Monday, March 19, 2012

A visit with Megan Mayhew Bergman

by: Joan

A few weeks ago, I mentioned we should all be on the lookout for Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Since Megan's short story collection debuted on March 6, her book has earned Publisher's Weekly "top pick of the week," Kirkus Review's "top notch debut," O Magazine's "title to pick up now" and Amazon's "title to pick up now." My copy arrived on the 7th, personally inscribed by Megan (get yours too from Battenkill Books and support an independent while you’re at it.)

It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned I’m not the most outdoorsy type. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating that others are. In an alternate life, where I’m not squeamish about blood, open wounds, and “animal scat” or afraid of cats and coyotes and insects, I’d want to sit on the porch inside one of Megan’s stories, let nature teach me about life.

In Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan portrays relationships in pitch-perfect fashion, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, not-husbands and not-wives, animals and cruel nature. In addition to flawed believable human characters, the pages are full of fleshed-out animal ones named for movie stars, pop culture icons and corporations, of sheeps in houses, chinchillas in bedrooms, feral cats, aye-ayes (never heard of those!) and “special-needs retrievers.”

What other writers might accomplish in three paragraphs, Megan writes in less than a sentence. She’s a master at tension (read her Ploughshares blogpost and see for yourself). Her sentences have poetic rhythm without a trace of melodrama. And as with poetry, symbolism is hidden everywhere, subtle undertones that a careless reader might miss on first glance. I beg you, don’t be careless.

Her stories are nuggets of wisdom, full of subtle and laugh-out-loud humor, gritty descriptive language and raw nature. Her imagery and phrasing conspire to make you believe her stories are about someone else, someone you could never be. They lull you to a spot on your voyeur’s hammock in the woods, so that you don’t see the naked truth of her words when they sucker punch you back to your own reality.

I intended to share a few masterful phrases, but I couldn’t choose just a few. Not to mention, to share them here would take away the joy of reading them for the first time, in the context where they make the strongest impact.

Although not everyone might relate to animals the way Megan does, she has a way of making you wish you did. More than once I was transported to the past, cuddled up on the floor beside my long-gone miniature schnauzers, Mollie and Madison. Or to the many times I worried about what the world would do to my now-grown son or how he will feel when I’m old and demented. Worries that never go away, but are eased a bit because they are universal. And because a wise young author said, “In the end you let it go.”

Megan took time from her crazy launch schedule to answer some questions (our virtual tea in Oxford).

J: Your short stories have won awards and been published in well-respected literary magazines, your book reviews have graced the pages of The New York Times Book Review, you blog for Ploughshares. Now you have a short-story collection setting record numbers of lists. You have carved a career worthy of five people, obviously not listening to those who say publishing short stories is near impossible. How did you keep on track and do everything so right?

M: I'm so grateful for the support and attention! Once I decided to make writing career, I really decided to work at it. To really work. To get up early, stay up late. To accept rejection and keep trying. I’m scrappy!

Just as the book got released I felt things get a little out of control. My inbox and social media accounts are a mess; I owe people emails. Whenever I start to worry, I just remind myself that my children are my first priority. I devote myself to them when I can, and then when they are with other caregivers, I do what I can manage. It isn’t always very pretty. Lately I’ve been sending myself emails at the end of each night, so that I can wake up to a to-do list and hit the ground running!

J: Yes, though social media has blasted the phrase word-of-mouth to a new level, it does eat time. Readers, in garden-gnome fashion, pictures of cats and dogs reading Megan’s book have crept across the internet. Truly hilarious.
Megan, your characters don’t jump off the page, no, they cut their veins and bleed onto the page. For you, what makes a character worthy to spend time with?

M: They must be self-aware, never self-righteous, and always believable, even if they are strange. I am working on a novel now, and will be thinking about these criteria. It’s a very helpful question for a writer to ask herself.
J: Interesting point—and true. Your writing is spare, clean, precise. It’s literary but does not show off. How do you pull this off? Tell us about your revision process.

M: Someone along the way told me to start writing the book I’d want to read. That was a bit of what we in the south call a “come to Jesus moment.” I like spare and unsentimental prose, but I also like the rewards of traditional narrative structure; my earlier work was a little more experimental and at times self-indulgent. I realized that I needed to create and edit my work with better selectivity and honesty.

I revise constantly at the line level, and then I put a piece aside for a few days and come back to it to see how it works for me on the macro level. I need some distance from my work to judge if it takes me to the place I want my readers to go.
J: Tell us how it felt to be included in a short story collection edited by THE Geraldine Brooks?

M: That email, letting me know that “Housewifely Arts” had been selected for the Best American Short Story anthology, was a major turning point in my literary career, and a complete surprise. I’m pretty sure I cried.

Geraldine Brooks was so kind. Her introductory essay to the anthology is mandatory reading; I recommend it highly. She reminds us that there are wars raging, and that travel can benefit our perspective and writing. It’s a call to action for a writer.

J: You are a southerner at heart, transplanted to Vermont. You and your veterinarian husband live on many acres, tend a charming house and working farmland, raise animals and two young daughters. One might get the sense that you live so close to earthly delights that you wouldn’t have a TV. But you are also a huge basketball fan, is that right? You’re a complex character I wish I’d written.

M: We love basketball. And sometimes Jeopardy. But most days go by without any television, mostly because we’re too busy running around. I knew that when I became a working mother that I was going to have to give up television. The hours after my girls go to bed are precious. I work, run, or eat dinner with my husband. Plus – my girls and animals know how to make a mess. I spend significant portions of every day cleaning.

I’ve found that I’m a better writer when I’m engaging with my physical world, so I try to do that as much as possible. I’ve also tried to recommit to reading. The last few years have been so busy with two babies, teaching, and writing that I haven’t been great about making time for reading. Some nights, especially during winter, I make a hot bath and dive into a book.

J: I remember those early days, and I have only one child! How has motherhood, in Vermont to boot, changed your writing.

M: Motherhood has changed my writing more than anything else. I had a jolt of empathy toward my mother after I became one myself, a better understanding of the sacrifices she made. Faulting her for things seemed petty. We pick our mothers apart, don’t we? I rewrote a lot of the mothers in my stories after my first daughter was born.

Motherhood and moving to Vermont happened to me at a difficult time in my life, a time when we were grieving the loss of my husband’s mother. I was homesick for my own family in the south. And I started to realize all the complexity and sadness adults have to hold onto throughout life, how you have to climb your way out of it as best you can.

J: Oh, yes. Mothers say not only the right and wrong things in your stories, but they also leave a lot unsaid. If you could tell your daughters one thing about life, what would it be?

M: You are in charge of your own happiness. Choose it, pursue it, fight for it.
J: I have a feeling they will. What can you tell us about your novel-in-progress?

M: My novel-in-progress circles a lot of the themes in my short story collection: the difficult choices women make, the human-animal bond, rural life. I can hopefully tell you more in a month or two!

We will be waiting! Thanks for spending time with us. Readers, yes, I know Megan. Yes, I’m thrilled for her success. But that’s not why I loved her book. Buy it. Take a picture with your dog or your cat or your aye-aye and post it on FaceBook. And let us know how you liked it!


  1. Terrific interview - it's great to hear a writer say she works hard and then see her have such success. You are so right Joan - Megan's characters do bleed onto the page. I read the whole collection and loved it!

  2. I'm looking forward to reading Birds of a Lesser Paradise! What a busy and full life you lead, Megan. Wishing you all the best with the book.

  3. Thanks Anita--it is great to watch her soar! Her novel will be fantastic, I'm sure.

    Julie--You will definitely love it!

  4. If I hadn't already bought this book, I'd have to now. Thanks to both of you for this thoughtful interview. Looking so forward to reading Megan's stories.

  5. Megan sounds like an outdoorsy, animal-loving girl after my own heart. I look forward to reading her book!

  6. Thanks, Sere! That's very kind. I appreciate your stopping by!

    Ellen, her stories are indeed special--I've not read anything like them.

    1. Devon McNamara14 April, 2012

      This is splendid! Thanks so much. Can't wait to beg Megan to come to our MFA Low Rez program as a guest. Yes, the stories are gorgeous, tough minded but easy on the inner voice as you read, honest, sometimes frightening, and in the end unable to let the reader off the hook. And what a hook! She's remarkable. The parrot tale from BEST OF ... is a real heartbreaker. Good on you, Joanie. Miss you. Devon

  7. her stories are fantastic. i enjoyed them a great deal. wish i'd known of her NC readings earlier in the year.


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