In Conversation: Megan Mayhew Bergman and Stephen Dau

Dear Reader,

The Spring 2012 Discover Great New Writers season was my first full list as the program’s director, and I have to say, I’m still incredibly pleased by the brilliant books that made the cut. 

While it’s impossible for me to play favorites, this conversation between Spring ’12 authors Megan Mayhew Bergman (Birds of a Lesser Paradise) and Stephen Dau (The Book of Jonas) came about after Megan mentioned in an email that they’ve also been pals for years, having met while students at Bennington College.

But their long friendship isn’t the only thing driving this interview, for the narratives in Birds of a Lesser Paradise and The Book of Jonas are not only thematically similar, with characters searching to make sense of the world and their places within, but also because both are pitch-perfect examples of what we look for in Discover selections: indelible prose, compelling characters, emotional resonance – the combination of which always spurs considerable discussion among the selection committee members.

So here are Megan and Stephen’s thoughts on character and place, process, inspiration, and readers, among other things.

Cheers, Miwa

Dau: So which comes first, character or setting? I’d be really interested in hearing Megan’s thoughts on this, but my immediate reaction was that, at least in my writing, it’s always character first. Often, I don’t even realize where the story is unfolding until it gradually gets revealed through the writing of characters, and usually this happens because, eventually, after all, the characters have to exist somewhere. That’s not to say that place is unimportant. It’s vitally important. But in terms of getting started down the road of writing something, it seems to be a secondary consideration for me. I was nearly halfway through the first draft of The Book of Jonasbefore it suddenly hit me one day–oh, yeah, he’s in Pittsburgh. I had been writing this sort of nameless city until then. I’m working on a second book now, and, once again, the characters are largely there, but the story could be taking place in any of four or five different places. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the list gets narrowed down as the draft unfolds.

But I know many writers don’t feel that way, and put greater emphasis on knowing where they’re writing from, right from the beginning. (Faulkner might be the most obvious example here.)   As I said, I would love to hear from Megan on this, because I suspect she might lean more toward that end of the spectrum.  

  

Bergman: You’re right; I’m a fool for place. Mostly, I think, because I’m fascinated with what my editor calls “the pull of biology on our modern lives.”  I like to see people in relation to their physical environment, and my imagination is drawn to wild places.  I wrote the title story of my collection, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” after studying North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp (particularly Bland Simpson’s book The Great Dismal).  I had driven past that swamp a million times in my childhood, and couldn’t stop thinking about what kind of person would live there, and what type of pressure that environment would put on their life.  

That said, like Stephen, many of my stories start with character, such as the protagonist in “Yesterday’s Whales” – I picture a woman with a specific type of dilemma, and then I placed her in Washington, D.C., because only after I “knew” her did I know where she would choose to live.  

When I first started writing, I never knew my characters well enough.  I’m a believer in Hemingway’s idea of intentional omission; now when I write I like to know what’s off the page.  I don’t just like to know it, I have to know it to inform the way the character lives, speaks.  I often think about what David Shields said in Reality Hunger, that ”Making up a story or characters feels like driving a car in a clown suit.” While I don’t agree with everything he says, I constantly tell myself:  get out of the clown suit.  In other words, I have to make it real to myself before I try to make it real for anyone else.

Stephen – I’m thinking about something you said about writers knowing where they are going versus  letting the story unfold as it is being written. I’ve had both experiences. I recently taught Zadie Smith’s essay “On Reading Nabokov and Barthes” where she discusses Nabokov’s insistence on the author’s ultimate control of the reading experience, and Barthes’ idea that the author dies when the reader takes over.

Do you, as an author, find it hard to give up control of your work? Have you been surprised about any of the assumptions readers have made about your work or ways in which it has been interpreted?

Dau: Megan, not only does your mention of The Great Dismal Swamp make me want to take back, or at least revise, what I said about character coming first, it makes me want to write a story set there. The first time I recall seeing The Great Dismal, as Simpson calls it, was as a twelve year old, driving through it with my family on our way to Florida. I had seen the name the night before on a roadmap my father had spread across the bed in the motel room, and let’s face it, few place names can better whet a twelve year old’s adventure appetite. I remember driving through the cypresses on that narrow, built-up road that seems to hover a few feet over the black water and asking my dad if any people lived there. He told us that people might, in fact, live there, but that we would have to look very carefully if we wanted to see them. Our search must have kept us quiet in the backseat for hours. All of which is to say that, yes, absolutely, there are places so compelling that they seem to sprout stories by their very existence.

