I Am My Father: An Interview with Writer/Editor Lee Montgomery of Tin House

Lee Montgomery of Tin House

Literary fiction--its twenty-first century incarnation
anyway--would, no doubt, have a more dynamic future if there were
hundreds of Lee Montgomerys on the payrolls of the Big Five publishing
houses. The editorial director of Tin House Books and the executive
editor of Tin House, a literary magazine, Ms. Montgomery
is herself the author of the Iowa award-winning story collection
Whose World Is This? and the darkly gorgeous memoir The
Things Between Us
. Most recently, Ms. Montgomery edited the
book Woof!: Writers on Dogs--a fierce writerly homage to
the family pooch, featuring twenty canine-themed essays from such
luminaries as Jayne Anne Phillips, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson.

Matt Okie: Now you recently served as the editor for the
Viking/Penguin-published collection Woof! Writers On Dogs.
In the introduction to Woof!, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas humorously
writes, “With…a million books about dogs available,
why in the world would we need another?” (1). (And, of course,
the simple answer is: dog books, like dogs themselves, are utterly
irrepressible.) Why have dogs come to hold such a privileged place
in the human psyche?

Lee Montgomery: [Laughs.] Well...I'm
just sitting here with my schnauzer. You know, I think because their
philosophy of life is just so simple that we can learn quite a bit
from them in the way they manage their lives. They’re just
great companions; they’re good friends.

As far as in literature, you know, a lot of those dog books that
are done are not literature per se. It’s kind of
more mainstream work. I was interested in getting writers to write
a little bit more literary [type] essays about dogs. A lot of the
essays are about dogs dying, which is unfortunate. I had to throw
mine [“Schnauzer, Talking”] in there.

MO: In the Woof! essay “Schnauzer, Talking,”
you write beautifully about how you’ve come to find solace
in what you’ve termed “dogness,” i.e., a dog’s
ability to live “unencumbered by problems [of] consciousness,
problems of overthinking, overanticipating” (170). If you
would, discuss this “fido-as-free” construct, and how
its prevalence in our culture is the backbone upon which canine
lit (White Fang, Old Yeller, Because Of Winn
Dixie
, etc.) is built?

LM: I knew you were going to ask me questions
like this. [Laughs.] I can’t really address that.
I’m just not in a place where I can address that.

MO: I would imagine that when editing a publication like
Woof! Writers On Dogs, one’s inclination is to avoid
all sentimentality. The difficulty, of course, is that if the editor
purges every last sweet and corny, then she might very well kill
off people’s impetus for reading about dogs in the first place.
As editor, how did you balance this need to avoid cliché
with the reader’s desire for the occasional My Dog Skip-type
finale?

LM: I think that with most of the essays I received
the writers did it for me. I didn’t have to make any decisions
in that area. There were only--I think--two essays that I rejected.
And one was because it was just so unbearably depressing; I think
the author who was writing was very depressed. I wasn’t going
to be able to work with it, though she did bring up some great issues.
The writers actually did the work for me.

MO: How did you go about soliciting essays for the book
Woof!?

LM: Well, you know I work with Tin House,
so I have access to a lot of writers. I sat down and put a list
together of people I admired. I wrote to them, and there were a
lot of people who said, “No.” George Saunders. Toby
Wolff--even though he did do a fictional piece for Bark
[magazine]. I think probably 50% said, “No.” A lot of
times people just didn’t have anything to say about dogs,
like Amy Bender wanted to write something, but she had just never
owned a dog or known any dogs...

MO: During the course of your career, you’ve published
the memoir The Things Between Us (2006) and an award-winning
story collection Whose World Is This? (2007), in addition
to the numerous smaller pieces you’ve placed in journals such
as The Iowa Review and Story Quarterly. At present,
you work as the editorial director of Tin House Books and executive
editor of Tin House, a literary magazine. Discuss--if you
would--the pros and cons of working as an editor, while simultaneously
attempting to further your own writerly ambitions.

LM: Well, you know, the busier I am as an editor,
the less energy I have as a writer. And, also, just the volume of
material I go through, the last thing I want to do is look at another
book, including my own. It’s a difficult balance when I’m
promoting a book and I have authors who are promoting books. I always
feel that...if I was a true editor, I would not be writing at all.
I struggle with this quite a bit. I think that to be a true editor
and publisher that you need to be focused completely on your authors
and their work. And then if you’re a writer as well, you’re
taking away from that. It’s a struggle--it really is a struggle
that I deal with frequently. Most people who write need to work
on some level. You hear people who teach whine that it destroys
their work. I just don’t know there’s a good way to
support yourself as a writer. I mean, perhaps the best way is to
work as a florist, and then write...to be able to focus all your
energies [on writing]. It’s something I really battle with
quite a bit. But I have a perfect situation. I think working for
a literary journal is maybe a little different.

