For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Marie-Helene Bertino: The Short Form Interview

Once I attended a Q&A with Stephen King and someone asked him: What scares you? He said, Everything scares me.

Author of story collection Safe As Houses, winner of 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and longlisted for this year's Frank O' Connor award.

The Interview

Sometimes in my dreams when I don't have something I need—say a ticket at the bus stop—my dream-self realizes that I can just summon it. Many stories in your collection have a similar feeling: two characters in a chase with ideas of themselves, for example, and then you've gone ahead and summoned Bob Dylan. Would you agree with this comparison?

I would indeed agree with this comparison, as it is a very nice comparison, one that I wish I had in any meaningful way planned. I've never had luck summoning anything in my dreams. I'll try to summon a sword or a muffin or a pile of gold, and will end up holding a wet piece of macaroni (paging Dr. Freud). This might be why I write the way I do, to finally get some damn control.

What kind of a dreamer are you? Do you have recurring themes?

Every so often in a dream, I find myself standing at some ethereal bus stop holding an extra ticket, or a project-specific lug nut, or a tuba, and I think: Sarahana might need this ticket, someone else might need this lug nut, this tuba.  So, I venture outside my dream into other people's, to deliver these items to the appropriate dreamer.

When I'm not venturing into other people's dreams, I am having nightmares. Maybe it is because I possess an overactive imagination but ever since  I was a lowercase marie, I've had them regularly.  Once I attended a Q&A with Stephen King and someone asked him this great question: What scares you?  He said, Everything scares me. That wasn't what people expected him to say but man, did that make sense: the person who is scared of everything writes the scariest stories.

I borrowed traits from around 12 people to create these pals, crafted them to be their own autonomous characters...

A novel, by virtue of its length, seems to make the readers feel like they've known the characters for some time. It seemed to me especially that the four main characters in “Great, Wondrous” feel like you've known them, and won't forget, for a while. Perhaps there is an archetype-like quality to them, some version of everyone's fantasy-self?

I would love to think of Van, Marigold, Corrina and Ian as versions of everyone's fantasy-selves!

I'm trying to think of characters in short stories that you feel like you can put in your pocket. Characters like Gunther in Ralph Lombreglia's “Men Under Water,” or the married couple in William Trevor's “Glass Meadow,” or the narrator in any Lorrie Moore or Amy Hempel story. Many times narrators in stories aren't even named, and yet we still feel close to them. However I don't know that creating an iconic character is necessarily the goal of most modern short stories.  Or that it has to be.

Then, I consider Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, who is in every way, named. He is not only a fully developed human but also a moral code and a way of living. People name their children after characters like this. It might just be a difference in goal between short stories and novels, or the difference of availability in space and time in either form. When done well, both ways are wonderful. The reason we have vanilla and chocolate.

I hadn't thought about it before your question, but now I realize I meant for those characters in “Great, Wondrous” to be characters in a more novelistic sense than a short story sense.  For me they were conflations of myself and people I've known.  I borrowed traits from around 12 people to create these pals, crafted them to be their own autonomous characters, who you could hopefully see falling into friendship-love with.

Only one story's main character is a male first-person narrator. That story also felt the most different, perhaps because the voice of the female protagonists, though distinct in their own ways, has the kind of energy that seems to be some version of your own.  What was your experience writing it?

It was difficult to write Pluto. That story went through a ton of drafts. In the first one, he had no partner and moved through the house as kind of an amorphous tornado comprised only of his destruction. It was a brutal story.  I layered in humanity draft after draft, and added Mars for some danger. Part of me will always prefer my first draft, when it was just his thoughts and the smashing, like a poem. 

Except for the help of a crackerjack copy editor named Mary from Cedar Rapids who taught me a lot about commas, these stories have only been edited by me.

You worked on these stories for nine years. What took the longest?

“Carry Me Home”, “Sisters of Saint Joseph”, “Safe as Houses”, and “North Of” took the longest—years. “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours” came out in one fell swoop on one charmed, glimmering day. “Great, Wondrous” was the story I was working on when I found out the book would be published.  One thing I did not know about The Iowa Award is that the writers don't necessarily have the customary year or two to go over drafts with a professional editor.  That is to say, except for the help of a crackerjack copy editor named Mary from Cedar Rapids who taught me a lot about commas, these stories have only been edited by me.  May god help us all. I had two weeks to turn the final  document, so I ended up with an “orphaned detail” in “Great, Wondrous”—Van’s weight.

