How Near, How Far: Interview with Andrew Bertaina by Andrew Gretes

BertainaAndrew Bertaina graduated with his MFA in creative writing from American University . His creative work has appeared in many publications, including The Best American Poetry 2018, The ThreePenny Review, Tin House online, Redivider, and Green Mountains Review. His debut collection, One Person Away From You, won the Moon City Press Fiction Award. 

Andrew Gretes: First off, congratulations on the publication of your debut short-story collection, One Person Away from You, with Moon City Press. That’s wonderful news. Maybe let’s just start with the title (which I’m terribly envious of). What made you choose this particular title? Would it be too grand of a statement to label this title as a thematic Rosetta stone for engaging/decoding the rest of the collection?

Andrew Bertaina: Thank you so much for taking the time out to interview me. I really appreciate it! I only use exclamation points when I’m talking online, but I’m finding them more and more useful. Anyhow, I’m actually quite horrible at titles. I tend to go with “the” followed by something that happens in the story. As it turns out, this isn’t the most intriguing way to title a story. Anyhow, this one came to me ages ago. I was reading Miranda July at the time and thinking a lot about loneliness, which is something she conveys on the page so well. I think a lot of my narrators feel a bit existentially trapped, and I liked the rhythm and movement of the title, so I’ve been dragging it around with me for fourteen years or so when I first wrote the title story.

As for the statement, I think it’s at least 80 percent true. In truth, I could say that about a lot of things. Most of life is about 80 percent true and the rest is nuance. But yes, I think something I’m often able to capture as a writer is an acute sense of loneliness, of missing connection, but that strong undercurrent of desire to find it in religion, a family, a spouse, travel etc. But it keeps eluding the characters. Maybe if I check the next person, it’ll work out better. I hope that makes sense.

AG: Absolutely, the undercurrent you describe—this longing for a nucleus of meaning, a harbor that offers a long-awaited completeness—is palpable throughout your collection. In fact, there’s a line in your story “Something Miraculous” which wonderfully captures this longing. I’ll quote it here just to give the reader an appetizer of your prose: “Her eyes are deep wells that I imagined swimming into, taking long smooth strokes through the emptiness of the iris until I reached the exterior, where I would lie on the white sand beach of her sclera as waves of brown sadness lapped at my feet.” I guess that quote leads to my next question, which is about language/poetry. I was repeatedly struck while reading your collection by stunning metaphors and little mortars of evocative language, and I was wondering if you had any advice for aspiring writers about sentence writing: i.e., how to coax the world out of its hiding place with words? Any trade secrets you might pass on to the readers of this interview? Or any general thoughts about language and how your writing style dovetails with the content of these stories?

AB: Well, as you know, I think you’re an incredibly incisive reader. Someone give this man a job teaching literature. Beyond that though, I have a strange approach to language. Well, strange in so far as the few people I’ve talked to about language and writing. I don’t actually corner my aunt to ask her what she thinks of prose. Anyhow, I don’t ever visualize things when I write. When people say they can picture a character in a novel, I tend to have no earthly clue what they look like. I actually write in a slightly similar fashion unless I remind myself to be specific. Rather, I try to write towards an emotion. If I’m thinking of how to convey wonder, or awe, I tend to try to write my way towards things that instill those feelings in me. Now that I’m saying it, maybe I do picture at that point. The odd thing I’m saying though, is that I write towards emotion. I’d rather precisely nail an emotion than perfectly describe a scene. What is lonelier than the way a deciduous tree looks in winter trying to hold up all that sky? That’s the image I shoot for. What instills awe when I pause and look at it? A garden, full of phlox and berries and hydrangeas swarming with bees. Look at all that life!

For aspiring writers, do the exact opposite of what I just said. Be precise. If you know the name of a tree, a road, a ballet movement, use it in your story. Be the expert that you are in your particular area of life. Readers use that precision of language to ground themselves in story. Of course, like all rules, that can absolutely be broken and effectively. I was just listening to a Sheila Heiti story about a dead person who flies to give a speech, and the dead narrator keeps repeating herself and being imprecise because she’s thinking dead thoughts. But I’ll say the rule still applies, think as a dead person who’s flown across the country to give a speech would think! Be precise.

