MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN is just like a Jack Russell Terrier, better if she’s not idle according to her veterinarian father-in-law. In fact, Bergman is currently working on two novels, a book of essays, and another short story collection, all while teaching, maintaining a farm in Vermont, and raising two daughters.
Full of energy, determination, and maybe mischief, if internet descriptions of Jack Russells are to be trusted, the North Carolina native snowballed out of her religious, small-town background into the literary foreground with her 2012 short story collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
This month, Bergman released her second collection, Almost Famous Women, featuring narratives of the women left behind with history: Lucia Joyce, daughter of James, modern dancer and artist in her own right, for instance, or Allegra Byron, illegitimate daughter of George Gordon, dead in a convent by the tender age of five.
JANE GAYDUK: What attracted you to these women specifically?
MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN: Their penchant for risk-taking. I felt most of them were trying to live authentically, they were trying to close down that distance between who they wanted to be and who they really were and they chose to live nontraditional lives and that’s something that always fascinated me, especially in the contemporary context because it’s still hard to live an alternative life as a woman.
Considering that each woman is a real person (you even feature their photos), how much research did you do before writing each story?
I’d say this is about ten years of my reading life. I’ve been reading about these women and researching on and off for ten years — even years before I knew I was going to write the book. It felt like a women’s studies perspective early on. Also, I was a woman trying to build her own life.
Did you major in women’s studies?
I didn’t. I majored in anthropology, but I did a lot of work in understanding gender roles. I’ve always been fascinated by the gender differences across cultures.
What about those differences most fascinates you?
I’m interested in anyone’s particular sense of control and autonomy — control over their own life. Traditionally and across many cultures women’s desires and careers often take a back seat to the men in their lives and I’m fascinated by cultures or particular women where this isn’t the case. I respect the difficulty and complexity in stepping outside of those lives. Especially when we’re talking a hundred years ago.
That opening story baffled me in the best way. How did you embrace the complex nature of Siamese twins?
That’s the earliest story I wrote for the collection, and I wrote it maybe five or six years ago, and I think I wrote it just after I’d had my first child. My primary way into a story is through empathy, and I spent a lot of time that year carrying around a child that was attached to my body but also had her own agenda, so perhaps there was that source of empathy. But the reason that I chose some women over others is that part of my brain just lit up and I knew that I wanted to know more about that person’s psychological landscape — what was it like to live that way? I had to have a burning desire to answer that question through fiction.
“The Pretty Grown-Together Children” was also particularly interesting because the narrative was told from the lens of a twin. Most of the other stories use a third party to talk about the so-called almost famous women.
I thought that if I wrote from a first-person point of view for all these bold women the collection would have screamed like it was in all caps. You know, these were really intense women that we’re talking about. In my first book I showed a lot of characters interacting with animals and in this book I show a lot of my protagonists interacting with servants and lovers, but I think a relationship — especially hierarchical ones — reveals a lot about who we are. A lot of those relationships where a power dynamic is at play are actually incredibly revealing and allow the story to focus on conflict. Some of these women, like Joe Carstairs and Romaine Brooks, were independently wealthy, incredibly bold, and self-assured from a young age and that’s actually not something I can relate to, that has not been a part of my life. So it’s actually easier for me to come at those stories from the perspective of a third person.
You explore so many different kinds of relationships — between lovers, sisters, mothers and daughters, employers and their employees. Did you tap into different parts of your identity as a woman in order to get that down on paper?
I did. My first book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, is focused on what it means to be a mother, to live in a rural place. And my second book is really concerned with how we make ourselves as women, with how we decide what risks are worth taking. Both of my books so far have been representative of my current obsessions at the time that I’m writing them. I think I research unusual women because I’m so fascinated by people who have chosen to live differently. Because I grew up in the small-town South, I wasn’t surrounded by a lot of bold, independently wealthy women making a career in art, you know, so these examples have always fascinated me. I’m sure that I was looking at different aspects of my life when I was writing these stories. And not about necessarily what I have or what I know, but what I want.
This is your second short story collection. What attracts you to the form?
I come from the Southern tradition. I was in the South for thirty years before moving to Vermont and, even though I’m incredibly secular, I grew up in a church and I think most Southerners have sermons imprinted in their brains forevermore, and that’s a very short speech-driven, sound-driven, punchy narrative and with a pretty healthy whiff of drama in it. And on top of that, you know, the short story format is a Southern tradition that’s so strong. You grow up on Flannery O’Connor. I think that’s just what I was born into and my brain very much thinks and processes the world in short story arcs.
You mentioned you grew up surrounded by religion — is that how you got the idea for “Saving Butterfly McQueen”?
I absolutely drew from my background when writing “Butterfly McQueen,” so when I found out Butterfly McQueen was an atheist and wanted to donate her body to science I was fascinated because even in a contemporary context it’s hard to be an atheist in the South. And it was something I was ashamed of and had this closeted feeling and endured wave after wave of patronizing questions. I thought about how difficult that must’ve been for her.
How have you evolved between the two collections?
I like to think I’m a stronger writer each time. The first book I wrote when I was in school and finishing my MFA at Bennington so there were some stories that I didn’t know would ever be published. I think you’re really brave and exuberant when you write your first book because you really don’t know what its future is. Somebody told me that you really are never as brave as when you write your first book. This second book I tried to follow that sort of trite advice, write the book you want to read, and if I could write the book that I wanted to read, it would be a sentence-driven book about unusual women from history. So that’s what I set out to accomplish.
What has been the most interesting reader reaction thus far?
I get a lot of emails — probably one every day or two, I get an email saying, “will you write a sequel?” because they point out, do I know about the female matadors or do I know about the women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War, or they have a crazy story about their grandmother and something unusual she did. The great thing is that the book makes me a magnet for stories about unusual women and I am deeply thankful for that. The other interesting thing I’ve seen, multiple times, is when people say, “this sends me googling.” That made me laugh, but it also made me happy because the notion is that this is sort of a diabolical author plan where I wanted to make these women live in our imagination and make them matter to people, and send people back to the facts and to their biographies. And that seems to be what’s happening.