Marie-Helene Bertino

by Amanda Faraone

MARIE-HELENE BERTINO‘s collection of short stories SAFE AS HOUSES received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, judged by Jim Shepard, and was published in October of 2012. She has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize four times, receiving the award in 2007 and a Special Mention in 2011. She has taught for The Gotham Writer’s Workshop and One Story’s Emerging Writer’s Workshop and was an Emerging Writer Fellow at NYC’s Center for Fiction. She hails from Philly, lives in Brooklyn, and has worked as a muralist, diner waitress, receptionist, and music writer. Currently, she is a biographer for people living with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). For more information, visit

I met with Marie last week at Steeplechase Coffee Shop in Windsor Terrace, where we discussed writing, revision, the genius of Roald Dahl, and how to stay grounded as a writer. Marie will read at Fiction Addiction on Tuesday, October 30.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard or gotten about writing?

So this was from my college professor, he was a poetry professor because I wrote nothing but poetry until I was twenty-five. His name was Dr. Vincent Sherry and he was my mentor and I would go to his class or his office hours almost every day in tears because I went to a school where I felt they didn’t particularly understand writers, and he was very much my only touchstone in the world to which I eventually wanted to belong—the world of writing and poetry.

I would go to his office hours and relentlessly torment him and ask him my questions, ask: why don’t I feel like I belong here? And he was so nice, and so sweet to me, but his big thing for me, which I remember, was to just keep writing. Keep writing, even when you have a bad day, even when you’re sure it won’t lead to anything, keep writing, because time is going to pass anyway and you might as well keep writing. You can have all these emotions and doubts and fears as long as you’re writing still. It will get easier, basically. It’s so simple and it’s so hard to do.

How did you make the transition from poetry to fiction? Or was it more of a natural thing?

It was a kick in the ass actually. It was not a natural thing at all. I wanted to be a writer since I was thirteen, and I wanted to be like Edna St. Vincent Millay and live in Greenwich Village, so I wrote nothing but poetry. And then after college I wanted to travel around, so my friend Dana and I actually took a year and traveled around America. Traveled and worked around America, and while I was traveling I had sent in all my applications for an MFA in poetry, so while we were on the road I was getting rejection after rejection.

Finally, I had one school left, I believe it was NYU, which was my dream, the one I really wanted to go to, and then we were in California and we were going to be there for about six months, and I got my final rejection, and I drove to the water and cried and listened to Led Zeppelin and REM and I was like, what am I going to do? I can’t give up writing. I have wanted to be nothing but a writer since I was little. I can’t write fiction—I’ve said this before, and everyone laughs at me because it sounds funny—because I thought you had to be good at math to write fiction, because it just seemed so mathematical to me and I suck at math, so I’d never even tried it.

So, I was literally at a crossroads, and I decided after my time in California I would move to New York, because at least I would be around writers and I would just take it from there. I moved to New York and I found a writer’s group—it was called the Blackout Writer’s Group. There were two writers in that group who were writing stories in the style of George Saunders and Aimee Bender and I had never read anything like that and I read their stories and I was like, wait a second, if you don’t have to write like Hemingway, and you can write from your heart, using your sense of humor, I think I can try that—and it emboldened me to at least try. And so I was twenty-five, and I started writing fiction for the first time, and they were so supportive and so nice with my efforts and that was the only reason I kept going with it.

Amy Hempel once said that the greatest compliment she ever got was: “You leave out all the right things.” I thought that was one of the greatest things about your collection, because there were certain moments where you eclipse what’s going on, but you allow the reader to figure it out on their own. Like, I was just rereading “Free Ham,” and there’s a moment when she tries to grab a rock, and then it turns out it’s a clock, but you don’t know that either, so you’re sort of left in the dark, and experience it with her, as opposed to being told what’s happening. Did this come naturally when you wrote the stories or through revising, paring it down, and taking things out?

Amy Hempel leaves out all the right stuff. She certainly does. I would love to think that I do too. And I would say, it’s definitely revision. At the same time, because I do come from a poetry background, I do tend to write shorter, and then what normally happens is that I have to add to it. Most of the people I know write 600 pages and pare it down to 300, but for me it’s adding to. I tend to err on the side of leaving too much out, and then I have to add in, quite honestly. And that’s why I have readers who have to say, you can’t just leave out whether or not she’s an alien or whether or not Bob Dylan is actually there or how the geranium comes back to life, so it’s a push-pull  and it’s trial-and-error. Thank you for saying that. I guess I’m getting it right, at least in “Free Ham.”

What is your revision process like? Or does it change, depending on the story?

Rigorous. I was an editor for six years at One Story and I do believe in painstaking, painful, rigorous editing. I like writing and revision exactly the same, because I think revision can feel like writing. When you’re writing you can feel pie-in-the-sky, the skies the limit, I let myself go as far as I can and then I dial back. But I revise a hell of a lot longer than I write, and when I think it’s done, I revise five more times.

