In Megan Mayhew Bergman’s new book of short stories, How Strange a Season, you will find a man lashed to a dock and screaming for repentance as a hurricane approaches. You will find hedge fund executives bashing in cars at the behest of a dominatrix. A peach farm hangs on by a drought-ridden thread. The Strangler is hiding in your closet. All seven stories, and one novella, traverse critical questions about power, fidelity, and landscape, and the troubled humans who live in them. How Strange a Season offers an “evocative and engrossing collection of new stories and a novella about women experiencing life’s challenges and beauty.”
Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Almost Famous Women and Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her short fiction has appeared in two volumes of The Best American Short Stories and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She has written columns on climate change and the natural world for The Guardian and The Paris Review. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College, where she also serves as director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. She lives on a small farm in Vermont.
NT: Let’s start with the title, How Strange a Season. It seems to suggest something I found in the book, a sun setting on human exceptionalism, that humanity is perhaps caught in the last summer days of our own delusion. Does that check out?
MMB: The phrasing “how strange a season” is actually pulled from a Patrizia Cavalli poem:
Onto your sea my ship set sail,
(dentro il tuo mare viaggiava la mia nave)
Into that sea I sank and was born.
(Dentro quell mare mi sono immersa e nacqui)
I am struck by how strange a season it is
And by how my body felt the cold.
You picked up on the mood exactly—the banality at the end of the world, online shopping for yoga pants as oceans die, and so on. It is a remarkable time to try and make a life. I believe it has always been, especially for certain sections of the world who have not had the relative shelter of Western privilege. But I think the existential side of what we’ve wrought as humans is beginning to press down upon even people who don’t pay attention to the natural world. I think we’ve underestimated the impact of this dread on our communities and psyches.
We’re all trying to make sense of both the present and the future. I wanted my characters to hold that dread, for readers to feel it pressing in, that flow between person and place. But I’ve always believed that story must come in front of idea, so my hope is that the characters and the action feel larger and more engaging than any of my social and environmental ideas.
NT: A central thread I tracked in these stories is your rendering of an exhausted and misguided masculinity, the violence and subsequent desperation of patriarchy, and the ruins of infidelity to partners, planet, and self. Was that something you wished to confront?
MMB: I love that you picked up on these aspects of the book. I was thinking a lot about power dynamics, labor, gender, punishment, and redemption. I like your identification of the “ruins” concept. I’m drawn to ruins. There are some things, like plantation homes, or places where people suffered, that I prefer to see as ruins, not glorified. Sometimes ruins seem more honest—a homestead, a former political superpower, a face. But never the natural world.
One time, a poet friend of mine was visiting me in Vermont. Annoyed by something I said, she uttered the phrase: Be careful what you valorize. The idea has stayed with me. I think America valorizes destructive forces—capitalism, industry, greed—and so many of these, at least in my mind, are traditionally masculine domains, which we continue to valorize in popular culture and academia. We eschew the humanities in favor of entrepreneurship; we turn the cameras on billionaires heading to space; we embrace hustle culture and rugged individualism; we praise stoicism and never quitting; we still want to “conquer” illness and mountains, and so on.
Chasing conventional prosperity leaves us anxious and dissatisfied, and yet we work harder and longer every year—the carrot moves. I tried to reflect this in the vocations and motivations of my characters, particularly the father in “Workhorse.”
I think, as a species, we’re swept up in self-destructive acts—destroying the natural world that we need to survive, polluting relationships, devoting ourselves to institutions and work that will never return the ardor. And we ask for forgiveness and redemption in the last hour, when it’s late, and the consequences are steep.
NT: I experienced the weight of the feminine in having to put up with so much bullshit, and how there are several moments where female-bodied characters behave in certain ways to shake out their numbness of loss, or privilege, or pain, wishing they could feel something again. There’s a delicious carnality in all of these stories, too, perhaps jolted awake by growing environmental extremities we’ve set into motion. I find “The Night Hag” bursts at the end as some fully formed archetype, a culminating force. How do we fight the numbness, and can fiction help?
MMB: I’ve always been fascinated by the human as animal and primal forces, and love the evocation of carnality here. I was absolutely going for that in many of the women, and in the arc of the “Night Hag.” I wanted the Night Hag to reflect the loss of idealization. Because let’s face it: most of us were told bogus stories about what life and love would be.
It’s always been important for me to show women living, thinking, working, and wanting in big ways, and with big appetites. I’m interested in the idea that none of us really has to replicate the traditionally masculine performances of material success or emotionally stilted relationships. We can all pursue something more complex and tender. In my idealism, I like to think that more of us operating in a complex and tender space could heal a lot of generational trauma.
But many of us get lulled into a monotonous condition—through overwork, pandemic constraints, past pain that makes our anxious hearts play it safe, environmental anxiety, screen addiction. At any given time, many of us could be better tending to the lives of our minds and the lives of our bodies, yet we don’t. I think it’s from this boredom and restlessness that we act out, trying to jolt ourselves into an experience, into feeling.
I fear numbness, personally, and experience it regularly. It seems like such a waste while living on this extraordinary planet, in the proximity of extraordinary company. Narrative helps remind me of the range of experiences available to me as a human. I think the empathy developed while reading and writing fiction can help remind us of the human condition. It can put words to the experience of interconnectedness. It can remind us of the bliss that is possible in deeper connection and understanding.
I think one of the best things we could do to fight numbness is to invest in our collective mental health—to be hopeful and excited about the future if we can, and to allow other humans around us to be their full, messy selves in our company. I think a lot of my characters are looking for that resonance, looking to be seen, desperate to feel at home.
NT: So often these stories gravitate toward a sort of bourgeois emptiness, a loneliness of riches, particularly when faced with our mortality and further expedited with climate change. What legacy have we, as humans, been left, and what legacy are we leaving? Do we enjoy what beauty remains, or do we drown in guilt? Or, referencing your story “A Taste for Lionfish,” do we fight like hell and try to stuff people’s mouths with lionfish?
MMB: My plan is to stuff people’s mouths with lionfish, but I can’t do it alone. I’m actively recruiting interns. I assume every generation has had to confront mortality in different ways these last years. For me, I think a lot about legacy and substance—moving sincerely through this fraught time, holding myself accountable for showing up for my people, my planet, myself.
Encountering and appreciating beauty, even damaged beauty, is a priority for me. Even damaged, even fraying at the seams, the world remains stunning and full of stubborn wonder.
When I worked with Amy Hempel—a writer I deeply admire—she once told the class not to forget that real people had real jobs and lived outside of New York City. As someone who has several jobs and works outside of New York City, I appreciated this at the time and think about it every time I sit down to write. So many literary works take place in city culture or feature the wealthy. I want to write fiction that is in touch with the world and people I know.
NT: Okay, last question. Share with us your three favorite scene(s) of ecological tension in the book.
MMG: In “Heirloom,” I love the idea of a woman trying to keep a water-starved ranch functional, and in doing so, taking advantage of a very greed-driven culture that has damaged the planet. In “Inheritance,” I like the rub between idealization and reality—the protagonist’s romanticizing of her grandmother and her later realization of how problematic she may have been; the protagonist’s love of a precarious home on a cliff; the confrontation with wellness culture and women taking pictures of themselves meditating. In “A Taste for Lionfish,” I am most drawn to the scene on the pier at the end—the self-flagellation the male character engages in, trying to rid himself of generational guilt.
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