The Primal Human Being
A Conversation With Megan Mayhew Bergman on the Relationship Between Writing and the Natural World
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, three cats, two goats, and a handful of chickens. In November 2010, Megan was elected Justice of the Peace for the town of Shaftsbury. She occasionally teaches literature at Bennington College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Governor's Institutes of Vermont. She writes a regular sustainability column for Salon. Megan studied anthropology at Wake Forest University, and completed graduate degrees at Duke University (MA) and Bennington College (MFA). 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 next collection, Almost Famous Women, in January 2015, as well as her forthcoming novel.
On March 6, 2014, Megan visited the Writing House to give a Q&A and reading for Interlochen Arts Academy creative writing students. During her visit, Interlochen Review Fiction Editors Carly Miller and Nayereh Doosti sat down with her to discuss writing, motherhood and her obsession with animals.
Carly Miller: Motherhood is a topic that has been explored in art and writing for thousands of years and it’s a topic that you explore in your short stories quite often, that and the role of caretakers, and we were wondering how you find unique ways to talk about that, because it’s been done a lot—it’s a natural instinct, I think, to explore this topic.
Megan Mayhew Bergman: Sure. Of course, as a writer, you want to be fresh, you want to be original, and one of the things I try to hold myself to is providing insight; not stating the obvious, not regurgitating, but being insightful. The perspective that I thought was a little hard earned, and what I had to give to my readers, was my relationship with the natural world. So really what I felt when I became a mother for the first time was this connection to the primal self and the human as animal. Most of us, even by accident, tend to be human exceptionalists; we believe that humans have transcended our animal nature. I think it’s less so than we believe. I think we’re still surprised by our instincts and those really crop up, or they did for me, in motherhood. I wanted to honor how savage, primal and tense that felt for me.
CM: Animals carry a large amount of emotional weight in your stories, which is something that is unique about your work especially as we don’t tend to think of ourselves as animals anymore. Can you talk about how—from a technical perspective—you’re able to set up the stories to enable such compelling action and compelling emotion between animals and humans?
MMB: I was an anthropology major in college so I did a lot of thinking and reading in my early academic life about the rise of human culture, the relationship with the natural world, with animals, and gender roles, and that’s a framework I think I was starting with, which is sort of fresh. When you write a book about animals, publishers are really eager to show you in a certain way and I think people are used to animal stories having a sort of an easy, soft, homework-esque appeal, and I wanted to subvert that. I think one of the great things a writer can do is subvert things, subvert expectations so if somebody is expecting something from your story or your characters, know how to turn that on its head. So that’s one of the things, technically, I was thinking about. Don’t play into the easy set-up with animals. And I certainly work with our relationships with animals in a way that pulls at our heart-strings but I try not to exploit it and I tried to make each situation hard earned. Another thing I was careful not to do too much was to anthropomorphize, to attribute human emotions to an animal, or to show us how that might get us into trouble if we were doing that. My husband is a veterinarian, my father-in-law is a veterinarian, my mother-in-law was a veterinarian before she passed away, and so I’m surrounded by these narratives at the dinner table about the way people interact with their animals. You know, the way they treat them, the lengths they’re willing to go to for them. And we live in a rural community, we have people that might want to do well by their animals but can’t afford it so that might present sort of a values judgement on everyone’s part that I think is emotional and complex so that also factors into the stories.
Nayereh Doosti: How did you come up with this animal motif for your book? Is this something you always write about or did you come up with this idea only for this collection?
MMB: It was really organic at first. Someone told me that when you’re a short story writer and you’re thinking about your collection, not to overthink the structure of your collection or what the stories have in common, that often your obsessions will fuel your writing and those will be the thing that bring a collection together at the end. That was the way for me. I’ve always wanted to be in close proximity with the natural world and when I think about making character driven stories I think one of the most revealing things about a character is the way they interact/abuse, exploit the natural world. You know, how we use our resources, and interact, and I think that’s really revealing.
