To celebrate the paperback release of her first novel, Marie-Helene Bertino asked Laura van den Berg to join her at the adorable Community Bookstore in Park Slope for an evening of reading and conversation. I just finished 2AM at the Cat’s Pajamas and loved it. Find Me was my favorite read of 2014, and I devoured all LvdB stories I could get my hands on shortly thereafter. As I waited for the authors to take their places, I watched the bookstore’s resident cat weave through the legs of a tiny red piano and thought about what a wonderful thing readings are. I grew up in a place where there was little to no chance of ever meeting your favorite author (this is admittedly changing, due in part to a few excellent community college educators programming authors to come speak to their students), so while I’m presented with such opportunities here in NYC on a very regular basis, I still always feel like it’s serendipitous. It’s one of the things that makes it easy to stay in love with this city.
LvdB and Bertino stated right away that they wanted to spend very little time reading, and more time asking each other questions. They were delightfully eager to talk to each other, which was fun to watch, and they matched wits and introspection in their conversation. Their writing styles aren’t dissimilar, they’ve both recently made a leap from short stories to novels, and they’re both teachers, so the discussion was full of solidarity and sympathy.
The last time I saw LvdB talk about Find Me – and indeed in almost every interview she did on her press circuit – the question of location/geography came up. The novel does have a very strong sense of place, and there are a lot of brilliant Floridian writers talking about how weird Florida is right now. I always assume authors get tired of talking about the same things over and over, but that was the topic of her first question to Bertino – did writing 2AM change her perception of Philadelphia at all? Bertino answered that she did have to work hard to tow the line between reflecting the city’s toughness and also its beauty. “It’s great, and it’s not easy.” Simple as that. She admitted that the book was so intricately tied to Philly because she was homesick, so it makes sense that 2AM is one of the best tough-love-letters to a city I’ve ever read. I lived in Philly for a year and spent a few sprawling nights wandering around the city, and reading 2AM put a grin of recognition on my face more than once. Though I think due to my particularly weird year in that city, I may have related most closely to Pedro the dog.
Which brings me to my favorite part of the evening, in which two brilliant women spend a large portion of a literary event talking about dogs. Admittedly – and smartly – they were relating their dog-ownership to their writing process. They both noted an aspect of being a dog owner that I’d never thought about, starting with an Eileen Myles quote about how dogs force humans to attend to basic needs – sunshine, exercise, mental rest – that they otherwise might ignore. For example, I’ve always cringed at the idea of having to walk a dog twice a day, but the reality is that I need to be walked twice a day myself and a dog would just make me do it. They also talked about how that imperative self-care/dog-care interrupted their writing process for better or for worse. Bertino felt it supported hers, because her go-to therapy is getting outside. LvdB said that, conversely, her dog Oskar would be most content if she never wrote another word, remained unemployed, and played with him all day. Fair.
They traded a few more questions over the course of an hour. From Bertino: what’s the worst question you’ve been asked by a student or at a reading? LvdB cited a student who read a Charles Baxter craft essay and was inexplicably furious about it, opening the next class with, “What is this bullshit?” She never figured out why he was so angry. Bertino cited an appearance at a book club in which a woman boldly asked, “Are you aware that all the main characters in your stories are autistic?” She was not aware. Lvdb also frequently gets, “Why aren’t you smiling in your author photo?” Ugh.
An audience member asked if, as teachers, the two authors are able to assess whether students will “make it”, to which they both answered firmly (and generously) that there is absolutely no way for them to tell if a student will become a successful writer, mainly because talent is such a small part of being a professional writer. It would only be possible if they could predict whether a certain student wouldn’t quit, would be able to take 35 rejections and keep writing, would be able to navigate life circumstances in a way that allowed them to stay tenaciously committed to writing. Their complete grace was no surprise — I would have loved to have had either of them as a teacher in undergrad.
One of the most impactful snippets of the conversation came from Bertino talking about her reaction to her own writing process and impulses as she tackles her next project. She mentioned that the 24-hour timeline of 2AM was a huge help in her transition from story writing to novel writing, but that her challenge to herself for her next book is to reach beyond that. To take up more space, because she felt like as a story writer and as a woman her instinct has been to take up as little space as possible, to be as succinct as possible, that you have to earn time of your readers, your peers, your superiors. It was a woman-heavy room, and there was one audible “amen” along with twenty silent ones. So I won’t be surprised if Bertino’s next book is 750 pages long, and I will read it all.