I’m sitting down with Marie-Helene Bertino, the author of 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. It’s a hot, hot afternoon in August. But “It is a dark, dark seven A.M. on Christmas Eve Eve” in Philadelphia when the book opens and the city is being cold and a bit hostile to its inhabitants. The novel follows the lives of three characters over a span of 24 hours. Nine-year-old Madeleine is an aspiring jazz singer, with a recently deceased mother, a mouth of a sailor, a cockroach-infested apartment, and a father who is so stricken by grief he cannot get out of bed. Sarina, Madeleine’s schoolteacher who had moved to Philadelphia after a divorce, is trying to build back her life and reconnect with her high school crush. Lorca, the owner of the second most popular jazz club in the city, The Cat’s Pajamas, needs to collect a large sum of money to save his club and rebuild a relationship with his teenage son. The story of each character hums its own tune, but harmonizes with the other two, while the city curses, scolds, and rebukes them. The characters drift through the snowy streets, stumble, fall on their behinds (literally, at times), fall again while trying to get up, but snicker at their own clumsiness. All this happens in the course of an ordinary day that doesn’t feel quite ordinary, as if a magician (or a joker) is hiding behind the curtain. Marie-Helene and I talk about the real and the surreal. We talk about these characters as if they are real, as they tend to become when one is absorbed in a book. But it’s obvious that they’ve been real to Marie-Helene for a long time.
Marina Petrova (Rail): You start the book with an epigraph from David Lynch: “I just have to think of Philadelphia now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I’m off into the darkness somewhere.” Why did you choose to set the book in Philadelphia?
Marie-Helene Bertino: The epigraph is very close to my heart. I’m from Philadelphia and never thought I would write anything set there, but I moved to New York and became very homesick. I suddenly had an hour and a half of distance from Philly and could more appropriately see it. I felt that I had the right perspective and started to write about it. Then, about a year ago, I began to look for an epigraph. I found a quote from Hampton Hawes’s autobiography Raise Up Off Me: “no point charging a fee if you don’t have a show.” I loved the quote, but it didn’t quite work. Then an acquaintance tweeted the David Lynch quote. It was perfect. David Lynch lived in Philadelphia while he attended The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In fact they are having a retrospective of his work that begins soon. When you think about what he does, writes movies where the surreal lives side-by-side with grittiness, it makes sense that his artistic sensibilities were formed in Philadelphia. It’s rare that someone notices that about Philly.
Rail: What is your favorite David Lynch movie?
Bertino: I have a fondness for Eraserhead. I know you said movie, but I really want to talk about Twin Peaks. I always want to talk about Twin Peaks. I had to sneak out to watch it when I was little because my mom wouldn’t allow it and it blew my mind. I asked my friend’s big sister to buy me the Secret Diary of Laura Palmer because my mother also wouldn’t let me read it. In retrospect, having to watch that show in secret was exactly right. But there is something else about David Lynch that relates to 2 A.M at The Cat’s Pajamas. David Lynch lived across from a mortuary in Philadelphia. He would see the dead bodies come in and out. “There were places there that had been allowed to decay, where there was so much fear and crime that just for a moment there was an opening to another world,” he writes in that passage about Philadelphia. When you think of David Lynch living across from a mortuary, having a sense that the real and magic and grotesque bump up against one another, and seeing a portal in the friction between them—I’m interested in that.
Rail: There is a constant and prevalent sense of a ticking clock in the novel. You use hours and minutes to title the chapters, and everything—including the characters’ flashbacks is written in the present tense. Was this your strategy from the very beginning or did you come upon it later in the revision process?