ND: Do you think you’ll keep writing about animals in your next book?
MMB: No! (laughs) I mean, I write a lot of nonfiction and I definitely have an environmental activist streak and that’s really problematic in fiction. Readers don’t want to read your activism so much that it sort of gets in the way of good narrative and good storytelling. I write a sustainability column for Salon, which is an online journal, and I’ve found that that is one way for me to channel my energy and my concern—my sociopolitical feelings—so I can keep it out of my fiction more, so that’s been helpful. But my next book, which comes out in January, is called Almost Famous Women and it’s stories about—and maybe this is my feminism creeping in instead of my environmental activism—but I kept reading all these books about women that were somebody’s wife or notorious because of their relationship to someone else or in a very pretty sort of Hollywood way. I wanted to talk about women who were living alternatively, outside the patriarchy, making really controversial life decisions in the way that they were constructing their lives. So Almost Famous Women is a collection about people like Dolly Wilde, who was Oscar Wilde’s niece, but she was also an ambulance driver in the first World War. Then there’s a story about Jo Carstairs, the Standard Oil heiress, but who was cross-dressing and bought an island in the Bahamas and sort of ruled it like a King or Queen and raced boats and was the fastest woman on water for a while. . . I’m just interested in women who use their bodies and who were athletes and stunt doubles and horse trainers and give us new examples of how women live their lives, and how women are their own heroes. But also, what a risk that is because I often feel like the universe doesn’t treat its unusual women kindly and well, especially as they age, and so that was something I was playing with too. So I’ve firmly stepped away from animals for my next book. My novel definitely has some environmentalism in it so we could get back there. (Laughs) We always do!
ND: In the interview included in your book, you said there’s a piece of you in every protagonist in this collection. Is writing stories that might sound autobiographical something you usually shy away from, or is it the opposite?
MMB: I would say I had a learning experience on that front. When I was first writing these stories I didn’t think about other people reading them. A lot of these stories are my MFA stories that I wrote in grad school; and to that end, I’m a different writer now than I was when I wrote some of these, and it’s been interesting to learn to stand behind all of them. Because I’ve changed as an artist. One of the problems to me was that I thought if I called it fiction, people would take it as fiction; but in every single interview, people would speak about these stories as if they had really happened and as if they were real. Certainly, figments of them are and were. But I took a small seed, five percent of truth, like a feeling, a gesture, a piece of conversation, an animal that I knew, and bastardized it and used the power of my imagination to completely turn it on its head. My real life would not be dramatic enough to hold a story.
So, I’ve done this, but I didn’t realize the way the people in my life would read into it and look for themselves in the stories. I’ve had hard conversations with people who thought they found themselves in my stories and I had to reassure that, “Well, this is not you!”
I think it’s particularly true for women writers. We are always more prone to read into their lives and their emotional states of being and their work. I’m more conscious of that now than I was when I wrote my first book.
CM: If you could have your book known for one or two ideal characteristics, what would those be and why are those ones important to you? (Like Poe’s dark fiction, Virginia Woolf for her lyricism, etc.)
MMB: It’s good for writers to be ambitious, right? Although I have to admit that’s a conversation that’s probably still in my subconscious mind. I very rarely dare to think of myself as great, so I’m not sure that I’ve had this conversation explicitly with myself.
But I love sentences. I really care about language and I really care about sentence structure. I never have a haphazard sentence in a short story. We’ll see how it goes in the novel. It’s hard to obsess in the way that one obsesses in a short story over each and every word, but that might change for me as I become a more experienced writer.
I would say sentences, the quality of my sentences; and I hope that I’m able to eliminate the tension between humans and the natural world. That’s something that I’m interested in.
ND: In all of the stories in this collection, there is a female protagonist. Why is this so? Was this a choice you particularly made for this collection or do you always write about women? Will you still be focusing on women’s issues in your next book?
