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Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of the wonderful story collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise, generously agreed to answer a few questions devised by the students in this class.

Q: To what extent is your work autobiographical — not necessarily literally autobiographical, but informed by the particular circumstances of your life, no matter how those circumstances might wind up altered or disguised in your work?

MMB: When I first moved to Vermont, I had a writerly identity crisis. Up until that moment, I had considered myself a southern writer. I worried about what would happen to my material, the lack of proximity to my obsessions. But then I realized – I was about halfway through the collection – that what was really important to me was proximity to the natural world. Being outside every day, being around animals, living on a farm, living in a rural community. Being a part of the world. Being hands-on. Getting messy in the garden as well as other people’s problems.

Additionally, around that time, my mother-in-law died from pancreatic cancer and I had my first child, despite my environmental and feminist beliefs that tugged me in alternate directions. It was – excuse the bad word – a cosmic bitch slap. It made all the important feelings rise to the top.

Sometimes people say that BOLP is melancholy. Sure. It is. I was struggling with the whole life/death continuum as I was writing it, what it meant to be a mother in a damaged world. But there is a lot of hope in the book, too. I think you see these lifestyle elements and feelings in almost all my stories. I was in processing mode. My characters and their problems were deeply felt.

Q:  Did you set about writing the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise as a collection with clearly discernible links? If not, when did you discover that there were links (for example, the focus on animals, on women, on the natural world) between them?

MMB: I was roughly halfway through when I realized what most of my work centered on – our connection to the natural world and the choices women make in building their lives. I had some other stories I left out – one about the Hilton sisters (Siamese twins who lived in NC – called “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children”), a couple who lived on a remote island with a lighthouse, a story about Allegra Byron, and a piece about a dead calf that had appeared in The Kenyon Review. So you’re right – nearly everything was female first person, and had an animal involved.

I’m very self-conscious about “the animal thing.” I think some people have branded the book as overly cute because it has an easy-on-the-eyes cover and contains work about animals. But I don’t write about cute animals. I want to remind people that humans are animals, and that we have needs and instincts that are vestigial and surprise us. How we treat the natural world reflects on characters – our sense of entitlement, our passions, our empathy.

Q: Can you talk about writing in the first person? Did you consciously set about using first person in all of these stories, or do you find that this is simply the way these stories appeared for you? Also, why did you decide not to use quotations marks for the dialogue, and is that related in any way to the use of the first person?

MMB: First person came naturally to me. I liked the casual aspect of it – turning over your shoulder in a bar to tell a story. I did this. It was like this, etc.

I find quotation marks distracting and visually unappealing – I trust readers to know who is speaking, when. That said, I love grammar and punctuation, and so I’m sort of appalled at myself for not using quotation marks. Who do I think I am, anyway?

Q: What advice would you offer young women who want to pursue fiction writing?

MMB: Read a lot early on. Don’t rush to publish your early work; even the best writers have to churn some bad stories out of the way. Aim high – write the stories that would fit the places you most want to publish in. Get thick skin – embrace rejection as part of the life of letters. THERE IS A LOT OF REJECTION, ALWAYS. No matter who you are.

You are never as brave as you are when you write your first book. After your first book, you know what it’s like to receive a review. You have agents and editors to impress. And yourself. You have expectations hanging over your head. So write bravely now. Know who you want to be and how you want to write before people start trying to tell you.

The writing community thrives on reciprocity, so BE GENEROUS. Be generous with your time – volunteer to read the slush pile for free at your favorite journal. Read and comment honestly and constructively on others’ work. Subscribe to at least 2 literary journals. Give your friends and family literary journal subscriptions for gifts. Read. If you only want to put work out into the literary world, but not consume it yourself – that’s cheap and narcissistic.

Never review anyone unkindly. You can be honest without being mean-spirited. Never get off on tearing others down; it comes back to you (reviewing work is not about YOU. It is about the work and the artist’s intent). Be honest and walk the high road- the writing community is smaller than you think.

Be generous, but don’t be easy. Don’t put too much mindless content out in the world – don’t just make noise – we’re drowning in it. Add something. Give something. Take yourself seriously, except when you shouldn’t. You should be having some fun, but writing should also hurt and be hard. If it’s coming too easily, be suspicious.

****

Megan Mayhew Bergman was raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She now lives on a small farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont with her veterinarian husband Bo, two daughters, four dogs, four cats, two goats, a horse, and a handful of chickens. In November 2010, Megan was elected Justice of the Peace for the town of Shaftsbury. She also occasionally teaches literature at Bennington College.

Megan graduated from Wake Forest University, and completed graduate degrees at Duke University and Bennington College. She was a fiction scholar and fellow at Breadloaf and received a fellowship from the Millay Colony for the Arts.

Scribner published her first story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, in March 2012, and will also release her forthcoming novel Shepherd, Wolf.

Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in the New York Times, Best American Short Stories 2011, New Stories from the South 2010, Oxford American, Narrative, Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere.

 

6 Responses to “Q & A with Megan Mayhew Bergman”

  1. Angelic Yousef says:

    Thank you so much for answering some of our questions. We were very excited about your quick response. Your advice is exactly what we are thirsting for, the fact that the publishing world is such an exciting and new avenue for us. Thank you for taking the time to respond. I am looking forward to reading more of your work.

  2. Celia Lee says:

    Ms. Bergman,
    Thank you so much for getting back to our questions so soon. Reading through your replies is exactly like reading for fun! I find it so interesting that when I read “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” I automatically assumed that you had a theme in mind before setting pen to paper. On the contrary, you hadn’t realized you were following a rhythm until halfway through your work. Your writing is such an inspiration, and I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed every page of this book. Relating to the short stories was effortless and enjoyable, but provided a new outlook on the human-animal relationship. Thank you for this delightful book and these constructive comments!
    Celia Lee

  3. winer13 says:

    Thank you so much for answering our questions! Your stories have been such a wonderful example for us. I really appreciate hearing how you drew inspiration from your own life. It’s led me to look at mine more closely for story ideas. I also enjoyed hearing about the unconscious nature of many of the decisions you made. Your stories have been the main reason why I have loved learning to write in first person.

  4. Kaitlin says:

    Ms. Bergman,
    Thank you for taking the time to share some of your wisdom with us. I enjoyed your book particularly out of the ones we read this semester because of how it dealt with animals. I grew up calling myself an animal lover, and as I have gotten older I’ve realized that loving and respecting animals is different from thinking they’re cute and running up to every dog or cat you see to pet it. Your stories don’t treat animals as accessories to the characters’ lives but as characters in and of themselves, often creating complex emotional circumstances that the human animals in the stories have to deal with. Deciding how we want to relate to the natural world is an important part of being human, and containing that aspect made your work satisfying to read.

  5. Khirsten Cook says:

    Dear Mrs. Bergman,
    Thank you for answering our questions and sharing some of your writing expertise. You have been an inspiration to my class as an example of a successful, young, female writer. I loved and admired your collection of short stories for their strong, female narrators and their insightful commentary on human nature. Your characters were easy to love and relate to; I found myself rereading the stories and sharing them with my friends and family. They often challenged my world view and intuition by overturning my initial assumptions of characters and situations. I am an aspiring writer, so I only hope that my future work will have a similar effect on my readers.
    Best,
    Khirsten Cook

  6. Lauren says:

    Dear Mrs. Bergman,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to our questions. Reading your short stories has allowed each of us the opportunity to observe the natural world and its inherent power concerning an individual’s will to overcome heartache and suffering. I have used your stories as a source of inspiration and hope that one day I, too, can achieve the everlasting impression that you have managed to create.
    Warmly,
    Lauren DuHadaway