"Almost Famous Women" - In Conversation with Megan Mayhew Bergman

This week I had the opportunity to speak with Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of the intriguing new short story collection, Almost Famous Women (Scribner, 2015). In her new book, she imagines the stories of all-too-little-known women like Violet & Daisy Hilton, Allegra Byron and Dolly Wilde among others, whose stories, it may be argued, are at risk of being forgotten. Read on to see what she has to say about her inspiration for her book, her influences and more.

 

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): First thing’s first, I have to say that I think your book is a really fascinating read. What was your inspiration for writing Almost Famous Women?  

Megan Mayhew Bergman (MMB): Sure. This book is deeply representative of my reading habits. I think I was researching this book before I even knew I was writing it. I’ve always been drawn to biographies about unusual women like Natalie Clifford Barney or Sylvia Beach. I had been reading those books, as well as one about Dolly Wilde that really inspired me, and one about Romaine Brooks. I was fascinated by that time and place and by women who were trying to live outside of traditional patriarchy. Women who were trying to work, to follow artistic dreams, at a time when it was very difficult for a woman to make a living or even take care of her own basic needs, financially speaking. 

 

AD: And some of them have some pretty interesting stories, if I do say so myself, particularly when you take into account the time in which they lived. As you elude to in your book, the reception they received for doing some of the things that they did was very different than the way it would have been viewed by society if a man went ahead and decided to do the exact same things.

MMB: Absolutely. And I still think that, even in a contemporary context, we’re still not used to seeing women who live so boldly.

AD: Is there anyone in particular who you were drawn to, or someone that was your favorite? What was it about them specifically?

MMB: Sure. As a story, I’m most fascinated by Whale Cay — the story about Joe Carstairs. Kate Summerscale wrote a biography called The Queen of Whale Cay that most informed that story. The story is really about Joe, but it’s also about a made-up character named Georgie, who serves to orbit Joe’s scene and intensity. We can read biographies, but what’s often more interesting is thinking about the psychological landscape of some of these women, and to do that is always to create fiction and tends to be speculative, but I think it’s an exercise worth doing. 

 

AD: Is there any one thing in particular that you found most interesting or surprising when looking into their lives — when looking into these characters?

MMB: I mean, they were all interesting and fascinating to me, and that’s why I wrote the book. I think that, for whatever reason, when I came across them in the footnotes of somebody else’s book — very few of them have their own biographies — they were unlike any other women I was reading or hearing about. I did try and talk about them with friends and at dinner conversations, and realized that most people didn’t know about a lot of these women. That, in turn, fascinated me. I mean, I don’t think that fame is necessarily a good thing, or something worth pursuing, but I do think it is healthy for us and for young girls to read about women who did things differently. So, that really motivated me to bring them to the surface.  

AD: I think you can take quite a lot away from the book, personally. Is there anything in particular that you hope people take away from Almost Famous Women?

MMB: I don’t think there’s necessarily one singular takeaway. Only that I think we ought to see female protagonists in fiction and non-fiction — and in all media, for that matter — being physically strong and pursuing their own dreams and passions, living life outside very strict gender roles. I think that’s all very important stuff for us to see so that we can imagine our own lives differently, and envision maximum freedom.

 

AD: I definitely agree. Even today, if you take a look at much of pop culture, many shows and movies over the years have had these female characters that were kind of put into these supportive roles — they’re there to support the male character — and all too often they’ve kind of been in the background, and that definitely needs to change.

MMB: Yeah. I think a lot of media focuses on showing women as sort of romantic comedy stereotypes, and women who are constantly caught up in their own imperfections, and I don’t think that’s representative of their life. I think Cheryl Strayed’s Wild — both her book and the movie — are a perfect example of what we do need to see. Women being strong and motivated.

AD: That’s one movie I’ve been meaning to see, actually. First I have to get around to reading the book, though. I don’t know how I haven’t already. I always like to read the book first, before seeing the movie. As far as your own personal influences go, who would you say influences you? 

MMB: I have so many. The incredible thing is there’s no shortage of amazing books and talented authors out there. I really like Amy Hempel and Leonard Michaels. I really like Jim Shepard’s work, and Joan Didion and Zadie Smith. 

Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Oxford American, among other publications. She writes a sustainability column for Salon and lives on a small farm in Vermont with her veterinarian husband, two daughters, and many animals. You can also find Megan online, on Twitter and on Facebook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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