MMB: It tends to happen for me just organically on the page and when I’m conceiving a story. That’s how I’ve lived in the world, so often it’s how I approach putting my environment on the page, or an imagined environment. That’s the way I’ve experienced it. I’ve rarely written a story from a male point of view. I’ve had people tell me sort of the things that are whispered behind the scenes in the writing world that if you want your books to be taken seriously from a critical standpoint, it’s more common to do so from a male point of view or to picture that you have those anchors. It’s something that I think about, but it’s just not who I am as an artist right now. Or not what I’m capable of doing or interested in doing at this point. I think every artist and every writer brings their own talents and view to the page.
CM: In this collection you use the first person point of view the majority of the time. Is this a point of view you normally turn to or did you select a lot of stories for this collection with this point of view intentionally? And what style of point of view is most intriguing to you?
MMB: I think my use of first person point of view in these stories was almost beginner’s exuberance. It was just how they started to tumble out. The first story that I wrote, the earliest story in this collection, is “The Cow that Milked Herself” and that was a story that I wrote when I was in school and first pregnant; so I’m pouring all my pregnancy anxiety into that story. Just not sure if I wanted to become a mother and how I felt about it and how my life was going to change. I couldn’t come at that in any other way. That’s how it was writing itself.
And to get back to an earlier question about biography and fiction, this book was a therapy session for me. I see that in retrospect more than I saw it when I was writing. I had what I call “my cosmic bitch slap of existence” as I was writing these stories. I was pregnant and in a six-week period of time, I had my first child. A daughter, who was colicky and cried all the time, for hours and hours on end. I had no idea what I was doing. My husband graduated from veterinary school. His mother, whom we both loved, passed away from cancer, and then we put our house on the market, so we could move up and help out with the veterinary clinic in Vermont. That all happened within six weeks and I was really overweight from pregnancy. My hair started falling out. I didn’t feel good about myself. I was homesick. I didn’t know what I was doing as a mother or as an artist. And I rebuilt myself. I got to a point where I was so down, but I was also tired of feeling vulnerable and that was the thing that had been in my way about sharing my work and being brave enough to submit it to journals. That feeling of vulnerability, putting yourself out there and knowing that people are going to read your work. People are going to judge you. And I didn’t care anymore. There was a luxury in rebuilding from that point. All of those things, that sadness, that birth and death, having a child and losing a mother figure, that all factored really heavily to all these stories and I was experiencing that so vividly that I think that’s why the first person female narrator choice is so heavy in these stories. Probably in a way that won’t happen again.
ND: You choose not to use quotation marks for dialogue in these stories. Do you ever use them at all? Or does it depend on the narrator and the voice?
MMB: I use them now! As I mentioned, you evolve as an artist and a writer and you sensibilities and what’s important to you. When I was writing these stories, I’d been reading a lot of Raymond Carver and at the beginning I felt very avant-garde and you know, “I really care about language,” or “who cares about plot?”
As I’ve grown, I’ve started realizing: What are the stories that I enjoy as a reader? What gives me that feeling of catharsis, of being moved and being transfixed and transformed and transported in a story as a reader? I realized that I actually like more traditional narrative structure. So I started gravitating toward that more in my stories. I also think I cared for myself a lot as an artist when I was an early writer. Now, I definitely hold on to that feeling, but in addition to that, I think about my reader. Why would you ever want your reader to be confused, or to pause, or to stumble? I used to think of quotation marks as visually cluttering. I would look at the page and they would just scream at me and I would think, “I trust my reader. They know when someone’s speaking.” But now I don’t think we see them the way I was seeing them when I was writing this collection. So now I use them, because I don’t want to confuse my reader. I want them to move through the story.
I’m a grammar nerd and a punctuation nerd! So it actually sort of kills me in retrospect that I thumbed my nose in quotation marks. (Laughs) But, live and learn!