Ask the Author: Andrew Bertaina
What would you like readers to know about you?
Well, I have two lovely children who are a big part of my life. My mother used to read to me as a child night after night, and I try and do the same with them, trying to create that same sense of magic that was awakened in me when my mother read The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. Secondarily, I got my MFA in creative writing a number of years ago and had even given up on writing for a few years when my children were very young. It became too difficult to balance parenting and creative work. But I’m very thankful that I came back to writing.
I suppose literature has always meant a great deal to me, and I’m glad that this collection is coming out as a culmination of my growth as a writer and thinker over the fourteen years since I first started thinking seriously about writing until now. Of course, because the stories span such a long period of time the thinking and characterization evolved. However, I left many of the older stories unchanged, and I think it’s interesting to now see them as a sort of time capsule of myself as a writer and a thinker.
What is your book about for those who haven’t read it?
My books is a collection of stories that are a mixture of the real and the fabulist. They range from 700 words to well over twenty pages. Thematically, the stories are linked by the desire of the narrators to find meaning in life, meaning in love, meaning in the ceaseless meandering of their minds. It’s a book that’s about restlessness, about wondering if the life we are living is the right one or whether we’ve made some crucial mistake along the way, missed a conversation or an opportunity that would have put us on a different path.
A lot of the stories revolve around the difficulty of finding and remaining in a loving and supportive relationship while retaining a robust sense of self. The stories tend to be more in the realm of seeking than in finding concrete answers. I should mention here that some of them are humorous. The world may not be all that funny, but it certainly needs humor to keep it afloat, and I have some narrators who are interested in the dark comedy of negotiating existence.
What has been your inspiration for writing it?
My inspiration has been my curiosity and active mind. At best, I’ve always been fascinated by the decisions that we make, the quiet calculations, and the interplay between chance and our own will. By writing, I’m able to explore that tension, muck around in the gray areas that are a central part of our lives but that we often avoid talking back because struggle still isn’t a part of regular American discourse.
Beyond that, I just love the reality that I can use anything I’ve learned in writing. My kids and I can watch an episode of Cosmos or I can remember a scene from Planet Earth of a bird of paradise dancing crazily and bring it into my work. I can learn about neuropsychology and have a character use that learning to try and come to grips with an awful decision. It’s incredibly rare to find a career or hobby that allows you to bring your whole being to bear on it.
And I just like the feeling of writing, inhabiting that creative space that all humans, in my opinion, have. It’s a place of quiet, a strange place, and it’s nice to live in it, to think in that otherworldly space, as though I’m submerged. When I was a child, I used to love to read books in the bathtub with the loud fan turned on, blotting the rest of the world out. In a way, I am sometimes able to accomplish that during a writing session, what we’d now call the flow state.
What was your favorite scene or part of your book to write?
Well, since mine is a collection of stories it’s somewhat hard to choose a favorite scene. As I was engrossed in fabulist stories, I become really interested in a story, “The Arrival of the Sea,” which was navigating familiar and mysterious terrain simultaneously for me. In the story, a sea slowly appears in a previously dry valley because it’s drawn on a map in a distant country. As the sea appears, the people all realize that perhaps they’ve been missing something obvious in their lives as well. In a way, the sea is like the lives of the people in this town, waiting to be discovered.
I suppose I think a lot of our lives are like that, which is why the story seemed relevant to me. It was a way of turning back towards a central theme in my work in a new way. The last scene is the narrative suddenly turning from a first-person plural we to a particular I, and that I reflecting on the changes in his life, the passage of time, the inevitability of progress, but problematizing that progress too, wondering if it will result in meaningful change.
What books or authors inspired you to become a writer?
I was initially inspired by the classics. I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude in my early twenties, and I found myself completely unmoored, inhabiting a world related to ours and somehow more fully realized, more interesting and stranger. As it often does, it took a while for these books to marinate in my conscience, and I realized I was interested in trying the same thing. On the one hand, it was incredibly naïve, but I’m thankful for the naivete or I’d have never tried to write. Imagine picking up Tolstoy and thinking, maybe I’ll do that too? The hubris!
I should say that I’ve been inspired by a variety of authors since then George Saunders, Kelly Link, Natalia Ginzburg, Jorge Luis Borges, Yiyun Li, Deborah Levy, the list could continue in perpetuity. I still rely on authors, past and present to keep me interested in the project of writing, in solving the riddle of human experience, our relationships, our entanglements, our failures and our dreams. And then the deeper question of how best to represent the miracle and sad suffering of any life? For instance, some of my more recent influences rely on using fabulism, where the spectacular runs adjacent to the real, illuminating spaces that are missed by mere reality.
I’m thankful that writers continue to write, to inspire me, to craft interesting sentences and words and characters that come back to me sometimes as though they are people I have met in my actual life. I mean, who could read Edith Wharton’s Age Of Innocence and not reflect on the difficulty of navigating marriage, societal expectations, and the desires of the heart?
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who want to write a book?
My advice to aspiring authors is that it takes a lot of patience to write a book. I imagined that a writing career either took off or you found something else to do when I was in my early twenties. Writing isn’t a career with much chance of a quick benefit. It doesn’t have to be a labor of love, but it does involve labor and a lot of rejection. In a strange way, writing has helped me to reshape or slightly amend my relationship to rejection. It’s a big part of the writing life.
The other piece of advice I’d offer is that writers should write the story they are interested in. It might sound simple, but you can sometimes find yourself in a writing group or a program that has a particular idea of what your style should be. Find the voices you trust and edit according to them, but you also need to trust the story you want to tell.
I started off writing realist short stories and have found myself often writing fabulist stories as the years have gone by. Now, for whatever reason, that has become the trend in literary fiction. Maybe we all got bored of realist narrative at the same time. Honestly, it’s not something I’ve given enough thought to. However, the generic advice of writing what you want to is true, in part because the career is so labor intensive and low in recognition and monetary rewards.
I hope I don’t sound too jaded. I really love writing because I can use anything I’ve learned and include it in a story, and I think that’s a real draw. Don’t limit yourself! Be excited about your own particular experience and conscious experience in life. It’s unique, and it’s what will set your work apart even as it is in dialogue with the tradition of the novel, short story, poem, or essays that have come before. Above all, persist.
Andrew Bertaina’s short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC, and currently serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.