By Peggy Morehouse
Albert Einstein, Babe Ruth, Louis Armstrong, F. Scott Fitzgerald are men who rose to fame during the 1920’s, but what about the women from that era? There are a few who are remembered, but it’s primarily for their contributions to beauty like fashion designer, Coco Chanel and actress, Gloria Swanson. Were most women simply tending to household chores or dancing in party halls ninety years ago?
Author Megan Mayhew Bergman proves that the answer is an unequivocal “NO” in her recently released book, Almost Famous Women. It’s an anthology of short stories about thirteen real women from the jazz era who bucked perfecting the steps of the Charelston in favor of pursuing a passion. The New York Times says, “These stories feel both specific and flexible, depicting characters whose complexity and variability hinder the making of any one unifying ‘point.’ Some of the stories, too, are told from the perspective not of one of the almost-famous women of the collection’s title but of one of her associates. Lovers, employees, siblings, friends: By including these lesser-known women, Bergman emphasizes the charisma of their better-known contemporaries; and by assiduously depicting their intimacy and power struggles, she allows for a close examination of the multiplicity of women’s experiences.”
I was intrigued when I read about these courageous women and was pleased to meet Megan Meyhew Bergan when she visited Northshire Book Store in Saratoga Springs, NY on March 28 to discuss her book. Megan is also 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.
Megan read excerpts from Almost Famous Women and then answered questions asked by those who attended. She relayed that through her research she discovered enough accomplished women who were overshadowed by the male dominant historical records of the era to write four volumes of Almost Famous Women. She went on to say that the females she chose for this collection were those who took risks to become their authentic selves during a time when women were remembered for “wearing flapper dresses and holding long cigarettes.” As she studied those who stepped outside of societal norms, Megan explored the “psychological landscape of a woman who takes risks.” Based on facts, Megan brought these pioneers to life through a story.
Megan graciously answered questions for The Writers’ Loop and her responses follow:
1. What first inspired you to write a collection of stories about the creative and daring women you feature in Almost Famous Women?
Megan: These stories grew out of my reading life. I spent nearly a decade reading about such women, many of them related in some way to Natalie Barney’s female-centric salon, where she worked to recognize women’s contributions to the arts in the face of all-male canons. Two primary things inspire me to research and write about bold women: 1) Being a woman approaching middle age who is fine-tuning her own life and 2) Being the mother of two daughters. I want them to look at life as wide open with possibility and wonder. They need to know that there is more than one way to be a woman in the world.
2. You spent a decade doing research for Almost Famous Women. Did your choices of who to include in this anthology evolve over time or did you have a relatively set list when you began?
Megan: I did not have a set list, but I did know many of the cornerstones before I began writing (Dolly, Romaine, Allegra, Joe, Norma) – because these were the women who were living in my imagination. I had to let them out!
3. The characters in your book are fantastically unique. The talented Hilton twins who are literally joined at the hip, James Joyce’s creative daughter, Lucia; Joe Carstairs the fastest woman on water; and so on. Have you ever considered writing further about any of them?
Megan: I often get requests to turn the story about Joe Carstairs into a full-length book, and people often send me email suggesting that the story on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm would make a good movie. I’m not opposed to either of these projects.
4. Although the stories are about real women, the accounts are considered fiction. As I read the book, I wondered how much actually happened. For example, did the twins’ encounters with men really occur or were they created in your imagination?
Megan: What we do know is that each twin had a fully functioning mind – with her own priorities and desires – and that though they shared a body, each twin had romantic involvements. You can see a glimmer of those involvements with the picture at the front of the story, which shows one of the twins applying for a marriage license in New York, and getting denied. I tried to work with many historically accurate footholds, and amped up the conflicts in ways that I thought would be true to the era and character, in hopes that I might be able to show the women’s interior landscapes.
5. It’s evident from your bio that you’re busy with your family, farm, and animals. How do you weave writing into your life?
Megan: I don’t do it enough! I can offer many critiques about myself, but one positive thing I can say is that I have a very strong work ethic. I’ve had a job since I was 14. I have a few mantras I say to myself, such as “I’m not afraid of hard work.” I work a lot in my head, so that when I come to the page, I’m efficient. But I won’t lie – it’s hard, and often I feel exhausted. But what’s that advice people give? Die empty? Give it all, give it now? That.
Memorable Quote from Almost Famous Women: “‘Beryl is easily bored,’ people said. It was true. She was hungry to feel something everyday, and fear is what she felt pulling open the stall door. She relished the feeling, goose pimples on her arms, her heightened sense of awareness. Her singular focus.” ~ Megan Meyhew Bergman in A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch.
You can learn more about Megan Meyhew Bregman and how to purchase her books on her website: http://www.mayhewbergman.com/
“I hope what they’ll feel first is intrigue, and permission to have intellectual curiosity, permission to live passionately, and you know, chasing dreams is sort of a silly expression — but I think people that do that are happier. I think there’s a lot of dissonance for women, where there’s how we want to live, and how we want to see ourselves, and then what our real circumstances are. And I think the more we can close that distance between who we want to be and who we really are — the happier we are.”