Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of the forthcoming short story collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise (Scribner, March 2012) 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. She also 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 at Breadloaf and received a fellowship from the Millay Colony for the Arts in November 2007. 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.
Jennifer M. Kaufman was delighted to read an ARC of Birds of a Lesser Paradise (review), and to have the oppotunity to ask the author about the book, writing, and her life with animals.
Animals play an important role in the stories in your new collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise. You clearly love animals, but never over-sentimentalize them in your fiction – you write about them/ their behavior, with the clear and observant eye of someone who has a lot of first hand experience. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the collection, including how life in the country, and as the spouse of a veterinarian, has informed your understanding of animals?
I was writing this collection as my husband was finishing veterinary school. In other words, our house was filled with a lot of gross laundry (white coats stained with formaldehyde and other unmentionables) and scientific knowledge about animals. During this time I encountered people who had truly devoted their lives to animals – either from a lifestyle perspective or academically (e.g. living among ten cats, studying herpes in turkeys, or the effect of post traumatic war stress on dogs).
Furthermore, when I was writing these stories, I had a formative six week period of time crammed with major life events: my first child was born, my beloved mother-in-law passed away, my husband graduated from veterinary school, and we put our North Carolina house on the market and drove 12 hours north to rural Vermont, where we moved into my husband’s childhood home. I felt seriously humbled, as if I was learning to live all over again. Though it sounds trite, the life/death continuum felt real to me. I understood that my adult life was going to be full of joy, grief, and hard choices, and that these feelings could coincide with each other in disturbing and enlightening ways.
Living with two rural veterinarians (my father-in-law is a veterinarian, as was my mother-in-law), I’ve come to a strange second-hand familiarity with veterinary medicine. My dinner table is often filled with talk about cruciate ligaments, sutures, and biopsy results – and also stories that can break your heart. Not everyone can afford to take care of their pet the way they want to. Not everyone loves animals (if they did, we wouldn’t have a one-eyed cat with a bb lodged in his head). Some of our friends rely on animals as a significant part of sustenance – raising pigs and slaughtering the animals themselves, hunting, de-feathering chickens, etc. My proximity to the scientific, and traditionally rural, treatment of animals, certainly finds its way into my work.
I’ve heard that characters are most illuminated by their actions – which includes the way they treat animals, or choose to cohabitate with them. I guess you could say I’ve had a lot of experience observing “characters” and their animals. Including myself.
You live with “four dogs, four cats, two goats, a horse, and a handful of chickens” – sounds like a lot of work and a lot of personalities! What does this mean for your daily routine and your writing? Which of the animals is your favorite, and why?
Well, it’s certainly not my rooster, whom we just made soup from. (He attacked one of our daughters twice. And viciously.)
Like a big family, the dogs and humans in our house get on each other’s nerves. So my favorite animal rotates – whoever is looking up at me with big eyes at the moment, I guess. My one-eyed cat Pi pulls my heart strings – he’s a goofy old giant with no depth perception – but he also starts a lot of fights with our grumpy gray shorthair, Greta.
My daily routine includes feeding four dogs, which, and I’m totally bragging here, I can do in freezing temperatures with a baby in one hand and a tantrumming toddler at my feet. My husband and his father often take care of the barn, which started while I was pregnant with my second child. The goats were wising up to the fact that they could jump on me and knock the food out of my hands – and doctors aren’t really keen on goats jumping on pregnant ladies. I play my “southerner” card when it comes to early morning barn duty and winter. The girls and I can often be found feeding stale animal crackers and compost to the goats and chickens later in the day.
As for my writing – I have a sitter who comes a few hours a day, and I steal away to the old veterinary clinic (most of which is now converted to my father-in-law’s house) and work. My office used to be the doctor’s office, so it’s filled with outdated goat husbandry books and prescription guides. It’s cold, and there are a lot of spiders, but it’s my space.
The people in your stories tend to have complicated relationships with animals, sometimes very needy. What drew you to these kinds of stories?
I’m fascinated by people who start off with good intentions and fail, or who realize the addictions they have (animal rescue, alcohol) are standing in the way of happiness.
My husband has been involved in hoarding busts, and we always end up puzzling – along with the world – what were they thinking, packing their home with 90 sheep? Putting a hundred cats in the back of two cars and crossing state lines? Stories like “Every Vein a Tooth” are my way of trying to answer that question.
The parent-child relationship, and motherhood especially, figure prominently and very powerfully in this collection as well (mothers of younger children, daughters caring for ill or aging parents, single motherhood). How have motherhood and daughterhood shaped your writing?
Becoming a mother – I have two daughters under 3 – altered my sense of self, and caused me to reflect not just on motherhood, but on being a daughter as well. I have more compassion for mothers, and more gratitude. I started thinking and rethinking: what do mothers and daughters owe each other? What is the best we can give? Why are there so many struggles between women who mean so much to one another?
The battle for independence and understanding is gruesome; I’m not looking forward to my girls deciding that they don’t need me anymore. I’m still making peace with the fact that years from now my daughters will have long conversations over bottles of wine dissecting why they are the way they are, and what part I played in those outcomes.
Love is messy, and that sentiment is at the heart of a lot of my stories.
I love this quote from your essay Take that Donna Reed in The Oxford American “There are, occasionally, teachers you can’t, or shouldn’t, please.” The essay explores how a painful rejection shaped you as a writer… how has it shaped you as a teacher?
My tendency as a teacher is to be really giving. If a reliable student wants to roll up his or her sleeves and work on a paper, I’ll go draft after draft with them. I feel that it’s my duty as a teacher to give the kids something to walk away with, something transferable – knowledge about a book, a good paper they can use as a writing sample elsewhere, a working knowledge of semi-colons.
But the painful rejection I wrote about in the aforementioned essay also stoked my desire to be fair. That teacher I disliked ultimately upheld the integrity of the recommendation process. She didn’t like my work, so she didn’t write a recommendation for me. Someone once told me that people respect you more for being fair than nice, and I believe it. I believe in having hard conversations, telling kids something they don’t want to hear. That’s where growth happens.
You describe yourself as a “transplant” from the South. Where do you feel most at home? What surprised you most about life in rural New England? What do you miss?
I was born in SC, lived my first 16 years in the tiny tobacco town of Rocky Mount, NC, moved to Spartanburg SC my last two years of high school, and attended undergrad Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem NC. My husband and I lived in downtown Raleigh, NC for 5 years while he went to veterinary school, and then we moved to Vermont.
I feel most at home in the South, particularly on the NC coast, where my parents owned a little beach condominium for much of my life. We spent a lot of time in Beaufort, NC, a quiet and haunted historic harbor town. As for what I miss: my family, friendly customer service, tobacco barns tumbling down in fields, sweet tea, spicy Bojangles fries, the smell of barbecue (even though I’m a vegetarian), sunshine, the ocean. I don’t miss the high density housing developments and shopping centers that have consumed North Carolina’s landscape, however.
Even though I live in my husband’s childhood home – an 1834 farmhouse – I feel as if I’m in the process of building a home here. I don’t know if I’ll ever come around to loving winter, but I do love Vermont. It’s a state I’m proud of, socialist senator and all. I guess what surprised me most about living in New England is how much I love it – 9 months out of the year. The local food culture is great; everyone I know has a huge garden and we have fantastic farms nearby. There is a lack of in-your-face materialism; I can wear yoga pants out to dinner and rarely bother with makeup. Small town Vermont is all about being a good neighbor and a humble, hard worker. It’s a place where women drive trucks, goats jump fences, and the best gift is homemade anything.