As for me, I wish I had a better way to describe it. I’m sure you would! I think a lot of the stories are about not quite finding that connection. Anyone who has read and thought about language knows that we are approximating things even when we try and describe it precisely. Whether that’s a word like “saudade” or just the inability to effectively communicate our emotions. “I am sad” is incredibly vapid, but it’s often our starting point. I don’t mean to be obtuse here. I’m just saying that I realize writing is an approximation, so I often rely on images to try and convey the feeling and inner-life of a character. Let me just get out of the way and let Flaubert say it: human language is like a cracked kettledrum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long for is to make music that will move the stars to pity.”

AG: Ha, I’m not sure our readers will believe this, but I actually had that exact Flaubert quote in my bullpen of questions just raring to go (a relief question, warming up its writing arm, muttering in French and smoking). Is there a French word for “He-just-stole-my-cool-literary-quotation”? There must be… That said, I love your point about language as an approximation and that even the most specific words (eg, “saudade”) are attempts to bottle something as vast as an ocean into a three-syllable thermos. In a way, to piggyback on your answer, I would say that perhaps the first step of good writing is to simply acknowledge the ontological limitations of language. To quote T.S. Eliot (since you filched Flaubert), “Writing is a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment and undisciplined squads of emotion.” On the one hand, that could lead some writers to despair, but there’s also something inspiring and adventure-calling about this idea, since now it’s up to the writer to think outside the ready-made patterns of language and to spin a fresh web of words to catch the phenomenon in question. Unfortunately, if I keep following this metaphor, it will end with the writer mummifying and getting all vampiric on the world, so I’ll stop there… I also don’t like spiders. Just to wrap up that point, perhaps good writing begins with temporarily adding an “out-of-order” sign to overheated words?

Anyways, let’s return to what you were saying about writing towards emotion. Would you say there’s a dominant emotion that you’re debut collection is writing towards? Or, to put the question slightly differently, is there a particular effect/impression that you write towards? One of my writing teachers, Steve Barthelme, told me that he wrote for that oh-fuck moment in Macbeth—the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” moment of utter gut-punching vacuity… So, yeah, feel free to steal a Shakespeare character in answering this question. Or not!

AB: That’s a brilliant way to put things. And I think it’s useful to point towards the ontological limits of language even when it’s our preferred medium. I mean, i do just want to jump down an Alice and Wonderland type rabbit hole here, but I’ll let your words stand. Interestingly, when I say I write towards emotion, I’ve become aware in the last year and half, thank you meditation!, that I often don’t even recognize a lot of my emotions. A lot of what happens during a day is like a subterranean river and then I get this brief eruption that I’m easily able to identify as a fairly simple range of emotions. Now I’ve painted myself into a corner. I write about emotions. Also, I barely notice my emotions. And yet!

I think I want to answer in two ways. First, I think what I’ve said above is actually what drives a lot of my writing. So much of what defines a person can often go unnoticed until we run up against the dense ice of say, mid-life. Then people suddenly realize all of that suppressed emotion in a singular moment or relationship or thinking. So, in a way, I try and capture that hinge moment when all that has been missed is suddenly coming to the fore.

On a basic level, I think I tend to write loneliness and infatuation fairly well. It may not surprise you to know that that’s because I’ve felt these emotions a lot during my adult life. Though my childhood, like many book readers, was also lonesome for reasons I can’t really define. I just felt like I was peering in at other people living unless I was playing sports. Anyhow, I don’t mean lonely of just not having friends, but the sort of existential loneliness that sets us adrift. Why am I here? What’s the purpose of maintaining a rational connection to the universe when we lose everything or feel unmoored?

I’m guessing these thoughts are pretty universal. Though I do remember Richard Rorty positing that only half the population worried about such things. Does that mean the other half are just kind of normal?

