About The Author
Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the short story collection, Safe As Houses, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, and has received numerous accolades for her short stories. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives in Brooklyn.
2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, her first novel, features Madeleine Altimari, a sassy, smart-mouthed nine-year-old and an aspiring jazz singer, inwardly mourning the recent death of her mother. Little does she know that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day - and night - of her life at Philadelphia's legendary jazz club The Cat's Pajamas, where she's determined to make her on-stage debut.
We talked to Marie-Helene about the influence of Archimedes - and Kermit the Frog, finding the right point of view from which to depict her foul-mouthed protagonist and how the craft of writing can be like 'gently sliding down a rainbow'.
Questions & Answers
How hard was it to get inside the mind of a ten year old, not to mention one as quirky as Madeleine?
It certainly wasn't advisable. It was an elliptical journey. The book started out being told from the point of view of Lorca [owner of The Cat's Pajamas club]. So, he just had to observe her, not really knowing anything about her. But that wasn't working, so eventually I loosened the point of view to omniscient third. At that point, I did have to jump into her head. Making her a jerk made it easier. Giving her a foul mouth, an adult-like discipline to singing--basically, differentiating her from other children, gave me a way into her psyche that interested me. As Madeleine grows up she may become less blunt but other than that, I think she'll probably be a lot like she is when we meet her.
This is your first novel. How was the switch from short stories? Have you settled on one genre or the other or do you see yourself continuing to move between them?
I would love to keep moving back and forth between them. Many times my projects feel like ships lined up waiting to pass under a bridge. I never know which one will be able to fit through first. So, I just wait and see what feels fun, or most 'writable' if you will (will you?), at any given time.
Madeleine is an outsider, and you have written about other outsiders before, what is their appeal and do you find yourself identifying with this type of character?
Archimedes said, 'Give me but a firm place to stand and a lever big enough, and I can move the world.' He meant literally. Archimedes was very ambitious. What I got from this science lesson is that you can't properly see or move a thing unless you are a good distance away from it. Outsiders have that distance. This quality is in their very name. That position is necessary if you want to observe/move the world.
Madeleine is very hard on herself, often awarding her own singing such unimpressive grades as B- and the like; where does the conviction to keep going come from?
Some driving, tenacious feeling inside her that will never be satisfied by anything other than honing her talent and expressing herself by singing. It's the voice Kermit the Frog sang about, that calls the young sailors. 'It's someone that she's supposed to be.'
Your writing often involves fantastical elements, can you say more about this?
Sure thing! I like to employ aspects that don't obey the laws of physics in my stories to articulate some kind of emotional truth. Some locks can only be opened by unconventional methods and many times, those are the locks I'm interested in. That's the way it's always been for me. I've always been more tickled by the strange person in the corner doing magic tricks, then the well-known straight-ahead storyteller in the center of the room.
Are singing generally and jazz music specifically important to you, the love of them shines through the book?
I like to sing, though I'm nowhere near as good as Madeleine. I'm a fan of jazz music, absolutely, but I'm a wild nut over music in general. Musicians have such mathematical minds, very different from mine. I think it must be fascinating to be good at playing an instrument. It's an ability I respect. And, speaking of using fantastical elements to unlock emotional truths! I can't think of anything that can do that faster than a piece of music. There are certain songs I can't even listen to because I will close up like a clam. I'll be driving along, casual as you please, and, say, 'Girl From The North Country' from Bob Dylan will come on, and I will be distracted for an hour.
You describe the process by which 'real' musicians perfect their craft: 'you practice. What hurts most you do again.' Is this true for you of the craft of writing?
Yes, exactly. That paragraph is exactly how I feel about the craft of writing. On some days, the craft of writing is like sliding gently down a rainbow. On most days it is pure loyalty and discipline and work, so ridiculously fun and challenging that it can make you laugh out loud when you're alone in a room.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on next?
I've been working on another novel and stories. And my tan, since it's July in the States. And also working on watching every Hitchcock film ever made. And hemming a few dresses. Some of these things have been easier than others. But, all of them have been fun.