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Interview With An Author: Marie-Helene Bertino

In our Interview With An Author series, Writer’s Relief asks professional writers to share their tried-and-true secrets for publishing success.

Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino‘s debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas was a Barnes & Noble Fall ’14 Discover Great New Writers pick. Her debut collection of short stories Safe as Houses received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award. She hails from Philadelphia but lives in Brooklyn, where she teaches at NYU, The Sackett Street Writers, and in the low-res MFA program at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts).

CONTEST: Leave a comment by December 17, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of her new book, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas! U.S. residents only. THIS JUST IN: Marie has offered to respond personally to comments, so submit your best questions now! This contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Catherine W McKinney ! Thank you to all who participated!

You have said that 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas started as a poetry cycle. In what ways do you think this poetic origin is reflected in the finished product?

What a great question. While my original efforts at a poetry cycle about musicians were spirited at best, one intent that remained in the finished product many years later was my acute desire to be merciless, original, and playful on the line level. Examples include turning the word “arpeggio” and Cuban salsa terms into verbs; going into the point of view of the dog; and articulating seemingly peripheral moments that compose our lives. For instance, Sarina in the bodega passing shoppers who are all singing along to a Beach Boys’ song. There was something about everyday human existence I wanted to say. Thankfully, my editor at Crown, Alexis Washam, not only gave me free rein to take chances with phrasing but encouraged me to do so even more.

You have also mentioned that you were working as a biographer of people with severe brain injuries while you were writing 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. How did that experience influence your shaping of the novel?

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas was well underway when I began to work as a biographer and though it didn’t have time to manifest on these particular pages, it manifested in me very much. What fueled my interest in working as a biographer was a simple desire to use my writing to help and a curiosity about the way other people live—in this case, people who are living with excessive amounts of pain. The latter has been present in me since I was a “lowercase m,” and influences everything I write. I tell my students that listening is the most important talent a writer can cultivate. Even if you are a memoirist, eventually you are going to have to write about someone other than yourself. If you’ve spent your life not listening to people, you’re not going to be able to do the important task of presenting another human being’s point of view realistically.

What role does social media play in staying connected to readers and/or building an audience?

I think that varies by writer, necessarily. Some of my writing idols don’t even have a shadow of themselves on social media. Other writers seem to document every single thing they do. Both of these “models” work for those people, and there are several shades of gray in between (maybe, say, fifty? Just kidding). I would define my relationship with social media as a bit more ebb and flow, push and pull. I’m a private person; however, I value the opportunity to speak directly with readers and other writers. It was an enormous and pleasant surprise when readers of my collection, Safe as Houses, began to write to me. Even as a little girl dreaming about being a writer, I never even thought to hope for that kind of dialogue. As I’ve said, I am a true “people person” in that I am curious about the way other people live. Sometimes I get the kind of soul-weariness that only people who love people get, at which point I retreat with my honey, my books, and my animals to a place no social media can access. Speaking of listening to others, you also have to listen to yourself, try things out, and see what works for you.

What was the biggest stumbling block or frustration for you so far, and how did you overcome it?

Let me see. There’s the steady, constant “self-editor” voice that never goes away. There’s the fact that it’s still a world for squeaky wheels, and I find they often get the grease. But I deal with any and all stumbling blocks (as far as the ones associated with writing) in the same way: by paying attention only to the voice that told me I was a writer in the first place. By continuing to write with whatever the equivalent of blinders are for your ears. You can usually find me in the corner, practicing my own little weird alchemy, and this works for me. The whole reason I’ve allowed it to shape my life is because it has always been the thing for me. No matter what the question is, writing is normally my answer.

Fill in the blank. Rejection is ____

Fun! Sometimes debilitating! Necessary for being a writer! Means you’re on the right track! Wait. Which kind of rejection are we talking about? If we’re talking about the very simple, literary-magazine-says-no-through-a-self-addressed-stamped-envelope kind of rejection, that’s the easy kind. (You’re saying, But Marie-Helene, it’s horrific when that happens and makes me want to go back to bed. I understand, but I’m sorry to tell you, that is the easiest and certainly most reliable kind of rejection. Best to get used to it.) You must develop callouses and you must throw a lot of arrows at the bull’s-eye. You cannot control what editor reads your work at what stage of their day while looking for what particular kind of story—but you can control how much you send out. So, my big advice is to keep writing, keep sending out, and work on neutralizing your fear of rejections. Even as I’m writing this, I’m sure I have five rejections waiting in my inbox. That said, I did get rejected on Christmas Eve once via email, and as a former editor I cannot support the philosophy of a lit mag whose editor uses a holiday that is already very charged for people to clear out his or her inbox. I will not submit to that magazine again. All of THAT said—the harder, more complicated forms of rejection come from the people you love. Perhaps they don’t see you as being a successful writer (whatever that means to them); perhaps they think someone else is a writer who you think is full of soup; perhaps there is an aunt, parent, or sibling who thinks you being a writer is tantamount to mortal sin; perhaps your partner thinks your writing is a temporary illness he or she is hoping you’ll get over. Those are the truly difficult forms of rejection, and take much more fortitude to power through. A piece of paper in the mail from some faceless editor?! Easy peasy lemon squeezy. (Unless it’s on Christmas Eve.)

What patterns, habits, or motivational techniques have best served you on your journey to success?

Blind, stubborn, tenacious moxie.

About 2 A.M. at The Cat’s PajamasMarieHeleneBertino_2amm

Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, nine-year-old, aspiring jazz singer. When she sings, unexpected changes occur in the lives of those around her. As she mourns the recent death of her mother and cares for her grieving, hermetic father, she doesn’t realize that on Christmas-Eve-Eve she is about to have the most important day—and night—of her life. Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut. Meanwhile, her fifth grade teacher, Sarina Greene, both dreads and looks forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old friend. Across town at The Cat’s Pajamas, self-defeating club owner Lorca is on the verge of losing his club, his girl, and his son. Over the course of one important Christmas-Eve-Eve, the paths of these searching souls spiral around the city until they collide at a fateful hour.

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick for Fall ’14, Flavorwire’s “50 Fabulist Books Everyone Should Read,” recommended by Oprah Magazine, People, Time Out New York, Philadelphia Magazine, and many more.

Follow Marie-Helene Bertino on Twitter, and learn more on her website!

CONTEST: Leave a comment by December 17, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of her new book, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas! U.S. residents only. THIS JUST IN: Marie has offered to respond personally to comments, so submit your best questions now! This contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Catherine W McKinney ! Thank you to all who participated!

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14 Responses to Interview With An Author: Marie-Helene Bertino

  1. A weird novel filled with jazz music and poetic play sounds like exactly what I want to read right now. Great, engaging interview!

  2. Dear Kendall,

    Thank you very much for your question, which was: How many hours a day do you write? In the morning, midday, or at night?

    I’d like to answer your question with an anecdote. Once upon a time I was a 22 year old housekeeper living in Vermont. I already knew I wanted to be a writer (I’ve known that since age 3), and so I went to every reading that came along to the small town in which I scrubbed 19 inn rooms every day. One night I attended the reading of a poet whose name I can’t remember (paging Dr. Freud) and after the reading I, shaking with the trepidation and ego that only a 22 year old poet girl can shake with, approached her and asked if she had any advice for me. She asked me if I wrote for two hours a day. I said no. She asked me if I read for two hours a day. I said no. She sighed in a way that meant I was the most useless person who had ever stood in front of her and said, “Well, do you do ANYTHING for two hours a day?”

    A week or so later, I attended a panel discussion with Katherine Paterson, who wrote Bridge to Terabithia, among a number of other classics. Someone in the audience asked her if she wrote for two hours a day. She laughed in a very bemused kind of way, and told the audience that she had four children (I can’t remember if it was 3 or 4), and that she didn’t have time to write every day. That she wrote her books on their backs when they ate their cereal, on the dryer while it finished up the wash, on the train, on the phone, on napkins, etc…

    I am telling you this because I don’t want you or anyone who might be reading this to ever listen to anyone who presents you with a formula for writing (ala political poet in the first example). And to apologize because I would never want to present what I do as the be all and end all. The good news and bad news is that there is no magic amount of time or magic pen or magic MFA program that will make you a writer. Everyone knows that what really makes you a writer is a relentlessly awful childhood (just kidding).

    Cormac McCarthy said, “I only write when I’m inspired. But I’m inspired every day.” I agree with the shape and figure of that sentiment. But I’ll add that sometimes my life intervenes in ways that take me away from my writing for way longer than a day. And that’s okay. We are not just here to be writing machines, we also have to also be human beings in the world. The latter feeds the former anyway.

    Now that I’ve taken your very simple question and made it very complicated, I can at least answer the part about when I like to write. I prefer to write in the mornings, if I have my drothers. I don’t always have my drothers. Sometimes someone else has my drothers, like my husband or my dog or a classroom of undergraduates. But that’s ok because I like those people/that dog very much.

    I wish you the very best in your writing, Kendall, and thank you again for your question,


  3. Hiya, Ben!

    Thank you for your question (did you have trouble with editors trying to control your language?). I am happy to report I have not (knock on wood) had trouble with editors trying to control my language. Fiddling around with second and third (and fourth and fifth) definitions of English words, changing nouns to verbs and vice versa, occasionally using words more for their sound than their definitions, etc… are hobbies of mine, at least for now, so perhaps editors know to not take me on if they don’t like that kind of fiddling? That said, I’ve certainly worked with editors who have kindly brought to my attention gaping potholes in character, plot, scene, and/or human logic I’ve naively driven the car of narrative into, and thank god they did. But no, no editor has bah-humbugged my sense of play just for the sake of not liking experimentation. (Knock on wood again, for good measure.)

    Thanks so much again for your question and take care,


  4. Dear Catherine,

    Thank you so much for these two very important questions. (Do you change the point of view between the three main characters? Is music an important element?)

    The point of view does change from the three main characters, though it does not stray from third person. The point of view does “take a walk” as it were, and meanders into the fields of passersby, and other, minor characters (such as the dog). This was intentional, as it is reminiscent of the improvisational quality of music. Music is very important to the pulse of the narrative. A few of the characters are jazz musicians, but liking or understanding jazz is not a prerequisite to liking or understanding the book. It functions mostly as a narrative element, like tone or dialogue.

    Thank you again, I hope that answers your questions.

    Very best,


  5. I note your very creative use of words in “2 AM” like describing the perambulations of musicians as ‘arpeggiat’ions, and so on – did you have trouble with editors trying to control your language?


  6. Congratulations Marie-Helene. I do have a question about the book, do you change the point of view between the three main characters?
    Is music an important element?
    Okay that is two questions.
    Thank you.

  7. What a great interview. I have this book on my list but reading this interview makes me want to get it even more! I LOVE LOVE what Bertino says regarding listening being “the most important talent a writer can cultivate.” I also really like what Bertino says about stumbling blocks and rejection. I cannot wait to read this book! Best wishes in your continued writing success, Marie-Helene.

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