Wednesday, October 17, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino has been a diner waitress, a muralist, and a singer in a band.  Her stories have appeared in The Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXIII, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Inkwell, The Indiana Review, American Short Fiction, and West Branch.  She has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize three times, receiving the award in 2007 and a Special Mention in 2011.  She hails from Philadelphia and lives in Brooklyn, where for six years she was the Associate Editor of One Story.  She has taught for The Gotham Writer's Workshop and One Story's Emerging Writer's Workshop and has received fellowships from Hedgebrook Residency and NYC's Center for Fiction, where she is a current fellow.  Her collection of short stories SAFE AS HOUSES received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, judged by Jim Shepard, and will be published in Fall of 2012

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book SAFE AS HOUSES comes out in the fall of 2012.  I'd be happy to register a guess as to how it will change my life.  Butterflies will begin to speak only to me, my boyfriend's skin will get even softer, animals will cease to feel pain, the book will sell approximately 100 copies, all to my mother.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I actually wrote nothing but poetry until I was 25. At 25, I had to admit to myself that I was no good. I moved to New York so I could at least be where writers were. I was so happy to have found The Blackout Writers Group where I met two of my friends, Jesse Hassenger and Yuka Igarashi.  They were writing short stories that changed absolutely everything for me.  They were weird and unexpected and FUNNY, which I didn't think you were allowed to do. They introduced me to Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami and Denis Johnson.  It was like watching my first fireworks display.  I tell Yuka and Jesse they taught me how to write short stories and they say I'm crazy but it it THEY who are crazy.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I start small, normally with some rhythm or snatch of dialogue or description that amuses me, and add and add and add.  When I write even the sky is not the limit.  I try to be as ridiculous as possible.  When I revise I try to be as vigorously economical as possible. 

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The novel I am working on now started as a poetry cycle about a jazz musican. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
For me public readings are outside the process, but a reward for the process.  I admit, I have a theatre background.  I see it as getting to talk to people, and I don't want to waste a moment of that.  Recently I've been singing in my readings, as I've been reading from my work about jazz singers.  No matter how many times I do it, I always get nervous and forget what it was I said so I come down from stage in a panic, like, what the hell did I do up there?  Is everyone ok?

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The question I ask myself when I write is: how can I amuse myself while doing it differently than it has ever been done before?  I admit, I am a hard critic.  I apply that to my work.  As far as fiction writing goes, swing for the fences.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The current role of the writer includes new media. There is more and more pressure to use every single social media. I think a writer does well to be thoughtful about it. I worry I would be known more for what I say on Twitter than for my writing.  I would love to go back to the days of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Stein.  I believe they had actual interesting things to say and were people of substance.  People read about their exploits while also reading their books. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Oh man, I love it.  I welcome the help of brilliant people.  I've worked with two crackerjack editors, Judy Sternlight and Mary Russell Curran, and feel like they heard my cries for help when I was trapped alone in a room that was rapidly filling with water.  They helped get me to higher ground.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My college mentor, Dr. Vincent Sherry, told me: keep writing.  When I was an undergraduate whiny cry baby who felt like no one understood her, he would say: JUST KEEP WRITING.  So, that's what I do.  Through the terrible times, through the joyful times, when I'm sad, when I'm in love, when I'm worried, when I receive awards, when I am convinced I am the world's worst writer OF ALL TIME, when I'm perfectly fine, I keep writing. 

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I've only written one piece that I would consider critical prose and I was convinced to do it by my friend Daniel Torday who has more faith in me than I do.  He is a exceedingly smart, caring man, so I trusted him. But for the most part, if I have to write something other than fiction, I would prefer writing essays or blog entries where I can use my voice.  I didn't think I would ever get to be here answering these questions, however, so I've also learned to never say never.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write by hand.  This is a constant.  I prefer to write first thing in the morning.  My brain figures things out in my sleep and I find I am most un-ruined and inventive in the morning.  Of course some mornings I couldn't find a good sentence with two hands and neither coffee or praying or force will help.  That's when I go running.  This is if I am able to have my perfect day.  I have always written around one fulltime job or several part time jobs and, in that situation, you write when you can.  Middle of the night, afternoon, on a minimized screen in your corporate office (just a hypothetical), you can't be too precious when you have to pay the bills. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Honestly, I do something else, try not to think about it.  I don't go looking for it.  I run or talk to a friend or make dinner or play the guitar and sing or go out for a beer.  I went through a 10-month stretch where I couldn't write.  Nothing was coming.  At the beginning I was chill about it, like I normally am in what I call "gathering periods."  I thought, I didn't ask to be a writer in the first place, so it will come back.  Month 5 I began experiencing tremors of panic.  Month 8 I started thinking seriously about what I would do if I never wrote again.  My friend Tom was one of the few people I talked to about it.  He told me, just sit in your chair and write something, anything.  I tried and couldn't.  One morning in month 10, I woke up and decided to write down the children's book I've had in my head for a couple years.  I didn't leave my bed.  I would wake up and write, immediately, in a little notebook my friend Cindy gave me.  Every day, a little more.  I proved to writing I was there and, like a person who has been hurt, it came back to me, slowly.  I think it was sick of New York and of me and went traveling, did things like buy scarves with surprising patterns in faraway countries and learned new dances because when it came back it was so much stronger and creative.  I don't blame it and I don't bother it with questions.  I'm just happy it's here.  

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
What a great question.  I wish I could think of something!

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Oh man, David W. McFadden and I think differently on this subject.  #1 Music, tying for #2: Hiking, Running, Dance, Film, Art, Conversation, Talking to strangers, Thinking. 

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writing of my friends inspires me deeply.  Ted Dodson, Anne Ray, Tom Grattan, Dave Ellis, Amelia Kahaney, Elliott Holt, Cristina Moracho, Jesse Hassenger, Tanya Rey, Hannah Tinti, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, to name only a few.  Getting to be there on the ground level of someone's creativity will never get old for me.

I also am inspired by my day job.  I am a biographer of people with Traumatic Brain Injury, who have experienced tremendous loss and pain.  I could go on and on about what I learn every day from them.  My mother spent 40 years working with people with severe mental disabilities before "retiring" to teach kindergarten.  I grew up with a very different understanding of loss, impairment, death and "disability."  I was already predisposed then to studying people and, in way, seeing through them to their most vulnerable pain.  If I were to do the horribly limiting thing of separating people into two kinds, I would say there are people who have experienced profound pain, and people who haven't.  I find people who have had no real loss tend to be the most insecure, shallow and judgmental.  Ironically, they tend to be the complainers!  My story "Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours" came directly out of this belief.  I cannot over-emphasize how much this knowledge has affected my work and life. 

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I'd like to win a Pulitzer. And save every homeless dog and cat in the world. Also, live in a house with a washer and dryer! (I love you, Brooklyn). People who have a washer and dryer in their house must never be unhappy.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I would have loved to be a lead singer of an indie band.  Or, own a coffee shop.  Both still possible?  Never say never!

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I heard the voice Kermit sang about, that "calls the young sailors."  It was someone that I was supposed to be.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I loved The Artist.  I went back recently and read Everything is Illuminated and really liked it.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A tan.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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