Megan Mayhew Bergman lives on a small farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont. 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. Her first story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, will be published by Scribner in March 2012. Flyway blogger Ian Pisarcik recently had the opportunity to ask Megan a few questions.
Ian John Pisarcik: You were raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and currently live on a small farm in rural Vermont. How much does your environment shape your writing?
Megan Mayhew Bergman: I’m very focused on place. I think that’s what happens with distance – moving from North Carolina to Vermont feels like expatriation – you see “home” with fresh eyes.
Growing up I was tapped into that southern current which has been running through my family for generations. It’s embedded in my language, my mannerisms, my blood.
Though I’m always homesick, my best life is in Vermont. And that tension makes for great investigation, and I hope good writing.
IJP: Your first story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, will be published by Scribner in March 2012. What advice can you give to writers hoping to get their work published?
MMB: Don’t rush to publish early; I have mediocre work out in the world that I wish I could take back. Know what matters to you artistically. Ask yourself why you want to write and why you want to be published, and be comfortable with your answer. Make more time for reading. Be patient. Bottle up the small victories for later, when you haven’t had any for a while, and you need to remind yourself that being a writer can feel good.
IJP: You spent some time working as a reader for the New England Review. What do you look for in a story? What effect can a compelling story have on you?
MMB: I want to forget I’m reading (e.g. I don’t have the urge to check Facebook during the second paragraph). I want to feel a certain amount of freshness in a narrative; you begin to realize, as a reader, that some ideas are just done and redone ad nauseum. I look for economical, controlled prose that doesn’t forego passion and energy. I look for the writer’s own interest in a subject: obsession, insight, or intellectual curiosity. I want believable characters. I’m an impatient reader; writing must hold me with beauty, promise, or narrative energy.
When I’ve read a good story, I feel it. I usually swear. This happened to me today when I was selecting stories from In Our Time to teach. I read the last lines of Hemingway’s On the Quai at Smyrna – about the donkeys trying to swim with the broken forelegs – and I felt that punch in the gut, that visceral response to a story that I crave.
IJP: Animals play a prominent role in many of your stories. I suppose this is inevitable given that you are married to a veterinarian and share your home with several dogs, four cats, two goats and a horse. Aside from simply being present, is there something about animals that motivates you to explore them in your stories?
MMB: You’re right – mostly I write about the animal world because it’s just part of my life. But it’s a life I opted into, and I like the physicality of it. Physical lives take us outside of our heads and pixilated microcosms. I don’t mean a run outside – I’m thinking of meaningful interaction with nature on a regular basis. Throwing hay, trimming hooves, stealing an egg from underneath a broody chicken, hiking up a mountain, knowing the birdsongs in your yard. I need that connection. I need to break away from my computer and get my hands and eyes on something real.
I’m also interested in notions of primal innocence, and our own animal nature. I’m intrigued by –and wary of – anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. Relationships with animals illuminate so much about characters.
IJP: You have a vegetable garden and participate in a farm share. On your blog you promote several local bookstores. Do you see a connection between these things?
MMB: Our livelihood is tied to a local business, so we try and reciprocate. I like that about Vermont. There aren’t a lot of jobs, so we support each other in a lot of agricultural and artistic endeavors. CSAs and local bookstores can be more expensive than their bigger relatives, but I enjoy these places, and am thankful to have them in our community. I think it’s important to put my money back into the local economy as much as I can. I’d rather give my money to a friend, you know?
IJP: Who are the writers you get excited about reading today?
MMB: I just plain get excited about reading. I have two children under 3, and I’ve been in Baby Mode, which can eat away significant reading time. I have a friend who speaks beautifully and passionately about books, and at a recent dinner I realized that I was woefully under-read in comparison. I re-committed to reading that night, and silently vowed to get hungry again, and to read more widely instead of feeding my biases.
I’m excited to read John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. Lauren Groff has a book coming out in March called Arcadia which I can’t wait to read. Stephen Dau, a fellow Bennington grad, is debuting in 2012 with Book of Jonas. There are authors I return to, like Mary Gaitskill, Henry Miller, and Willa Cather. I’m just going to stop now because this list is going to get long. As I said above, I’m just excited about reading.
IJP: Congratulations on having your second child. Do you follow modern children’s literature? Is there a book, new or old, which you are particularly excited to share with your children?
MMB: I do not follow modern children’s literature, but should. I go to the library every two weeks for my girls. (Okay – every three to four weeks. I pay a lot of fines.) But I’m particularly excited to share The Secret Garden, The Westing Game, and, if I’m honest, vintage Nancy Drew. None of that modern Nancy-with-a-cell-phone stuff, just Nancy in her convertible with her trusty friends, unmasking prowlers. I want to expose them to wholesome and plucky stuff for their manners and sense of self, and mystery for their imaginations.
Read more about Megan Mayhew Bergman and pre-order Birds of a Lesser Paradise at: http://mayhewbergman.com/Home.aspx