Author Megan Bergman Brings ‘Almost Famous Women’ To Oblong Books
By Nichole Dupont
There is almost no drawl left in Megan Bergman’s voice. The North Carolina native has become almost completely northernized thanks to life on her Vermont farm which she shares with her veterinarian husband, their two young daughters, and a slew of feathered and four-legged critters. Maybe it was those long New England winters that prompted Bergman, who penned “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” a starkly rich collection of short stories that received almost instant accolades, to delve deep for her latest, arguably darker ensemble. “Almost Famous Women,” (Scribner, Jan. 2015) was released this month and is Bergman’s first foray into historical fiction. But it doesn’t feel like fiction at all.
“I’ve been reading this stuff for ten years as an academic and a writer. If it’s out of print and obscure, I’ll read it,” says Bergman in a phone interview from her home state, where her book tour has begun with balmy 40 degree days. “The research really lights up my brain in response. The hardest thing was that I had to give myself permission to write historical fiction. There was so much missing anyway that the imagination takes over.”
Bergman will be at the Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck on Sunday to answer any questions — if she can — about the women she has chosen for the collection. And what women they are. The book opens with Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twins well into the twilight years of a life once-filled with Vaudevillian potential. The story is told by Daisy, who implores the reader to “Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing, without the other knowing.”
The book’s title hints at the quiet devastation of bad choices, hard times and plain old flawed characteristics that shape and shatter or let go to ground the lives of Dolly Wilde, Tiny Davis, Beryl Markham, Butterfly McQueen, Norma Millay and the others, named and unnamed. None of us are immune, it seems, least of all the talented.
“The ‘almost’ is a qualifier from the beginning. It’s a longing, coming up short. We’re fascinated by characters, even people, who really want something. But it was important to me that this wasn’t ‘Almost Famous White Women’ or ‘Almost Famous Straight Women.’ The fact that they still read as challenging stereotypes in a contemporary setting is significant.”
The stories, which are largely set in the 1920s through the 1940s, flow in a cacophonous timeline of war, solitude, poverty and decrepitude, and are not limited to one continent. From heiress turned boat racer “Joe” Carstairs’ Caribbean paradise to a convent in Northeast Italy where the bastard daughter of Lord Byron is hidden from the world to Steepletop, home of the venerable Edna St. Vincent Millay (and her oddly obsessive sister, Norma), it seems as if no geographical stone is left unturned as these women refuse to bend into the mold that is laid out for them. For all of us, really.
“All of these women are taking risks,” Bergman says. “They are all navigating that strange line between self-actualization and self-sacrifice. Life can be very messy and there’s so many ways to sail this ship of being a woman. I didn’t want to cultivate the pity of the readers. These characters are definitely more interesting than likeable.”
In fact, some of the characters are, at first glance, detestable. What remains of artist Romaine Brooks is presented to us at the very last stages of her physical and mental disintegration. She wants to die. We kind of want her to die, too.
“…Romaine cracks one of her ancient teeth on biscotti. The misery in this world is constant, Romaine says, one liver-spotted hand to her temple.”
But before she dies, before any of them sound off or disappear for good, there is so much to uncover, and so many questions about unconventional lovers, about deciding not to raise their children, about divorce, about cheating death on a motorcycle, about the origins of their madness. In some instances, Bergman gives us that; she gives us the finality we need to move on to the next tale, but not always.
“I’m really interested in these moments that are distilled,” says Bergman. “It’s flash fiction. Some people really get it, others don’t like it. But it’s the idea that there are these moments that can define a character’s whole life.”
Megan Mayhew Bergman Presentation, Q&A and Book Signing
Sunday, January 25 at 4 p.m.
Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY