October 12, 2012
Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut story collection SAFE AS HOUSES will be published October 1st, 2012. She has worked as a diner waitress, a muralist, and a music writer. Currently, she works as a biographer of people with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). One hot summer night in August, she met herself at a crab joint (in her mind) near (the) Cape May, New Jersey (in her mind) where she taught herself how to use a mallet to extract the meatiest parts of the crab, and talked to herself about herself.
I admire how much plaid you are wearing.
How kind of you to say!
Normally, people pick one plaid and stop. But, I’ve already counted four.
Five if you count my shoes! My motto is: never too much plaid.
Is that really your motto?
Do you have a motto?
I’ve never met a chocolate chip cookie I didn’t like.
Is the girl in “Free Ham,” or “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” or “Idea of Marcel” or any of the stories you?
No, it’s fiction.
What is your novel about?
A jazz club owner, a pair of starry, crossed lovers and a little girl jazz singing prodigy.
Are any of them you?
No, it’s fiction.
You’ve worked as a music interviewer and currently as a biographer of people with Traumatic Brain Injury. Both jobs require research into people’s lives and asking a lot of questions. What is the one question you wished someone would ask you?
Do you mind if I pay you embarrassing amount money to do nothing but write?
What is the one question you wished more people asked themselves?
How can I look beyond my little life to help other people and animals? How can I be less petty? How much money can I give Marie so she can do nothing but write?
When was the last time you laughed until tears ran down your face?
Last night. My friend (and formidable jazz singer) Shawn-Aileen Clark told me about an Olympic event where horses dance to instrumental music for an oddly long amount of time, and I went home and found this and laughed until I cried.
Your short story collection SAFE AS HOUSES has been described by George Saunders as, “Please note my email has changed. If you believe you are receiving this message in error, please re-enter your account information.” Which of the stories has surprised you the most?
I am very surprised that “North Of” did so well. It was rejected by 35 literary magazines before The Mississippi Review took pity on it. I was positive it was cursed and would never be published. But now it’s been published four times.
What is your relationship to rejection?
The title story was rejected over 50 times. Did you even know there were that many lit mags? There are. I will never recoup that postage. I began sending poems to The New Yorker when I was 13, and I got my first rejection notice with their little ombudsman at the top and I thought: I feel like a writer. I still feel that way. Rejection of my stories never bothered me. There are mugs and posters that address that kind of rejection. It’s the other, smaller rejections they don’t tell you about. Like at a holiday party when a college acquaintance asks what you are writing and you say a novel, and they excuse themselves to the ham platter.
What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
My mother made an old phone into a lamp so that when you pick up the “receiver,” the light turns on. When you “hang up,” the light goes off. It charms me to no end.
You seem to like people who make things.
What is the quality you like most about yourself?
My tireless ability to be loyal.
What is the quality you like least about yourself?
What is your least favorite word?
This week, it’s Maria
What expression do you overuse?
You don’t see why not! I stole that from my friend Maryrose who is one of the funniest people on the planet.
Why do you think women are so much funnier than men?
Good gravy, I wish I knew. I feel so bad for men sometimes. They try so hard, but they will never be as funny as women.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Keep writing. Be curious about how different people live. Talk to everyone; doormen, waiters, motorcycle enthusiasts, your grandparents. I have no patience and sometimes my writing sounds hasty, so get to know yourself because the problem with you will be the problem with your writing. For the converse reason, cultivate the part of you that has nothing to do with writing. Run and cook and sing and play the drums. Then, keep writing. Rescue a dog or cat. Collect stories. Other people will tell you to read to excess, but I’ll let you slack on that if you promise to listen to people and ask questions. Call someone you’ve lost touch with and say, I miss you. Listen to the criticism of people you respect and let it make you better. Don’t write because you think it’s cool. Don’t be that jerk who complains when Aunt Barbara asks what you write about. Don’t say, “that question is impossible to answer!” If you can’t answer what you write about then you don’t know what you write about, and that’s like not knowing what color hair you have. Go dancing. Be secretive and bold and stick up for the underdog and the little guy. Don’t brag. Be nice. Anyone worth his or her salt talent-wise is humble and kind. This is because they understand they’ve been given a gift and people who have been gifted have special responsibilities and are thankful. Drive around America. Keep writing. When discouraged, remember: writing was there before you and it will be there after you’re gone. Go to California and drive to the coast at sunset. Sit on a bench and listen to the waves and see all the people with their dogs on the darkening lawns. Think to yourself: I may not be where I want to be creatively, but at least I am in California. When discouraged, don’t listen to anything besides the voice that told you were a writer in the first place; that is the voice that will be there for you if everyone goes away; it is like the voice Kermit sang about that “calls the young sailors.” It’s someone that you’re supposed to be. Keep writing. If any of this sounds like a root canal to you; do something else.
Did your dog do anything cute today?
(Sighs) Oh, don’t get me started…
You are of Italian and French ancestry. Can I come over for dinner?
The more, the merrier!
It’s a very French idea to interview oneself, wouldn’t you say?
I think I just did!
I guess that’s it. Thank you for meeting with me today. You are even lovelier than Mark Ruffalo said you’d be.
Your questions were lovely and thoughtful. You should charge by the hour.
That will be $150.
(Laughs) Happily. Now, to whom do I write the check?
Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection of short stories SAFE AS HOUSES received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award and will be published in October of 2012. She hails from Philadelphia and lives in Brooklyn. Find out more at www.mariehelenebertino.com.