The week that SNR contributor Andrew Bertaina spoke with Sierra Nevada Review, he had just found the holy grail: one of his flash fiction pieces had recently been published by Tin House, one of America’s most prestigious literary journals. Bertaina spoke with one of SNR’s managing editors about this latest publishing success, his writing process, and his feelings on the future of the printed page.
Michael Fischer: Walk me through the conception of “One Person Away From You.” What were you trying to accomplish with the piece? When you sat down to write it, what was the goal?
Andrew Bertaina: When I think about that piece—which I actually wrote a number of years ago—the process of writing it involved waking up really early in the morning and writing. Which I almost never do, for various reasons—kids and stuff—but even back then I didn’t do it. And I found that my attention is a resource that gets used up throughout the course of the day. When I wrote that piece, I found that when I woke up really early in the morning I had a really clear vision and singular voice that carried me through. I wrote it over the course of about a week’s worth of time in hour-long writing sessions.
I think if I have a skill or talent in writing it’s conveying a feeling of loneliness, and I think that something about being up in the morning and having no one else up in the house with me and then doing things—there’s a part in there where the narrator hears somebody showering next door. That was just apartment living, which I was doing myself at that point in time: up early in the morning, and you’re feeling that sense of loneliness, and then hearing someone else’s shower go on, or seeing somebody across the way in your apartment building, and that immediate experience of not knowing anything that’s going on with them at all, and then imagining your way into their life. Which I feel is a part of what we’re up to in fiction anyway, crossing over that barrier.
MF: When you say you were writing in one hour increments, did you get a whole draft in one hour or did you literally write it in pieces?
AB: I wrote it incrementally over the course of about a week. And then of course I always go back and edit things. It’s hard because people talk about, “How many drafts do you do?” And I’m like, “I’m not sure,” because I’ll read through the beginning over and over and over. The first paragraph often gets read 20, 30 times or something like that. Because I feel that you have to read your way into the piece in order to get the voice, and I find for anything longer, I have to do that. In the course of about a week I had my rough draft.
Plot-wise, not a lot changed, which is often true for me. I write on an inspiration and I just go from point A to point Z, and then I spend the majority of the time after that first draft fixing sentence structures, pulling up or pulling out metaphors and things like that.
MF: You mentioned finding the voice of a piece. I think writing convincingly in the voice of the opposite sex is something that many writers just can’t do well. How did you approach that challenge? Were you very conscious of writing through the perspective of a woman, or did you just let the voice flow and trust that it was going to be authentic?
AB: More the latter, though I am always hesitant. It’s funny because this is a piece that I had workshopped and one of my friends said, “Did you just follow me around for a day?” And it was a female friend. I was very close friends with my mother and I was very close to my sister growing up, so part of it is that I have an easier relationship often with women. I think my primary relationship for a long period of time in my life was my mother. In some ways, my experience of her was the loneliness of being a single parent. I think just seeing that, when I start writing in that voice—which like I said, if I have a thing that I often do it’s often writing about loneliness—I feel comfortable.
Beyond that, some feelings are universal to the human experience and I would say that loneliness is one of them. So I’m probably going to try to capture that more than I might try to capture what it feels like to go out shopping for clothes or something like that, which, honestly, I just don’t understand. But if I’m capturing an emotion, that transcends gender and I’m comfortable in that space. All that being said, yes it is challenging, and the majority of my narrators are male in part for that reason, because I do think it’s difficult to do.
MF: I want to talk about the idea of judging—or not judging—characters when you’re writing. The narrator here is such an easy target in a lot of ways, but she’s written with real empathy. She comes across as weird and obsessive but also heartbreakingly normal and universal at the same time.
AB: I’m not a particularly visual reader. In some ways though, my writing has a lot of images and metaphors in it. I follow the voice and I think of the construct of language and think of what the language is trying to convey. I think what that character might think, but I don’t think particularly about how the character might come off. I’m almost surprised afterward when people will be like, “Oh, I can’t believe X or Y.” Actually, I find it somewhat strange when writers say, “I was just responding to the voice; I didn’t know what was going to happen next in the story.” But sometimes that is, in fact, the case.
You’re just writing a voice and then thinking the thoughts that this person would think and not worrying about that particular perception of them. And again, there’s an internal sort of dialogue that we all have in our heads that’s not externalized, and so in some ways this character is just externalizing something that, in reality, they would never say to their friend or somebody on the street. But hopefully what you’re doing in a story is making that internal voice that we all have that’s narrating our lives—sometimes in really problematic ways, which is true for this character—and maybe that does make them an easy judge. But I hope that would be the vehicle that would have someone reading it and not thinking, “Oh well this is clearly the way they are in the world.” This is the way they think about the world, but may not be the way they are in the world.
MF: What respective roles do you feel each of the minor characters—the women from upstairs, the woman on the subway—play in the overall arc of what you were doing?
AB: Well, the obsession of the narrator is forming a connection with someone who’s now gone, so now this person is going about forming obsessive connections with anybody in the world. So you’re seeing that made manifest, how desperate the person is to connect, and then how little it’s happening. Particularly if you live in a big city, you can be sitting so close to somebody—and I suppose this is true everywhere—where you’re literally touching their leg, hearing everything that they’re doing, and yet they can know nothing about you. I wanted to juxtapose those things over the top of each other because this person is being denied a connection with people who seemingly could give it, and yet there’s no real connection there; it’s all imagined. Which is again what the narrator is doing with the ex as well.
MF: You’re a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast, so you’re on both sides of the submission process. When it comes time to submit your own work to literary journals, what’s your thought process and plan of attack?
AB: In some ways, I would say I probably do it wrong. I probably don’t do it well. But I think it depends on where you’re at in that process, and what you’re trying to accomplish. What I did do at first, when I had only like one publication credit, is I just did a lot of research. I hate to say it, but you’ve got to do a lot of research and figure out all the literary magazines that are out there. Look at them and say, “Do I actually want my work to appear in this magazine? What does it look like? Is it online or in print? Do they pay their writers? Can I find a couple pieces that are similar to mine?”
My aesthetic is definitely that good writing is good writing. I’m sometimes annoyed when a journal says, “We only except X or Y kind of stories.” Well, the history of fiction is the history of writing in a variety of different forms. To me, good literature is good literature, whatever form it takes, whether its experimental or extremely traditional. When I was starting out, I sent my stories to fifteen or twenty places (after doing some research). I just got excited about writing and in that process got some things published. And over the course of time, now I’m submitting to what I consider to be the top fifty journals or so. I give the piece a rundown and then just move down a list, a spreadsheet that I have that’s not very sexy, but that I spent a lot of time putting together.
It’s really hard work and spreadsheets and things like that. It depends partially on what you want to accomplish, and where you’re at in your writing and what you need. The best way is probably to just start at the top and just work your way down, but that may not be the right thing if you’re just starting out. You might just want to see your name get out there and get things published and get excited about writing. I’m not sure there’s a right way other than to do your research.
MF: You recently had a piece published by Tin House. What was the emotional experience for you, placing a piece somewhere that prestigious, in the kind of journal everyone is trying to get into?
AB:It’s funny, I was listening to a podcast about the way that we experience pleasure in our lives. Say you have a trip planned. You’re supposed to plan it way out in the future so you have time to look forward to it. The story in Tin House, the editor over there, on Thursday was like, “We’re accepting this piece. We’re going to publish it on Friday.” There wasn’t even any time for me to be like, “Yay, I’m doing this thing.” It was just scrambling, emailing him my bio at like 6 p.m. and the next morning around 9:00 it was up. It was such a narrow span of time, and then the piece is out there and you get however many Facebook likes and three of them are family members. And then it’s like, “Wow, nothing changed.” Whereas in some ways I wish I’d had more lead time on it because it was really quick.
On the other hand, I have something coming out in Threepenny Review, which I’m very excited about, in 2017. I think I found out about that in February. And that seems so distant that it’s like, “Oh.” But in both cases, I’m excited about it. I love it. I’m excited to see who’s in Threepenny Review that month and be like, “Oh look it’s little me,” next to these writers who are, in my mind, extraordinarily famous. But yeah, it doesn’t really change much.
