Marie-Helene Bertino Talks Late-Night Jazz, Gritty Philadelphia, and 'Cat's Pajamas,' 12 Years in the Making

“There's a smallness, a miracle on a small canvas, that has to happen in a short story, and I've tried to translate that into a novel,” says seasoned short story-writer Marie-Helene Bertino, whose debut novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas (Crown) was released this month. And indeed, Cat’s Pajamas is a debut filled with tiny, intimate moments shared between the characters of her eccentric cast and the gritty city of Philadelphia in which their lives unfold on one snowy Christmas Eve eve.

There’s Madeleine Altimari, the precocious 9-year-old, who recently lost her mother and wants nothing more than to grace the stage of the legendary Cat's Pajamas club and showcase the stunning voice she inherited from her mother; there’s Jack Lorca, the club’s owner, who’s fending off law enforcement to keep its doors open; and Sarina Greene, the young, recently divorced middle school teacher who just might end her night there in the arms of an old high school flame. Oh, and there's also Pedro, a dog afflicted with wild wanderlust; Alex, Lorca’s musically talented teenage son; and Mrs. Santiago, the motherly widow and local diner matron who may or may not be an alien. 

Their lives intertwine in charming, unexpected ways in this imaginative novel in which Bertino showcases her willingness to take risks as a writer. Raw yet tender, feisty yet heartfelt, and told in Bertino’s affectingly sparse prose, Cat's Pajamas is an enchanting read that pulses with a hypnotizing magic from start to finish, leaving readers starry-eyed and reminded that even the messiest of days are filled with magical moments.  

I chatted with Bertino about her debut, Philly jazz clubs, late night adventures, and the challenges of novel-writing amid multiple jobs and brutal belittlers.

BUSTLE: You have a ton of brilliant short stories under your belt, but this is your first novel. What inspired you to choose this particular story for your novel debut?

MARIE-HELENE BERTINO: My two friends who are both really amazing guitarists took me to an open mic jazz night at a place called Warmdaddy's in Philadelphia. It’s a place where guitarists like them can go up on stage with venerable jazz musicians, plug in, and play and I was really inspired by that. I remember thinking I would love to write a novel that feels the way this night does. And it only took me 12 years to figure out how to do it. 

I think in part you achieve that sensation, that immediacy, of one epic night in the way you chose to format the book, creating a chronological timeline where each chapter is a designated moment in time. How did you decide on this format and was that difficult to write this way?

It was, but it was also very helpful. The novel started out, in one of its incarnations, in three parts. It was basically the same day told three times over, focusing in on a different character, and that was fine. I liked it, however, it was a lot to go through the entire day and then start right at the beginning again when you got to the next section, so I decided instead to lay them over one another, to have the same day with the three different storylines happening at the same time. That format actually brought a lot of creative goodness to the surface. I realized as they were living their days out, the people they were passing were also starting to feel interesting, so I started going into the heads of passersby and that is when I think it became really exciting and started to achieved that immediacy of the 24-hour ride. 

I know you’re a Philadelphia native, but what is your relationship with the city? Why did you choose to set your first novel there and how did you hope to convey it?

How do I feel about Philadelphia? Wow, that's interesting. I haven’t really thought about that in a while… I left Philadelphia after college and I travelled around for a year — lived in San Francisco for a bit — but I always wanted to move to New York, so that's what I did. Then as soon as I got to New York, I started feeling really unexpectedly homesick for Philadelphia. And it was so funny, I never thought I would write about it, but that's exactly what I did. It was like I had to go away for a minute to really be able to see it. 

There’s a brattiness in Philadelphia and a grittiness that I really liked. It’s a city with its own specific personality and I thought if I could get that personality through on the page, through the vehicle of a couple different characters, that would be really cool. 

There’s a brattiness in Philadelphia and a grittiness that I really liked. 

Any specific research you did to prepare? Like wandering through the jazz clubs of Philly? 