Bertino: Structuring the book this way and presenting the story within 24 hours built in its own immediacy. Sometimes you can make one choice and much of the work is done for you. Unfortunately it took me a long time to figure out this specific choice, but once I did, I knew I was close. The present tense was necessary, even for the flashbacks, because the story takes place within 24 hours. The lives of three different characters are happening over the course of the same day. I’m interested in collapsed time in stories. When done well, I think it can come harrowingly close to what life actually feels like. Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five talks about events happening in the same moment, something from the past happening simultaneously with something in the present day. Time, then, is flat as opposed to being a continuous straight line. Linear time exists, but it doesn’t feel linear. At least it doesn’t to me. Sometimes I feel like everything I’ve ever done is happening at once. I’ve always written flashbacks in present tense for that reason. I wasn’t conscious of it until someone said, you can’t do that. And I said, please go scratch. When we remember something, we experience it again. I was working as a biographer of people with traumatic brain injury while I wrote this book. I had to walk these people through the worst experiences of their lives. This could facilitate some very powerful re-experiencing of trauma. I too would experience their trauma three times: when I interviewed them, when I transcribed the interview, and then when I wrote their biography. So when I say I’ve thought about time and memory and flashbacks on the page, I mean to a ridiculous degree. In the final stages of writing this book, I heard an episode of Radiolab about memory. This episode explored the idea that every time we remember something, we change it slightly. It’s like making a photocopy of a picture, then making a photocopy of that photocopy, then another photocopy. The image fades, becoming less succinct. It felt serendipitous to be hearing this particular episode. It was one of those moments when I felt the universe telling me it was the right way to be writing. But probably it was just fortuitous timing.
Rail: You use the word “shimmy” a few times in reference to a particular way in which characters move to music. I wasn’t very familiar with a shimmy so I looked it up in Webster’s dictionary. Shimmy is described as “a ragtime dance in which the whole body sways or shakes.” It feels like a thread that runs through The Cat’s Pajamas. What’s is the significance of the shimmy?
Bertino: I highly recommend googling “the shimmy.” When we first meet Madeleine she is performing “the world’s most serious shimmy,” then later Louisa does one. One connection that isn’t spelled out explicitly in the book is that Madeleine’s mother had trained Louisa. They used to work together. There is shared shimmy between Madeline and Louisa even though it doesn’t occur in the action on the page—they have a shared performance. Shimmy reminds me of vaudeville, theater, being on stage and dancing. It is a very forward, self-conscious way of asking for attention. It probably stems from the fact that I have a theater background so to me shimmy is a no-brainer, but it’s interesting to hear that it isn’t as familiar to everyone. I like that. I was once in a burlesque musical as a brassy, head chorus girl kind of role, and the girls and I had to practice shimmying with bras fitted with nipple tassels. Kind of like an Elvira, Mistress of the Dark type deal, except we were fully clothed. In case this writing thing doesn’t pan out, it’s good to have other options.
Rail: Talking about musical performances, the stories of the main characters—Madeleine, Sarina, and Lorca—are like three jazz melodies. Each follows its own theme, but they meet, repeat each other, diverge and come together again. How important is jazz to the narrative and the repetition of these rhythms?
Bertino: Liking or even knowing jazz is not a prerequisite to liking or understanding the novel. 2 A.M. is partly about jazz and jazz musicians, but that’s one element of many. It’s also about loyalty, the delicate nature of time, and the way life circles back. As far as the format, it is meant to echo the improvisational and elliptical quality of jazz music. So it was important for the story to listen to itself. When something is really listening to itself, like musicians have to when they are playing, allowing the melody to feel its way through, then certain aspects begin to crackle and pop. The piece echoes and refers to itself. Which is why there are phrases that echo in the book, like the one about characters knowing each other’s moods “the way you know on a flight, even with your eyes closed, that a plane is banking.” This phrase repeats. It shimmiesthroughout because even though the characters may not be in each other’s lives, the whole town is related and listening to itself.
Rail: You tend to humanize places and things in the novel, describing them with action verbs and ascribing emotions to them. There is, for example, an ornery park. One can imagine a scowling, grouchy park, constantly in a bad mood. Does this happen naturally when you write or do you specifically look for these descriptions to serve a purpose?
Bertino: A little of both. I was trying to subtly personify Philadelphia. Its personality is a grouchy one, with a chip on its shoulder, so that is the description of Fairmount Park you mentioned. I also talk about moody light changes and cars bitching toward City Hall. I wanted to add to a collective sense of the city being in unrequited love, miserable and, at the same time, not quite ready to talk about it.
Rail: For the three main characters, the feeling of loneliness and abandonment seems like a key tune. The secondary characters fare no better. But when you describe Sarina’s father, who abandoned the family when Sarina was a teenager, you write: “When he looked at the world he only saw how it was.” Meanwhile, most of the characters do the opposite—they prefer to see the world for what it is not. Is this preference connected to the feeling of loneliness? Is it their way of escape?
