Every so often a book comes along that’s different. There’s something about it that changes me as a reader, as a writer and, often, as a person too. It’s a magic thing, I think. Willful Creatures did it. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, did it. The Tiny Wife, Slaughterhouse 5, Olive Kitteridge, Dear Everybody, and Perrault’s Fairy Tales all did it too.
It’s a short story collection which, as you’ll see, kind of reminds me of what I try to do in telling stories. It’s beautiful. It’s touching. It’s terrifying. It’s ridiculous in all the right ways. It is dazzlingly written – the stories sing and soar and leave you with a lovely warm glow of admiration and a hunger for more. It left me with a feeling of friendly jealousy too; I wish I’d written it.
Like I say: magic.
So, what did I do after reading it, I hear you ask? Well, naturally, I got in touch with Marie to tell her just how much I loved it. And, as she’s the lovely sort of writer, she very kindly agreed to answer some questions. I love this interview. It’s a belter. I hope you do too.
Hi Marie! I’ve just finished reading your excellent collection, Safe as Houses, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it – it really is something special. It’s always cool to find someone who, it feels, is trying to do the same kind of thing with stories as me (do people think that you’re on drugs too?). For the benefit of the readers here, could you tell us about the book in your own words? Who’s it for? What’s it about?
Thank you for the kind words, Nik! I am very glad you enjoyed Safe as Houses, which I would describe as a collection of 8 stories set in Philadelphia where the idea of reality and even Philadelphia is, at times, debatable. It is for anyone who wants to read it. Specifically, carnival folk.
What does the word ‘story’ mean to you? And what do you think one needs for it to be great?
The word ‘story’ goes very deep for me. I battle with it. It guides me. I take great delight in messing it up. I have written and read many character sketches and witty conversations masquerading about as stories. It took me forever to learn, and I am certainly not finished learning, a few of the necessary ingredients to change the latter two things into a story. But please remember I don’t write like Flannery O’Connor, that is to say, capably. That is to say, with normal structural conceits. So, armed with that proviso, allow me to delve into just one of the terms I had to learn, then translate into what I wanted to do with it: Conflict.
Everyone tells you that conflict is required to have yourself a story, but what is more difficult to explain is that it doesn’t necessarily mean: MAN WITH GUN ENTERS STORE OF KITTENS. I thought it did, so I would try to get a man with a gun into every story. It doesn’t help that Hemingway is taught in every damn high school class and he is like the eternal MAN WITH GUN. Take a relatively normal story like “Hills Like White Elephants.” The conflict is: She’s pregnant. He wants her to have an abortion and she doesn’t want to. Their evocative, well-written argument is set against the backdrop of a wild terrain that can be compared to the wildness of life and procreation. Done. Good job, Hemingway.
So, conflict was always a watery and scary idea to me, and I didn’t think I could write a story unless I had been to war or had something epic to say that involved a lot of drape describing and morality tales. Then I read Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Miranda July and Amy Hempel. Conflict means; anything that disrupts the stasis, while pushing the action forward and I realized that, and here is where it gets fun for writers like me, the happy/hard reality is: What constitutes “stasis,” plus the “anything,” is up for interpretation! Take a relatively less normal story, “Celia is Back,” by Amy Hempel, where the mental state of the narrator becomes more harrowing and questionable in three pages, and the conflict is: What on earth is up with this guy and is he a danger to these kids? This is a different kind of conflict that creates tension between the author and reader, and Amy Hempel is able to do it because she is Amy Hempel. Just as a modern dancer learns the rules of ballet first then deviates from them, a writer working outside the realm of normalcy is double charged—to not only know the rules, but to have the know how and skills required to break them. When I realized I was a modern dancer, there was room for me at the table. Everything got very, very fun.
What does it take to make a story great? When I find out, I will certainly let you know. My gut says it has something to do with conviction, originality and balls.
What’s the story (see what I did there!) behind this collection? Was it always going to be that or did you just write one at a time and then find, later, that you had enough good stuff to start thinking about assembling it into something book-shaped?
I wrote these stories over the course of nine years. There are a few others, b-sides I like to call them, that didn’t make it in. I always had a collection in mind, but the process of writing stories that swayed and fit around each other took I think a necessarily long time.
What’s the Marie-Helene Bertino writing process? And are there any tips, snippets of advice, you’d give to those who aren’t yet published?
Please allow me to borrow Cormac McCarthy’s words: “I only write when I’m inspired, but I’m inspired every day.” The Marie-Helene Bertino writing process involves checking in with myself, paying attention to the ebbs and flows of inspiration, knowing when to go hard on myself and when to cut myself some slack. Especially since I tend to err on the side of being hard on myself. I am not a fan of forcing myself to write. Maybe that’s because I think everything is writing. Maybe that’s also because I’ve always worked full time, and I just plain didn’t have six hours a day to sit in a chair. That said, sometimes I sit down to write and six hours pass like two minutes.
My very abbreviated advice is: Keep writing. Swing for the fences. My not abbreviated at all advice is here (scroll down):
Are you a fan of Pomeranians?
There’s not a dog on this earth I don’t love. It’s genetic–every member of my family is a sloppy-hearted dog lover. I grew up with dogs and cats, big and small. Last year, I adopted a little rescue Papillon, named him Fantastic Mr. Fox after the Roald Dahl story, and he is my sable-colored gentleman hero.
What’s next for you?
The novel. God help us all.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d just like to say thank you, Nik, and I hope this helps. And if anyone reading this has lost hope, please know that the fact that I was able to get Safe as Houses published is proof that dreams come true, if you work hard and long enough at them, and if you ignore anyone and anything that tells you otherwise.