Author Q&A

In Beautyland, An Alien Shows Us What It Means To Be Human

Marie-Helene Bertino’s third novel expertly renders the silly and the sublime, though it’s best on the subject of class.

When I met Dakota Johnson in February to discuss her new TeaTime Book Club, the actor was wrestling with how to talk about her new project without spoiling the surprise. “I don’t want to say too much about the book because I don’t want to give it away,” she said, grinning. “It’s a beautiful read if you’re a mother, if you’re a daughter… or if you’re just a human being on the planet.”

The book in question — Marie-Helene Bertino’s Beautyland, a novel published in January by FSG — was considered by some to be a surprising choice for a celebrity book club, though the surprise was arguably biggest for the author herself. “[Johnson] could have chosen any of the most touted books that were coming out in January,” says Bertino weeks later from her home in Brooklyn. “She could have chosen one already mandated by the powers that be, like so many of these book clubs do. And yet she decided to do exactly what she f*cking wanted to.”

Perhaps the most interesting element of Johnson’s choice is that the actor, born in Hollywood’s inner circle, has chosen a book that so brilliantly skewers America’s class system. Beautyland follows a young woman, Adina, who is born to a working-class single mother in Northeast Philadelphia. Adina believes she is an alien and faxes observations about humans to her “superiors,” mining the silly and the profound to try and tell her readers something real.

How you hold your fork and knife is a sign of class. How long you linger. If you are willing to let the waitress wait. Who you think is attractive. Your haircut. Your partner. Whether your house is cluttered. Whether you drink soda. What you know by memory is a sign of class. Whether you can control your anger. Crime is a sign of class. Whether you’ve been to prison and for how long. How you handle domestic abuse.

It takes an outsider to render this absurdity so accurately — and perhaps an insider like Johnson to draw attention to it at scale. When Christopher Nolan won his Academy Award for Oppenheimer, the British Labour Party seized the moment to point out that 40% of Britons nominated for big cultural awards in the past decade were privately educated, compared to only 6% of the population. Similar is true in America. Bertino, like Adina, grew up in a working-class, Italian American family, and though she’s now the author of three novels and a lecturer at Yale, her perspective is one so rarely seen that it feels uncanny on the page.

“It’s so funny when people are like, Why are your characters so weird? Because I’m thinking, I’m writing as honestly as I can,” she says. “I use labels like ‘enhanced realism’ or ‘magic realism’ to be legible to other people, but I am writing as realistically as I possibly can.”

You just returned from a West Coast tour for Beautyland. What’s the most frequent reaction you get from readers?

It’s exactly what you asked during your interview with Dakota: What do you make of this extraterrestrial? [Laughs.] I can only say so much without risking ruining people’s reading experiences, so I do a lot of talking about identity and believing in Adina. And believing in friends when they believe things about themselves that are difficult to understand but that prop up parts of them that you want to support and love.

Adina responds to the label she’s assigned herself as an alien, but when she becomes famous, people want to assign her other labels such as “autistic” or “asexual.” How do you feel about labels?

Labels can be helpful and they can be limiting. It sounds very pretentious to say, but as Adina’s author, I actually didn’t feel it was my job to decide on a diagnosis for her. Also, since Beautyland takes place over her entire lifespan, a lot would have been evolving as far as what we know about some of those things. Even using the word “neurotypical” and our understanding would’ve changed regarding depression.

I loved those two pages about class — I mean, the whole book is about class — but those pages on the invisible signifiers that we learn to read from such a young age. Why did you make that a focus?

Because I don’t see it on the page very often and from my perspective, it still seems to be the thing that we are not talking about openly. One of my subsidiary hopes that I can do with my career is to make certain invisible conversations visible and the conversation about class remains invisible, at least how I’ve experienced it. Do you find the same is true where you are?

That conversation is quite loud in the UK. I remember feeling so clearly at grammar school and university that I was not from the same class as a lot of the people there.

I have the same experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently because I have, over the course of several years in my teaching, essentially jumped class. I grew up without a lot of resources, very much like Adina, knowing no writers, having no connections, and just through sheer will have been able to get the resources I need to be published and have a career. Have you ever heard the episode of This American Life called “Three Miles”?


I feel like it should be necessary listening for anybody who is interested in class. It’s essentially about a letter exchange program between two high schools in the Bronx — one that’s very underserved and one that is wildly overserved. Girls from these schools exchanged letters until one day the school that was underserved came to visit the very privileged school. One of the girls steps off the bus and she’s one of the most promising students, is on the track to college. But she steps off the bus and sees this privileged school and she has a full-blown panic attack. She runs away, they can’t find her, and it begins this slow falling off the ladder that she was on until she disappears. She just could not handle seeing what other people had been privileged to experience. I think about that a lot. There’s a sense when you don’t have a lot that if you just keep your head down and work, it will lead to something. But I think the shocking revelation comes when you find out not everybody has to have that kind of will and drive and discipline.

Yes. But there’s a part of me that thinks running can sometimes be the right thing to do? Because if you’re that girl getting off that bus, you can go, OK, so I need to dress like these people, I need to imitate the way they speak, I need to become one of them. Whereas to make great art, I think you’ve got to try and stay connected to your own perspective.