Bertino: Absolutely. Any time a character in the novel imagines the future, it doesn’t happen. First it occurred naturally but then I went back and clarified it. This most acutely happens to poor Sarina. She imagines what the prom will be like, what the walk with Ben will be like, but her plans are always thwarted. The characters try to make plans, which, as we know, is the way to make God laugh. It’s an arrow pointing toward the fact that their desires do not come true. And it also points to their loneliness. However, Mrs. Santiago also says that Madeleine is not going to a jazz club and she is not going to hover over a city like a bird. So it works both ways.
Rail: Sarina and Ben want to be together but are not having much luck communicating this desire to one another. Every time they try to have this conversation, they dance around the subject and completely misinterpret the other’s intentions. This rings very true of how we talk to each other, especially when a romantic interest is involved. We read our own hopes and fears into the words of another, assigning our own meaning, then basing our responses and actions on it.
Bertino: There’s the idea of something, and there is the actual figure of it. There is the conversation we are having and then there is the conversation going on around the one we are having. It was important to me to reflect the latter. That specific section, the conversation between Sarina and Ben in her courtyard, is this exact concept. Each of them is misreading and misinterpreting the signs and both become angry at a slight they have invented because of their insecurities. And what is really at stake is shifting around somewhere in the periphery, not being addressed, growing and worsening. It’s a big missed connection.
Rail: When we meet the main characters, they are not in the happiest or the most stable places in their lives. Madeleine has lost her mother; Sarina is recently divorced, and Lorca is about to lose his jazz club, has lost his girlfriend, and is struggling to maintain a relationship with his son. But we root for these characters because none of them are whiners.
Bertino: I deliberately kept the divorce and the passing away of the mother off the pages. It was important for this not to be a story about a girl losing her mother. It is a story about a girl trying to hone and cultivate her voice, hoping that it would lead her out of her circumstances. Madeleine has a far way to go and a lot of loneliness in store for her. But when we leave her, she has had a good night. That’s all I wanted to say. It isn’t one of those nights when life changes and everyone becomes better and less lonely. Who has those nights, even? But it is one of those nights when things go well and the next morning it goes back to the way it was. I wanted the jacket copy to say, “This is a night when not much happens when you really think about it.” Surprisingly, the designers went a different way.
Rail: Do you think that a sense of humor is indispensable in allowing these characters to tread through all the gloom and loneliness?
Bertino: I hope so. I try to use whatever elements will serve the story best. Although, to be honest, I’m not always trying to be funny. Occasionally, I read what I think my saddest story is, and the audience always laughs. Believe it or not, 2 A.M. is me not going for the joke. I feel that humor and magic realism can function in a similar way in a story. Sometimes they can access certain locks that straight-ahead story telling can’t. I’m not interested in saying “never,” that humor can never be literary, or that navel-gazing, diffuse novels can never be funny. Though I do notice that humor in some novels tends to get judged on a curve. Oh, look! The miserable narrator ducked momentarily out of his/her bleakness to make a wry observation about something outside of themselves! Hilarious! One my of students recently told me that she wanted to try humor but worried it wouldn’t be serious enough. Unfortunately this theme runs throughout contemporary thought. Yesterday, my friends and I sat on the beach reading Mitch Hedberg quotes to one another. And we were laughing so hard we were in tears. That’s a very visceral, powerful reaction to evoke. And it is not easy. You can’t tell me Mitch Hedberg isn’t profoundly observing the world in as meaningful a way as absolutely anyone else. Or, you can try to tell me that and I will tell you, tenderly, to go scratch. Magic realism and surrealism are sometimes shuffled off to the corner in addition to humorists. I like that corner. The company is fantastic: George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Miranda July, and Amy Hempel, to name a few. I used to be very good-natured about the tendency of people to say: the way this author writes is the only way and everyone else is bullshit. I know how hard it is to write a novel, and I don’t appreciate those who dog others who try. I get grouchy on behalf of those about to write. The truth is, the more you write from the truest sense of yourself, the less like everyone else you should look. As best I can, I listen to the story and let it tell me what it wants. If that’s humor, great. If it’s weird, double great. I’ve wandered very far away from your original question. What was it? What’s my favorite color? Green to look at, lavender to wear.
