January 17, 2012KR Conversations

Megan Mayhew Bergman

A micro-interview with Megan Mayhew Bergman by KR Associate Jill Hanley.

Megan Mayhew Bergman’s first book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, will be published in March 2012. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, 2011 Best American Short Stories, 2010 New Stories from the South, Ploughshares, One Story, Narrative, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She lives in Shaftsbury, Vermont, on a small farm with her veterinarian husband, two daughters, and lots of animals. Her story “Another Story She Won’t Believe” was published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review. She also periodically writes wunderkammers on the KR blog.

KR: Is there a story behind your KR piece(s)?  What was the hardest part about writing it? 

MMB:  “Another Story She Won’t Believe” is a pastiche of inspirations, things that were in my brain at the time I wrote it.  First, I was a new mother, and asking myself, in what ways will I fail my child?  Terrible question, but as a parent (not just a mother – I think this is equal opportunity territory) you realize that the choices you make, the way you live your life, the behaviors you model – these will impact your children.  That brings a new pressure to everyday living.  I poured my anxiety into a flawed character, someone who loves her child, but doesn’t have her own life ironed out, and is watching the manifestation of her mistakes.

While writing this story, I was teaching a student who dropped out of school (a place where I no longer work).  Apparently the girl had a jerk of a boyfriend who had convinced her of the coming apocalypse – so despite loans, the girl stopped coming to school.  This eighteen year old’s ambivalence about living killed me – I emailed her for weeks trying to get her to come back to school.  She never wrote back. I wanted to reel her back in, and couldn’t.  There’s a little of her spirit in the protagonist’s daughter.

The lemurs embody beauty at stake, vulnerability.  (And, well, what former anthropology student isn’t crazy about primates and the magic of opposable thumbs?)

The hardest part about writing this story was marrying characters with plausible action.  The constructs of a story can be unusual, but they must also be rendered believably. 

KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?

MMB: Internal:  I have bouts of anxiety and melancholy about the state of our planet and my personal culpability; this always factors into my writing.

External:  My life is chaotic; there are animals, babies, books, and papers everywhere.  My husband is my biggest muse, both content-wise and at the line level.  For example, I asked him what he was up to at work yesterday, and he said:  pulling puppies.  An interesting action with alliteration for good measure.

The way we (or my protagonists) treat animals, and the natural world, is revealing.  Is there evidence of human exceptionalism?  Anthropomorphism?  Entitlement?  A soft or hard heart?

KR: What’s one book, contemporary or otherwise, that you wish you had written?

MMB: How about a short story/novella?  The Bear, by William Faulkner.  For a novel, Padgett Powell’s Edisto or Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.  Or Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

MMB: Edit ad nauseum.  Take yourself seriously (e.g. aim high, make writing work) and yet don’t take yourself too seriously.  Avoid people who lack a sense of humor about their work.  Living in the physical world improves writing; sitting behind a computer 19 hours a day doesn’t. 

KR: When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant.  What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?

MMB: We are still physical beings with vestigial drives and spiritual needs.  Our techno-society has evolved faster than our minds and bodies.  I’d like to think writing, or storytelling, is actually the medium most capable of calling us away from our pixilated universe and back to what matters, back to organic premises.  Or reminding us what is at stake.  It is one thing to speak of a decimated planet or apocalyptic conditions with deadpan acceptance, another to endure a visceral experience via the prose of Cormac McCarthy.  Writing enables us to model scenarios both apocalyptic or ideal – modes of living that we want to avoid or return to.