ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
The new collection of short stories by writer Megan Mayhew Bergman takes us into the compelling lives of independent, inventive women at the margins of history. These are fictionalized account of real-life, risk-taking women that have largely been forgotten and now are reimagined by Bergman in her new book "Almost Famous Women." And Megan Mayhew Bergman joins me now to talk about her book. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN: Thank you for having me.
WESTERVELT: So you've brought these women back from obscurity. They've had brushes with fame, but are now kind of footnotes. And we meet a member of the first, you know, all-female-innovated swing band, a cross-dressing Standard Oil heiress who raises motorboats. We hear from conjoined twins and Lord Byron's out-of-wedlock daughter and a lot more. What inspired you, as a writer, to reimagine these women?
BERGMAN: Truthfully, I tried not to write the collection at first. There was something stopping me about playing with historical fiction. But these characters, these women - they took up residence in my imagination. This is - it really represents 10 years of my reading life. And, you know, they were living with me for so long that so many of the stories were almost fully formed by the time I put them to paper. I sort of fell in love, which is a dangerous thing to do with your characters, as any biographer will tell you.
WESTERVELT: Ten years of sort of reading and researching biographies and backgrounds of these women.
BERGMAN: Yeah, that's right. I think it all started when I was at Oxford doing a writing program. And I came across a book about Natalie Barney, the American woman who lived in the Left Bank in France and held a regular salon there. And a lot of the women belonged to that salon and gave readings there or she was a patron of their art. And that's when I really began to delve into this culture. And I think it appealed to me because Natalie was supporting female artists in a time where they really had to work very hard to make art and to have their art recognized.
WESTERVELT: There are many compelling female characters in this collection. I'd like to focus for second on Violet and Daisy Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins. Can I have you read from a section?
BERGMAN: Absolutely. So I first came across Violet and Daisy on a website called Roadside Americana. And they lived in North Carolina, where I was living at the time. And it really fascinated me to think about two women living together and sharing one body. And here's a passage where they're lying in bed at night.
Violet and I lay in bed at night talking about the latest sheet music or a boy who had come with his parents to see us play at the music hall. We talked about lace socks, traveling to Spain, how we'd one day hear ourselves on the radio, learn to dance beautifully with a partner on each side. Like King Tut's death mask, we were exhibited. The calling card, as I remember it - if we have interested you, kindly tell your friends to come visit us, the pretty, grown-together children.
These stories are really about risk-taking and chasing your passions, chasing your dreams, and that hasn't always been easy for women. They had a difficult road ahead. And in the short term, it may have been exciting, but in the long-term, a lot of them died poor and lonely.
WESTERVELT: Do you have a favorite in here - a character? You said you, you know, fell in love with many of them. Do have one you fell especially in love with?
BERGMAN: I particularly love Georgie, the girlfriend in the Joe Carstairs story.
WESTERVELT: I love that story - it's so great - where we meet this charismatic heiress, Joe.
BERGMAN: Joe really fascinated me when I read a Kate Summerscale's biography of her, "The Queen Of Whale Cay." And one of the things I noticed was that she was a female ambulance driver in World War I. And I think some of these women may have walked away with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
She raced boats, was the fastest woman on water, was setting world records racing her boats. But I believe as the '20s and '30s came to a close, she found it more difficult to live in society as she wished. And she happened to have the financial means to buy her own island in the Bahamas, Whale Cay, and she developed it. She put an airstrip on it, built a beautiful mansion. And she really ruled it like a tyrant and had a string of girlfriends and movie stars and royalty that came to visit her on the island. Other people found it a refuge.
WESTERVELT: The undercurrent in the book is all about exploring risk-taking, and risk-taking can also have a price. What do you want your two daughters to take away from your book?
BERGMAN: I think about that a lot - what they'll experience when they read this book. And what I hope 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.
WESTERVELT: Making Mayhew Bergman's new book "Almost Famous Women" is out next week. Thank you so much.
BERGMAN: Thank you.
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