Use Art to Imagine What Couldn’t Be Said: Megan Mayhew Bergman and Priya Parmar in Conversation

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It seems everyone, everywhere, has an opinion – and a vocal one, at that — about women writers, their subjects, and the choices that both writers and their characters make.

Both Megan Mayhew Bergman (Almost Famous Women and Birds of a Lesser Paradise) and Priya Parmar (Vanessa and Her Sister) have conjured the lives of the infamous and the overlooked in their novels and short stories, so we turned to them and asked them to riff on what drove them to step into the shoes of women who have already captured the public’s attention.

So here are Megan and Priya not only talking about writing women’s lives –and  the underlying craft — but also balancing the needs of the writers with the needs of the reader, editing with “a savage eye,” and the joys of memorizing poetry in this far-ranging conversation for the Barnes & Noble Review. – Miwa Messer

Megan Mayhew Bergman: I had a nagging feeling a few years back that women of the Modernist era were being revered more for the Daisy Buchanan–esque roles — a great dress, a gin fizz, and their love affairs, instead of their intellect, accomplishments, or dogged pursuit of dreams.

When I first read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night — it was my mother-in-law’s favorite book — I was taken aback by the absence of a predominant romantic storyline (though Beryl certainly had her great loves and tumultuous affairs). In West with the Night, we see a woman with real wants and desires that exist outside of her life as a romantic object. Beryl was a talented aviatrix and fearless horse trainer. As an author, I wanted to dwell more on those risks and dreams, and less on the dress.

I believe readers are ready for these story lines — just look at the success of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. We’re tired of women being reduced to rom-com characters. We want to see pluck and sacrifice!

Now readers send me emails nearly every day telling me about other “almost famous women” — female matadors, for example- – or their grandmother’s exploits! A family friend sent me a story about a Vermont woman who invented a special gun holster for her cross-country travels. The most rewarding has been feedback from people who actually knew some of the women I wrote about — specifically Norma Millay. When a reader validates that you’ve captured the essence of someone’s character — it’s moving.

Priya, I know that you’ve been in touch with the Woolf and Bell families. What was it like waiting to hear their responses to the portrayals of Vanessa and Virginia?  I know that you’re a bit of a research nerd like I am, and I’m guessing more than anything you wanted to get it right and true, as right and true as any fiction can be.

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Priya Parmar.

Priya Parmar: It is truly moving. But for me, at first, it began quite badly. It turned out that Virginia Nicholson (née Bell), a marvelous social historian and nonfiction writer who is named for her great-aunt Virginia Woolf and is also Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter, had been looking for me for over a year. She had been repeatedly writing my defunct email address and I had had no idea. At the same time, I had sent her a handwritten letter, trying to get in touch, never hearing anything.  She must have thought I was trying to evade her — not good.

So things were not off on the right foot. But we ended up meeting in person, and she turned out to be lovely and incredibly generous. We have since become friends, and she gave me specific, invaluable notes and suggested words and phrasings and family sayings I could never have known. She also took me through Vanessa Bell’s home and showed me her grandmother’s never-before-seen sketches and photographs.  I am so pleased the novel is anchored to the history and to the family in that way. But the moments when I knew she was reading it and she had yet to respond?  Awful. Especially as I was out on such slender green limb and had centered the plot on an unforgivable betrayal that has largely fallen away from the Woolf mythology. I was writing the negative spaces that have been left in the historical dark of the public’s imagination but I did not know how the family would feel about my focus on such a tricky, difficult time. It was a wonderful, whole and happy moment when Virginia Nicholson said she approved of the novel.

I agree that ambitious, layered, complete women who do not fit into a predetermined cookie cutter are happily cropping up more often in fiction. When I chose Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, it was not a choice at all. I had to write the story that had moved into my head and made camp. Megan, how did you choose these women for your stories?  And how did you shift so cleanly from one narrative voice to another while still keeping a fluid continuing sense of a whole?

MMB: “Made camp” is an excellent way of naming that feeling — as a writer you get to a point where you can no longer deny the existence of a story. It’s part obsession, and for me it usually centered around empathy — I couldn’t stop thinking about what it felt like to be one of the women in my stories, or one of the secondary characters in their lives.