AG: Either that, or half the population can’t pass the Turing test. I mean, if you’re not capable of an existential meltdown, I’m fairly certain you’re pumping synthetic blood and have infrared vision. Anyways, I love the idea of a “hinge moment” in which our subterranean inner lives can’t help but geyser their way to the surface of consciousness. It all sounds a bit hydraulic and Freudian, but I’m totally okay with that.

One thing I often wonder when I’m reading through a short-story collection is which story resonated with the author the most, ie, which story is the author most magnetized and compelled by? So, let me throw this question out in two parts: (1) Which story is your favorite in the collection? Or which is the story that you feel most proud of or compelled by? (2) Which story was the most difficult to write in the collection? And why so?

AB: I like that interpretation of Rorty’s claim. Although, have you truly found that to be the case in your personal life? Like, do half the people in your life just seem to coast through with a relative degree of certainty? I don’t think that’s the case in my life, but I also work in academia and live in Washington, DC. My data set is atrocious.

Anyway, that’s a really interesting question, and I bet the answer changes depending on how long the collection takes to write. For me, I’ve moved through at least three fairly distinct phases of writing, and I have all three types in this collection. Like most humans, I’m most attracted by the shiny new thing, which means my answer is definitely skewed towards my more recent stories. My easy answer is, The Arrival of the Sea, but I’ve already given that answer previously, so I’m going to mix it up. I’m going to say one of the two unpublished stories called, The Subtle Prison. I think the story appeals to me because it blends the realist type of fiction of my earlier work with the fabulist elements that I’m more interested in of late. And, I’m not entirely sure I’ve cracked the code on that story. Maybe this is awful to say, but I think a better story may still be lying beneath the surface of what appears in the collection, and I didn’t have the time to fully find it.

Some of the shorter pieces, Everyone and A Translator’s Note are funny, and one of my thesis advisers was dead set against me using so much humor in my stories. I’m always happy when people say my work is witty or humorous because it lets me know I didn’t entirely lose that side of myself.

As for difficulty, can I say the easiest first? I wrote the story “Forty Days” in basically one sitting, and it was the second short story I’d ever written. I had no idea what I was doing, so it was really easy. Now, I eventually edited the story a lot and changed it over the course of a few years, but I miss the blind optimism of that person sitting in the hallway at 1 am writing a story. What do you think? Do stories get harder the more we think about the nuts and bolts of them? The truth should free us, but I’m not sure it does. Let me give some obnoxious writerly answer. They were all hard because I only got four or five of them right the first time. Thus, every damn story is the result of messing with sentences, outcomes, epiphanies, dialog etc. That answer is a cop out, but I feel it’s mostly true.

AG: You know, I might amend my earlier comment about Rorty and the Turing test. I would say that making mistaken and egregious speculations about the inner nature of other people is a good sign that you’re human, which makes writers, well, super-human.

I’m a big fan of your story, “The Subtle Prison,” so I’m glad you mentioned that piece! Without spoiling the plot, the narrative plays wonderfully with a what-if scenario concerning our knowledge of time and the future. But maybe what I like most about that piece is what you mentioned about it: how the narrative has a double-nature… it begins as a coming-of-age summer story (a “the-boys-are-back-in-town” scenario), and then gradually shifts gears into far more speculative and philosophical territory). It reminds me of a story titled “The Musical Brain” by the writer Cesar Aira where the initial setup is playfully violated and transgressed as the story progresses. I hadn’t really thought about that, but there’s something about stories that can shift gears and almost jump between various genres all in the same narrative that’s quite beautiful and, well, perhaps even more real to the oscillations of life. One minute we’re in a romantic comedy and the next minute we’re in a pandemic movie, be it COVID-19 or ZOVID-21 (a zombie viral apocalypse), etc.

As for your question about whether writing gets harder or not, well, I certainly feel that way! My default mode of writing these days is crawling under the sink and trying to fix the faucet of language that has apparently stopped flowing…again…. I’m sure there’s a healthy balance out there for growing writers who wish to both edit/linger and yet not become paralyzed in perfectionism. I’m also sure I have no idea how to tie that knot.