MO: How so?

LM: The work isn’t so massive. The problem
with working in book publishing is that the job is impossible. It’s
disheartening as a writer, I think, to be trying to sell books.
It’s all consuming; it just eats you up. You can’t wing
it. Well, I’m not saying that you wing it at a literary journal,
but the work is very focused. It’s very focused on good literature.
It’s a dream--it’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful
way to make a living. I don’t know that anyone can actually
do that. As an editor, an editorial director/publisher for a publishing
company, you have to think about sales and marketing. Oh, brother…and
then it gets very confusing too because the choices that you make--the
choices that I make as an editor--I focus on good work and important
work, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into big sales,
which is a problem, because [I’m] always accountable. It gets
very confusing. God knows what I’m going to do next to get
out of it.

MO: When you are writing, what is your writing schedule
like? Are you one of those writers who needs to work every day--or
four to five times per week--or a certain time every Wednesday?
As a full-time editor, how do you arrange your schedule so that
you have time to write?

LM: When I’m on my game, I work for a few
hours in the morning--probably, you know, from six to nine, when
I’m really doing well. But I haven’t done that for quite
some time. The books I’ve published were written before I
started at Tin House, both of ’em. Right now I’m working
on a novel, and I just can’t get the steam up to keep it going.
I don’t know if I will be able to write doing what I’m
doing now. I’m not having very good luck with it. I think
I need more down time from my job. So what I find myself doing is
renovating my house or adopting a child. [Laughs.] Doing
all these other things that don’t use that part of my brain.

MO: Did you adopt a child recently?

LM: We are in the process of adopting a little
girl from Colombia. It’s right on my mind right now, because
we’re going to pick her up on Thursday…for a month’s
visit.

MO: Wow, that’s amazing--congratulations!
That’s wonderful!

LM: She’s just coming up for month. She
doesn’t know we’re trying to adopt her. We met over
the summer through an amazing program called Kidsave.

MO: She can be your novel for the foreseeable future--that’s
how I look at my son anyway. He’s the most important piece
I’ll ever “write.”

LM: I think a lot about writing about her, but
I don’t know if I will or not.

MO: In a number of your short stories, including “Hats”
and “We Americans,” your work--with its surreal imagery
and rhythmic prose--begins to feel very much like poetry. While
your memoir work, on the other hand, feels more reportorial, more
journalistic in approach. Why is fiction, for you, a genre that
is seemingly more open to experimentation?

LM: That’s an interesting question. You
know, the stories were my early attempts at writing fiction. I think
I’m probably a closet poet...not that I have the education
to be. But I’m very interested in language. I’m fascinated
with pushing the boundaries of narrative. My undergraduate degree
is in biochemistry, so when I started writing, I hadn’t read
a great deal. So I was just really writing from the seat of my pants.
It was just intuitive. I think, emotionally, I have a bit of a twisted
sensibility. I gravitated towards these odd, surreal-type stories.
I think the works that really influenced me was Italo Calvino and
Barthelme. Those stories were all done before [the memoir The
Things Between Us
(2007)].

I’d never thought about writing a memoir, that was not something
on my list of things to do. So the early drafts of that memoir were
a lot more experimental. I had pictures--family pictures and things
like that--with people’s faces blacked out...

MO: So initially, at least, The Things Between Us
was a multi-genre narrative, coupling prose with old photographs
to tell the story?

LM: Yup. And I’d worked very hard for a
long time to string a narrative [into The Things Between Us].
I think there are different intellects, and for me, a linear narrative
is not something that comes naturally to me. I was not able to remember
or think in linear terms naturally. The way I construct story is
very, very different. I think my husband was relieved when he saw
the memoir, because he thought: God, at least she can string
a regular story together
.

MO: So short story is really a more natural medium for
you?

LM: Yeah, I’m really missing it quite a
bit, trying to write this novel. I keep on thinking: well, if I
just pretend it’s a story. And I’ve just been reading
Charlie D’Ambrosio’s stories again.

MO: He’s stellar.

LM: Oh-h, I admire his work. And talk about an
intellect...

But that’s just not my game, sadly.

MO: In the memoir The Things Between Us, you write
about your father’s battle with stomach cancer and subsequent
death. It’s a story that’s brutal and, at turns, beautiful.
I was particularly struck by the role that sleep plays and how sleep
itself becomes a commentary on the lives of the various participants
in the book. For example, your mother is constantly snoozing on
the bathroom floor. As a young girl, you nap upon the pony named
Happy Birthday. As a middle-aged woman, you curl up (rather touchingly,
I might add) between your elderly parents. Stoyan, the Bulgarian
servant, crashes on your parent’s sofa. Your poor father gets
his shut-eye in various hospital beds. And just prior to Big Dad’s
passing, your brother Bob even crawls into the old hired-man’s
bed in your family estate and “holds his hands across his
chest like [your] father” (194). What do you think our sleep
habits suggest about who we are as individuals and what we long
for in this life?

