Women are a larger part of the labor force than ever before in the U.S., but society is still not always kind to women who step out of the boundaries of what's considered acceptable. That's one reason Vermont author Megan Mayhew Bergman wrote her new book of short stories, Almost Famous Women.
In the book, Bergman fictionalizes the stories of real women whom history has forgotten. These were strong, unusual women who lived at the fringes of society: a motorcycle riding trickster, a boat racing heiress, a feisty aging painter and an all-female multi-racial swing band.
On resurfacing the women's fading histories
"I didn’t want these stories and these sacrifices and these risks to go unnoticed any longer. There have been some great biographies written about these women, but many of them are out of print. And for a while, I tested, in conversation with friends, and other members of the literary community, and I wanted to know if they were aware of these women. And when many of them weren’t, I knew it was [time] to bring these almost famous women back into a contemporary conversation."
On the preponderance of lesbians in the book
"There were a couple of traits I noticed about these women after the collection. Most of them were not married or did not remain married; only two of them had children, and none of them raised their children, the two that had them; roughly a quarter of them, if not more, were lesbian. And I don’t have any deep theories about it, but what I will say is I think these women had to take great risks at the turn of the century to live the way they wanted to live, and to make art, and to process the world around them. And they really had to create their own communities in some instances, or make great acts of courage, and I think those are the things that stand out."
On balancing history with creative license
"It was certainly an art that I negotiated with on each story. And I am a bit of a nerd and an academic – I have two master’s degrees – and I came at this material first and foremost as an academic, almost from a women’s studies perspective. But then, you know, there are so many gaps in [the women’s stories] that your imagination already has to start doing work anyway. And so I decided not to be puritanical. I said, ‘If I have a story to offer here, and I can offer it well and with good intention, and try and offer a perspective on the interior landscape of these really fascinating women that we can still learn a lot from, this is a gift, and I can give it to readers."
On inspiring readers to learn more
"In a lot of the reviews of the book so far, the word ‘Googling’ has come up constantly. And, you know, it makes me feel like my diabolical plan worked. That I said, ‘Here are some fascinating women. Let me animate them for you, let me plug them into your imagination, and make you hungry, and then let’s talk about them more, let’s research them more.’"
On the occasional menacing anti-feminist email
"To me, it’s a sign of success. When I first started writing, my first book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, had a lot of meditations on environmental degradation and the human as animal, you know, the idea that humans are still animals and we’re surprised by our instincts, and we think we’ve transcended them but we haven’t. And I got wonderful hate-mail for that concept. And at first it really hurt my feelings, but then, after I thought about it some more, I realized good art should not be easy, it should not be a foregone conclusion. It should feel dangerous, it should ruffle some feathers, it shouldn’t be universally agreeable."
On being inspired by tough, strong, Vermont women
"My friend, Tammy White, who is a blogger and a fiber farmer, we talk a lot about it. And she was actually talking about 'almost famous farm women,' was her sort of riff on my title. I have met some women who are physically strong and mentally strong and out there cracking frozen water buckets for their livestock and throwing hay bales and doing it for themselves, and I am absolutely inspired by that."
Megan Mayhew Bergman will be reading from Almost Famous Women on Saturday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester.