Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of the short story collections Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Almost Famous Women, and now, How Strange a Season. She writes searing, ravishing prose, and creates deep, complex characters.
Her latest book is no exception. In seven short stories and one novella, How Strange a Season explores women who dare to be discontent in their lives, who push up against the boundaries of the worlds created for them, who question, who wrestle, who are human and ultimately, deeply relatable. Her work has been endorsed by Lauren Groff, Lily King, and Emma Straub, among others. Kirkus calls How Strange a Season “as singular as it is atmospheric.”
Bergman also writes columns on climate change and the natural world for The Guardian and The Paris Review. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Oxford American, Orion, and elsewhere. She currently teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College, where she also serves as Director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference.
Literary Mama Publisher Cindy DiTiberio lived across the hall from Bergman in college and was thrilled to catch up with the author via Zoom at Bergman’s Vermont farmhouse which she shares with her veterinarian husband, two daughters, and a menagerie of animals.
Cindy DiTiberio: One of the things I loved about How Strange a Season is the strong-willed nature of many of the protagonists. They seem to be women in opposition to men, like the character in “Workhorse” who says her father’s love language was war, and that “we set our clocks to his needs.” Or the wife in “Wife Days” who barters: “I will give you four good Wife Days a week if you leave me alone the other three and let me do whatever I want.” In your characters, there is a sense of discontent mixed with desire. Why do you think you are drawn to creating these kinds of women?
Megan Mayhew Bergman: I grew up in a southern home and I was trained to please. If you’d asked me in my early adulthood, I would have told you I was a feminist, yet I was not making decisions or living my life in a way that reflected those values. There was something about having daughters where I began looking at their experience in the world. I realized, I don’t want them to suffer from this affliction that I suffer from, walking into a room and thinking, “How does everybody feel right now? How can I make everyone else comfortable?” In “Workhorse” in particular, I wanted it to be that sort of feeling of I am so tired of the emotional labor of holding up these relationships. In literature and in life, I’m drawn to the idea of, what do we owe others? And what do we owe ourselves?
CD: I, too, have become more aware of my own conditioning when I see the messaging presented to my daughters. When that happens, I begin to wonder how I can change the whole conversation, so they aren’t trapped the same way I am, at age 40, trying to crawl out of the cage that I thought I would never get into.
MMB: I think it happens at the individual level and it happens at the societal systems level. For a long time I was like, I’ve been a victim. Society has done this to me. My parents have done this to me, or my partner, and I found all these ways I felt subjugated and repressed. And then in my 40s, I had a therapist who was like, “Also, you did this to you.”
CD: Absolutely. But men are not socialized with the same kind of pressure to subvert what they want if it’s going to make other people uncomfortable. I think that’s the work of a feminist, to stop the outward orientation of pleasing others and learning to please yourself. In fact, the ultimate feminist act is to say, “Enough! I can sometimes please you too, but me first.”
MMB: Exactly. I mean, you nailed the very piece of advice I still give my girls. They say, “Do you like this?” I will say, “Do you like it? Please yourself.”
CD: One of my favorite scenes in the book is in the novella, “Indigo Run,” where Helena, after giving birth, admits to a feeling of betrayal from her mother, and from women in general, that no one told her how messy, painful, and life-changing giving birth would be: “What a horrible secret women kept, she thought. It was perverse of them not to warn everybody else.”
MMB: I’m glad you noticed that scene. I think that’s one of the truest scenes I’ve written in the book in terms of that conversation. Ultimately, I wanted to conjure the emotional truth of birth for a woman who is not ready to give birth and who wasn’t fully herself yet as a human. I’m really drawn artistically to moral complexity. I think it was Henry Miller who had this idea of not writing with a moral filter, writing people as they really are and not as they should be. And so, I think that what I was trying to do is examine what one might actually feel like in that moment. I also think it’s important to let women be ugly on the page. In some ways we’ve got to just throw elbows out of the parameters of how we’re portrayed.
CD: That’s one of the reasons I related to the stories so much. Each woman is facing unique circumstances, and yet they are beautiful and ugly at the same time. And isn’t that how we all are?
MMB: I don’t know about you, but right now I just feel everyone’s messy humanity. Like we’re all these little wounded humans dragging our grief around. Maybe the market doesn’t always have room in its heart for short fiction, or for unlikable female protagonists. But I really have a high degree of trust in readers, especially female readers, that they can embrace complexity, and they will.
CD: I loved this line from “Peaches, 1979”: “The light was falling, and the blue hour came on. It was always Darcy’s loneliest point—that elegant hour, when she wanted more for herself. Better company, a different job, a family she didn’t have to look after.” To be clear, Darcy is a single woman, no husband, no children, and yet she is tethered to her family, and in particular, her family’s land. Within many of the stories, there is a theme of generational ties or bonds or burdens, the lineage of mothers and daughters and grandmothers. Mothers who leave and the repercussions that follow in their wake. Why do you think our past is so difficult to escape, and what is it like for you, to have escaped yours, in some ways, being so far from the south? I’m sure you still feel it calling you.
MMB: Absolutely. You just asked the question that’s probably central not just to my writing but to my life. When my first book came out, people would ask me, “Are you a Southern writer?” And I still ask myself that. I mean, I spent thirty years in the south. So yeah, I think I am. I’ve lived in Vermont for twelve years now, so my accent is neutralized. But at my core, I’m a Southerner. In fact, I feel homeless, sometimes, a little restless here. I envy people who have deep roots like my partner. This is the farmhouse that he was raised in. His parents bought it in the ’70s. He knows this land. He knows this town. He’s a known entity. We moved here when my first daughter was six weeks old, because his mother had recently passed away from cancer and he came to take over her veterinary clinic. I was uprooted from my entire network of family and friends to an incredibly rural part of the country at a time when I desperately needed support. Had I been looking out for myself a little bit more, I probably would have made a different decision. But my partner was grieving his mother. And all I wanted was for him to feel happy. To be honest, I think my feeling of displacement is a point of tension in my writing. And all good narrative comes from a point of tension. That just happens to be mine. It’s north and south. It’s rural. That dissonance makes me come to the page.
CD: There’s this Joan Didion quote that goes, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” As women, we’re not taught to own our wanting, so we subvert it and submerge it. Sometimes it is only in writing that we can own it, give it air.
MMB: I think a lot about appetite these days; especially female appetite, like what does it mean to have a big appetite, to identify it, to satisfy it? Because I identify as someone who has one. I mean, I’m a dreamer. I’m impractical. I’m impulsive. I’m emotional. I bought a boat during the pandemic, which is not something I would have done until my 40s.
CD: What does the boat symbolize to you? What were you seeking? What does that new phase represent for you?
MMB: I met my partner in an anthropology class my senior year of college and in one of the classes we were in, the teacher asked us to imagine ourselves in ten years, and I said, “Living on a sailboat with a golden retriever.” I’ve had a lot of golden retrievers in my life. I’m too spatially inept to ever sail a boat. So I got this vintage looking tugboat. It represents freedom. That first week I spent on the boat when I was in Beaufort alone and living aboard, I felt so in touch with my old self and the self I wanted to become. It was audacious. Probably the most audacious thing I’ve ever done.
CD: I feel like book clubs would have so much to say about each character in this collection of stories and which one they related to the most. I loved their unlikability. Maybe it’s because I’m at a stage of my own life where I am owning my identity as a “difficult woman,” as Jane Goodall says, so it felt validating seeing myself on the page. I also love that I do not feel like you have an agenda. These stories could almost be frustrating in their ambiguity. There are no answers or solutions, but that also makes it feel real.
MMB: That’s exactly what I would want someone to feel. No one likes self-righteous fiction. I think about morality a lot. I think about the natural world a lot. But if you bring that too much onto the page in fiction, the reader feels like you have this frying pan that you’re poised to smack them on the head with. So, my mantra has always been story first in my fiction. And if I’m burning righteously about something else, I try to take it to my journalism.