Brooklyn novelist paints musical portrait of Philly
Brooklyn BookBeat: Marie-Helene Bertino’s ‘2 a.m. at The Cat’s Pajamas’ Now Out in Paperback
“Now I live on Prospect Park, which is like winning the lottery every day,” Brooklyn author Marie-Helene Bertino told the Brooklyn Eagle in an interview last year. An award-winning writer, Bertino has recently celebrated the paperback release of her debut novel, “2 a.m. at The Cat’s Pajamas,” which was originally published in the summer of 2014. The book follows three charming characters over the course of an extraordinary day in Philadelphia.
Madeleine Altimari is a clever and ambitious 9-year-old who hopes to become a jazz singer. Attempting to follow in her late mother’s footsteps, Madeleine faces teasing and taunting at school, but remains determined to make her debut at The Cat’s Pajamas — Philadelphia’s renowned jazz club.
That same day, Madeleine’s fifth grade teacher, recently divorced Sarina Greene, anxiously prepares for a dinner party where she’ll be reunited with a love interest from high school.
And at The Cat’s Pajamas, club owner Jack Lorca learns that his beloved venue might shut down at the end of the night due to financial burdens.
As these characters’ stories unfold alongside a cast of quirky Philadelphians, Bertino paints not only their emerging portraits, but also depicts her home city of Philadelphia — creating an enchanting, musical backdrop for her spirited characters.
While her novel pays homage to her roots in Philly, Bertino now calls Brooklyn home. A teacher at NYU, the Center for Fiction, the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and the One Story Workshop for Writers, Bertino finds Brooklyn a motivating place for writers. “I don’t ever want to leave,” she told the Eagle.
In celebration of the book’s paperback release, the Brooklyn Eagle is revisiting the conversation we had with Bertino in August 2014. She shared with us the motivation for her characters and revealed what she finds inspiring in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Eagle: Each of your main characters is so intricate and well-developed — did you have one character in mind first, and develop the plot around him or her, or did the characters/plot develop simultaneously?
Marie-Helene Bertino: First thing’s first — thank you! I am happy you thought so. I did start with the characters in this book, specifically, two dark, mysterious figures named Sir Edgar and Lady Frollop. They were eccentric out-of-towners who wake up a little girl while loudly returning to their rented apartment after a night of dancing. The little girl crawls out of her bedroom window and engages in a nutty, charming conversation with them (think: Roald Dahl).
I wrote that scene many, many years ago then watched it morph over the years, as the characters deepened and changed. Lady Frollop and Sir Edgar lost their tourist status and the absolute wack-a-doo dialogue, and became the relatively better behaved Sarina and Ben, the old friends who spend the novel walking around Philadelphia. The little girl with the foul mouth and huge voice turned out to be Madeleine, the heroine of The Cat’s Pajamas. Where she went, I followed.
BE: The sense of place — Philadelphia, specifically — is so important in this book. Do you find Brooklyn to be similarly inspiring?
MHB: There is no end to what I find inspiring about Brooklyn. When I went to work for One Story in 2004, their offices in The Old American Can Factory was everything I like about Brooklyn. Brooklyn also reminds me of Philadelphia, so maybe that’s another reason it feels familiar and right. The arts, the fact that you can’t throw a laptop without hitting a writer, my friends, my alma mater, Prospect Park, First Saturdays at The Brooklyn Museum, the multi-ethnicities. It would be very hard to impossible for me to move to a place that doesn’t have these things now, especially the latter. I’m ruined. I don’t want to ever leave.
BE: Where in Brooklyn do you live, and when did you move to the borough?
MHB: I moved to Brooklyn six years ago after five years living in Queens. Queens was great, but I was ready for a healthier space, and now I live on Prospect Park, which is like winning the lottery every day. It changed the way I see New York. I go there every day for concerts, to run, to say hello to the ducks, to walk my dog, whatever have you.
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