As for the question about giving up control, yes I find it very difficult, and yes, I have frequently been surprised by readers’ interpretations. I think this ties into what you said about “intentional omission,” in which I’m a big believer as well. For me at least, Nabokov’s ultimate control is a nice idea, but as a writer the only thing I can control is the writing. I have absolutely no say in the reading. Every reader brings his or her own context to a story.

 

Absent any modifiers or setting, the door I picture in my mind when I read the word “door,” is the very specific door to my bedroom when I was a kid. No one else in the world is going to picture that same door. Extrapolate that across a novel, or a short story, or even a sentence, and it’s easy to see why what one reader sees as a moving passage about the human condition another reader thinks is contrived crap. I doubt any two people have ever had precisely the same experience reading Lolita (didn’t someone else say something like this?), and I’m never going to be able to ensure someone reading anything I write has exactly the experience I would prefer them to have.

But I think that stories are fundamentally conversations. And I think that’s why the omissions you mentioned are so important. They provide spaces for the reader to engage in conversation with the story. To a greater extent than film or music or visual arts, a piece of writing exists within the mind of the reader, and it’s important to allow space for the interchange to occur. I think this is one of the things that makes writing such a powerful artistic medium. When you find a book you connect with, it’s literally a meeting of the minds. It’s also why I generally refuse to answer questions of the type that go “What did you want the reader to take away from scene X”. I’m afraid that as soon as I answer that kind of question, I’ve gone from engaging in conversation to monopolizing it.

So, process, a subject I find fascinating, probably because I tend to see writing as manual labor.  Would you be willing to talk about yours? Also, I know you began teaching recently. How has teaching changed your approach to writing, if at all?

Bergman: Stephen – you know what?  You’re smart. I remember the first time someone introduced us at the Student Center at Bennington – I think it was Bret Anthony Johnston – and he said something along the lines of “You should know this guy – he’s good.” And you are.

 

I like the way you trust your reader, that you seem to be writing for them as much as for yourself, or maybe more.  When I first started writing, I really liked to think I was avant garde and I toyed with abstraction.  (Lesson learned:  I’m much too much of a nerd to be avant garde anything. I like Wham!, having dance parties with my kids, and foraging for morels.) Finally someone said to me: consider your reader. It seemed like such a stating-the-obvious comment, but I realized it wasn’t, that many of my abstractions were self-indulgent.  I think my style now tends to align with your philosophy; I want to ground the reader in the physical world, but also give them enough space and mystery to engage with, to make a two-sided conversation.  

And how beautiful is it when someone engages with your work? I’ve been brought to tears multiple times reading others’ analysis of my work, seeing what they’ve found and how they’ve felt.  I’m sure you feel the same way – it’s such an honor and a privilege to hear from readers, what they make of the conversation. That’s everything.

To answer your question on process, phew.  I’m still ironing that out for myself. Right now, because I’m teaching and have two kids under 3 and live on a small farm, time management is essential. I end up doing a lot of work in my head.  But that’s not all bad. I find that, perhaps, the quality of idea rises when I give myself thinking-before-writing time. A writer I love, Elliot Merrick, once spoke of the stories he’d written while walking around his Green Mountain farm and chopping wood.  I think writing is better when people roll up their sleeves, get dirty, and live.

Geraldine Brooks, in her upfront essay to Best American Short Stories 2011, advises writers to put their MFAs in a backpack and get out in the world for as long as possible, to rent rooms in foreign countries and buy groceries in another language.  That’s what you’re all about, right?  You live in Brussels.  

I didn’t get out of the country, but I did move 12 hours north from North Carolina to Vermont, and I felt a strange rush of artistic freedom and perspective when I did so.  Plus, I increased my proximity to the natural world, which informs my writing.  How did moving to Brussels change your process or influence the ideas in your work?  How does expatriation impact your writing life?

Dau: As I remember, our meeting in the student center was just after you had amazed everyone with your graduate reading, and I was so honored to meet you. It was Bret who introduced us, because he said something very similar to me about you. It’s funny you mention him, because what you call “smart” is usually just me parroting things I’ve picked up from other people, and when I stop to think about it, three out of five times it’s something I heard from him. He’s a fantastic teacher.

