As runner-up of our chapbook contest (judged by Matt Bell!), Lena Bertone got a special tour of the Origami Zoo. We took her to the marsupial enclosure. Origami kangaroos opened their pouch folds to reveal baby origami kangaroos. Origami sugar gliders soared paper-thin on the wind. An origami koala bear spent an inordinate amount of time looking at its two-dimensional reflection in a pond. As we sat among these pouched and paper mammals, Lena Bertone answered questions about her forthcoming chapbook, her current reading list, and what she keeps behind her own mirrors.
Lena Bertone: I’d want to be a cat that when you turned it around, it looked liked a chicken.
OZP: Congrats on being runner-up in our chapbook contest! Aside from this, what’s the coolest contest/raffle prize you’ve ever won?
LB: Definitely the best thing I’ve ever won was The Lit Pub’s prose contest, and Molly Gaudry is publishing Letters to the Devil as a result. It will be out super soon!!
OZP: Many of the stories in Behind This Mirror are obviously fairy tale influenced. What’s your relationship with fairy tales and how do they interact with your work? What other writing/writers do you feel influenced these stories?
LB: I have no idea how to answer this question. Looking at my stories, they are obviously fairy tale-influenced, but mostly I do not set out to write fairy tale-influenced stories. I think that often, when I wrote these stories, I was thinking about beauty and ugliness, deception and irony, love and darkness, all of which, of course, are fairy tale topics, but they’re also the topics of everything. I remember my dad telling me the story of Pinocchio over and over when I was a kid, and how it changed a little every time, and how dark and complex it was. I remember my mom telling me the story of Cinderella and very naturally adding the gory, bloody details of the version she knew from her childhood. These were stories of intrigue and magic and horror, not mere fairy tales.
Maybe another part of it was growing up in a two-language household. There’s this great ferocity to Italian/Sicilian; it’s so phonetic and perfectly structured, but idiomatically, it’s crazy violent and hilarious. My sister and I like to remember the things our relatives used to say to us as kids—which we never thought twice about then, the violence was so normalized. Sample: Vi pighiu a bastunati = I’m going to beat you both with clubs (which beating never actually occurred).
As an adult, I’ve read lots of versions of fairy tales and also read and loved authors who combine real and magical worlds; I also love the kind of poetic-puzzly prose that can be squeezed into short spaces, a la Lydia Davis.
OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?
LB: I’m reading the new Grimm’s fairy tale book with the earliest renditions of the tales that the Grimm brothers wrote down. They’re gruesome and wonderful. I just got fellow ASU alum Todd Kaneko’s book The Dead Wrestler Elegies in the mail last week, and have been reading Bill Konigsberg’s first novel, Out of the Pocket. He’s also an ASU alum. It’s exciting when your friends have books! I’m lucky that I have a lot of friends with books these days.
OZP: Most of the stories in this chapbook are very short. Tell us a bit about that. How do you see a large number of very short stories interacting within a collection vs. fewer, longer short stories? What was sequencing this collection like? I have trouble putting ten stories in an order, so the task seems daunting. What do you like about the short-short form?
LB: I have a kick-ass writing partner, and we have been exchanging writing almost daily for a few years. We generate little bits of things, and sometimes they become stories, and sometimes they don’t. This process is a big part of why I’ve written many short pieces in the last several years; but honestly, I don’t think I’m very good at constructing the traditionally structured, “longer” short story, and even the longer stories in this collection are segmented and not-plotty.
One theme that runs through many of my stories is the idea that there’s often some confusion between the sleeping and waking states. I was thinking about that when I put the stories in the order they’re in now. This collection may represent one long sleep cycle.
OZP: Is the Magician who appears in a couple of stories in this chapbook ever going to make a return appearance? What will his final trick be? Do you see any of the other stories as being interconnected/concerning the same characters?
LB: That magician is kind of a jerk. He’s also the most obvious performer of any of these characters, and I think the magician stories are a little Brechtian in their starkness and darkness. The magician might come back. He will definitely have a twirly mustache if he does.
There’s a smart-mouthed woman in one of the magician stories, and I see her as a sister to many of the other women in the collection—many of my women are a little rude, a little ugly, a little horrified, and a little horrifying.
OZP: If we were to break into your house while you weren’t home and look behind all your mirrors, what would we find?
LB: Dust? The inside-out of a potato-chip bag?