Like you, I spent a lot of time feeling uncomfortable about writing stories based on real women from history. I had been reading about some of these women for over a decade, and by the time I gave myself permission to write the stories, they were nearly fully formed in my imagination. I happened to read an essay by Henry James that said novelists, above all else, need freedom. I decided to give that freedom to myself, because I thought that with all the research I had done, I could add something to the conversation about women of this era and ilk.

Whenever I’m writing and I come up against the question “should I continue?” I ask myself these questions: Am I wasting the reader’s time or am I giving a gift of beauty, entertainment, or insight?

I’ve often heard that biographers are cautioned not to fall in love with their subjects. I worked hard not to let any of my personal judgments or feelings creep into my work — I tried to put the story ahead of any agenda or preference, but I knew that thematically there was a larger theme at work — one involving the experience of the unusual woman in the world, of risk taking.

Your ability to nail voice in journals and letters was called “uncanny” by the New York Times.  When I was reading Vanessa and Her Sister, I was thrilled and surprised by the unusual details, the way you transport the reader to a very particular room, moment, and feeling. I once read that Daphne Du Maurier utilized a writing technique similar to hypnosis to inhabit the spaces of her characters so that she could use highly specific sensory details. Does this resonate with you?  How did you find your way in to such an authentic sense of being and speaking?

PP: Your phrase “gave yourself permission” banged a loud chord in me. That is what happens isn’t it?  The story moves into your imagination with little warning and then slowly starts to nest. Other, vaguer fragments and half articulated characters get shoved out of the way as the muddy air distills, the story resolves, swells, and makes a home. The momentum hurdles forward, the seams burst and then a full-grown story raps on the door and demands to be told.

At that point, for me, I must square off with the uncomfortable feeling of fictionalizing a real life. A life that was messy and private and tangled and to a large degree unknowable. Once I give way, obsession absolutely takes over. I try to show my respect for the historical figure by immersing myself fully into the research and stitching the bones of the story to the history as closely as I can. I find I am willing to invent the emotional landscape but not the chronological one. I love that you incorporated a Henry James essay into your decision to tell these stories. Was it The Art of Fiction? I had his line “Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt . . . ” taped to the lid of my computer. It was a great reminder to be bold.

I am impressed that you were able to remain largely unbiased when you approached each subject. When I was an academic, I was cautioned, much as biographers are, to remain unemotional about my subject. It was a tenet I struggled with in my critical writing and then when I shifted into fiction, I conceded the field. After spending years reading the Bloomsbury set’s correspondence, I was hopelessly partisan. But my allegiance was flexible, and it roved around as eventually I came to empathize with each voice and each conflicting and sometimes misguided motivation.

Vanessa Bell’s voice was my emotional home throughout the writing process. Writing is a somewhat mysterious process for me, and I can understand Du Maurier’s feeling of hypnosis and immersion. Your three questions are wonderful, as is your ability to retain an objective eye to the larger story and themes. I find it interesting that you keep the readers in mind as you write. The readers do not enter my mind’s room until the editing process. (Perhaps this is why I have such a long and involved editing process.) Which came first for you, the concept of risk taking women or the women themselves?

MMB: It was The Art of Fiction! I am not surprised that we both leaned on Mr. James. It was his argument that “all novelists need freedom” which stayed with me — and I only hope that he might have extended that freedom to short story writers.

My litmus test for stories was this: could I add something worthy to the conversation about the women? An angle of questioning, inquisition into a mode of being, an empathetic take on a hard decision? I challenged myself to use art to imagine what couldn’t be said, or wasn’t. To, as you say, shed some light on the psychological and interior landscapes of these women.

I won’t claim that I remained entirely unbiased when I studied and wrote about these women. I secretly had my favorites — I like your concept of a “roving allegiance” — and often I was fascinated by a particular character more than I liked them. I’ve told readers who are holding the book in hand that they may want to have a beer with the women I wrote about, or sit next to them at a dinner table — but the women were not always the kindest lovers, mothers, or friends. They were passionate, driven people, and occasionally blinded by self-interest. But they were colorful and textured, never vanilla.

