January 2015

Rebecca Silber

features

An Interview with Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of the much-praised collection of short stories Birds of a Lesser Paradise, has a new collection of short stories out, Almost Famous Women. This book is a bouquet of smart short stories about unusual women, women who until now were hidden in the background of history. Bergman spent many years researching tales of these strong, unorthodox women and put her own spin on some of the events in their lives. The result is a wonderful book of stories all about inspiring, driven women -- reading it is the perfect way to jump head first into the new year.

Almost Famous Women stands out because it is thoughtfully written and also conceptually strong. In your author's note, you write that these were stories that you "wanted to unlock from my imagination after a decade of reading and research." A decade is quite a long time! What made you want to spend so much time immersed in the lives of women who aren't widely recognized -- reading, researching, and eventually writing a series of fascinating stories about them?

When I was growing up in the small-town south, I didn't witness a lot of unusual women. I imagine it wasn't easy to live outside the lines there, and the women who did still stand out to me: the charming animal hoarder, the single dance instructor. I've always been drawn to passionate people, particularly women who were so single-minded in their pursuit of something that they were willing to sacrifice material wealth or traditional family structures to follow their interests. 

To cultivate an obsession is to know yourself -- what lights your brain up. It moves away from the generic toward the highly specific, and I admire that. 

Many of the women in the collection stood out to me as minor characters in biographies of more notorious women, such as Natalie Barney. Women like Dolly Wilde were more notorious than famous, or so dogged and pure in their devotion to art (like Romaine Brooks) that everything else in life, like relationships or food, became secondary. 

Throughout history, we get to see men act as these types of heroes in their own narratives -- but rarely do we get to view women this way. In many narratives, we see women chasing love, or portrayed as objects of love. I remember the first time I read Beryl Markham's memoir, West with the Night. The absence of a central love story made a huge impression on me; it is not a story about romance or domestic challenges. It is a story about a woman who is passionate about flying and racing horses.

You mention Dolly Wilde and Romaine Brooks -- two of the almost famous women depicted in this book. Of all of the passionate female heroes you write about in Almost Famous Women, is there one in particular whom you relate to more than the others? Is there one whose life you wouldn't mind stepping into, even for a short time?

One of the reasons I'm interested in unusual, driven women is that I find them an inspiring and necessary ingredient in my dream life. Even outliers reshape our sense of what's possible, and I like knowing there's more than one way to steer this ship. I need a nudge or a kick in the ass some days -- even if it's coming from the past: write that novel, take that trip, love the way you want to love, live the way you want to live. 

Like a lot of artistic types, I had to learn how to get through life with my bleeding heart. I had to find my voice, confidence, and sense of self. Those parts of me are hard earned.

To that end, I'd say I relate not to any of the show-stopping women, but to the characters living alongside of them, like Joe's girlfriend, Georgie, whom the reader watches sort through these issues of identity and self worth. 

Speaking of living alongside people, I want to ask you about the story "The Pretty, Grown-Together Children." This story is about a set of early twentieth century conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton. Perhaps I'm odd, but I have, from time to time, wondered what it would be like to have a conjoined twin. I never get very far in my thoughts because it's just such an abstract notion to me. As I was reading this, I couldn't help but wonder how you got into character enough to write this story from Daisy's perspective? 

This isn't a glamorous answer, but I wrote that story years ago, and I think I had just given birth to my first child. I'm five feet nothing, and carrying around a nearly nine-pound baby -- well -- I knew what it was like to move around encumbered and tired. Those early days of motherhood... your body is not your own.

I love that answer! I have a ten-week-old, so I totally get it. You mentioned that you wrote "Pretty, Grown-Together Children" years ago. And we kind of touched on this notion of writing over a long period of time in the first question. Did you always know or hope that the stories you were writing over the years about these passionate women would eventually be published as a collection?

I rarely know anything when it comes to publishing! I live in the Vermont sticks, which gives me an excuse. It's a relief, in some ways, to be a little less savvy about the market, and, luckily, I'm surrounded by an amazing team of very smart people. 

But I'm a deeply instinctual person. I have a sense for things, and after I wrote the Whale Cay story, I felt that I had something interesting. After I read the Whale Cay story out loud for the first time (at Williams College) -- I knew. Now, every time I read that story, I have a line of people waiting to talk to me afterward, and I get emails requesting the full story.

A few people have said, "It's the cultural moment for a collection like this" -- as if people are just now interested in these types of women, but I hope it's not just a moment. 

It was important for me to write a collection not just about "almost famous white women" -- or "almost famous straight women." The risk for living authentically has always been high for women, but especially high for women of color or of different sexual orientation. 

One thing I knew when I began this collection: We need to see more women in fiction living outside of traditional patriarchal arrangements. We need to see women who chase wild dreams and professions as ardently as men. We need to see women being physical, facing danger, and acting as the heroes of their own narratives.

At the risk of sounding like a creepy author stalker, I have been a fan of your writing ever since I read Birds of a Lesser Paradise a few years ago. I happen to know that you and your veterinarian husband are raising two little girls (and a menagerie of animals) out in the aforementioned Vermont sticks. As someone who trumpets in her writing that women should chase their wild dreams and professions, and push physical and metal boundaries, how do you convey and demonstrate these values off the written page to your young daughters?

I should come right out and say this -- it's my greatest struggle. My deepest ambition. The thing that keeps me up at night.

I've always felt that I must model whatever behaviors and values I think are important. The obvious challenge is that I am a flawed human, and that sometimes the behaviors I want to model (independence, risk-taking) are at odds with my gut instincts about being a good mother. Soon I'll leave for a book tour that has me away from the girls for six days. Those six days will feel like a lifetime for me, but I hope one day the girls will admire the fact that I went after my dreams of becoming a writer.

I'm motivated, perhaps too much, by this idea of modeling certain behaviors for the girls. For example, when I was thirty-seven weeks pregnant with my second daughter, I took my first trip up Mount Snow to watch her father and grandfather compete in the Tough Mudder eleven-mile obstacle race. I vowed that next year I would be in the race, and I was, and the year after that, which ended with me getting electrocuted and blacking out face first in a mud puddle at the finish line. And to think the lasting image from that moment might be the photograph of my mud-splattered face nearly crying into my finish line beer. Alas. All you can do is try.

My yoga instructor has this guiding life principle most easily summarized as "best effort." That's what I tell myself. Best effort. And have a sense of humor about everything. Everything.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise earned a lot of well-deserved praise, and I have a strong feeling that Almost Famous Women will follow suit. I know writers don't always like this question so soon after publishing, but I'm going to ask anyway if you have any plans for a future collection, or perhaps a novel?

I'm working on a novel now. I'm really humbled by the experience of writing a novel. I've thrown two away in the past. I don't think they were terrible books, and there were parts of them that were compelling, but they netted out more at "proficient and adequate" instead of "magical and rewarding." It has to be magical, for the writer and the reader. I know what it's like to have to stand behind my books now, and I want to be proud of my work. 

The real problem is that I have more ideas than time, but I'll take that problem over others in the world.