"I doubt Donald Antrim feels that way": Diane Cook and Marie-Helene Bertino talk revision, realism, reviews -- and secret celebrity audiences

Secrets of the writing life from the authors of "Man v Nature" and "2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas"

Published October 7, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Diane Cook, Marie-Helene Bertino      (Random House/Ted Dodson/Salon)
Diane Cook, Marie-Helene Bertino (Random House/Ted Dodson/Salon)

Diane Cook: I feel like we got set up on a playdate by our mothers (in this case our mothers are agents/publicists/friends.) Like, our mothers met at some school thing and decided their daughters should be friends. Maybe this happened because I was new in town. And in a way I’m new in town—someone with a debut collection, Man V. Nature. You’ve been here longer because you have a one book already out, your excellent story collection Safe as Houses, but you also just put out your debut novel, 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas, so maybe it’s like you just started high school, it’s new, big, different. You know some of the people in your class still, but many more are new to you. I moved a lot so you’ll just have to bear with me and my analogy—most things come back to being a part of/apart from something for me.

Marie-Helene Bertino: Being apart from something seems to be very good preparation for a writer, so I think you’re in great shape already. Welcome to town! I’m happy to act as your literary big sister, showing you how to cuff your jeans and teach you your locker combo. Though I’m relatively new here myself. I still get bullied by the rich, preppy guys. But I know all the janitor’s names.

So when we started talking, one of the first things you said was, Can you believe you get reviewed on galley copies when you've changed it three times since then? Unfair!

It is a bit irksome that anyone would review or judge my novel based on a galley, because I edit up to the very second of the "show."

I did too, which surprised me. Just as the book was wrapping up final edits, I had this urge to change a lot. Like, last chance! I scrambled to “finish” something I’d felt was more or less finished. In retrospect, I realize I was panicking, but it made me think about what it even means to be done with something and what that can look and feel like. I guess I’d always imagined that I’d be sitting there with my inked feather, poised over parchment, dotting my last “i.” Finished. Hand flourish. Voila! And not another word would ever get changed, nor would I want to change anything. I must have thought that to put a book out meant you were certain of every single thing, that each word was exact and perfect which means it will be forever, and I guess for some writers that is true, but it wasn’t true to me. If given the choice, I’d still tinker with some stories. They are mysterious to me in some way still—in a way I like. Maybe being done is just being capable of saying goodbye to it and letting it be something that is both finished and unfinished. Something you’ll read later and both exalt over and find fault with. But then I think, Oh, I doubt Donald Antrim feels that way.

I do think it’s about just saying goodbye. I'm a perfectionist and a former editor for One Story, and panic that one sentence can unravel the thought an entire novel makes. I revised the novel three times since the galley, shaped a section that turned out to be integral in a way I hadn’t anticipated, changed the epigraph, etc... That said, sometimes I get too precious and need to get a beer and relax. If no one took this book out of my hands, I may have slashed it into a three-lined poem:

Jazz happens
People feel things
Snow falls

Exactly. It has to end, but the work still feels fluid until you can get yourself to walk away. Then, maybe it hardens, becomes a real thing that stays in the world. The experience showed me the difference between writing and publishing, which was helpful as a new writer. I thought, Oh, these are actually different endeavours. Not parts of the same thing. Anyway, I love this exercise you’ve created. Imagining, if no one took this book out of my hands, it might read:

People don't know how they feel
about responsibility
Are there monsters/people in those dark trees?

You know,  I just realized I was secretly writing to someone throughout this book. Someone who will stop me on the street and say something like, You like Robert Frost, don't you? And I'd say, How did you know? and the person would say, Well, it's totally obvious from your book! And then we'd recite "Into My Own" to each other. In the book, I hear reverberations from so many parts of life. Like there are little love notes hidden throughout the book for people to find, people I might have shared an experience with, or share a love of some other author with. But my guess is people won’t notice these clues because the way I think or write about shared experiences gets morphed, molded for the purposes of the story, which ultimately doesn’t have anything to do with me; they’re not stories from my life. So maybe they stay secret, those messages. Like small, well-hidden time capsules buried in the book.

Is there a someone you are you secretly writing for when you were writing 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas? Or, maybe not so secretly?

I love this question, and your “Into My Own” fantasy. When I started the novel I definitely wrote for this fictional person, like your Frost amigo, who was brilliant and was going to be my soul mate as soon as he/she read my descriptions of snow falling in an alley, or a moonless night of music, or whatever have you. There were moments I was writing for and maybe toward the friends I grew up with, fair weather friends, Edna Saint Vincent Millay, my mother, my grandmother, family members I’ve never met, Mark Ruffalo. Sometimes I was writing for and toward an idea or question: the idea of true partnership, or how do you hold the feeling of happiness amidst tremendous pain? By the time I reached final edits, so much time had passed that it felt like the fifth set of a Grand Slam finals match. I grew up playing tennis in the playground leagues in Philly. I remember John McEnroe describing a tiebreaker set in a Grand Slam this way: It no longer matters who is bigger, stronger, better-trained, or in possession of better gear. Exhaustion and pain widdles the opponents down to about the same on those tips. What matters only is who wants it most, and the battle becomes between the player and herself. What I’m saying is, with apologies to everyone I love and Mark Ruffalo, by final edits I was writing the book for myself, and for the younger girl I was when I started it.

Oh! And Andre Agassi.

I love that. When did you/why did you start it? And does this have anything to do with your dedication to your mom, which is beautiful and points to what feels like an important moment?

My friend and I were working as housekeepers in Vermont when I started writing it. It began as a poetry cycle about a man and a woman returning home from a night of dancing. I had been having these long, Kerouacian nights in Philadelphia and I was young and romanticizing music and friends and I was homesick.

There were many nights I assumed the book would never become more than a WORD document. I’d call my Mom and skirt around the issue and be bratty and mournful, and she would say very wise things that kept me going. I was broke, broke, broke. And I didn’t want to tell her but she got it out of me. And I wouldn’t take her money because it’s not like she’s a famous writer or a reality star that has boatloads to spare. I told her I couldn’t have her “bailing me out.” And she said, “This is where you and I see things differently. You see it as me bailing you out, and I see it as backing a sure thing. Some people invest in prizefighters, I’ll invest in you.” I thought, if this book ever gets published, that’s what the dedication page will say.

I noticed you dedicated your book to your mother, too. Was she one of the people you were writing to?

I definitely was, though I didn’t realize it at the time, and didn’t for many years. She died right before I started writing the stories that would become this collection. I now see I was writing a lot to explore motherhood, not because I was concerned with becoming one, but because I was interested in her as a mother, as my mother. Because I could no longer ask her questions about herself and how she felt about her life, all I wanted to do was figure it out. I wanted to know all the secret things she’d thought and felt, those good and bad things that make you a full person: if she ever had secret crushes, when she might have hated me, or regretted parts of her life, or wished she’d done something different like be a lawyer or live in Tahiti. Anything. Suddenly there was a whole life I would never be able to access again, knowledge from a life, and so of course I tried to explore it by writing about made up people’s fears, joys, desires, short shrifts and failures. Almost like throwing things at a wall of MOM and seeing what sticks. There is a disconcerting way too that she began to feel less real over time and more like a character, someone I would only know by filling in the blanks by myself. I think we were always mysteries to one another, but mysteries we loved and wanted to solve. I’m keeping up that project even after she is gone.

God, that is a beautiful sentiment. I don’t think I have the words to say how beautiful I think that is. I like to think of you learning more about your mother as you were writing this book. In that way, the relationship continues.


I found your stories to be so surprising, honest, funny and new. A breath of fresh air. I am a huge fan of at least attempting to "make it new." I wondered after reading Man V. Nature if you had ever tried writing more traditionally-contented stories, and what your experience was like if so.

I used to write the dumbest realist stories in college. I read a lot of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Hemingway and all my stories had divorced people even though my parents were happily married. I was writing about people who already existed in stories I read. I was mimicking literature because I didn’t actually know how to create new stuff, and I didn’t really know how to say anything true yet. But I tried not to beat myself up over not being as good as I wanted to be. I was just practicing. I think as I started to pursue a kind of honesty in the writing and characters, I started to learn to mess with the rules of the world. And somehow making a world a little strange allowed me to pursue an honesty that I couldn’t quite access in very realist stories. I found them incredibly limiting. (Editor’s note—here is where MHB while reading, said aloud: “AMEN!”) I just found it harder to explore ideas in worlds that were wholly recognizable to me. I have to abstract them somehow to be able to notice, to see, what is important. It was my way of displacing myself, making myself uncomfortable so I would have to sharpen my gaze in order to get something right. For me, that something was more about ideas.

I’ve heard many writers on the surrealist spectrum cite Hemingway as a daunting obstacle in their understanding that writing could be weird. Additionally, it’s all relative. I remember I wrote what I thought was a very realistic story and turned it into a class and everyone was like, Why is everything you write so insane?! Who are these weirdos? That was very comforting. I knew then that it was just my style, and not anything I was trying to inorganically affect. I get grouchy in the company of people I suspect think that writing is a dress you can try on. However the first person you have to check for being a fraud is yourself.

That is true. I’d say the most realist story in the book is “Meteorologist Dave Santana” and there is a way that I look at that story very differently than the others. I love the story. It’s not me trying on the dress of writing—I know what it is and where it came from, but I always think “one of these things is not like the other.” And yet somehow it seems to fit with the whole, though I’m not sure I could explain with language why. I just knew it did so I kept it in the book. One of those mysteries I liked.

I thought “Meteorologist Dave Santana” fits in brilliantly, in that it makes manifest all of the struggle among neighbors and helping and societal friction in the other stories and embodied it into a very specific character loving (lusting for?) a very specific man with a very specific job. If your other stories were maybe working on a more philosophical level, Dave Santana accomplishes the same thing on the scale of particulars. One alliance between stories in my collection was the relationship between “Free Ham” (a girl loses her house in a fire and wins a ham) and “Safe as Houses” (a bitter English professor robs homes of sentimental knickknacks.) My childhood home was lost in a fire ten years ago. A power surge through a plastic adapter (please everyone, buy rubber) started a fire in my mother’s painting studio that quickly spread to the rest of the house. We lost almost everything, but oddly, it spared a few important, sentimental items. I wondered, what if the fire left all the expensive items but destroyed only the sentimental ones—the photos, the handmade blankets, the macaroni valentines? “Free Ham” then was the positive image and “Safe as Houses” was the negative image of the picture the fire made in my mind. I wonder if your Dave Santana is the positive image of all of the gorgeous, bizarre, fraught ground you explore in the others?

Thank you for explaining it with language! I like that a lot. For me maybe it occurred in reverse. It’s one of the older stories. That I still look at it kind of quizically tells me that the rest of my stories are some kind of reaction to it perhaps. I like to play with new scenarios, skewed rules, but within worlds that are familiar…enough. Part of me must find the residual realism grounding, and maybe that’s necessary. The suburbs, the city, the woods. I use these as signposts. They invite some ease for the reader, but not too much. You still have to be sharp to it, pay attention. I think your writing uses language incredibly well as a tool to keep the reader on his or her toes. It’s both a joy to breeze through, like music, for obvious reasons. But also demanding, not because it’s fussy, but because it comes together in surprising ways and so as readers we have to hold on tight to something lest we be wobbled off our chair. This works so well in both books, actually. It’s interesting because they are such different projects but are instantly recognizable as your books, and so feel part of a larger whole to me. And I actually thought a lot about “Free Ham” as I read 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. There was something very connective about them, though I think I need a moment to think on why.

Good idea. Let’s both take a moment to think. Okay, I’m back. I’ve just circled the room, pet my dog, sipped on a glass of water. I warn people who liked Safe as Houses that 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas sounds different, necessarily. I hope it's because each work listens to itself and so sounds unique. As much as I can I let the characters and content dictate the tone, meter, even the length of sentences, and hope my Singular Voice will infuse all. The project I'm looking toward now is (so far) in first person. I hope by the time it's finished, it will sound exactly like itself.

I’m sure it will, since these first two feel unique, and uniquely yours. I think what I’m responding to is how strong place is in your work. Even as the voice and language, the rhythm of the prose make us feel all wild-limbed and dancey, the place, the surroundings are solid and supportive, like all this energy, all that the characters can put out there, exists in something that was made to contain it. But that place, while solid, is vibrant too… it’s very alive. What influences the way you work with place in your writing?

