Conversations in the Author's Corner: Andrew Bertaina
About the Book: One Person Away From You is a collection of stories that oscillates between the fantastic and the familiar: for every woman who turns into a swan, there’s a man who bungles a romantic relationship in Italy; for every sky that rains a torrent of laughter, there’s a husband reminiscing about his honeymoon. Above all, the stories explore our common lot of lostness and longing, our question of whether our life and loves are the right ones or the product of some cosmic error. Whether it’s a sea appearing suddenly in a bone dry valley, an angel musing on his relationship with a mortal woman, or a narrator yearning for an absent lover the deeply emotional stories search for meaning
Throughout this collection, characters and entire towns search through the constructs of identity, time, fairy tales, and love letters, to find the flicker of constancy in the sea of change that is human life. Winner of the 2020 Moon City Short Fiction Award.
About the Author: Andrew Bertaina lives in Washington, DC, and has an MFA from American University. His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness, Redivider, Orion, Moon City Review, and The Best American Poetry.
Kiera Wolfe: I’d love to start by talking form! The collection is incredibly wide-ranging and experimental– David Keplinger highlights “prose poems, flash fictions, journalistic parodies, and fabulist histories that often begin with some premise or conceit from a known form.” We’ve got dating apps, Cosmo, book forwards. How do you approach form when drafting? Is it often the point of inspiration for a particular story?
Andrew Bertaina: A lot of the writing that I did when I took a long break from “writing” was on a blog. The blog [as a form] is no longer a thing, but at the time, it gave me a post-MFA freedom to mess around every day. One of the stories, “Courtesy Cosmopolitan,” [began as] just, Oh, that’s funny, they always have these lists. What if I created a list form? Free writing became a way to get myself to write. And that’s become more popular, particularly with flash. I realized there was a lot more room for creativity than we had talked about in my MFA program, where The New Yorker-type 20-25 page short story was predominant.
KW: The collection has a notable texture to it, transitioning between flash pieces and longer stories. How was the transition from writing those more traditional pieces to flash?
AB: Matthew Klam and Miranda July are two writers whose collections feature some longer stories interspersed with voice-y shorter pieces. They were still around 9-10 pages but not 20-25. I [learned] you can have a story that’s mainly driven by interiority and voice. For me, that’s an easier skill than the traditional short story. When I really have to get the gears turning on a short story, it’s hard! I remember the last story I wrote for my program, it’s in the book, but I knew [at the time] it was bad. I had to edit it so much to make it good. I was like, I need to give texture, I need to do research, I need to nail what the city looks like and all these different things.
KW: It’s a completely different lens of focus. Something that stands out to me about your work is the economy. The flash pieces feel stripped down to the barest elements to get at what is most important. The characters are often amorphous or notably not present, the use of pronouns vague or purposefully slanted, and the stark, attentive details really shine in contrast. How do you think about the relationship between story, character, and these more concrete observations?
AB: I think my experience of the world is inflected by the sense that things are a little absurd and a little hard to figure out. My characters often embody that to a further extent than I do in my actual life. But that is an extension of a worldview where it’s really hard to put all these things together and make sense of it when you step back to abstraction and get out of your day-to-day life. That’s often the struggle for my characters – once they step away from their workaday world, relationship, or absurd office job, it gets hard to say, what am I up to here? I meditate and practice Buddhism, so I have my own questions about how solid the sense of self actually is. Having that come out in my writing has been valuable for me. To some extent, that’s [also] what’s coming out with the characters – how difficult it is to know other people, how difficult it is to know oneself. There’s an inconsistency, or amorphousness, intentionally attached to that worldview. But you need concrete details, and the world itself is concrete. Concrete details in the beauty of the world should be shining through in my stories as it actually does in our lives. Those are things we’re a part of, whether we know it or not, when we don’t, when they’re not as abstract as they are, we are a part of that world, in my mind. Those are things the characters can attach to, because they can’t usually attach to a sense of self or find that sense of identity strongly in the world.
When it comes to the flash pieces, I think it’s inflected by a kind of poetic image-driven form. I’ll find an emotion and use it to write a story. What you lose in the flash piece is that rounded sense of character where you can see the person in multiple perspectives and multiple modes. You’d get a fuller picture of who they are and the way they negotiate that self in these different structures. And if we take that out and ask, what are they strongly feeling on this one evening or moment in time? They’re feeling lonely or excited or energetic, and I’ll use that emotion to actually drive the story. But then, because people are malleable, you are also usually only getting one spectrum of what I would consider to be something a little larger.
KW: The philosophical elements really come through. Often in a surprising way – how do these philosophical realizations function as turning points in your work?
AB: I’m an essay writer too, and I want that kind of musing. In a traditional story, there’s a hinge point driven by something in the plot – an internal realization, something external that makes [the character] have this internal reflection – in some ways, I mimic that. Often it’s people who are at that hinge point, and that philosophical abstraction is what leads them to act, or, in many cases in my stories, not act. You can have a moment when you choose not to change. Often you only notice these changes in retrospect. After the fact, when you’re thinking back and revising something, you’re using the meta commentary of memory. Suddenly you realize that was actually the moment of change. So in the story “The Arrival of the Sea,” there’s a meditation on the sea arriving, on midlife, but the narrator has already gone through it. He’s looking at it through the spectrum of [a hinge point]. That’s different from what I was taught. I often have a character who, only in retrospect, realizes that the big thing was happening. Which has been my experience in adult life.
KW: How do you think about the second person? Combined with the absence of names, it gives the collection a haunting quality.
AB: I like that the second person creates a sense of immediacy. What you asked about names is interesting, I was just drafting a short story and noticed I never name the main character. For me, there is a kind of resistance. I would link it back to this question of identity, who are we as people? There is a cultural [expectation] that it’s determined by where you grew up, who you surround yourself with, your race, your gender, your economic status. Of course you’re defined by all of these things, and my characters are, but I’m resistant to saying exactly who they are. Because I think it could, under a different set of circumstances, shift or change. And I think that’s where the resistance comes from. A resistance to this idea that the character is defined.
KW: Finally, for the Author’s Corner project, we’re promoting authors who have published with small, indie presses. Could you talk us through your publication process?
AB: The University of Arkansas Press is the main overarching press, but I won the Moon City Award in Short Fiction in 2020 from the Moon City Press. Contests are hard because a lot of people are submitting, but they’re a great way to get your foot in the door as a new writer. Especially because the Big Five [publishers] aren’t always looking at short story collections. Indie presses and new university presses are a great thing to research and know about, and contests are a great way to apply. In my case with my press, I got a lot of input on the cover art. They gave me three different sketches and I got to choose what I thought best represented my work. I was pretty involved in the process of what the book looked like and think it was really great. That’s often the case at smaller presses, you get that kind of attention you probably wouldn’t get elsewhere. I hope people educate themselves about the opportunities small and university presses give, because they’re incredibly supportive of their authors and are going to care about your work. My experience was really, really positive.
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About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.