Yes, that’s something I experience as a writer every single day. I have to continue to make the decision — less so now, but especially when I was starting out — to write like myself, even though that might not have been the stuff of literature. It can be a challenge writing from within a terrain that you haven’t seen represented on the page. That’s nothing new. We’ve all heard that. But it was a surprise for me that I was avoiding certain topics. And when I asked myself, Why won’t you write about this? Why are you avoiding this? It came down to, because I myself don’t think that they are literary. I can’t see how they could be literary. And when I realized I was doing it to myself, I realized I had to write about them. And all of those topics are in Beautyland.

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What kind of things were you avoiding?

In an early draft, Adina was ethnically ambiguous. In the American imagination, being Italian American is more along the lines of mafioso and that wasn’t my experience. I didn’t know how to reclaim it and say, Actually being Italian American can be really nerdy and weird and silly and artistic and creative and fun. Writing about Northeast Philadelphia was another. Essentially, what happened is, I was working with a student and she confessed that she was really scared to show her work because she didn’t think it was the stuff of literary fiction. We were shocked because these stories were so brilliant. So I gave this big impassioned speech about how everything is literary, no matter where you come from, and then I went home and realized I was doing the same thing with the small and the so-called “mundane” aspects of life.

But there is fear there. This book is being called “quiet,” which is a word I really love, but I confess I hear it and I think, Oh no, that means all of the awards are going to skip it again, and it’s not going to be noticed because I’m not this giant bombastic man taking up a ton of space. But that doesn’t seem authentic to me. It’s not how I want to show up in the world.

When you talk about awards, in what context do you worry about being overlooked?

I teach emerging writers and we’re all wondering what the recipe is to have a book that “works” in publishing speech. When I ask the question of other editors and writers and publishers, nobody seems to know what the recipe is. It could be anything. It’s like, OK, well, will this be the reason that I am discounted this time? Should I be more of this or more of that or less of this? It’s an eternal question.

I think that troubles people in all industries — imagining what success looks like.

Yes, I don’t think it’s ever too early to define what your idea of success is going to be and to write it down. I encourage my students to think of ideas of success that have nothing to do with money or external things. Mostly they’re thinking, Oh, I want a seven-figure book deal. And the sad reality is, well, that is not going to make you happy. I’m sorry to tell you, but it won’t be that that makes you happy. It will be like two booksellers from California who I met at a reading raising their hands and saying, “I’m here because Beautyland is my favorite book ever — and I want to know if you believe that Adina is truly extraterrestrial.” [Laughs.]

Were there any parts of the writing process where you felt Adina was leading you somewhere that you knew wouldn’t work?

I usually write very short and then I’m constantly having to build out instead of delete, but there was a scene that was in her childhood that perhaps too closely echoed my own childhood when the Catholic church wouldn’t let me go on my eighth grade class trip because they had no record of my mom’s contribution in church. This is why my family left the church we grew up in. They had an envelope with your name on it and you’re supposed to put your contribution in the envelope, then hand it in, and they keep track of what everybody gives. We had nothing and my mom was so embarrassed by how little her contribution was that she stopped using the envelopes. She would still donate, but she just didn’t use the envelopes. And so when I got to the eighth grade, they called me into the principal’s office and they said, “We have no record of your contribution in church, so you can’t go to Baltimore Harbor for your class trip. Instead, you’ll sit detention in school. Go home and tell your mom that.” So I told her, and that was the only time I can remember my mom ever crying. And she said, “Well, first of all, you’re not going in for detention, we’ll do something else that day.” And then she stopped going to church. I put something similar in Beautyland, and my very wise editor, Jenna Johnson, said, “I think we’ve already gone hard enough on Adina. I don’t think she should also have to miss her class trip.” I agreed with her, so I took it out.

Gosh, what a horrible experience for your mother.

I know. But also I think it opened her eyes to other ways in which the church was maybe not as generous as it should be, and it was a wise move.

Has your mother read Beautyland?

My mom has read this book more than any of my other books. She read it in draft. She helped me in revision. Every time a new review comes out, I think she reads it again. One of the greatest joys of everything that’s happening with Beautyland is that we’re doing this together in a new way. We are enormous fans of Dakota Johnson and I never in a million years could have guessed that Dakota would pick my book as her very first choice for her new book club.

Tell me about the experience with the TeaTime Book Club.

They’ve been really lovely and really supportive. It seems like the immersive quality of the Instagram channel is what they are really trying to develop and it seems like great fun. People are getting in touch with me and they’ll be like, “I’m a member of the TeaTime Book Club and I have a couple questions.”

Do you always respond to reader questions?

I will try. If I don’t, it’s because I’ve somehow missed it.

How do you feel about Goodreads? I know that authors have a lot of mixed feelings about it.

I don’t read Goodreads. I don’t read Amazon. I don’t read reviews.

Is there a reason for that?

Fear. And I try to avoid things that will not help my writing. Whether it’s a glowing review or whether it’s a can, I can see how both things would stop my writing or hinder my writing. So I am just really careful with that stuff.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.