WILLIAMSTOWN -- If there's one thing that Megan Mayhew Bergman is good at navigating, it's an awkward moment. The break-out author of "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" (Scribner, 2012) -- a collection of short stories with animals of all species at its core -- has had more than her fair share of pregnant pauses and crawling-in-her-own-skin moments. According to her, it's all part of being a writer in a strange land.
"I'll drive four hours to do a reading, and sometimes there are three people there and one of them is drunk," she said in a phone interview from her Shaftsbury,Vt. farm, where she lives with her veterinarian, husband, two young daughters, and several animals. "And yet I'm so thankful to have an audience, it's all so humbling. Very humbling. All the time."
Bergman is making another (shorter) drive to Williams College on Tuesday to give a reading and booksigning at the campus's Griffin Hall at 4 p.m. James Shepard, professor of American history and literature and a writer himself, invited the arresting young author to speak, and he hopes that his students and the public will take advantage of the opportunity to meet a woman who "possesses Amazonian self-sufficiency" in both word and deed.
"[Megan] combines a lot of sensibilities in a unique package," he said. "She has an enormous compassion towards animals and is hugely interested in domesticity and motherhood, but in a very clear, non-saccharine way. Animals teach us to be compassionate, and using them as symbols is one way to sort of decode the world."
Bergman has had to do a lot of decoding to get to a point where she is at least comfortable in her own skin, as a mother, a southerner (she is North Carolinian, born and bred), and, not least, a writer.
"We're all so oddly self-destructive. It's that Oscar Wilde idea that we are all our own devil," she said while placating the one of the family felines that had just had dental surgery. "All you want is that connection to the truth of it. And I wonder, should I take myself seriously? Should I not take myself seriously? How much commission do I give myself?"
A lot. In addition to "Birds of a Lesser Paradise," Bergman's stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories 2011, New Stories from the South 2010, Ploughshares and the Kenyon Review, just to name a few publications. She is also a book reviewer an teaches literature at Bennington College, a role that she said she finds grounding when it comes to practicing her lonely craft.
"When I teach, I tell my students that when you're drafting a story, believe in yourself," she said. "When you're editing, question yourself."
This is the exact formula that Bergman, who has been accused of peddling melancholy -- she said she feels "a little bad about that" -- is following now as she delves into the meat of novel writing. "Shepherd, Wolf" will be her first novel, and the process, while not wholly unfamiliar to this master of letters, is yet another awkward but palpable moment in her writing journey.
"I'm still learning what it takes to know my characters more fully," she said. "It's not like a short story, where I can go back and ready everything from the beginning every morning. In that way, I have to give up a little bit of control. To be honest, I miss the control. I still think in terms of short stories."
This is not to say that Bergman will be at a loss for material and rich plots, characters and ideas. She said that as her life continues to fill up with children, shelter animals, winter blues, and neverending farm chores, so, too, do the pages of her novel.
"It's so weird, because I used to feel really nostalgic for the south, even though I was still living there ... I lived there for 30 years," she said. "When I was growing up, we didn't garden. We didn't farm; My parents struggled to get away from that stuff so that I didn't have to raise chickens! Moving to Vermont took me back to the things that I loved about that childhood. Culturally, it felt right, finally."