I think that’s the perception that I had when I started the publication process, is that once you start to get published, people are going to be banging down your door. But it’s not the case. I mean it’s exciting, but yeah, life just goes on. If you’re going to keep writing, you’re going to keep writing stories, and if you’re not, you won’t.
I think literary fiction will always have a place, but it’s always going to be a smaller place in society. It’s a bit of a niche interest even though it’s a strong interest of mine. I have a writer friend who always says, “Celebrate what’s to be celebrated.” I try to keep that in mind as time has gone by and I’ve gotten less excited by getting published than when it was first happening. I think that despite that, your life may not change, but it’s important to celebrate, even if you’re not particularly good at it. Go get a drink with a friend and say, “I got a story published,” and be proud of it. That’s something I’ve gotten a little better at, is being proud and sharing work with people I interact with during my day, which I wouldn’t always do. Saying, “Oh by the way, I’ve got something coming out.” And that’s nice.
MF: Speaking of writers you think of as famous, who are some writers that you’ve admired over the years?
AB:It’s a boring answer, especially for a white male to give, but David Foster Wallace is definitely the person who I read in my twenties who made me think, Man, this is amazing, what people can do with writing, but my mind just doesn’t work this way. It works in a literary sense, but I don’t have a philosophical, mathematical interest like he does that allows for some of the things that he’s able to accomplish in fiction. So, he’s definitely a writer whose work I keep coming back to and that I teach in my class.
I love Zadie Smith—I love her nonfiction more than her fiction actually—and I do read more nonfiction now than I used to. And I love it when people read contemporary writers. I love Tolstoy, I love War and Peace, but Steven Millhauser’s short stories are amazing. Charles D’Ambrosio is someone who I find that I recommend to people. Kelly Link is someone who starts to transcend that form; you get the literary fiction mixed with what would traditionally be genre.
Those are a sampling of writers whose work I look to, but I tend to emulate when I read a lot of somebody, and then I don’t like it because it always feels a little bit like a cheap pastiche, you know? When you’re reading a master in a form, then for you to try to write the same story and it has a tendency to just feel like, “Here’s a master doing it and now I’m getting my feet wet and trying it out.” At this point I’ve been writing long enough that I have a little bit of my own style, a little bit of my own voice, and I have some things that I do—which sometimes they’re different in fiction and nonfiction, though I don’t always draw a huge distinction between the two—that are my own. And I think that it’s good to read broadly for that reason, because I think having one voice in your head is not going to serve you well.
In my graduate program, it did annoy me because my classmates were always like, “Why do we have to take English literature classes and read? I want to focus all my time on writing.” And I’m definitely the person who says, “Yes, absolutely, you have to make time to write.” So many people don’t make time to write. If you want to write, you’ve got to write. But you really need to read quite broadly, and you may be able to relax it a little bit if time starts to get tight, but you need that baseline. I spent years of my life reading really, really intensely, in order to build up a baseline that set the stage for me to get into writing, because I wasn’t particularly interested in it in undergrad. It was really after undergrad, having a few years off and just reading broadly, that I got interested. It gave me a perspective on how one might go about writing.
MF: You’re a circulation specialist at the American University library, so you have a closeness to the printed page in your daily life that the vast majority of people no longer have. How are you thinking about the hand-wringing that goes on over the future of publishing and the printed page in the digital age?
AB:I think literary fiction is going to be around. You can find articles from a hundred years ago or longer about how nobody reads anymore. People are reading; people are consuming text. They’re doing it online more than the printed page, but again I think there’s going to be a subgroup of people who just get really interested in literary fiction and those are the people who are writing and reading and consuming it, and I think that that’s okay.
I have my own feelings about the role that, say, commercial fiction plays in actually making enough money so that publishers can take a chance on literary fiction. I’m at the circulation desk and I’m checking things out. And they’re college students; they’re mostly checking out books for papers. But sometimes people come in and check out commercial fiction, and I wind up having an argument with my colleagues about whether one should be reading commercial fiction or literary fiction and what those differences are—things like that.
So, I definitely have a dog in the fight, but I don’t get particularly concerned about the difference between digital and printed page. Because I do think people still read and will continue to read. It’s a long answer for saying I’m not too worried about it.
MF: When you submit, is there a part of you that would rather see your work published in a physical journal?