In The Cat’s Pajamas, place came roaring to the surface, refusing to be ignored. In revision I tracked Philadelphia’s personage on the page, strengthened verbs (“the cars bitch down Market Street,” “puddles yearn toward the sewer”) so that anytime Philadelphia was being described, even in small moments, its character would grow. However the book is also about the place of childhood (Madeleine), a new page (Sarina), and denial (Lorca), and I tracked those “places,” too.

It’s interesting that Philly was bubbling under the surface. Maybe you didn’t even notice it at first as you were writing, but it would not be ignored. I like when the writing whispers to you and seems to have as much sway as your own brain does. We’re being influenced by what we’re writing, the characters and places we’re creating as much as we’re being influenced by all the stuff that came before: what we read, what we’ve been through, what we love, what we hate. You know, I’m thinking back to when we were talking realism. And I have to say, as much as I turned from Hemingway, I still think of him as my guy… Like, my first love even though he was kind of a dick to me. He still, for better or worse, influenced me. Do you have any of those secret influences—ones a reader might not ever recognize or connect you to, but who you know made you the writer you are? This could be a writer or some other thing…

Even as I learn how to make a noun into a verb from Tom Robbins, or how to build suspense into a scene that is seemingly about a man making spaghetti (Haruki Murakami), or phrase sentences in a way that they do not fully crystallize until the very last word (Amy Hempel), I try to keep learning from other genres. I learn how to title from poets. I learn how to juxtapose realism and surreality from filmmakers and photo realistic painters. I guess the most surprising one might be comedians. I have whole stand-up acts memorized, whole episodes of SNL. From them I learn something about timing and delivery and sorrow.

Speaking of influences and other genres, I wonder if your job at This American Life influenced or not influenced anything regarding your writing?

In terms of content, writing fiction is a response to the contraints of working at This American Life. As a fiction writer, I never have to be defeated by the facts; my imagination can always find a way around problems in my stories. Not so when working with journalists and real people (one hopes.) But I think that job has been absolutely instrumental in how I write what I write. A key part of my job was structuring narrative and encouraging clear, unfussy writing. I think you can see these two things in my stories. Even if the worlds are strange, or fable-like, or allegorical, they are pretty traditional narratives. I wrote for rhythm and pacing rather than concision and style, because I still “hear” what I’m writing, and in fact I still read everything out loud to edit and revise. I also tend to favor simpler language in general. On the radio show, we used to cut or rewrite things that sounded too “writerly.” Because writerly, or even a strong voice, didn’t always work on the radio. The ear of the listener really wants plain spokeness. It was a beautiful challenge to create good, lovely writing with spare, clear language day in and day out. And now that I have more freedom, I find for the most part I think I still favor that plain style. It’s hard to know if it was my style that allowed me to fit into the aesthetic of the show, or if the show aesthetic was like some kind of creature that took up residence in my brain. I’ll never know. And I’m curious how it will change as I get further and further from my years at This American Life. All that said, some of my favorite writing to read is voice driven, whever every word has weight, which is one of many reasons I love your work. All the characters I encounter in your work, though different, seem to have this insistence to them, this insistence that they be heard.

If I didn’t already, I see very clearly why our Moms set up this play date! My experience as an editor taught me the magic of trimming. Speaking of Hemingway, one thing that banty rooster was good for was elucidating this topic: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Though he made me think you had to go to war to be a writer, I forgive Hemingway for this reminder that emotions can come through just as clearly with economy. It’s amazing how shearing can reveal the absolute scorching heart of a story in such a surprising way it feels supernatural. That’s one of the magic tricks of fiction—a well-chosen phrase can accomplish more sometimes than a chapter of fluff. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. To quote a new upstart in town: Finished. Hand flourish. Voila!

By Diane Cook

Diane Cook's fiction has been published in Harper's Magazine, Granta, Tin House, Zoetrope, Guernica and elsewhere. She was the 2012 winner of the Calvino Prize for fabulist fiction. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and on the radio show This American Life, where she worked as a producer for six years. She lives in Oakland, California.

MORE FROM Diane Cook

By Marie-Helene Bertino