LM: [Laughs good-naturedly.] You know,
I read your Junot Diaz interview, and
I thought: you don’t want to do this, Lee.

MO: Sorry, sorry.

LM: Tell me again what you want me to talk about.

MO: Yeah, I’m sorry. I tend to write these long,
convoluted questions.

I gathered that sleep was something of a motif in your
memoir. You write a great deal about the sleep habits of your various
family members, servants, etc. Even in your most recent essay “Schnauzer,
Talking,” you discuss your Tempur-Pedic mattress--and how
your husband’s nickname for it is the “Tempur-Pnut”
(166). Why are people’s sleep patterns something you keep
coming back to as a writer?

LM: [Cracks up.] I don’t know that
I actually knew that I did.

But I guess it’s a place where people are most vulnerable.
And, also, can be most intimate. Watching someone in their bed.
It doesn’t get much more direct than that. It’s a place
of tremendous intimacy, and I don’t mean sexual intimacy.
I suppose that’s why. Also, during that whole time, that’s
where [my father and I would] meet. During that whole time in the
memoir, that’s where we spent a lot of time...in bed. I was
able to observe very closely. It’s such a quiet time. So I
think it was a place where I could rest and observe.

And then, I have this whole fascination with sleep. I wrote a poem
once called I Am My Father, And We Are Sleeping. And it
went on and said [recites from the original poem]: “I am my
father, and we are driving.” And I think that those [sleep]
moments were the times where I was really able to know my father
and observe him. Isn’t that ridiculous?

The other thing is...that I don’t remember anything. Like
I have a really difficult time remembering things, especially things
that are emotionally complicated. When I can’t quite figure
’em out, I get overwhelmed. I don’t know that I can
make such acute observations when things are moving around. It’s
just a lot simpler to deal with people in bed.

MO: I was blown away by that scene where you--as a grown
woman--crawl in between your elderly parents and sleep. I really
think that was one of the sweetest, most touching scenes I’ve
ever read in any book anywhere, either fiction or nonfiction.

LM: Thank you.

That was an unbelievably moving moment to live through, then also
to write about. And I continue to go back to that place because
I spent so many sweet times with my parents in bed. Even during
the chaos of my childhood, I could always find refuge between them,
in their bed. No matter what had transpired: there was always that
safe place between them. It’s kind of interesting...

MO: What was nice about the sleeping in the memoir, too,
is that so often in our culture, the bedroom is thought of as this
incredibly sexual locale where nothing but sex ever happens, especially
when we’re writing about it or it’s being filmed. So
for you to make it this place of innocence was a nice change.

LM: Well, we’re all big nappers--the Montgomery
family.

Also, my mother spent a lot of time in bed. In her later years.
And then, of course, if she wasn’t just passed out...poor
mother.

MO: I’m of the opinion that the
firefly sequence which concludes The Things Between Us
is one of the most stunning scenes I’ve ever read. I love
how mere hours after your father’s funeral, you glimpse a
vast woodsy swarm of fireflies--more than you’ve ever seen
in that field before--and you know instantly, it’s him.
“Stealth Dad,” you say. “A final wink,”
you call it (219). How would you characterize that experience? In
your opinion, was that God--or a god--allowing your deceased father
to quote-unquote pull the curtain aside for a moment? A glimpse,
if you will. Also, when you first wrote this scene, did you know
that it would, in fact, close the book?

LM: No, I didn’t know that it would close
the book.

Uh, I wasn’t quite sure...well, actually, it did close the
early drafts, so maybe I did know. It certainly seemed like a perfect
end to the actual experience. That was just a phenomenal finale.

And, you know, I don’t know what that [i.e., the
fireflies] was. I guess I don’t know I can go so far as to
say that was God. I mean, if there is a God, that’d
be a God thing to do, don’t you think?

MO: Absolutely.

LM: I wish He worked in those wonderful ways always.
[Pauses.] If you think of Him, you know, as a he.

I think one of the things about death, and I experienced both my
parents deaths...is that everything stop, and you become completely
aware of what is happening around you. So you observe more carefully
than you would at other times. And I think that what both of those
experiences taught me is that when you are laboring in a death,
and you start becoming completely conscious...it is a world that
is truly magical. You become fully aware of what is the beauty and
magic of life. Those experiences really taught me that.

