Author Spotlight: Marie-Helene Bertino, “Beautyland”

    Adina is not a normal girl. She may grow up in a suburb of Philadelphia, go to school, make friends, graduate, and move to a city in a recognizable life path for a young creative, but all through her life, believing herself to be an alien, she faxes her overlords notes and descriptions on human life. This is what she believes her purpose on Earth is, and she spends her time writing about reality TV, mens’ egos, the etymology of phrases like ‘woah Nelly,’ and any other quirk of human behavior that, when you think about it, warrants further discussion. Eventually, she publishes her thoughts in a memoir titled Alien Opus, where she gains fans and detractors alike, skeptical of her alien claim. As she progresses through her life, friends and family leave, and when her superiors stop responding, Adina finds herself at a loss of life and what to do. Thoughtful, witty, and endlessly warm, Beautyland is an intelligent character study relatable for anyone who has wondered if they’re truly alone in the universe.

    We sat down with Marie-Helene Bertino to chat about note-taking on humanity, New York City, and moving through loneliness.

    Congratulations on another amazing book! How does it feel now that it’s been out for a bit?

    Thank you! It feels good; the vibes have felt very positive. I’ve felt very grateful. I’m always grateful to have a book out, it feels like a miracle every time.

    The heart of this story is Adina, the warm maybe-alien who is sent to Earth to report on human activity, and fax her findings back to her overlords. When did you start coming up with the idea for this character?

    In 2012, I wrote a short story called “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” which was published in my first collection, Safe As Houses. In it, an unnamed girl who believes she’s an alien faxes notes on human beings. After I wrote that story and it was published, she wouldn’t let me go, and I kept taking notes on human beings even after that story was published. I wondered if it’d make for a good novel, so very slowly I started layering in her identity and location, and the identity of Adina took a few years to come into full effect, but it began so many years ago with that short story.

    Very cool — did you always have the ending in mind? How did it change over the decade you wrote it?

    I did not always have the ending in mind, which is actually different [for me]. Usually I can hear an ending and I’m just writing towards it. But in the case of Beautyland, I attempted to transfer the short story to the novel form, and the short story was written in the first person. And I had the novel in first person as well, but it wasn’t working. I tried various different things, but realized I wouldn’t be able to achieve the depth of character I was looking for from her point of view. To my horror, I realized the novel might need to be in third person. I mentally went through the first couple of pages to see what it’d be like, and I realized almost immediately, yes, that’s actually the right decision. So I had to retype the novel and recomb the new perspective throughout, and as soon as I started doing that, I had the ending. The ending is a really important part, and the fact that I got it as soon as I switched the voice, it felt very significant.

    Adina’s musings are so clever and creative — they also range from banal to deeply sophisticated. Did you have to keep a little page of observations through the years and filter it to what Adina might think?

    I did, yes, I kept a folder on my desktop called “Notes on Human Beings.” And I’d throw things in there, things my workout instructors would say, why ‘thaw’ and ‘dethaw’ are essentially the same, I took notes on Vanna White and Wheel of Fortune at one point. Any particular idiosyncratic detail I’d notice during the day I’d put into that folder. And funny enough, I’m still noticing things and I’m still taking notes. I don’t know what that means, but maybe there’ll be a sequel.

    I wanted to ask about the title of the novel — “Beautyland” is taken from the department store in Adina’s hometown of the same name. It informs Adina about beauty and finances, but it seems to have a minor role in the book — what made you go towards it as a title?

    The title becomes extremely significant after you’ve read the entirety of the book, like most good titles. So what I will say without ruining readers’ experiences of the book is that ‘Beautyland’ is a location in her neighborhood in addition to being a location for her, on Earth. It’s a way of locating her, and I think has greater significance the more you read and the more you understand her world, and as you read what happens to her.

    I really enjoyed Adina’s journey in New York — it perfectly tracks with a raw experience of a creative person trying to find themselves, while working weird jobs, trying to get together with friends, and being yelled at by fitness instructors. What did you pull from in order to write this part?

