Monday, November 25, 2013

My First Time: Marie-Helene Bertino

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Marie-Helene Bertino.  Her debut collection of short stories, Safe as Houses, received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published in Fall 2012.  It has been long-listed for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and The Story Prize, and was included in Top Ten Books of 2012 by Huffington Post, Library Journal and Largehearted Boy.  Bertino received the Pushcart Prize in 2007 and a Pushcart Special Mention in 2011.  Her debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas,will be published in August 2014 by Crown.  For more information, please visit

My First Novel

A little over a year ago, University of Iowa Press published my first collection of stories, Safe as Houses.  A year from now, Crown will publish my first novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas.  However, neither one is my first book.  I wrote my first book in a feverish daze over one summer, in the pages of a 3-Subject copybook when I was 12.  It is called “The Dream Crystal.”

I started writing “The Dream Crystal” in our tiny house in Philadelphia, made tinier by that city’s unforgiving humidity.  I continued at my grandmother’s house on the New Jersey bay, where my mother would deposit me for the bulk of the summer so I could know something other than a city.  Granny refused to let me stay inside all day, so she enrolled me in tennis lessons.  When I wasn’t walloping a ball against the garage wall, I was writing.  We’d spend every night in; she working a crossword, me writing, the pleasant din of Wheel Of Fortune in the background.

I had already begun to submit my poetry to The New Yorker and had already received two perfect rejection letters, brandished with the official ombudsmen that made me feel like a real girl of letters.  Dear The New Yorker, I’d write, enclosed please find the only copy of my poem, “Bunnies On The Lawn.”  I thank you in advance for publishing my work.  Signed, Marie Bertino, Grade 6.

In “The Dream Crystal,” Julianna is given amnesia by an Evil Sorceress.  Unbeknownst to her, she is the true queen of the fairy world, named “Neshaminy” after a mall near where I grew up.  I liked the knotty beginning of the “Nesh” and the whimsical tumble it took at the end in “shaminy.”  Perfect name for a world remarkably similar to Narnia, one of the countless fantasy books I was obsessed with.   I wanted Julianna to have spunk and guts like Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron series.  I also wanted her to have true friends, like Nancy Drew's compatriots Bess and George: the former, whose hair was always curling girlishly around her bright eyes, and the latter, who had no breasts and was always suggesting they play some kind of sport.  I wanted to write brutal descriptions of the Evil Sorceress' eunuch henchmen, holding crimson torches in the dead night.  I wanted to use the word “crimson” as much as humanly possible.  When I thought of the phrase, “her bitter cackles filled the room,” a thrill coursed in my veins.  By myself on couches, on the bench at tennis practice, in waiting rooms at doctor’s appointments Granny would drag me to, I exulted in the world I was building.

As the copybook's pages began to fill with my careful, hard-pressed cursive, it became a sacred object.  There are people who have not touched the hollow of their lovers' backs with as much tenderness as I used to hold that copybook.  Where's my book? was something you'd never hear me say because it was either strapped to my person, or else I was aware of its exact location.  I'd run my hand over the pages, mutilated with ink.  The deep grooves felt important, better than anything I could buy.  To me, my copybook was a sentient being, with a heart and a soul just like the members of my family.

In September, I returned to the city and entered the 7th grade: hair frizzy, teeth bucked, denim jacket bursting with Monkees pins, body sporting curves I didn’t understand.  By then the copybook was filled.  I let my friends read it, two at a time, during supervised shifts in the schoolyard.  I informed them in reverent tones that I had named characters after them, expecting them to be wowed.  To their credit, they didn't care much.  “Cool,” they said.  They looked for their names then got bored, drifting off to games of hopscotch or double dutch.

One otherwise magicless afternoon in October, my teacher announced that a local library was having a “Write and Illustrate Your Own Book Contest.”  The due date was the following month and the manuscript had to be typed.

I had learned to type on my grandmother’s manual Olympia so that was no problem.  However, the small typewriter could only handle poems and occasional letters to The New Yorker, and we didn’t have money for a computer.  We had so little money that my mother taught me  “creative bill paying” which meant paying every bill that said FINAL NOTICE and putting the rest in a drawer.  That night, I explained to her that whatever it took I had to find a way to type out my book.  By then my mother knew that creativity was a serious enterprise to me.  There was going to be no life for me other than the one creativity forged.  Somehow she conjured up $300 so we could buy a word processor.  I remember picking it out at Sears and trying it, the abbreviated “screen” that lay flat on top of the keyboard only able to show a few words at a time.

I spent the next month waking up early and typing the book before school.  I was restless in class, anxious to get home to continue.  Swim practice then home to type.  Softball, home to type.  The growing stack of pages became another sacred object I would marvel at, run my hands over.  When it was finished, “The Dream Crystal” was 105 pages, 109 including my meticulous illustrations.  My mother made two copies on the machine at her work, beginning a long tradition of covertly using office resources to support my writing.  I sent the envelope to the library then prayed that the books every other 12-year-old had written over the summer wouldn't compare to mine.

Buried in this story about my first novel is the story of my first acceptance.  I’ve spent many hours of my life hoping to get published in this place or that, and most of them have been in vain.  But this one ended happily.   The woman from The Huntingdon Valley Library called to tell me my book won.  Though there had been other entries, I was apparently the only 12-year-old who had spent their summer vacation writing a book.  I was shocked.  “The Dream Crystal” was bound and placed in the library’s stacks, where you can still find it to this day.

That was the first year they offered that prize.  It is on its 23rd year now.  My stack of New Yorker rejections is a little higher.  It is common for homes to have computers now, though probably not as common as we assume.  There are still many people who do without, and sometimes when I use the Internet I feel very far away from my grandmother.  However not much has changed as far as my writing goes.  I still write by hand.  I still feel exulted when I figure out a good way to say what I want to say.  I still write before and after and sometimes during the obligations and jobs that make me valid and recognizable to the rest of the world.  It still shocks me that not everyone wants to spend their paid vacations writing.  Their weeknights.  Their weekends.  Their early mornings.  I still run my fingertips over the deeply grooved pages and feel unutterable joy on the days when the writing is good, on the days when the writing is bad.

Recently, I asked my mother how she scrounged together that money to buy that word processor.  She doesn't remember. “I'm sure we went without food that week,” she said, laughing.