of the book walking the line of “almost.” Why was this important to your book?
Ben and Sarina never, ever say what they’re feeling. They come right up to the brink of true emotional connection and they fail time and time again. That moment is very interesting to me. It’s very rare for human beings to actually say what’s really going on. They’ll talk about the past, their crazy friend who can’t play the piano, they’ll talk about anything else except for the love they feel for one another and how sorry they feel that they’ve messed up that friendship. It was fun having them walk and talk the entire night and NOT actually talk about what was going on. I find that to be very true.
I just got a letter recently from a sixteen-year-old girl. She said she found Ben and Sirena’s relationship very romantic. I thought, if I can impress a sixteen-year-old, something is working well in that storyline.
Of all your characters, why did you decide to open with Madeleine?
I guess in a way, it’s her story. I think it’s her world, and the book ends with her as well. I think ultimately she’s the heroine—this motherless, sassy, foul-mouthed, inappropriate girl with a lot of talent and a lot of misdirected anger. It felt right to place that heavy story on her tiny shoulders.
I loved that you took someone so young and propelled them into adulthood. I think it’s easy for a reader to emotionally attach to her because she’s so strong and she’s overcome so much, but, as you mentioned, she’s a jerk. Did you ever worry that you were making her too caustic for the reader?
No, I actually worried about the opposite. I worried that she was too precocious and adorable, and that’s why I muddied her up with the quality of being a jerk. I wanted to avoid all the standard tropes for a child protagonist.
There’s the orphan trope: she’s helpless, she’s adorable, she has cute little dirt smudges on her cheeks—the Dickensian child protagonist. I wanted to avoid that.
I also didn’t want to overcorrect by going to the other side and turn her into an unfeeling bully. I didn’t want her to be someone who terrorized other kids. I’m not interested in going into the head of someone who would do that to other people. I really just made her an adult. She has this single-minded focus on practicing singing so that it can get her out of that neighborhood. She has an adult-sized ambition.
I think how she feels about music is how I’ve always felt about writing. It was very easy to supplant my own love of that and my own discipline and self-motivation throughout my life into her tiny little body.
As all the critics are saying, the box that Madeleine’s mother leaves behind is brilliant. Where did that idea come from?
I’m very close to my own mother, and I’ve asked her in the past to write down as much as she can of what she’s told me so that I’ll have it in the future. Many of the things in the recipe box are things that my mom has said to me. “How to iron a man’s shirt,” “How to talk about a book you’ve never read,” “How to check your oil.” My mom was a single mother, and that connection is very strong when it’s just the two of you. It very much came out of my desire to have something lasting from my mom, if and when the day should ever come that I’m without her. I thought that would be a good connection for characterizing Corinne, Madeleine’s mother, in absentia, because we really never get to meet her. I thought the recipe box would be a nice way for her to be personified on the page.
So walk me through the writing process. You told me that you made a really big change when your editor got her hands on the book. What was the process like, from start to finish?
It was an eleven-year process. In the beginning, it started (embarrassingly enough) as a poetry cycle about jazz musicians and two unnamed out-of-towners—dancers—who were walking back to their rented flat from a jazz show. I wrote nothing but poetry until I was twenty-five, so it took me until that time to realize that I wasn’t a poet. In that poetry cycle, these two people are walking home after having this lovely time and having this eccentric banter, kind of like J.D. Salinger. Their conversation wakes up a little girl who comes out of her home and engages in this witty repartee with these people. I was thinking of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” specifically. I was thinking, what kind of little girl would climb out of her window and be able to hold her own with these eccentric jazz people? I realized that I was quite interested in a character who would do that. So that was Madeleine.
When you finally had a final draft, how did you know you were done?
I think there were maybe thirty master copies until the book was finished. I stopped using the word “final” to name the Word document.
But there were two things. First, I hit the publisher’s final deadline, so they just took it out of my hands and that was that. Second, I rented an apartment on a beach and I went there with my dog and read the whole thing out loud. I had done that once before and barely got through it because I had to stop so often to correct mistakes. This time I was pretty much able to get through it. Then I was in that lovely position where I could just go through here and there and fluff lines the way you might fluff pillows right before guests come over. I just knew that since I was at that level, I felt comfortable showing it to guests.
So did you do the traditional querying route for your agent or did you have connections to bypass that?
Well, I’m actually working with my second agent. I was with someone who had a lot of faith in my stories but didn’t really see a future for Cat’s Pajamas. So I looked for authors who wrote weird, like I do, and I queried their agents. That’s how I’ve always done it, and that’s how I tell my students to do it: find authors who write like you and query their agents. That’s how I found my agent.
Since you already had a publishing deal before you did final revisions, how was the publishing process?
I was pretty lucky. My agent sent it out to a list of editors and seven or eight were interested. So I found myself in the situation I had dreamt about but never actually thought would happen: an auction. I met with several of those editors and they told me their specific vision for the novel. I was insistent that the title didn’t change, and I was insistent that the ending didn’t change. The editor from Crown loved both the title and the ending, so I was very happy when I ended up with her. I mean, after eleven years of struggle, it was like, overnight success…after eleven years.