    Yes, at one point I was also a newcomer to New York City, and I used Adina’s particular perspective to explore certain things that were funny and interesting to me when I was learning New York like a language. The fact that there are beaches and caves in New York City… that was a surprise to me. I think that New York City is a place where a lot of people have opinions about it who have never even been here. It’s kind of rare in that way, where everyone feels like they know it. When you actually live here for quite a bit, the people seem a lot different from their stereotypes; they worked really hard to support their families, they had a lot of pride. I was trying to portray the New York that I found. The areas of New York I found have gone undocumented in literature, I was hoping to have fun articulating them.

    Let’s talk about Adina’s relationships — the ones that are the most important to her aren’t romantic, but with her mother and best friend, Toni. What did you want to explore with these relationships that you follow to the very end?

    With her mother, I wanted to write a single mother character who I hadn’t really read in fiction; one who was flawed and made mistakes but was earnest and hardworking and loved her daughter very much, and who invested in herself in small ways throughout Adina’s life that benefited greatly. When Adina reaches middle age and she gets to see her mother go back to school, get her degree and rise up the ranks at her company, in a way that surprises, even, her mother. I wanted to have her mother growing alongside her. And the literal representation of that is her mother beginning a garden of asphalt and rocks in the beginning of the book, which continues to grow throughout the novel. I liked the idea of a garden growing in the background of all the events in Beautyland.

    With Toni, that was meant to represent female friendship, chosen family, and how important and formative these profoundly deep friendships can be in our lives and to the people we become, who we turn out to be.

    With the help of friends, Adina eventually publishes some of her thoughts in Alien Opus: A Memoir In Stories. She gains a decent following, but some protestors interrupt her readings as they think she’s faking being an alien. What did you want to explore with this dynamic, especially as a writer yourself?

    Yeah, you never know what’s going to trend and capture people’s imaginations. Yesterday, I was reading an article about a new trend on TikTok — mafia wife fashion. People were like, ‘Why is this popular now?’ You just never can tell. I was thinking about trends like that, when I was thinking how celebrities are sometimes created out of thin air. I loved the idea that the honest rendering of human beings would achieve that kind of vast, wild celebrity. With that, as I was building out that idea, I knew there’d be naysayers, non-believers, who would take the time to show up and say ‘I think you’re bullshit.’ I also was speaking for the cynical reader, who would read Beautyland and say, ‘I don’t believe this woman at all. She’s deranged.’ I thought it’d be interesting to bake in some of the opposing views into the book. Not only was it plain fun for me to write, but I felt like it’d be realistic, if it were actually happening in the world. So I put the naysayers in, and they were great fun to write too.

    Adina’s life turns instantly, harrowingly sad with death — some of the passages where she’s faxing her supervisors, to no response, are really heartbreaking. The thing is that she was sent to report on human experience, all of it, which includes death and sorrow, but understandably, the moment she gets a taste of it, it’s all-encompassing. How did it feel to write so closely from this perspective?

    There was something I really wanted to explore and say about depression, and how it moves and works. I wanted to speak about it directly. I moved Adina through the depression I felt like she’d be going through, during this part of her timeline. She encounters loss, and she is aging. Both of those things are sometimes accompanied by loneliness and depression, so I wanted to say a few things about it. For example, loneliness is a composite feeling, so ironically, it is a feeling that cannot exist alone. It normally has other emotions within it — if you tease out those emotions and work the tangle, you find things like anger, hunger, frustration, etc. Then the loneliness can very often disappear. I wanted to explore neat things like that, which I’ve either read about or experienced, because I thought it’d be unique and different, in addition to being accurate.

    However, Adina moves through that depression. And it’s articulated literally in the book where she can no longer run, and she stays in bed. And as can also sometimes happen, she gets better, day by day. Grief moves through her and she doesn’t get over it, she’s just able to integrate it into her forward momentum. And then, when she’s through the worst part… what happens to her happens to her, and that’s the ending of the book. But she’s moved through the depression by the time the ending of the book arrives, which I thought would be interesting. It’s not that she falls back in love with the world, but she’s able to feel the world again.

    Definitely. It was such an arc she went through. So finally, what are you working on next? Is Adina still in the back of your mind somewhere?

    I think she’ll always be, for sure, just like all my protagonists, because they were always with me, to begin with. I’m going to have a collection published next year, also through FSG, so I’m finishing some of those stories. And I’m beginning another novel as well. Always moving forward, always writing something!

    Beautyland is available now.

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