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

Lee Montgomery of Tin House
Lee Montgomery of Tin House / Photo Courtesy of Viking/Penguin Books

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.

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