I knew, however, that if I made them too likable or painted them as victims, it would undermine the real risks and sacrifices they made. I think many of them were well aware that life would not unfold easily once they decided to walk outside the lines (or ride a motorcycle past them, or speedboat).

As for which came first — the women or the theme- – it was the women. A friend recently pointed out to me that I am very intuition-oriented. I work a lot at the subconscious level; I think there is always a mental-sea churning and hashing out the problems I want to solve with words. Essentially, I think this collection developed for two reasons: 1) I had spent ten years reading and researching these types of women/cultivating various obsessions; 2) As the mother of two daughters, and a woman in her thirties, I became preoccupied with the problem of how society values women. I wanted to see more narratives about hard-charging, unusual women, and so I wrote them.

I had a professor in graduate school who looked up from one of my (bad) early short stories, and he said “Megan, you write beautiful sentences, but you don’t think enough about your reader!”

That advice has stayed with me. Of course I have my artistic vision, but I do think a lot about what the reader needs and wants, versus what I may want to indulge in as a writer. I am always obsessed, too obsessed, with the sentences in my books, and now I try to balance my concerns: sentences, characters, ideas, pacing. I suppose we all learn truths about ourselves as writers and try to build in editing steps to save ourselves. Or save our readers!

I know from a previous conversation that you and I both enjoy memorizing poetry. (Nerd alert sounding — take cover!) How does this habit play out in your writing, or does it?  What other habits or expertise do you bring from the outside world into your writing life?

PP: I also found myself drawn to fascinating rather than pleasant women. Virginia Woolf was brilliant, charming, beautiful, and charismatic but in her own way quite dangerous. Aside from attempting to destroy her sister’s happiness, she was perfectly dreadful to some of her close female friends — a character trait I particularly dislike. But she won me over, and I became addicted to her sharp wit and lightning-quick mind. In stark contrast, writing about Vanessa Bell was an exercise in pure affection from the start. The more I got to know her, the more I adored her, although her choices were sometimes difficult to understand. But I found my way in to the characters through the flaws. That is where all the juicy humanity lives.

Your women are definitely not vanilla but they have powerful engines for living. “Hard charging” is a perfect phrase. That kind of gumption and drive is so compelling. I think it is interesting that you consider the broader conversation at such an early stage in the story’s life. During the research, I am blinded by obsession and spend my time falling down rabbit holes. When I am writing, instinct is the overriding motor. During the editing process, I look at the messy, sprawling human trajectory and then shape it into a novel that is to be read, pulling the loose and disparate threads taut. Each sentence for me has a true nature, an inner core. Often in the first attempt, a line hovers above what I really mean to say and I have to pull it down to the gritty bones of what I am trying to convey. That is when the readers come in. That usually leads to heartbreaking and radical deleting.

I do memorize poetry! The poet Joseph Brodsky was my professor in college and one of my crucial early mentors. He asked us to memorize 2,000 lines of poetry in an academic year and then gave me a reading list to finish by the time I turned thirty. I am still working on it. It was a powerful, muscular habit to develop and it changed my ear for cadence. It gave me different reference points, different footprints for language, for the flexibility of phrasing. I do not consciously use the poetry, but I use the ear every time I write. That innate feeling for the natural shape and rhythm of a line is the sense I trust most.

I have also developed some other specific writing quirks. A few years ago, I decided I must stop my day’s writing during a passage I love — mid-sentence. I cannot give up at a point where the going is tough. That way, it is a joy to return to in the morning and the momentum feeds itself. I also write all over my books. Words I like, words I overhear, dentist appointments, train times, phone numbers. I think that is how my patchwork, paper-trail format arrived in my head.

Do you have habits that work for you?  And what was your journey to publication like? I always find the wild and varied roads that books and authors travel to be so fascinating!

MMB: “Juicy humanity” — what an exquisite turn of phrase, and it encapsulates something I learned first as a life lesson and then as a writer. For most of my life, I wanted to avoid drama and sadness — in movies, books, and real life. Like many writers, I had an extreme case of Bleeding Heart. If a situation, even fictional, activated my empathy or sensitivity, I would hold onto the raw feelings for days, weeks, years. I spent a large part of my early adulthood protecting myself from those raw feelings.

