“Once you enter the imagination of Marie-Helene Bertino—a world as weird as it is warm—you will not want to leave. Each sentence is a pop-up box: first delightful for its sweet music, then profound with the shock of truth. This is a dazzling book.” – Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints
“Clever, charming and full of life…like the best jazz, 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas is a marvel of the unexpected, a buoyant, swinging tale of interwoven destinies that Marie-Helene Bertino tells with verve, wit, and warmth. I loved it.” – Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements
“Marie-Helene Bertino bops across Philadelphia like an alleycat on the run, energetic and wild. Her sentences are sharp and surprising, and her wonderful story is full of heart. There is funny poetry in the sound of loneliness, and Bertino has found it.” – Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers
What is the title of your book? Why?
I’m delighted you asked! The title of my book is 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas. It refers to many elements of the book, now that I’m thinking about it. The story takes place over the course of 24 hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. the following day on one fateful Christmas Eve Eve. We follow a nine-year-old aspiring jazz singer, her fifth grade teacher, and a down-on-his-luck jazz club owner. The chapter headings are times instead of numbers, and 2 a.m. is the hour of a significant moment in each of these character’s lives. The setting of this confluence is The Cat’s Pajamas, the aforementioned jazz club in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. The title is also sonorous, like a musical somersault, which fits the book’s preoccupation with music.
What sentence (or phrase, or idea, or innovation) in this book are you most proud of?
Innovation is extremely important to me. For 12 years while writing 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas I toyed with traditional ideas of sentence phrasing and novel structure, using nouns as verbs, and just plain making up my own words out of existing nouns (“arpeggiate” in the very first paragraph). I’ve carried around some of the innovations like butterflies in my pocket, pulling them out on nights when publication seemed unlikely. Perhaps my favorite concerns the 7 p.m. hour. After the narrative takes a quick, sweeping inventory of people around the city, a dinner party is presented in its entirety. It is the longest chapter in the book, both page-wise and real-time-wise, and is almost autonomous. I think of it as the book itself sitting down to supper.
Are there any elements in this book that are drawn from your own life?
One night several years ago my friends Rocco and Aurelio, who are tremendous guitarists, took me to a musician’s open mic at Warm Daddy’s, a jazz club on Front Street in Philadelphia. This is when a venerable house band that has probably been playing together for decades plays song after song and brave musicians who want to can walk onto the stage in between songs, plug in, and try their luck. It was one of those nights–we were all in good moods and having correct conversations and we were open to divinity and coincidences. A night that shines brightly but ultimately doesn’t change the crappy circumstances of your life. I remember thinking: I want to write a book about how this night feels. It took me many years to grow into a writer who could (try to) do it. There are many elements in 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas sourced from my life– many I’m probably not even aware of. Like Sarina, once I waded through the Rittenhouse Square fountain on a cold night with my friend Bob. Like Madeleine, I sang in Church as a little girl. And am petrified of roaches.
When I was four I wrote a story about a cat going through a divorce. A short time later I wrote my first poem about a man standing underneath a streetlight, alone, on the cobblestone. I’ve been weird since I can remember, imaginative, overly-sensitive, excited about things most people would think of as insignificant (e.g., the discovery that alone rhymes with cobblestone), and in possession of a nature that uses humor to make sense the oddities of life. My writing is intrinsically linked to my awareness of myself as a Marie. I can’t remember one without the other.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be? Put another way, what else fills your life besides writing (and how does this influence your writing, in practical or ephemeral ways)?
I like to paint, run, dance, sing. I like to play hooky with my fiancé and go to The Museum of Natural History. I’ve had the same group of friends since I was little, and I like to do absolutely anything with them. I also like to spend time alone. Travel alone, write alone, daydream. I used to edit for One Story, and I like working one on one with a writer. Walk my dog. Attend class. Turn off my phone. Have dinner with my Mom. I was raised that you have dinner and then you stay seated at the table for hours, talking. Conversation is a lost art. I’ve worked as a music interviewer and biographer of people with Traumatic Brain Injury, so I ask a lot of questions and I’m curious about everyone. Curious, not nosy. I’m the least nosy person on the planet. My Mom showed me empathy. I’ve listened to other people for all of my life, and I’ve always been able to empathize with them. Both of these things help me identify the right “sound” of characters who lead lives that are seemingly unlike mine. If I wasn’t a published writer, I’d be a barista with a tendency to daydream. But who’d still be a writer. The nice thing is, being a writer is like being an alcoholic. You’re never not one. Who knows how way will lead onto way? I may go back to being a barista yet. Never say never.
More About Marie-Helene Bertino
Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas will be published in August 2014. Her debut collection of short stories Safe As Houses received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Pushcart Prize, and was long-listed for The Story Prize and The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. She was an Emerging Writers Fellow at New York City’s Center for Fiction and lives in Brooklyn, where she was the Associate Editor for One Story. She teaches at NYU, The Center for Fiction, and The Sackett Street Workshops. She is writing this in Brooklyn, where it is cold, but hopefully by the time you read it, it will be warm again. You can find her on her website, Twitter and Facebook.
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