Andrew Bertaina’s character-driven short stories are filled with people who are longing for love and connection, in a world where emotional fulfillment feels just out of reach. These tangled yearnings are on full display in Bertaina’s debut collection of stories, One Person Away from You (University of Arkansas Press), winner of the 2020 Moon City Short Fiction Award. Bertaina’s work has been featured in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, and Best American Poetry. In this first collection, Bertaina deftly explores the inner lives of characters whose unmet desires can make even moments of great happiness feel like an ache.
When Bertaina and I first met, we were both students in American University’s MFA program. Now, colleagues at AU, we often discuss how our writing and teaching intersects, as well as our shared interest in BoJack Horseman. Having been a longtime fan of Bertaina’s short fiction, I was so excited for the opportunity to speak with him about his debut book. Throughout our conversation, we discussed the process of writing a good story, why his characters are filled with such unfulfillable longing, and how women in his life have shaped the understanding he has of himself.
The Rumpus: So many of these stories are shaped by characters who long for things just out of reach. What interests you about longing?
Andrew Bertaina: I went through a quarter-life crisis that just kind of spun on until mid-life, which is why so many of my characters are yearning and searching for something other than what they have. On the one hand, that’s a very human emotion and reaction to the world; hedonic adaptation is real. On the other hand, I think I had this real particular romantic notion about the world, and it took me an incredibly long time to come to terms with the real world, which is full of a lot of tedium and disappointment alongside the wonder. For a long time, I think I just saw the tedium, and I kept looking for a way out, something sublime: art, language, a transcendent love. And I think this really is a book about that longing for another life.
Oddly, though I’m seeing a lot of change in the lives around me as I enter middle age, I’m sort of slowing down. I’m finding myself longing a bit less, and I do wonder how that will influence the stories I write going forward. This collection is really a wonderful and sad artifact of someone trying to find meaning and purpose in the world when some of the traditional structures like religion and a happy marriage are pulled away.
Rumpus: What do you love most about the short story form? What can it achieve that longer works can’t?
Bertaina: I like this question, because I haven’t thought about it in quite that way in some time. Instead, I’m always thinking about the short or flash form vs. the longer short story. I think the short form can be deeply satisfying without the same investment of time, and we’re in a culture where your attention is always getting pinged from one electronic wave or another. The short story can provide the satisfaction of a fully rounded narrative in a time span that’s friendly to this cultural moment.
As a writer, I’m also really interested in ideas for stories like, What if I narrated a story from the perspective of an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman, and who isn’t Nicholas Cage? Then I just follow out the logical consequences of the story idea. As it turns out, I tend to write the story in the length that fits. In short, I may just not be a novel writer. It’s a forgivable thing, yes? I think of Borges writing “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain,” which is really just an elaborate way for Borges to explore all of his different novel ideas without actually having to write the novels.
What I’m saying is that I’m not making an aesthetic argument for the short story. Rather, I’m more interested in the idea than I am in intensive world-building. I mean, obviously short stories are amazing vehicles for exploring traditional narratives and for subverting traditional tropes like in The Bloody Chamber. I’m not a purist or anything. I think that form is capacious, and we have room for novels and short stories and essays and poems and everything in between.
Rumpus: How did you go about the process of composing this collection? Did you always know you wanted to structure stories in this order?
Bertaina: I realize that my answer here is not particularly wonderful, but I just kind of put together the stories that I thought were good enough. Now, I did try and balance out the collection by mixing some flash throughout and front-loading the collection with some pieces like “Everyone” that give you an idea of my aesthetic intentions. I certainly wasn’t trying for some sort of unifying structure in the stories.
I’m really interested in ideas for stories, and I love reading something and then seeing if I can pull it off. I have a particular style, but I really get inspired by trying out new forms, new ways of playing with language or structure. Whether that’s something by Lydia Davis or Amy Leach or Borges, it challenges me as a writer, and I love it.
Rumpus: I was struck by the nuanced way you write female characters. How do you strive to write characters whose experience of the world is potentially very different from your own?
Bertaina: I was extraordinarily close to my mother and my sister during my childhood and well into my early adulthood. When I think about how I learned to understand myself, it was primarily through women. Even now, when I think about how I developed some emotional agility or my love of long walks and conversations, it was really through the relationship I had with my mother. Honestly, it would be weird if all my narrators were male since I didn’t have particularly rewarding or formative relationships with men until I was in my twenties.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts, I try to write female characters who embody universal emotions like loneliness, longing, lust. I think that these experiences are fair game as part of the universal human experience. I really try to use that as my mooring point when writing from a perspective that isn’t my own. That said, my experience of what it means to be male is also pretty specific to my own small subset of experience. That’s why I talked about the universality of human emotions or experiences like love and loss, which I think have a more transcendent character. That’s the place I try to approach.
Rumpus: One thing I love about these stories is how they combine humor and sadness. What makes you interested in crafting worlds that are bittersweet?
Bertaina: My partner was just giving me a hard time because I claimed that I used to be much funnier. She reminded me that my stories are still funny! Perhaps the humor was more overt in my early writing career. Now, having lived a bit more, the absurdity of life provides its own humor, and I can simply reflect it back without needing to overcook the humor.
I think the world, like the form where we try to capture it, is incredibly capacious, and I don’t want to just write sad stories. Life is incredibly sad, but it’s also funny, joyful, wonderful, and strange. I like to try and blend these realities together. Again, we may also be talking about my limitations as a writer. I write characters who are a bit funny because that’s more natural for me.
As for emotions, I think that has really shifted over time. I think a lot of my early stories, mostly written in my twenties, have a kind of hopeless edge to them. In some of the later works, I think there is just this longing for another shot at life, which feels characteristically middle-aged. It’s not so much that life has turned out wrong, but that it could have turned out differently. I mean, we have the theory of the multiverse. Maybe my mind is just built for that reality. In the end, I hope my stories show the wonder and strangeness of this world while also capturing how lonely it can be, at least existentially speaking, to be a human being.
Rumpus: How have your feelings about writing changed? How have your own interests evolved over the course of writing this book?
Bertaina: My feelings about writing have changed a lot over time. However, I think this core of writing about lonely people, who aren’t quite connecting to the world, has remained. With some stories, I can trace a straight line despite the passage of many years.
I had no idea that I’d wind up writing so many fabulist pieces when I was getting my MFA in creative writing. I was just trying to write the classic New Yorker fiction story because I hadn’t read short stories widely enough to realize I had other avenues. My life has changed a lot over the course of this book. I submitted the first story of this collection with my MFA program application, when I was twenty-five years old. The last story was written when I was thirty-nine. By that time, I had two children and was going through the end of my marriage.
I think if I hadn’t changed at all during that time, I’d have failed in some critical way at something even more important than writing: trying to live a good life. That’s not as easy as I thought it was either. I’d like to think that my later stories show some of that complexity and full range of human emotion. I like some of the earlier stories too, but they often have a darker edge to them than the later work. My children have gotten older. I’ve taken up meditation and daily walks in nature. Truly, a lot has changed in the massive amount of time that it took for me to write these stories.
Rumpus: What writers most inspire your own work?
Bertaina: I think the answer to that question has changed over time, and it’s also crucial to say that some writers inspire me without inspiring my work directly. Tolstoy, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and George Eliot were all writers who crafted such intricate worlds that I got interested in writing just by virtue of reading in my early twenties.
From there, though, I’ve probably been most influenced by writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. I think they expanded my understanding of what you could do in a story. I came out of my MFA program thinking of the traditional realist story, and the fabulist writers sort of blew the top off it. I should include Kelly Link, George Saunders, Steven Millhauser, and Edward P. Jones here as well. Ostensibly, writers who showed me a different pathway from what I’d been taught.
I think writers who are creative at the sentence- or idea-level just fascinate me more. I love a good, realistic Alice Munro short story, but I find my own work inspired more by the writers who aren’t operating in that traditional realist realm. I think that, as you’ve noted above, I tend to combine humor and sadness in my stories, and I feel a little freer to be absurd or imaginative and silly in those types of stories. I recently surprised myself by writing a truly sad story and a story that was fairly sentimental, which is to say, I’m still trying new things.
Rumpus: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?
Bertaina: My favorite story in the collection is probably “The Language of God.” It’s an odd one to note, because it’s one of only two unpublished stories in the collection. However, I think the story manages to capture a lot of my evolving interests in a single narrative. It has elements of the surreal, religion, the realistic, research elements, and the longing for another life, or a path that is characteristic of my work.
The main character also has an authentic experience of transcendence, which allowed me to flex some lyrical muscles as well. At the end of the day, the narrator winds up continuing on the original path of his life but still wondering if that path, a wife, two children in a pleasant house, is the right one. But the story doesn’t make it about an affair. Rather, it’s about whether this narrator has had an actual transcendent experience of the divine or a mental breakdown. This sounds writerly, but I’m not sure I know either, and I’m extremely interested in open-ended interpretations for my work. I say that because I think our lives are authentically driven so much by interpretation. What you might interpret as a mistake could be thought of by me as a blessing or something wise. The interpretation is what gives it meaning.
Photograph of Andrew Bertaina by Lauren Woods.