In October, Marie-Helene Bertino published her debut collection of short stories, Safe as Houses. Her writing often involves fantastical elements—an embodied idea of an ex-boyfriend, an alien who faxes observations about human beings to her home planet, a woman who brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving dinner—that advance painful story lines. Her language is spare, direct, and hilarious, which makes the characters’ losses that much more deeply felt. Bertino is now at work on a novel centering on a jazz club in Philadelphia called the Cat’s Pajamas.
We spoke for two hours in a Brooklyn coffee shop, which was flooded with girls on their lunch break from school.
Reading Safe as Houses, I was struck by the number of characters who aren’t really seen by others. By the last few stories, the characters start to become more visible. Does that theme ring true to you?
I would totally agree with that, though I was not conscious of it. I was aware that a lot of characters were on the outskirts of something—of their towns, their groups of friends, their families, their societies. And at the risk of sounding cliché, I think that’s a metaphor for being a writer. I mean literally and figuratively—you have to stand on the outside to watch a group of people and then be able to write about them, but in practice, it’s also a solitary art, as they say. And I think that those characters definitely are a reflection of that kind of observer quality in me.
Is that a quality you developed as a writer, or is that the way you are and writing fits that part of your personality?
I think it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. I was very, very shy growing up. I was petrified of people outside my family. I wasn’t the kind of little kid who could run into the store to get something for my mom—she would have to actually talk me through it. I would say, What’s going to happen if I go inside? and she would say, Just go up to the counter. And I would say, What do I say? Just say, “I would like to buy so-and-so for my mom.” What if I don’t have enough money? What if he asks me for change? Once in a while, I still have to walk myself through something beforehand to get the courage to do it. In grade school, there was still a lot of social fear, and writing definitely helped. Writing helps now. Even as a kid, there was a life I knew I wanted to have and it involved meeting as many people as I could. In the story “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” the alien says she used to lie in bed and figure out how she could know everyone in the world. That’s what I used to do.
And writing is a way of reaching people that you don’t have the courage to talk to?
A hundred million percent. If someone gets in touch with me and says, I read this and it moved me, I feel like crying.
Do you feel that when people read these stories, they’re seeing your genuine self in a way?
I would say yes. And I would say if these stories succeed at all, and if any story succeeds at all, it’s because they come from an authentic place. That’s one thing about being a Philly girl, which I am—you have an absolute aversion, you’re allergic, to phoniness. I know that my writing has flaws, but one flaw that, by the time it’s published, it hopefully does not have, is inauthenticity. I think you can read phoniness in a second in fiction. It’s actually tremendously easy to write mean fiction with selfish people making selfish choices about selfish things. It’s much harder to write well-developed, complicated, contradictory characters.
Would you call the not-realistic elements of your stories sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism …?
I would describe them as enhanced realism. I think of it in terms of paintings. René Magritte has these paintings of houses at night, and they’re realistic houses—nothing is overlarge, nothing is floating—but because of his color choice, like a black house and an otherworldly light sky, there is a surreality there. But in a Salvador Dalí painting, figures are elongated, clocks are dripping, skies are crying, everything is nuts. It’s a matter of degrees.
Why do you use enhanced realism in your stories?
Probably the number one reason, if I’m being honest, is it’s fun. It keeps me interested and engaged in my work, but I don’t think it works unless it serves the story. So in “North of,” Bob Dylan is there, and that’s a fun little effect, but I think it would come off as a gimmick if he didn’t fully represent the rift between the brother and sister. And “Idea of Marcel” is the only time I’ve ever written about how I feel about romantic love, and I decided to do that by presenting the physical manifestation of someone’s idea of her ex-boyfriend. But if he wasn’t an actual metaphor that was linked to some real emotional resonance, then it would just be cheap. Enhanced realists have a double responsibility—our stories have to work on the literal level and on the figurative level.
Another incredibly important element is that, for me, writing a simple story where nothing magic happens and no one turns into a refrigerator wasn’t the way I felt equipped to get to the specific truth of how ridiculous the world can be. When I wanted to write about the feeling I have had of finding a group of friends you fall in love with immediately, I skipped a step, and instead of making them feel magical and writing a touching story about coming of age, I made them actually magical. I’ve always wished the world was a little more kind to tender spirits, was a little more magical. I can’t control the world, but I can control the stories in my book and the world I create.
There’s despair throughout the book, and loneliness, but it’s also hilariously funny. How did you integrate those two sensations?
Like magic, humor is a key to certain locks that straightforward storytelling can’t open. There were many things I had to take out because they were just there to be funny. But I don’t think there is any better way of talking about the most depraved human behavior than to, in some way, make it light and funny, or at least juxtapose it. It doesn’t paint despair with the one brush of, Oh, my God, this is so sad, we should all be crying. Humor brings out not only that but also the little nuances—Isn’t the world ridiculous? Isn’t this just absurd? If your house burns down, and you go to the diner because you don’t have a kitchen anymore and they say, “Smoking or non,” and you’re sitting there basically charred and cindered, that’s funny, and it’s also really sad. You can also go a lot further if you’re intercutting severe sadness with humor. [Swell of noise from the lunchtime gang.] Like right now we’re having this interview, and there are these screaming tweens. That’s ridiculous and totally awesome at the same time.
Your writing has a very clean cadence to it. Do you read your stories aloud when you’re editing?
Yes, it’s one of the last things I do as I’m revising. I’m working on a novel now, and I took a week and rented a room down on the beach to just sit there with my dog and read it out loud. Everyone should read their work out loud. Everyone. It is unbelievable how many mistakes you pick up on.
What’s the process of going from a blank page to a finished story or book?