I still have friends who live in Philadelphia, so I would visit them and walk around and look for street names, but also, I wanted to write about music because I've grown up loving music and I had some experience with singing. I already loved the people who make music and I was a music writer for three years when I first got to New York, so I had that experience already. When it came time to put the finishing touches on the book, I took guitar lessons, interviewed musicians, and read a lot of autobiographies about jazz musicians.

How do you think your experience as a seasoned short story writer affected the way you wrote your first novel? 

One of the nicest things that someone has said to me so far is that she felt that this book was written by someone who has a "short story sensibility." I was really complimented by that, though I couldn't even tell you what it means. I think that there's a smallness, a miracle on a small canvas that has to happen in a short story, that maybe I've tried to translate into a novel, into the novel's small moments.

I think that there's a smallness, a miracle on a small canvas that has to happen in a short story.

Why did you choose Christmas Eve eve as the day this story unfolds? 

Because holidays are really charged. We have a lot of energy and expectations around them and for that reason they are really disappointing. But then the days leading up to a holiday are kind of like non-days, supposed to be for preparation. They’re like limbo and I feel like no one expects anything great to happen on one of those days. In that way, I felt like that's exactly when something meaningful and important would actually happen, and so I was like, Yeah, I'm going to set it on a day that's before the day that is supposed to mean something. That's when I felt like a miracle could actually happen. 

How did you choose these three quirky characters — Madeleine, Lorca, and Sarina — each very different from one another, to tell the story you envisioned?

They do kind of spread out nicely across the spectrum, don’t they? I didn’t deliberately do that, although I probably did it subconsciously. It started out with Lorca, the whole story was told from his first person perspective, and that really, really wasn't working. So I started with him and then I had this image of these two dancers coming home from a late night of dancing, being really eccentric and erratic, dancing around a courtyard and waking up a little girl who comes out of her building, and then they have this charming little talk with one another. I wrote that as a poem many years ago — a really bad poem — but I loved the idea of these two eccentric characters waking up this little girl and then having this almost J.D. Salinger-type conversation. Those two eccentric characters became Sarina and Ben. And the little girl, who turned out to be really interesting to me — obviously that was Madeleine — she became what I would consider the main character of the story. 

Was it fun writing her character? A bold, ballsy little girl?

I never thought I'd want to. I was always like, Oh god, the last thing I'll be able to do is write a kid. They can sometimes be too cute or too precious, so I made her a jerk with a really foul mouth just so I could relate to her more.

I made her a jerk with a really foul mouth just so I could relate to her more.

Which character in your novel do you identify with most?

I think someone asked me if I felt very close to Madeleine — if she's the character most like me — and she's not really. We share a foul mouth and a fear of roaches, but she's much more ballsy than I am. I feel like Pedro the dog and I have a lot in common because I have an incurable wanderlust. I always want to be out and about meeting people and seeing new places, so my personality is in fragments here and there. I've kind of strewn them across the novel… but Pedro! 

I also relate to Sarina because I admire that she is at the beginning of a new life. It’s almost like her first life has finished and now she's in the process of building her life back up brick by brick and I admire and relate to that as well. 

Which character do you think changes the most over the course of the night? 

I think Lorca because Lorca is somebody who the difference between what he wants and what he thinks he wants, the difference between those two things for him, is way greater than any of the other characters. He begins the story thinking that he wants to run the club for the rest of his life, just like his forbearers have done, but what he really wants is a fulfilling relationship with his son. He wants to be a good dad, and so he has the furthest to go in the novel. 

Your writing style is impressively spare and direct and that makes it totally readable. Is that a technique you maintain out of conscious effort and practice or have you always written that way naturally? 

I think a little of both. I do like spare, direct writing. I find that my work comes across best when it's as unadorned as possible, so I do try to keep the accessories to a minimum. Plus, since I am bending the laws of physics here and there, I feel that if I had floral, fragrant, complicated, decorated writing and then I also had people turning into aliens, that would just be overload. I think my head would explode. 

What’s your writing process like? How do you hunker down and get going when you’re writing? 