Rail: In the January 2013 interview with the Paris Review, you were asked to describe the nonrealistic elements in your short story collection Safe as Houses. You called these elements “enhanced realism.” Would you use the same term to describe 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas?
Bertino: I think enhanced realism is the right term for The Cat’s Pajamas. Throughout the book, there is something you cannot quite put your finger on, something shifting just outside of your sight. It turns out to be the surrealist aspects, but for the majority of the novel everything does obey the laws of physics. Enhanced realism is maybe about 15 percent of the novel, depending on where you stand on the role of music.
Rail: One of these surreal magic moments is the final moment in the novel, when Mrs. Santiago does something that breaks the rules of the physical world, of what the so-called “real.” Why did you choose to end on that image?
Bertino: When the book begins, snowflakes are falling and Mrs. Santiago is trying to sweep them away from her stoop, but they are refusing to land. When you think about where she ends up in the last chapter, there is a symmetry I liked. I liked the idea of not ending with one of the main characters because it reflected the irreverence of the storyline, the idea that the minor characters are heroes of a different story.
Rail: Sarina’s art also combines the real with the fanstatic in the style of enhanced realism. She paints ordinary people, going about their daily routines, but with parts of their bodies stripped of skin and their insides exposed. Why does she paint human beings this way?
Bertino: It can be very tricky and loaded to have an artist in a story. What Sarina paints is important and I decided for her to be somewhat of a photorealistic or hyperrealistic school, like Gerhard Richter and Gregory Crewdson. She paints human beings, and parts of them are completely whole but then there are parts that are flayed. Maybe it’s because she is going through her own reformation and there is a tendency after a major trauma to feel like your veins have been exposed, like they are on the outside of your skin. It is a reflection of her desire to build her life back brick by brick. She has to grow her skin back and her painting reflects how she is doing that.
Rail: There is a great quote about our connection to the past in the passage that describes the death of Lorca’s father, the original owner of The Cat’s Pajamas: “We carry our ancestors in our names and sometimes we carry our ancestors through the sliding doors of emergency rooms and either way they are heavy, man, either way we can’t escape.” What is the significance of names in the novel?
Bertino: When we meet Lorca, he has been shouldering the burden of his father’s club for a long time, probably his whole life. He needs to figure out whether it is his dream to run The Cat’s Pajamas or just a leftover dream of his father’s. Lorca’s storyline is also infused by his complete ineptitude at being a father. At one point he says that he named his son Alexander, Alex, because it was the strongest name he could think of, but also because it’s unrelated to any members of his family. When you name a child after someone it places responsibility on him or her. I was named after my mother and my grandmother—my mother’s name is Helene and my grandmother’s name was Marie. I am forever connected to them because of the etymology of my name. It’s bestowing responsibility. When I name my characters, I blur my mind and think of them as ideas. I try to match a rhythm to their “idea,” and then I try to figure out if there is a name with that rhythm.
Rail: Do you think, despite all the loneliness, the novel ends with a somewhat hopeful sentiment? While all the tragedies and challenges are still in the lives of these characters, at least all of them have had a good night, the kind of a night they could smile about when they wake up the next morning.
Bertino: I end on a note that is good for Mrs. Santiago but may not be for everyone else. When we leave Lorca, he lost his club and he has a lot of rebuilding to do. When we leave Sarina and Ben, they are apart, separated with no resolution. When Sarina tells Ben that if he gets divorced he will lose a year of his life that is realistic. He might want different things at the end of that. There is a chance for hope but as I mentioned before, every time a character imagines the near future, it doesn’t happen. Madeleine has a beautiful voice, but she is in for a lot of heartache. It is not easy growing up a prodigy in a city that doesn’t necessarily encourage its artists. She experiences a beautiful moment at the end but it’s not a 100 percent happy. I think Madeleine will be fine but she will have some trouble growing up. When she wakes up on Christmas Eve she will still be motherless, in dirty tights, in a cockroach-infested home, with a father who is unable to take care of her. I didn’t make anything better for her; I only put her on stage and allowed her to sing. She had a chance to do what she loves. It is the same way with writing, no matter what we think during the day, or the kind of a day we are having, when we sit down to write, at least we have that.