Ahh, Brussels. We moved here seven years ago, and the most immediate impact on my writing life was to exponentially increase the cost of mailing unsolicited submissions to literary magazines. Beyond that though, it gave me distance, which I think makes it easier to write about things in places I used to live, or visit. For me, it’s difficult to write about a place I’m currently inhabiting, because I get so bogged down in the reality of the place, and in trying to convey it precisely, that my brain isn’t freed up enough to make the kind of impressionistic connections that are often more telling of a place, and better serve the story. It’s like that sketched self portrait by Jon Lennon. It consists of, what, four or five squiggly lines? Yet you know exactly who it is as soon as you see it. Only the telling parts of his face are depicted. I find I need distance to figure out what the telling parts are.

 

That advice about considering your reader is great. In college I wanted to write like Robert Coover. I had read his story “The Babysitter“, in which multiple story lines combine and intersect and diverge. It’s pretty abstract. I tried to write like him for years. You know what? I can’t write like Robert Coover. But coming to that conclusion freed me up to write like me, although that’s a project that’s still evolving. I feel similarly today about George Saunders. That guy does amazing things, but now I’m content to just look on with admiration. As you say about considering your reader, I do feel like there’s this big, obvious lesson there, which is simply that the story is everything. When I was trying to be abstract it was merely for the sake of being abstract, probably to try to show off, and it didn’t work. Now I’m simply trying to tell the best story I can, in whatever way feels right and appropriate to the story. Basically, I’m trying to get myself out of the way.  

I sometimes wish we had a choice but to trust our readers. I tend to get jealous of filmmakers. I was talking about this with a mutual friend of ours, Rider Strong, who also went to Bennington and who directs movies, and I said I was jealous because filmmakers get to control more completely the experience had by an audience, not just the words but also the images, the music, et cetera, and he said “Yes, but that’s also the terror of it.”  I suppose the tools of every art form can be either strengths or weaknesses, depending upon how they are used, and the tool writers use is the imagination of their readers. So we don’t have a choice but to trust it. I know I’m biased, but I actually think that at the end of the day, we writers have the edge. After all, how many times have you heard someone say that the book was better than the movie?

You’re absolutely correct about the sheer amazingness of readers connecting with your work. I saw an interview recently with Tim O’Brien in which he says exactly that, that the reason he started writing was to touch people. Probably every writer feels that way. I called the reader/writer relationship a meeting of the minds earlier, but it really goes beyond that. The things we read change our world, and it’s such an honor when someone shares with you that you’ve affected theirs.

So, at the risk of extending this discussion until the end of the decade, who are some writers who have affected your world?

Bergman: As a young reader, I fell not for particular writers, but for characters.  I have always had a keen interest in plucky female protagonists, women who act and who have passions.  So even though Carolyn Keene was a hundred different people, and a man at times, I loved vintage Nancy Drew, her willingness to get her hands dirty.  I also, like many other women I’ve spoken to recently, adored Turtle Wexler from The Westing Game.

As for writers who have affected my world:  Amy Hempel, Mary Gaitskill, whoever wrote Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Henry Miller, Joan Didion, Mary Robison, George Singleton, Jill McCorkle, Brad Watson, Lauren Groff, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Sharon Olds, Leonard Michaels, E. O. Wilson, and Jim Shepard

That gets addictive fast – I could keep going.  Your turn!

Dau: How many kids have been hopelessly hooked by Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon? My parents could not keep me supplied with Hardy Boys books. In fact, I saw one of them in a used book store not too long ago, I think it was Mystery of the Samurai Sword, and the cover evoked so many memories. My mom used to also buy me Moby Press Illustrated Classics from the grocery store, which were abridged and simplified paperbacks of Dumas, Melville, Poe and a bunch of others with pictures on every other page, which I used to devour.

My own influences have been incredibly standard, at least the early ones: Twain, Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Poe during some brooding teenage years, Fitzgerald, Bradbury. In college I read basically everything by Tom Robbins. Mary Swan, Michael Ondaatje, Flannery O’Connor, Aleksandar Hemon, Joseph O’Connor, Annie Proulx, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tobias Wolff, and on and on and on.

[Zadie Smith, Geraldine Brooks, Mary Gaitskill, Jill McCorkle, Brad Watson, Michael Ondaatje and Jhumpa Lahiri are all Discover Great New Writers alumni. -- Ed.]


Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.