AB: Yeah, I do prefer to have something come out in a journal that I can have. Aesthetics do matter to me, so it’s nice when it’s a nice journal. Like the issue of Sierra Nevada Review that my piece is in is a very nice, very beautiful issue. So I do actually prefer that, though it’s nice to have a piece come out and then be able to immediately share it with everybody, say, “Here, I wrote something, here’s the link.” I have a preference for a journal, but I can see some of the nice parts about having something digital.
And if every journal goes online in the future, I think we’ll adapt and it’ll be okay. But I don’t think that they will, because there’s always going to be this market for a physical journal. It unites the pieces that are in it more than an electronic journal does. When I’ve had my pieces in strictly electronic journals, the pieces feel less connected to one another and less related than when they appear in a physical journal. I think you can see the aesthetic more. It shouldn’t make a difference, but I think you’re more likely to read a physical journal, multiple stories right in a row, and see the connections and conjunctions between them than you will if you’re reading something online.
MF: Talk a little bit about your writing community. Do you have anything where you live or online? How do you situate yourself within a community of writers?
AB: I don’t much, which is partially a result of having young children, which means my time is very focused in that direction. After I graduated, I was the one who started a writing group with some people who I thought were talented, and we kept that up for maybe two or three years. I had almost stopped writing, and I had one or two publication credits to my name, and I ran into one of my friends from the writing group at an event. My friend said, “If you’re not planning time to write, just write short things that are 500 or 1,000 words.” And so I said, “Okay, I’m going to do that.”
So, I went home and I wrote four short pieces, in I think one sitting, and those have all wound up getting published. I’m not particularly involved. Hopefully I’ll get involved more as more time comes up. But I think those connections are worth seeking out, because I think I almost would’ve just said, “Well, maybe I’m just not going to write” if I hadn’t had that conversation with a friend.
I think if you’re a writer you need to be active in having a writing community. The MFA experience I had is very unique, but you are going to lose those connections once you get out in the real world. It’s finding those people whose opinions and writing you value, so even if you’re not always plugged in you have people who are checking in with you about your writing, your thinking. But by all means, I think if you have more time it’s great to be involved in your local literary community, and that’s something I will build up as time goes by, because I think there is a value in that.
MF: Do you run your pieces by anyone when they’re in drafts or do you just trust that you’re at a point where you know when things are ready and what needs to be fixed?
AB: I run them by people briefly, but not substantively anymore. I just write things to what I feel is completion, and then I’ll ask people to figure out if there’s anything glaring to it. At this point I usually draft four or five times and then—I don’t know if that’s good or not, but I know that’s what works better for me. The pieces that I’ve touched less—and like I said it may have something to do with the way that I write, which tends to be by inspiration—it’s better for me to really trust that first draft and just edit it a lot than it is to go back and take everybody’s feedback.
Because I’m writing shorter things now, that’s easier to do. It’s funny, I tell my college writing classes, “You have to be your own best editor.” By all means it’s lovely to have those voices in the room in an MFA program, but at some point you leave that, and hopefully you’re carrying the best of those voices with you in your own mind. You have to be the best reader of your own work. So at this point, I’m the primary reader of my own work. That story that appeared in Tin House; I didn’t send it to anybody else. I just wrote it, edited it, and sent it out.
MF: What’s your long-term goal for your writing? More flash fiction, a novel?
AB: I think flash and then stuff that’s slightly longer. Right now, I don’t have the time and investment that it takes to write a novel because like I said, something longer I think you have to read your way into. I don’t think I can read my way 200 pages into something every morning. Not that you’d have to go that far, maybe it’s reading your way into a chapter.
Maybe I’m a reflection of the culture in that I’m not seeing the necessity for it. I like to have short bursts of inspiration. Why write a novel when you can express all those ideas in about five pages? And that’s where I’m at right now. But who knows? The reality is, when I started out—everybody wants to write a novel, right? So five years from now, I may be in the middle of a novel and look like a liar. I’m not going to say never, but it’s not what I’m interested in right now.
Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. He obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University where he also now works as an instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The ThreePenny Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, Hobart, Apt, Isthmus, Sierra Nevada Review, Sweet and Catamaran. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.