Let me throw this question your way… What writers are sitting at your bedside table right now? What collections or authors have you picked up lately, and is there any relationship you’re finding between your forthcoming collection One Person Away from You and the kind of writing you’re seeking out in the summer of 2021?

AB: I know that some writers really do struggle with needing to get every line right. I have always been a bit more free form than that. As I said earlier, I just want the feeling to be conveyed correctly, and I tend to think you can do that without hitting every word perfectly, but I’m also willing to be wrong.

Right now I’m in the middle of like 11 books, to be honest. I’m reading Andrew Porter, Amber Sparks, Michael Wang, all collections of short stories. I’m usually reading those alongside something vaguely spiritual, so I just finished a book about Epicureanism and now I’m giving a go at Lucretius. I think my reading is following this tension that arrived with middle-age where I discovered it wasn’t enough for me to just read short stories and novels because inputs matter so much. And though I love the form, it’s pretty rare that a collection helps me to live my life in a more effective way, so I need to be reading in two areas to feel satisfied. Do you read in multiple categories at once?

There is definitely a relationship between having a book coming out and what I’m reading. I think it has made me more aware of this vast understory of really great books that arrive from small presses all the time. I suppose it just wakes you up to the ecosystem a bit when you have your own book coming out. As for inspiration, it really is variable. I am most inspired by playful language and ideas these days. However, I do love reading things that are deeply serious. Those books just don’t wind up inspiring me to write. I’m trying to find some sort of mix between what I want to write and what I wish I was reading. And I’m also limited by own imagination. What have you read lately that interest you?

AG: That’s awesome – I feel like the ability to spread the mind like a tent over 11 books at once is a feat I would definitely like to improve on. I imagine there’s cross-pollination effect to the process, where one story will speak to another story which will speak to some passage in Lucretius’ 2000-year-old poem about the fear of death.

I love your point about fiction as both an excellent and refreshing reservoir and yet also a body of water that won’t slake every thirst we have for meaning and “how to live” (note: I didn’t mean for that metaphor to get so unwieldy… I have a condition… “metaphoritis”… incurable, obviously…). Anyway, I’m a bit jealous of poetry as it seems easier in poetry to be both literary and philosophical (poets can be prophets in a way that prose writers can’t be?). Who is the fiction equivalent of Whitman? I’m sure there is one, but the answer is eluding me at the moment…

As for myself, I’ve been reading some nonfiction recently, generally involving thinking itself and what the hell thinking really is. One neat book I’ve discovered is titled “The Society of the Mind” by Marvin Minsky.

Let me throw one last question your direction before we wrap up here… What are you working on now? What writing projects can we expect from Andrew Bertaina in the near future? A novel? More fantastic short stories? A choose-your-own-adventure memoir?

AB: First off, I think Borges and Iris Murdoch pop into my mind as writers who try and thread the philosophic and literary together. that said, I agree that poets can do it on the fly and no one bats an eye. It gets sort of unwieldy in prose in a way that it doesn’t seem to in poetry. I’m also jealous of poets and lightly working in the form lately because of the freedom from constructions.

I mean, I think we need forms to help give our thinking shape, but it’s also nice to take a brief break from more structured thinking to let your mind wander. Borges is really concerned with structure. I’ll have to pick up The Society of the Mind as I’m also fascinated by thinking. I’ve always had rather cyclical or useless thought unless I’m engaged in a conversation or writing.

Right now I’m trying to work on some longer stories to wrap up a second collection. I’ve become interested in the more fabulist elements in narrative, so I’m trying to work my way through a set of longer stories that incorporate elements of science fiction or fables while still being literary. We are in an age of that cross pollination being accepted again as literary.

But also, I love the essay form, and I’m always working on a few of those. I adore your idea of a memoir as choose-your-own-adventure. I was thinking of trying to write a memoir through answers to a series of questions. This is purely hypothetical. Per where I started, I wanted to think through what form would give shape to something as vague and shapeless as a life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s