I’m working on a novel right now and I have about fifty master copies of it, and it’s still not revised to where I think every single line is important. The other thing that I was thinking about recently is that when Nabokov wrote Lolita, he wrote every single line of that book on a different index card. Did you know that? And every single line of that book is perfect, and that’s probably why. And I was thinking, could I sit down and get a residency or some sort of grant where I sit down and write every single sentence of the novel I’m working on right now on an index card? And why am I not doing that? How lazy am I that I’m not doing that? So, you want to talk about revision—none of us is at his level, and I am certainly not. But I don’t think that’s crazy. That’s kind of interesting. May we all be Nabokov at one point in our careers.

You said at the Brooklyn Book Festival—someone asked about the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel—the difference in writing stories is that they can be really perfect, so it’s almost more difficult to do. Have you found working on the novel that you have more space so you’re less anxious about every word, or is it the same because you came out of a short story writing background?

I think what’s driving me insane is that I’m trying to make the novel perfect, and you kind of have to let go, and I’m not good at that. So, I’m trying to let it unravel a little bit and be messy, and I’m still learning how to do that in the right way. I’m not saying that all my short stories are perfect, because they’re not, but there are certain things like arc, character, and plot which I designed and engineered, and I’m trying to do the same thing with the novel but obviously the arcs are longer, and it takes more time. I kind of borrowed that from Steven Millhauser who wrote an essay on short stories called “The Art of Perfection,” and I think that he’s right. And when you have that kind of goal, you’re never going be happy—so sometimes you have to relax. Relaxing is hard for me, but I’m trying.

How long were you working on the stories in your collection?

All in all, I worked on all of them for nine years, and some of them took years to revise, but I was also working and other things—I wrote a children’s book, a novel. The children’s book has not seen the light of day yet, but after all this brouhaha, I want to go back to it, but I have to teach myself how to write a children’s book. So I spent the summer reading Roald Dahl, everything he ever wrote—or rereading, since I’ve read them all, to see if I can learn anything about structure from those books. But the thing is when you read a true original, like Roald Dahl, he’s doing stuff that no one has ever thought of and no one will ever be able to replicate, so you can only learn so much from a genius like him.

It’s such an interesting age when kids are small because they don’t quite understand everything in the world, but some things they understand very vividly. It’s an interesting medium to write in. It’s a very different level.

The other thing is when you fall in love with a book when you’re that young you will stay loyal to that book your entire life. So, for me, the book, one of the books, that  just blew me away was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. And if anyone brought that book up, even in my young twenties, even as a teenager, I would just fill up, I mean, it just meant so much to me, because it’s turning you on for the first time to the amazing world that literature can provide for you, and then if you go back and read these books as an adult, some of them stand up, and some of them don’t. That book in particular does stand up, at least for me, but it’s amazing the loyalty you have. That’s why I wanted to write a children’s book, in the hopes of giving a little girl the same experience I had when I read those books—there’s nothing like that.

Yes, and I also think, the act of storytelling works so well with children, because they’re so open to everything—

They’re believers.

And there’s no cynicism, it’s almost like, it’s for them, in a way.

It is, and you have to remind yourself as you get older to do that, and still be a believer. That’s why Antoine de Saint Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince to a friend of his who was in France and starving, and then thought better of it and dedicated it to his friend when he was a little boy. You know, Picasso said: “It takes a really long time to become young.” And having that kind of energy and invention in your work is important, but you have to learn how to stay young, and keep that whimsy and belief in your work.

You have said that “Sometimes You Break Their Heart, Sometimes They Break Yours” was inspired by an on-going list you were making about how strange human beings are. In general, how do you generate new stories? In ideas or images or language? Or does it change every time?

Gosh. I would say, it normally starts from an interaction I’ve had with either a person or a stranger, or something that I’ve seen on the street, that triggers something in me to think wouldn’t that make an interesting story, or what if this happened. Normally, it’s through my thoughts, and I am very much in my head a lot of the time. And I cultivate in there and I percolate and I file things away for later, and sometimes those thoughts become their own images and make their own sense. It’s hard to explain. So, I’ll see something and then months later it will have ripened to the point where it becomes seen in a story.

The best example I can think of right now for how that process is for me, to give you a specific thing, is a story that is not in the collection, one that I am still working on. I was in my kitchen and I was chopping peppers and I was thinking how I missed my grandmother a lot—my grandmother was French and passed away when I was twenty-one—and I was thinking about how I missed her, and I wished that I could just talk to her about life stuff and get her advice and I was thinking, but Marie, she’s dead and obviously I can’t talk to her. But I thought, what if I could all of a sudden speak French and we could speak to each other that way? Because if something as wild as that could happen—I could wake up and speak French—then maybe I could also speak to my grandmother who had passed away. And then I was like, that would be funny: what if someone woke up and was able to speak a different language? And then I was thinking, oh, that would be a really good story.