Then there came a period of time when my beloved mother-in-law passed away, and my first child was born, and my husband and I moved from my home state of North Carolina, twelve hours north to Vermont. I was, for the first time, over my head in “juicy humanity.”  Drowning in it, really. And that’s when I became a writer.

Sure, I had been writing before that time, but I was changed after six weeks of processing new life and death. I was forced to get my hands dirty in life, and it radically changed my perspective – on motherhood, daughterhood, mortality, living. Because I became a different person, I became a different writer. A better writer, I think. I had a whiff of post-traumatic enlightenment.

And a second thing happened — I became so worn down by those few weeks that I stopped fearing criticism enough to submit more of my work, and months later I had an agent, and shortly thereafter a book deal for my first book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. It took, for me, a certain bout of fearlessness, a desire to model intelligent risk-taking behavior for my daughter.

I’ve always been able to write beautiful sentences, but I haven’t always been able to accept vulnerability, and for me that’s a big part of being a writer, opening myself up to rejection and criticism. And with that also comes the high of seeing your art in the world, and the privilege of watching readers connect and engage with it.

What about you?  How did you make the leap from academic to author?  Did you surprise yourself by writing fiction?

PP: It does surprise me to be a fiction writer. Each choice that led me here felt wild and random at the time. After the rigors of academic writing, creating fiction is a liquid pure joy. I learned huge amounts about accuracy, research, discipline, and narrative drive from critical writing. It was a tough, rocky sort of place to learn but in the end, academia was not for me. And so as I was finishing my doctoral thesis, I moved from Edinburgh down to London and started to work for the playwright Eve Ensler.

I ended up moving to New York to work with her when the West End run was over and then became her dramaturge when it came time to workshop her new Broadway show, The Good Body. Each day we would work on the script and then each night, she would perform it. It was a high-stakes way to write, and she was fearless. I would sit up in the tech box and take notes, watching a line that had sounded good the night before, fall and burn up in unfriendly air. I would watch humor emerge from a line that I did not know was funny and pathos step forward from a moment I had assumed was light. It was a crash course in voice and storytelling and women.

When the show went up on Broadway, I returned to London, determined to write a novel. I wanted to use all that I had learned, and so I chose historical fiction, which called up my familiar roots in research, and I wrote in the first person as that had become the vantage point where I felt most alive.

There have been several crushing points in my writing life when I have sincerely considered putting a novel in the drawer and giving up. I wish I could say that I dug deep and found an inner momentum to continue but that is not how it happened. At each critical breaking point, someone gave me just the right encouragement. The right words, the right suggestion made all the difference to me. When Vanessa was nearly finished, I got stuck. I had no idea how the story ended. Nothing I tried felt right. And then the novelist Philippa Gregory, a wonderful friend and mentor, galloped in over breakfast. She had been reading drafts from the beginning and told me that she kept thinking of a short story by Somerset Maugham. I knew exactly the one she meant, and I felt that spine-cracking realignment of a story line. There it was.

It is a messy, tough thing to send your writing out into the world. It does require that “bout of fearlessness.” I live in all of the voices in folded, hidden ways and rejection, of a query letter, of a character, of a novel, of a word is personal, often helpful and to some degree painful. But like the Velveteen Rabbit, the novel becomes a bit beat up but real, and it is, just as you say, a “privilege” to watch readers engage with it.
What is your editing and revision process like?  Do you have certain trusted first readers?

MMB: I aspire to write bravely and without an inner critic for a first draft, but edit with the highest suspicions and a savage eye afterward. My greatest challenge as a writer is to leave my social agendas off the page. I know myself as a woman with big feelings and like to think of myself as someone with great convictions — and sometimes I have to beat these things away with a stick in order to provide the best narrative. Passion is important to harness, but I’ve found it can also hijack good writing if left to maraud on the page.

My favorite way to edit is at the sentence level. I can be a bit of a minimalist, and this comes, of course, from idolizing writers like Amy Hempel and Leonard Michaels. But I’ve found that my greatest achievements at the sentence level come with a high quality of idea, and not necessarily with the fanciest words. I always look for the places where I’m trying too hard to draw attention to the writing at the expense of the story. My sweet spot as a writer is where a sentence comes together artistically — where it is both original and natural to read aloud. There is no bigger truth-telling moment than reading work aloud!

