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3 Lives Collide 'At The Cat's Pajamas'


"Two A.M At The Cat's Pajamas" is a novel about three rolling stones who run into each other on the eve of Christmas Eve. Madeleine Altimari is a sassy, smart-alecky and sharp nine-year-old girl who sings beautifully and has figured out she'd like to be a jazz singer but one who doesn't throw her career way like Billie holiday. Her teacher, Serena Green, has just returned to town - their town is Philadelphia - after a divorce, and she's looking forward to a dinner party with old friends that includes her old boyfriend - or is she? And then there's Jack Lorca. He owns the Cat's Pajamas, a jazz club that's teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and closing. "Two A.M. At The Cat's Pajamas" is a debut novel from Marie-Helene Bertino who won the Iowa Short Fiction award for her collection Safe as Houses. She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARIE-HELENE BERTINO: It's a pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Are you, in any part, this very personable little girl?

BERTINO: Madeleine is a wish I made. She has the guts I wish I had. She has the voice I wish I had. I was very shy and retreating in grade school. And Madeleine is the exact opposite.

SIMON: Boy, I'll say - and such language.

BERTINO: She has a very foul mouth. Now that, she and I do share that along with a fear of roaches.

SIMON: Let's get some flavor of the book and your writing - if you could read a section, please. And set the scene for us. Madeleine is going to a cafe - I guess in the Ninth Street Market in Philadelphia for lunch.

BERTINO: And that's where she lives. And she's just recently found out that her city has a jazz club, and she's desperate to find it so that she can make her on-stage debut.

SIMON: Mrs. Santiago is the proprietor of the cafe.

BERTINO: Yes, and Madeleine's guardian since her mother passed away a year before. So in this scene, Madeleine is trying to find out more information about this jazz club so she can sneak off to it. What is the Cat's Pajamas, Madeleine says. Sandra bows her head - let us pray - amen. Mrs. Santiago hands a basket of bread to Madeleine. What is the Cat's Pajamas, Madeleine says. The cats what? -pajamas. It's the club Jack Lorca owns. I heard a report yesterday, Sandra butters a piece of bread, about a man in London who made a three-bedroom house out of trash. Where is it? Can anyone go, Madeleine says. It's near Ireland, says Sandra, of course, anyone can go. You are not going to London, Mrs. Santiago says. Not London, Madeleine says, the cats pajamas. A jazz club is no place for a little girl, Mrs. Santiago says. Stop swinging your legs. Madeleine stops slinging. I want to go.

SIMON: And why does she want to go? What does jazz represent to Madeleine? Why jazz and not Katy Perry like other nine-year-olds?

BERTINO: Jazz connects Madeleine to her mother who had a voice that could redirect a room and taught Madeleine how to sell a song and instilled in Madeleine a relentless love of jazz and singing. So it's really Madeleine's connection to her mother.

SIMON: First crisis in the book - at least that I noticed - is that they wouldn't let Madeleine sing at mass in her Catholic - little Catholic school. What happened?

BERTINO: That's right. As is sometimes the case with very smart, prodigious little girls, Madeleine does not get along with her classmates. And she doesn't do well in school. And so there's a rule that she can't sing in any a public assembly at her school because of an incident that's referred to as very unpleasant from the previous year. So she's no longer allowed to sing at any assemblies because bad things happen when she does. And you find out later in the book what exactly happened.

SIMON: You are a Philadelphian.

BERTINO: Yes, I grew up there.

SIMON: But you live in Brooklyn now like every other novelist, right?

BERTINO: You can't throw a laptop without hitting a writer in Brooklyn.

SIMON: So does that give you a perspective?

BERTINO: Being from Philadelphia?

SIMON: That but living in Brooklyn now and writing about your hometown.

BERTINO: Yes, I found that when I moved away from Philadelphia and I became homesick, that's when I really began wanting to write about it. And homesickness and longing are very narrative emotions and they produce a lot of work for me. And so missing Philadelphia gave me the perspective I needed to see it clearly and to write about it.

SIMON: I've got to tell you there's a line in the book I can't stop thinking about.

BERTINO: Oh, excellent, which one is it?

SIMON: If you are anything other than humbled in the presence of love, you are not in the presence of love.

BERTINO: Oh, thank you for pointing that out.

SIMON: Anything to expand on or is it pretty obvious?

BERTINO: I'd love to know why you've been thinking about it.

SIMON: I think it's true. As with any great true line, you realize, oh, that's what I feel. I just haven't been able to find the words for it yet.

BERTINO: When you're in the presence of really humble, selfless love, I think that's the way it makes us feel, too. And that's what really - I've been in the presence of that kind of love, thankfully. I'm very lucky to have been in the presence of that kind of love. And that's how I feel. You feel like you don't want to talk. You don't want to disturb it. You just want to sit there and enjoy it.

SIMON: "Two A.M. At The Cat's Pajamas" - debut novel Marie-Helene Bertino. Thanks so much for being with us.

BERTINO: Thanks so much, Scott. It was a pleasure.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I see your face in every flower, your eyes in the stars above. It's just the thought of you, the very thought of you I love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.