So, it normally starts with: what if this happens? To amuse myself, while I’m doing laundry or whatever. So the germ of that story is because I missed my grandmother, but then you read that story and it has nothing to do with a grandmother or missing anyone or anything, it just has to do with this random guy who spends the story agonizing about why this is happening to him.

You’ve talked about your use of heightened realism or enhanced realism in the past, and you’ve said that when your work is described as absurdist you are surprised, because it’s the way you see the world. How does the process of writing with enhanced realism help you to live in a world that doesn’t make sense?

I would say, I do think that the way I write, and that I write, is the way I respond to the world, and make sense of the world. I mean, the past nine years have not always been easy, but going back to my stories, time and time again, have helped me, and I would think to myself, and I’ve heard George Saunders say this: at the start of any given morning, what is going to be fun for me to work on today? What scene is exciting me right now? What snatch of dialogue has been in my dreams last night and really lighting me up? And I would work on that, and even that, that excitement, can be a coping mechanism for a world that very rarely makes sense.

No, I shouldn’t say that, you know, but things exist in the world that don’t make any sense to me. People can be very mean to those in need. That will never make sense to me. Friends will make decisions to be cruel and unkind. That will never make sense to me. Someone can go through a break-up—I mean last week, I had three of my girlfriends call me, upset about random various heartaches, and, in many cases, they are being mistreated. That will never make sense to me. But, I can write a story about a girl who’s going through a break-up with a rodeo clown who goes to live in a convent and I can make that story funny to me, so that makes me laugh, and in that way I can have a humorous slant on something that is really sad. Really sad. There are very sad things that happen in the book—like a house fire, like robberies, but if I put magic in it, then the world seems a little bit lighter, to me.

How do you stay grounded and sane while pursuing a writing career? You spoke when we were at Fiction Addiction last month about “the darkness” once you get out of school and how difficult those couple of years can be. How did you get through that?

I mean, I am very blessed. There are certain people in my life who are relentlessly good at being my friend, being my mom, when I’ve gone through periods of time when I have felt shaky, and kind of like the foundation under me has felt weakened, I have been able to go out with these friends and have a beer and talk about their problems and call my mom and get advice and slowly but surely, you get through if you move through the world really processing things, and keeping your eyes open, keeping your ears open. Staying sensitive, I think, is difficult. So it helps to have friends who support that quality in you and you know, in my twenties, I never thought there would be a day when I would be sitting at this table talking to you about this collection of stories that is out. In fact, I was convinced the exact opposite would happen. And it became like how long am I going to stay in New York and delude myself until I go home and get a real job and buy a house and you know—

Do the things you’re supposed to do.

Do the things you’re supposed to do. The “rational” thing to do. When are you going to wise up, basically. And I never wanted those things just as vague goals. You know, I thought, if I fall in love, I’ll get married. If it makes sense, if I know where I’m going to live for ten years, I’ll buy a house, and I’m very heart-based with that. And with writing it’s like, it just was the star I was always walking towards, and I let it guide me. And it has introduced me to a lot of wonderful people—like yourself—and it’s gotten me into a lot of great situations. And it’s been a challenge, but it’s been one of the greatest relationships in my life. And it’s hasn’t always been easy. It really hasn’t.

I joke about rejection, and I have calluses that are so thick they’re like jazz guitarists about rejection, but you know there are rejections that have come in for things that I really did want that have made me want to go back to bed for the day, and they have been plentiful. How do you keep going? How do you keep going? Well, you have friends who take you out for a beer and you talk about everything but writing and it gets you through the night and you just keep going. Which is why Dr. Sherry’s just keep writing made so much sense to me. Keep writing, keep writing. Even when you get the New Yorker rejection for the fifteenth time, even when someone so untalented gets a sixteen book deal for twelve billion dollars and the only credit they have is that they were on a TV show when they were five, even when certain pop stars decide to write children’s books, keep going, keep writing, keep writing, even when you’re convinced it will never happen for you.

That’s why every step of this month has been—the book came out October 1st—every step of this journey, I have just said to myself I’m going to enjoy every second, because I’ve worked really hard to get here. Even if nothing happens with the book. Even if everybody hates it, Amanda. Even if every review is like, who the fuck is this talentless girl who is writing this shit that makes no sense? She is the worst writer who has written anything in the world. Even if that happens, I don’t care, because, it’s still a thrill. I can’t believe it. I cannot believe I have a book out. And even if it leads to nothing, I have enjoyed it up to this point.

So, how have I gotten through? By being honest with myself about that, and not associating it with, well, hopefully I’ll get a twelve billion dollar book deal. And I cannot believe I’m about to quote my mom right now, but it is really true: understanding that the journey is the reward. It sounds so trite but that’s what I’m trying to do, I’m not trying for a huge book deal, I’m trying to enjoy being a writer. Even though that means being broke and sad sometimes, it’s the best job in the world.

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