I have a few trusted readers — God bless those people — but I tend to be a bit of a lone wolf, mainly because I’m still learning how to balance my artistic vision and my desire to please others. I feel lucky to be surrounded by an amazing team. My agent, Julie Barer, and my editor, Kara Watson, are my People. I hold them in such high regard — this may sound trite and overly sweet, but these are the women who made my dreams of becoming a writer come true. I think we function together really well. I think any published book is alchemy at work.

I love the picture you painted earlier about watching lines soar or fall flat when tried out on the stage. Do you read your work aloud when you edit?  What is your process like?

PP: Reading work aloud is brutal and essential. But it only works for me if I raise the stakes and read it to someone I trust. If I read it aloud on my own I can let un-taut phrases and murky, unarticulated bits slide through when they ought to be sharpened or sliced away. And so I read it to my mother. She is now an expert multi-tasker and often she goes about feeding various animals or wandering through the grocery store while listening to the new lines of the novel in her ear. A former editor, she taught me to write, and she is the voice in my head telling me to pare down, unwrap, and leave the lines to travel light. To trust them.

My natural and unhelpful Orphean tendency is to look back and to check that the reader is with me. A bad habit left over from the meticulous, footnote nature of academic writing. The editing process is about rooting out these fractional pauses in the pace and endowing the narrative with the horsepower it needs to carry the reader with it like a rider on its back.

I understand exactly what you mean by your People! Once the novel is at fighting weight, I send it to my extraordinary agent, Stephanie Cabot, and my compassionate but razor-sharp editor, Susanna Porter. There is an implicit trust and joy in our editing process, and with quiet wisdom and finely bladed insight, they make the writing better. It is a marvelous, lucky thing to work with such women.

How did you come to write short stories?  Did you always know that that was the narrative structure you wanted to explore?

MMB: I couldn’t help but write short stories — the arc of a short story is very natural to me, and I might attribute it to so many Sundays taking in a sermon. The sermon and the traditional short story have a lot in common — the clear arc, the rise and fall of the sentences, the distillation, a build up of tension and release. The southern literary tradition — with Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and more contemporary authors like Barry Hannah, Padgett Powell, George Singleton, Allan Gurganus, and Jill McCorkle — is steeped in short fiction. Those were my literary idols growing up (well, those fine folks and Carolyn Keene, all seventy-seven of her).

I like the way I can exercise complete control in short stories- – the way I can know every sentence, really know it. But over the last two years I’ve realized I have longer stories to tell and am working on a novel. For me, writing a draft of a novel requires some letting go (not reading it from start to finish multiple times a day) and working on expansiveness — of character, setting, and conflict.

Priya, you’ve worked across many mediums already — plays, academic writing, novels. What calls to you next, and where do you feel most at home as an artist?  Perhaps it is not in medium, but in subject matter?

PP: Carolyn Keene!  That iconic yellow spine. I feel like our childhood reading shapes so much of our future storytelling.

I understand what you mean about the expansiveness of a novel. I have never attempted short stories but academic writing is wrapped so closely to the frame of the argument that the structure always felt brief and controlled.

With a novel, the structure is free to dissolve and reinvent in every moment. But there are so many sheep to herd with a sprawling format. At times you have to sit everyone down and do a head count to see where you are. For me, it is just those unmanageable moments (that can happen in any medium) that invite magic. That ruffled, out-of-focus bit that does not go the way I expected often finds its way into becoming a moment I could not consciously envision. It is a truly uncomfortable process that I have learned to enjoy.

I only felt at home as a writer when I started writing fiction. The euphoric falling wildly in love and feeling every door is flung wide at the beginning of the writing to the swimming through molasses in the dark, wanting a divorce from the story middle bit, and then the worn-in, comfy-shoe couple who don’t really need to speak relationship at the end. I am addicted to the way the writing happens.

When you send the writing out into the world, you hope it will find good people. Smart, thoughtful, switched on people. And then you hope someday to meet those people and that those people will say things to make you think — think more, think differently, think bigger, broader, more vigorous thoughts. That is what has happened to me in this conversation. Thank you, Megan.


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.