Well, one or two of the stories in Safe as Houses came out whole. I almost dreamed them and woke up with full sentences in my head. When that happens, I feel like I’m getting away with something, and that’s the part of the process that feels kind of touched. But that’s 1 percent of the time—5 percent, maybe—and the rest of it is just hard work and showing up every day to keep pounding away.
I’m sure some people are naturally more creative than others, but I also feel like, to be a successful fiction writer, you need to be able to access your subconscious in a way that most people can’t. Do you think so?
One of the major things I think you need, as a writer, is to know yourself. By knowing your flaws and what you’re good at, knowing what you need to work on, you can trust yourself. You can’t access your subconscious unless you know yourself well enough to trust it.
And are not afraid of what you’re going to find there?
You have to leap. In my best moments, I am able to trust my subconscious, but you have to, you must, you must know yourself to be able to get to that. Your story might not be the best story ever written. All you’re trying to do is write the best story you can and make your voice as true to itself as possible. I’m an oddball, and I’m an oddball because I listen to the particular weird rhythms of my weird person.
In one interview, you said, “A lot of people can be nice, but being kind is being nice when it costs you something.” Can you explain that?
Not everyone who is nice is kind. Everyone who is kind, I would say, is nice. Implied in the word kind is being giving. I was raised to be both, and it is a really high bar. I almost wish I wasn’t sometimes. There have been moments in my life where I wished for the kind of armor that other people seemed to have. Today, in my right mind, feeling good, having a pretty good year, I would never be anything but kind, but it hurts to be kind sometimes.
When I was a little girl, there was a place called Beauty Land in Northeast Philly. They had an enormous wall of all different perfumes. To a little girl, it was this shining diamond. My mom worked very hard, and we didn’t have many moments of pure frivolity. One day, she takes me to Beauty Land, and we’re spraying perfumes, and my mom puts on this weird Julia Child voice when she’s being silly, and I’m laughing and we’re having a great time. This old man comes up, and I remember his face being so miserable, like a rotten old apple. And he says, “After seven scents, a human nose can’t process any more scents. So you’re spraying yourselves, but you’re really not smelling anything.” And I fill up with tears, and I say, “Mom, why did he just say that?” and she says, “You know, honey, sometimes people get very suspicious when other people seem happy.” And I’ve never forgotten that.
Some of the stories in Safe as Houses were rejected many times.
Yes. When I found out I won the Iowa Short Fiction Award in January, I don’t want to say that I had completely given up on the collection, but I was exploring different routes to publishing a book. “Safe as Houses” was rejected fifty times. “North of” was rejected thirty-six times. Certainly there was absolutely nothing on earth telling me to keep going as far as literary magazines were concerned.
How were you were able to persevere through that many rejections?
Stubborn, blind tenacity.
I think it came from my upbringing, to be completely honest. As a Philly girl, you feel like, to succeed, you have to work and work and work. Nothing will be handed to you, nothing is a guarantee, there’s no safety. The only thing you can control is how hard you work. Plus, there was just something in me, from the time I was four, that always wanted to be a writer. Even if no one agreed with me, and even if I got support from nowhere. Sometimes I’d get a rejection that would put me in bed because I got my hopes up for one particular thing, so I’m not saying I’m impenetrable, but I have thick calluses for rejection. For the most part, they glance off me, and I send the story to ten more magazines.
Growing up in a particular place does affect a person, but I think it also depends on your specific upbringing. Were your parents an example in that way?
Oh, absolutely. I was raised by a single mom, and she worked with people with severe mental disabilities, and she had a thirty-seven-year career in an industry that people normally burn out in after ten or so years because it’s an emotionally challenging field. In those thirty-seven years—and I’m not kidding you—she didn’t take one sick day. Not one. There was a blizzard in Philadelphia, it must have been three feet high, and it blocked the door. She kicked out the screen of the door, climbed out onto the snow and walked to work—I think it was two miles—in the snow. When you’re raised with that kind of work ethic, you feel lazy a lot.
I feel lazy hearing that story.
I feel lazy right now telling it!
How difficult has it been to be a writer, monetarily?
Supporting yourself through fiction writing is like seeing a white whale. It’s just impossible unless you get to a certain level. I’ve normally had either one full-time job or several part-time jobs. It’s definitely a labor of love in that way. That said, if all I did was write all day, I would go insane. Plus, what would I write about? I’d have no human interaction. I love my job now because I meet all different kinds of people, and that keeps the engine of my inspiration going.
Where do you work?
I work for a law firm that specializes in traumatic brain injury. My job is to write the clients’ life stories, and to do that, I interview them—if they’re able to be interviewed—and their friends and family. It could be mild TBI, where I could have a conversation with them and they wouldn’t be exhibiting any symptoms, to TBI with slurred speech and very evident slowing of thought. Many times, with mild TBI, they’ll be going along fine and then they’ll get stuck—they’ll forget words, names, dates of things that are very significant in their lives. It’s incredibly frustrating for them. Often, people drop out of their lives one by one, and they end up alone. I’ve learned that two enormous human fears are immobility and isolation, and normally both happen in varying degrees to these clients, so the people who are the most hurt, the most vulnerable, are the people who encounter the most alienation. That, to me, is endlessly sad.
In one interview, you were asked what advice you’d give to young writers, and you said, “Be in the world.”
I do think empathy is an enormous tool for a writer to be able to access, and I think that also goes along with the kindness and the vulnerability associated with both. The problems you have as a human being will show up in your writing, and the talents you have as a human being will benefit you as a writer. So you have to cultivate yourself to be a good citizen of humanity, and that will feed into your writing. That is what I believe.