Birds of a Lesser Paradise made a splash when it came out in March, 2012. It’s not easy to be noticed for a debut novel, more of less for a short story collection which tend to have a smaller readership, so the positive reception by The New York Times and other reviewers was noteworthy. It didn’t hurt that the first story in the collection, which also happens to be one of my favorites, had been included in The Best American Short Stories 2011. Polly Rosenwaike in the Times explained why these pieces work brilliantly and are so memorable: “We want stories to stir our desires. We also want them to lead us to places we don’t recognize and build us a temporary residence there. Bergman provides alluring glimpses into the strangeness, the ruthlessness, of the animal kingdom.” And, I might add, of the human heart as well. I'm honored to be speaking alongside Megan at the James River Writers Conference on October 19-20 in Richmond, Virginia. In advance of that always-wonderful event, I wanted to get to know her better. I’m delighted to share here an interview with Megan about how Birds of a Lesser Paradise came to such rewarding fruition.
VP: Your debut book publication is a collection of short stories. I wonder what drew you to that form and if you’re still as intrigued by it now as you were when you first started writing?
MMB: Perhaps it’s my southern heritage—I grew up with the sound and length of a sermon in my head, a short narrative with a sucker-punch, a focus on sound and distillation. When I was a student, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty spoke to me from the page, and it was a language I knew. Plus, there was my dad spinning yarns at the dinner table. My inner framework for stories is short, and it’s often southern and sound-oriented.
I love what the short story can do. There’s a mix of freedom and constraint, a bigger burden on the line. For me, it’s all about getting to the heart of the matter, learning how to scour the reader’s soul in twelve pages or less. Hemingway’s first collection—In Our Time—does this for me. There’s a powerful mix of restraint, killer sentences, and brutal stay-with-you imagery.
Justin Torres wrote a phenomenal short novel, We the Animals, and when interviewed about it, he wrote: “I wanted the book to feel a little claustrophobic. I wanted the intensity of concentration. My parents used to buy canisters of frozen orange juice concentrate in bulk and my brothers and I would sometimes spoon the orange stuff into our mouths like ice-cream, not because it was delicious, it wasn't, but because it was intense.”
That intensity is what I love about a lot of short work—it often has characters, and the world for that matter, by the throat.
I think like a short story writer. We tell short stories all the time: at the dinner table, in a eulogy, in a song. There’s urgency there. Tell me what matters, tell me now, and make it count.
VP: Over how long a period did you work on Birds of a Lesser Paradise? At what stage did you realize you had a collection-in-the-making?
MMB: I worked on a lot of these stories in my head before they landed on paper. Most of these stories spilled out of me across three years, but the last few came at a very intense time in my life, a period of six weeks I call my Cosmic Bitch Slap. I gave birth to my first child, my husband graduated from veterinary school, his beloved mother died of cancer, and we sold our house in North Carolina and moved to Vermont. It was a period of radical change, and the birth-death continuum was right in front of my eyes. Things that had mattered before no longer mattered. I was thirty pounds overweight, my hair fell out, and I was depressed. I decided right then that I was going to pick myself up and become the kind of woman my daughter could look up to. Another daughter later and I’m still working on that, of course.
During the Cosmic Bitch Slap, material landed in my lap. It choked me. I had profound feelings, a sense of post-traumatic enlightenment as I was walking barefoot in circles around the pasture, cradling my colicky, screaming daughter, missing my own family and my mother-in-law.
As a mother, I saw the human-as-animal. No—I felt it. I saw primal beauty all around me, and I wanted to honor it. The last line of my first story, Housewifely Arts, captures everything I learned those six weeks, everything I wanted to put into my first book, everything I knew to be true.
VP: What was your path to book publication? Your stories had been published and received awards. I wonder if that helped you to find an agent and then a publishing house?
MBB: I do not suffer from visions of grandeur—quite the opposite. The hardest thing for me was (is?) giving myself permission to make art. I was listening to a doctor friend play guitar in his garage a few years back, and I thought—I like listening to him play and sing. He’s not playing because he thinks he’s Eric Clapton or Thom Yorke. He’s making music because he enjoys it, and we take pleasure in the sound. I told myself: MMB, just make art. Make it as good as you can and don’t worry about who it’s for or how it will sell. There are worse things you could do with your time.
Making art is a gift, and even if we just practice it and don’t offer it up for commercial consumption, it helps us process the world, and helps us become better patrons of other artists.
After I had 4 or 5 good stories out in the world, the agenting inquiries started. I also had some generous mentors and MFA professors who helped me connect with good people.
My agent, Julie Barer, is a magnetic, brilliant, high-energy spirit, and she guided me through the publication process so well, and connected me with a team of editors at Scribner (Kara Watson and Sam Martin) that really understood Birds of a Lesser Paradise. I couldn’t have asked for a more generously-supported debut.
It’s important to find a team who gets you, who understands what you want for yourself and your art and helps you get there. I’m a southerner who lives in rural Vermont. I have goat poop stuck in the soles of my shoes and cat hair on my sweaters. I have kids I want to get home to when I’m on book tour. I get lost in big cities. My team knows all those things and plans accordingly, finds the ways to bring the right people to my book. I’m still lost in a sea of gratitude about all that.
VP: You’ve sold your next book, a novel, to your same editor. I’m curious how you decided to write a novel instead of stories?
MMB: I like challenges, and I have three or four ideas for novels that I’m dying to put out into the world. Of course there’s a learning curve for me structurally, but I’m up for it. I need to write these stories; that’s all I usually need to know to give myself permission to pursue a project. If I don’t get them down on paper, they’ll drive me crazy in my imagination. Writing these books will be a release!
It’s the same for stories, really, and I am always writing short stories, and I imagine I always will be.
VP: Can you offer any advice for aspiring writers who hope to publish a book?
You’re never as brave as you are with your first book. When I wrote my early stories, I never thought many people would read them. I was a little reckless. And sometimes that recklessness gives itself over to a more authentic-sounding voice or narrative, instead of an overly-precious, overly-contrived, taking-myself-seriously voice. Beginner’s enthusiasm is contagious on the page sometimes. There’s energy there. You’re excited to be doing what you’re doing.
The most important advice I have for aspiring writers is to be a good literary citizen. Read constantly. Buy most of your books from independent bookstores. Support a few of the journals you want to publish your work—that’s only fair.
Consider giving your time to one of your favorite journals as a reader—many of them need volunteers, and it’s a great way to take the pulse of the slush pile. I’ve done this a few times, and man, the slush pile doesn’t lie. I formed so many writing philosophies reading the slush pile—you realize the sheer importance of first paragraphs, the danger of wind-up. The themes and character prototypes you think are tired you’ll see are REALLY tired, and you’ll never convince yourself you can get away with a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. You’ll also be inspired by how many good stories there are in the world, how many great writers. And that makes you work harder to distinguish yourself. It made me wonder, what do I have to offer the world? What makes my words worthy of a reader’s time? When you can answer those questions, you may have a book.