Introducing Our Debutantes: Megan Mayhew Bergman

On April 20th, at our 3rd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will celebrate seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debutantes through a series of interviews on their debut book experiences.

This week features a true Debutante: Megan Mayhew Bergman‘s book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, just came out last week! It is a mesmerizing collection that includes the story she published with One Story, “Housewifely Arts.”

1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I was jogging, pushing my 2-year-old in a stroller on a dirt road down by the Battenkill River. It was November and I was 8 weeks pregnant.  My agent, Julie Barer (a wonderwoman!), called me.  I was getting terrible reception, so I packed up and drove to a church parking lot and parked by an old cemetery, where Julie gave me the news of the probable deal.  I cried, probably thought about throwing up (morning sickness and extreme excitement are a lethal pair), then came home and danced with my husband in the kitchen.

2) Your collection includes “Housewifely Arts,” which you published with us in November, 2010 (it later went on to be included in Best American Short Stories). What has happened to you between appearing in One Story and publishing Birds of a Lesser Paradise?
What has happened to me?  Hmm.  No new super powers or shape shifting abilities or anything cool like that.  I had my second daughter.  We bought my husband’s childhood home from his father, painted the inside, and put up all our thriftstore-chic pieces among the existing antiques and baby gear.

Writing-wise, I started a novel and began teaching literature at Bennington College.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice
would you give to writers about turning a group of individual stories into a book-length manuscript?

The revision process was great; I like to revise.  There were enormous stacks of scribbled-on manuscripts on my desk, on the kitchen counter, in my diaper bag.  Every now and then a page would get a crayon mark or coffee spilled on it.  Dog hair is on everything I own, including edited manuscripts, and probably anything I sent back to Scribner (Sorry, guys).

Revising needs to be savage and you need to walk away with some scars and dirty manuscripts to feel like you did a good job.  You abandon yourself to it.

As for turning a group of stories into a book-length manuscript, I think you know when the material is there.  Readiness of the work itself is the first battle; coherence for a collection is the second.  Most of us have thematic obsessions, or a consistent voice/narrator—the things that link stories together for a collection are often already in place in a body of work.

4) Many of the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise hinge on the question of home, as well as animals and their place in our lives. How do your home in Vermont and your own animals play into your work?
Birds of a Lesser Paradise is my therapy session with myself.  I was going through so many changes when I was writing these stories:  marriage, fertility questions, motherhood, my working life, the first signs of aging, moving away from my family in the south to my husband’s hometown in Vermont, homesickness, and grieving (my mother-in-law passed away just two weeks after my first daughter was born).

For example, the story “Yesterday’s Whales” is me working out my urge to have children despite significant environmental concerns.  In “The Cow that Milked Herself” the husband, who is a vet, gives his wife an ultrasound with the same equipment he uses on dogs (this really happened).

My animals and town make rogue appearances in the works. I had my spaniel Betsy in mind when I wrote the father’s dog in the title story “Birds of a Lesser Paradise.”  “Night Hunting” features a Christmas party like the one we attend annually, and an abandoned orchard like the one right up the hill from our house.

I occasionally use a real problem or setting for an anchor when I begin a story, but by the time the story is finished, it’s often 5 percent reality and 95 percent imagination.  Writers get into trouble this way.  People often ask me about the veterinarians in my work – are they my husband?  For the record – no, they aren’t.  Do I steal things that come out of his mouth? Yes, totally.  There is a certain beauty and exoticism to his medical jargon, the sparkle in his eye when he talks about running his scalpel through a body to solve a problem or save a life.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I am looking forward to two things:
1.  Spending time with my date, Amy Hempel, who is kind and brilliant.  People may think we are discussing literature, but we are probably talking about how to clean dog ears or trading rescue stories.

2.  Celebrating with Karen Seligman, who edited my piece at One Story, and a few after that, and became not just a trusted editor, but a friend.

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