Initially my plan was to develop the idea that she believed she was overweight, but to show differing reactions from her friends and create doubt as to whether she is.  In short, I wanted to work with the concept of body dysmorphia. To present a character who does not see herself the way others see her.  Then, to push beyond that idea to this one: it doesn't fucking matter if you are overweight or weird looking or “different”—that these are all great qualities for you to own and feel great about. I've never understood what “fat” or “weird” means or why we let dull conformists decide. I've known so many lovely girls who are unduly hard on themselves, and this triggers the Italian mother in me.  I wanted these girls to know they are not alone, and that we have all been there. I had never read a main character whose weight is left as an unanswered question however to do it with finesse required more time than I had, and honestly, my gut tells me it may have been too much for the already chock-ful “Great, Wondrous” to handle. The idea percolates in me still.

Recommended by Marie-Helene Bertino

Cats with Pitiful Mystiques

Not that it matters where I got the cats, but the first ones came from Joey and Tommy.  They both died at the Towers—the only guys in my department to go, and they had three cats between them—and everybody figured I, being the only gay member of the unit, should take them.  “Give ‘em to Paulie,” they said.  “He’s a fruit.”  And of course I wanted to ask them why my being gay meant I should take cats, but by then the word had spread, and guys from the fire department up the street were dropping their comrades’ cats off for me.  Twenty years ago, I would’ve been beat up, or worse, and now I get cats.  I guess I can’t complain.

We read it in Quick Fiction: 13.

I Am a Souvenir

I was watching television when my father got home. He had on new glasses. He lifted them off his face to show me their intricate marble pattern, the durable lenses.

“These are from Italy,” he said.

My father was an optometrist. When my mother lived with us, he got new glasses once a year, talking about them like a geography lesson. The owlish pair was from Paris. The ones before from Cologne. The Italian pair was the second he’d gotten in the last four months.

“I like the color,” I said.

“Yes, son. A good color. You eat yet?”

I shrugged, dreading another night of runny scrambled eggs that no amount of ketchup could save.

“Good color,” he repeated, walking into the kitchen, cracking eggshells against the lip of a bowl.

“The house next door,” I said.

Butter sizzled in a pan. My father whisked.

“Come again?”

“Next door,” I repeated. “The roof is still on the lawn.”

He glanced at me, blinking fast. His eyes seemed paler, myopic; his hair a true white, though I still imagined it as brown and gray. I understood why people mistook him for my grandfather, why they looked bemused in the grocery store when I called out “Dad” and he answered. He could have a heart attack at any moment. It might take hold of him in his sleep, with only me at home to save him. But I wouldn’t hear it. I’d be asleep too.

Winner of the 2007 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction

The Temp


The temp did our charts! She brought in a computer program that calculated everything based on our birthdays. In minutes, we were each given printouts that Karen said were road maps to our destinies. She told us about our Venus in the fourth house, our Saturn return. And it turned out that four of us — two thirds of us — had Cancer moons! The odds of that, the temp said, were extremely low. It was obviously why we had an emotional, watery office instead of a decisive, fiery office where things get done. Only a watery office like ours could have made such a mess of the database.

We read it in Crazyhorse, No. 73.

Bar Joke, Arizona

Under cover of darkness the conversations get lower and less animated.  Stories emerge from the chatter.  Eyes grow damp, as the alcohol pulls secrets and failures out of everybody’s wobbly mouths.

“I remember I was lying in bed once,” a giant moth says, his diaphanous wings glowing in the light of the ceiling lamp. “With my wife. ‘You’re a one trick pony,’ she told me. ‘It’s always a cycle with you, one joke over and over again, a bad ride that never ends.’”

The moth has a small, buzzing voice, like someone over a bad long-distance connection saying words nobody wants to hear.  It shakes a little from too much crème de menthe.

“All I could think of,” the moth says, “was her spinning slowly in a Ferris wheel in the middle of an empty county fair, stuck in a seat with a guy like me, who didn’t have much to say.  That was the night she left me for a man who sells funny T-shirts over the internet.  They can travel whenever they want, she tells me.  They’re globetrotters now.”

We read it in One Story: Issue #97.

The Universe in Miniature

Kevin Johnson asks me what I do. I tell him I make accurate models even though they are technically not to scale.

“Models of what?”

“Do you know,” I say, “how sometimes little boys, for science fairs, decide they want to make a model of the solar system?”

“Sort of.”

“So they find maybe a basketball and cut it in half for the sun? And then they use, like, a marble for the Earth? And so on? And their dads probably help and it turns into this huge project with cardboard and rope and everything? And how maybe sometimes the dad even says to the little boy, ‘You know, Timmy, if we really wanted to be accurate about this model we'd have to drive five whole miles away to properly include Uranus,’ and the kid is totally into it? Like his mind is blown by the scale?”

“Yeah,” says Kevin. “I know about that.”

“I make models of that.”

“Cool,” he says. “Wait. Of what, now?”

“I make models of little boys and sometimes their father making models of the solar system.”

We read it in The Universe in Miniature.

Originally published in American Short Fiction: Summer 2009.