I prefer to write in the morning if I possibly can, but I've always written around full-time jobs or several part time jobs, so I write when I'm able to. I wrote most of this novel on a minimized screen at a full-time job in New York. I don't recommend it, but if you have to do it, you have to do it. And I mean so much so that my boss called me over and said, “I know you're writing a novel on a minimized screen on your desk, but can you please try to be a little less obvious about it?"

My boss called me over and said, “I know you're writing a novel on a minimized screen on your desk, but can you please try to be a little less obvious about it?"

Did you write most of it in short, inspired snippets?

There were a lot of different incarnations of this novel. I can’t even tell you how many master copies I have on my computer — there are at least 30. I was like, Okay, this is the way the novel should be and then Iater, I was like, No, it shouldn’t be … I tried all different combinations until I realized that it had to be third person omniscient. I wish I had just done it like the way you see it in a Stephen King movie where the guy sits down in front of a typewriter, types the whole thing out, writes “THE END,” and then sends it to his editor. Maybe that will happen on the next novel, but it certainly didn't happen for this one. 

 What is your favorite part of the writing process? 

When things connect and turn out to be greater than the sum of their parts. One of the things I think was a great surprise was the dinner party scene at 7 p.m. I was thinking, Should I present this whole thing in its entirety? That would be crazy, and then as soon as I thought that, I thought, Oh yes, I definitely have to do that. Because to me, that's the novel itself sitting down to have supper. It just fits so well with what I'm trying to say about our actual lives. 

I wish I had just done it like the way you see it in a Steven King movie where the guy sits down in front of a typewriter, types the whole thing out, writes “THE END,” and then sends it to his editor. 

Which scene was the most challenging to write? 

Lorca's ending scene was difficult for me to write. ... I was walking my dog and a couple of guys who own a bodega down the street were flying this plane in the middle of the street. They were all really excited about it and it would fly for a second and then it would hit a car and they'd run over to it and turn it back around and try to get it to fly again. I’m standing there and I’m like, Oh my gosh that has to be the end of Lorca's scene. That's it right there. At that point we were late into the game, so I can't write a new scene right now, it’s kind of late, but then I was like No, that’s what it is. This was put in front of me for a reason, so that's exactly what I had to do.

I didn’t want it to end with “and now everything's fine.” I wanted it to be, “No, it's going to take a lot for him.” This novel is not about the day where everybody's life gets great. This is the novel about one of those nights that feels really awesome and then the next morning everything is pretty much the same. I wanted them to write on the book: “This is a novel about the night where nothing changes” but for some reason they said, “Yeah, we're not gonna do that.”

Who are some of your favorite writers? 
There's this writer Ted Thompson who wrote The Land of Steady Habits. That was so great. Manuel Gonzales who wrote The Miniature Wife, absolutely lovely. And then the writers who inspire me: Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver. I'm looking at my books right now. George Saunders, Etgar Keret, Deb Olin Unferth. She's incredible. She really writes the way it feels to be a woman. She writes about daughterhood, which I love.

It took me many, many years to realize that I could be me and still write a novel.

Do have any advice for writers working on their debuts? 

Don't listen to all of the reasons that pile up that tell you that you shouldn't be writing your first novel. The best advice I've ever gotten is the simplest, which is just "keep writing." Through all of the obstacles, all of the late payments and horrible bills, all of the people who don't understand why you're doing it, all the people who belittle you in specific and subtle ways, you have to just keep writing. Just keep doing it because you're not doing it for them and you're not doing it even to get to a high place or earn a huge reward. If you're doing it because you have to be doing it, doing it because you love it, you'll get there as long as you keep writing. 

Did you always picture yourself writing a novel? 

No, not necessarily a novel. I felt like you had be Hemingway to write a novel, and it took me many, many years to realize that I could be me and still write a novel. It was a pleasant surprise to be able to be devoted and loyal to something for 12 years even though there was no earthly reason telling me that it was a good idea.

Must Reads