My mother’s death was equally strange. It was a labor--she
was dying of pneumonia, but we didn’t know that at the time.
She was unconscious in her bed, where my father died. We were all
there, and I kept on looking out in the back field, and there was
this hawk. And when I was growing up there, I didn’t see a
lot of hawks. (You know, they may have come more recently.) But
there was this hawk. Over the days...every time I went into her
room I would look out, and I would see this hawk, or I wouldn’t
see him. It became my life--my life revolved around my mother dying
and the presence of this hawk. So when she finally died: I looked
out, and there were two, and they were flying around. And I thought,
Whoa. I mean, it just put chills up my, you know, spine. Because
it always seemed like this hawk in the back field was waiting--was
waiting--was present and waiting. The next morning, I got up, and
I went into the kitchen, and I looked out the kitchen window, and
there was a hawk. Standing on the bird feeder. Looking right in
the window. I flipped out! So, alright, who knows? They’re
hawks, and they do that, right? OK. But I’m
fascinated by hawks; I look for them all the time.

This has nothing to do with writing, but I have to tell you. I
started thinking about this adoption, and we were thinking about
going down to meet this little girl. I was feeling really overwhelmed
with emotion. My parents weren’t around... And I went for
a walk. I live in urban Portland--I live in the middle of the city--and
my husband and I live downtown. And so I was walking in this neighborhood,
and what happens? There’s a hawk. There’s a hawk
who comes down to the lawn in front of me. And I thought: OK. So
every time I see a hawk, I say: “Hey, Mom!” [Laughs.]

Now, as far as ending The Things Between Us [with fireflies],
I think that yes--I probably always intended to do that. I struggled
with it, though, because it was so clichéd in some ways;
it just seemed really sweet and sentimental. And I must’ve
rewritten that thing a hundred and fifty times.

MO: But it wasn’t too sentimental at all. So often--especially
those of us who have been to creative writing programs--tend to
shy away from sweetness. We choose not to go there, even
when it’s appropriate or useful to do so.

LM: I struggled for so long to find out what that
book was about. I kept on thinking: what is the story? What is the
end of the story? The first drafts of that book--my mother
wasn’t even in it. And I really wanted it to be about
my father, because, um...Mother always, like, stole the show.

MO: Is that your mother’s photograph on the cover
of The Things Between Us? I think I read somewhere...the
picture of the woman on horseback is not you, but your mother.

LM: Which I think is an odd choice. I sent the
publisher some photographs. Once they saw that [photo of Mother
on horseback]--and it’s too bad that I did that--the cover
couldn’t be anything else. I mean, like I said, she always
stole the show, and she did that with the book cover, too. And she
did see the cover before she died, and she was very happy about
that.

MO: One more question. I read last week [back in December
2008, to be exact] that Houghton Mifflin has frozen new manuscript
purchases. Also, Barnes & Noble recently reported a third-quarter
decline in sales. These developments are, no doubt, symptomatic
of the larger ills that permeate our economy; however, I wonder
too if in publishing’s current woes, we aren’t also
witnessing the beginnings of a music biz-type collapse--a collapse
that may will lessen the authority of the current “gatekeeping
regime” and make it possible again for indie presses to thrive.
In your view--as not only the editor of a literary journal, but
also a book imprint--what does the future hold for publishing?

LM: Well, it would be nice to think that this
terrible economic time would be a time where independent presses
could thrive. But I don’t think so, sadly.

I do think that over the last, maybe, ten years, there have been
some wonderful presses started. And it’s because of the huge
size of these multi-conglomerate companies--they can’t publish
good or important work, because they don’t have the sales
figures to support it. We see a lot of those books [at Tin House],
perfectly wonderful books, but because they don’t have the
numbers, we can’t do it. Independent publishing has been picking
up the slack in that way. And certainly I view that at Tin House,
we’ve been publishing stuff that nobody else will publish--not
because the book isn’t good, but because the author’s
last book didn’t have any numbers. I had no idea how hard
that was, because I don’t come from a publishing background.
I’m a literary-journal editor and a writer. So I didn’t
understand...[say] an author’s last book didn’t do very
well, and I’d think: OK, well, the publisher is afraid…but
booksellers--you have to twist their arms to take a book. If Barnes
& Noble sold three copies [of the author’s previous work],
they won’t take a new one from an author who has that kind
of sales record. We have to fight tooth and nail--I mean, basically,
contact the booksellers personally. The effort it takes to sell
a book is just unbelievable.

The book business is always on the brink of failing. Even in the
1940s, people were talking about the end of books. It’s an
interesting time in that a lot of people aren’t reading books
anymore, especially young people are not reading. So I think that
publishers are scrambling to figure out what the mechanism will
be to download this stuff.

Photo Courtesy of Viking/Penguin Books

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