Megan Mayhew Bergman (’02) is the author of “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” her first collection of stories, to be published in 2012 by Scribner. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she writes a blog, Amateur Yankee, about life in rural Vermont with veterinarian husband Bo Bergman (’02) and two daughters, four dogs, four cats, two goats, seven chickens, two fish and a horse. Read more on her website .
How long have you been a writer, and what inspires you?
I finally felt like a “real” writer when I held the proof of my first book. I was standing in my kitchen alone when I opened the box from my publisher; moms don’t get a lot of alone time, so this was special. My 2-year-old was in bed and my 4-week-old was asleep. I ripped open the box, and there were 10 fresh copies of my first book. I’d be lying if I said tears weren’t shed.
Many things inspire me — writer’s envy, a beautiful sentence, a great teacher, nostalgia, peculiar bits of dialogue I catch in public. But, and this may sound trite, nothing has inspired me more than becoming a mother. My girls challenge and humble me, and through them I feel as though I understand the world better. My focus is exterior now, not interior.
Two years ago, within a six-week span, my first daughter was born, my husband graduated from veterinary school, his mother passed away, and we put our house on the market and moved 12 hours north — away from my family and into my husband’s childhood home in Vermont. I was working for a consulting firm and entering the graduate semester of my MFA program. That period of time brought me to my knees — completely recalibrated my sense of self and purpose — and my writing is better for it. Nothing like a cosmic kick in the teeth to get you moving ahead on your dreams.
My collection, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” will be published by Scribner in March. I wanted to explore modern motherhood, the pull of biology on our lives, and our relationship with animals. The stories take place in urban gardens, veterinary clinics, Southern diners, prison farms, swamps, and the coast of Maine. It’s a book for animal lovers, people with a sense of humor, mothers and daughters.
In one story, a single mother drives down I-95 to find a parrot her family once owned so that she can hear her dead mother’s voice. In another, a woman who runs an urban garden for the homeless is desperate to conceive a child with her older husband. Many of the stories feature veterinarians, such as “Saving Face,” where a female veterinarian must come to terms with vanity after a dog wakes up from anesthesia and injures her face weeks before her wedding.
If you read it, and I’d be grateful if you did, I hope the book makes you laugh and breaks your heart when you least expect it.
What about the process of writing a book? How long did it take you, and how do you manage juggling creative work with family life?
The stories in my collection were written over the last two years. I had a burst of productivity before my first daughter, Frasier, was born; perhaps it was anxiety about losing my writing time, or a new way of looking at the world, but those stories comprise most of my collection.
When it comes to juggling creative work and family life — I’m learning on the fly. I get up early. I’ve edited stories with an infant in my lap, typing with one hand. I revise sentences in my head when I’m on barn duty. I let the frustrations and joy I feel as a parent inform my writing.
There’s a line from Elliot Merrick’s book “Green Mountain Farm” that captures the relationship between writing and Vermont life best:
“I get my best ideas for writing when I’m farming, and my best farm ideas when writing. Milking cows is very fine for ironing out plot difficulties. There is something soothing and stimulating to the mental processes in that rhythmic tug and squeeze …”
What was your major at Wake Forest, and were there any people or experiences that profoundly influenced the direction of your life and career?
I majored in anthropology, as did my husband, Bo. Hilariously enough, we met in Dr. Jeanne Simonelli’s Anthropology of Gender class. No better place to meet your mate than a class where you hash out gender roles …
I’d have to say Bo is the person at Wake who influenced my life’s direction the most. In February of our senior year, we loaded up his car and drove to Vermont. As we sat on the front porch of the historic farmhouse he grew up in, surrounded by a foot of snow, one of his dogs (a boxer with a snaggletooth) literally did a handstand trying to warm his back end on our legs. I knew then that I was in love — with a person and a place.
Pretty soon after we were married, we dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and a writer, living in an old Vermont farmhouse, and raising two kids … and here we are. It’s a weird life — we have four dogs, four cats, two goats, one horse, seven chickens, two fish, and huge gardens that keep us busy in summer. There’s always garlic to pull, eggs to collect, dogs to feed, a cat unraveling my yarn balls, two feet of snow on the roads when you need to pick someone up from the airport. But I love it, and feel grateful for the opportunity to lead such a physical, outdoor-oriented life, and raise kids in a place where the cell phone reception sucks and everyone wears Carhartts instead of cashmere and yoga pants to a nice dinner out.
What do you miss most about Wake Forest?
Often I miss the naiveté I started college with; of course, I didn’t realize then how wide my eyes were, or wouldn’t have admitted it. There were lectures that rocked my world, debates in anthropology classes about the existence of altruism, the way gender roles were shaped by the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. I crave that sensation of having my core beliefs rattled, but the older we get the less receptive to new ideas we become, the more we feed our bias.
But if we’re talking specifics, I miss the parties. (My social life in Shaftsbury is a little slow; we churn cider for fun and are in bed by 9.) What other time in your life do you get to stay up until 4 a.m. dancing to Michael Jackson in an ’80s prom dress?