"She hijacked the cover. She hijacked the story," Lee Montgomery admits. "[My mother] hijacks everything. That's always been my experience."
As the story begins, Montgomery's father has been diagnosed with a tumor in his stomach. The Things between Us tracks the next eight months, as Monty's fight against cancer brings a broken family together for the first time in decades. And yet somehow Barbara — Mother or the Mumzy to her youngest child — takes center stage. See how even now she's hijacking this introduction.
I will never be able to explain my mother, but I will most likely spend my life trying. She is the rock in the road that I navigate around. She is this, and then she is that. She is great fodder for outrageous stories, though there is another side. How do you explain that your mother drinks gin and tonics for breakfast? You don't.
But you can't help trying. Because the mystery of Monty's life is wrapped up in his unimpeachable commitment to this woman, his unconditional acceptance. The Things between Us is Lee Montgomery's remarkable panegyric to that forgiveness and enduring love.
An executive editor at Tin House magazine and editorial director of the new Tin House Books division, Montgomery can be spotted here in our Northwest Portland neighborhood throughout the year. We'd met several times before this conversation. The world she describes in her memoir is particularly vivid for me, paradoxically familiar and unimaginable. I grew up less than a mile from her parents.
Dave: I'll start by saying that it was very strange to read about your family drama unfolding around the corner from the house where I grew up. When I was in high school, we talked about your house. You had horses, right out there on the corner, which was very exotic for Framingham.
Lee Montgomery: People used to come to the fence. They still do.
Dave: I got the sense that Framingham changed quite a bit in the years between our childhoods, though we're not so far apart in age. Was your life at all typical among your peers?
Montgomery: In that area, there was a pocket full of fancy people. The social register was important to them. People went to debutante parties, if they were chosen. We all went to private schools. We rode in hunt clubs. Did you ever belong to the Belknap Pool?
Dave: My family had a membership for a little while in the eighties.
Montgomery: My mother founded that.
Montgomery: She and a group of other people. At the time, she had big fights with some people because they didn't want black people there, and they didn't want Jewish people.
Dave: This would have been the sixties?
Montgomery: They moved to that house in the fifties. I was born in 1957. A lot of that old world stuff still existed.
Dave: The present frame of The Things between Us concludes in 1999, seven years ago. How did time and distance help you process these events and turn them into a book?
Montgomery: The book started as an essay. I was encouraged by a workshop at Squaw Valley; some people thought I should make it a book. I wrote the original draft quickly, in about six months, a narrative about my father. It was as if I needed to put it down because I wanted to freeze the time. I wanted to remember everything about it. I wanted to remember everything about him.
I sent it out and found some interest, but it was still half-baked. I worked with a couple different agents that had some ideas about revisions. I developed two separate sets of revisions, but it just wasn't there. It was their idea of what it should be. So I put it aside. I walked around for a couple years, thinking, I just don't know what this book is about.
I remember there was one person in New York who said, "You can't sell the book because it's about dying. It's all about death." And I said, "Well, it's a book about death." And that was before September 11. Anyway, I put it away.
A few years later I tried one more revision. I tried fictionalizing it. I included a lot of sections about my mother. I added photographs and blacked out the eyes. I really just had a blast tearing the whole thing apart. Part of it appeared in the Santa Monica Review. The book wasn't working, so I was just going to publish the essay and call it good.
When I published the essay, an agent saw it and asked to see the book. I sent her the original memoir, the second draft. She liked it and asked for a couple revisions, so I included a lot of the autobiographical stuff I had written about my mother in the novel; I started folding in the narrative of my mother and my family. Eventually it all came together.
Dave: You wrote, "I will never be able to explain my mother, but I will most likely spend my life trying." The book's out now. Granted you're just beginning to deal with public reaction, but do you feel any closer to explaining?
Montgomery: Yes, in that there is no explanation, there is no way to resolve it, there is no happy ending.
She said she was sorry years ago, and I accept that. She didn't mean to be a drunk. I don't think people set out to do that. I suppose the book was helpful in letting me grieve, and accepting and forgiving both of them for the choices they made.
Dave: In early reviews, people have written at length about your mother. I'm not surprised to hear that she wasn't part of the original draft. The book's not about her. She's central, though, and without question she brings a whole lot of color. As the book was transforming from a story about your father to a larger family history, did you feel that your mother was hijacking it?
Montgomery: Definitely. But it's so typical. She hijacks everything. That's always been my experience.
She hijacked the cover. She hijacked the story. She's a showstopper. I think maybe that's what people mention in reviews because it is the most colorful part. The relationship between my father and me was more settled, and a lot sadder. Mother is a sad story, but she was so flamboyant. I think people gravitate to that levity and color.
She's so unbelievable. People say, "I love that cover," and I think, She's a showstopper, that one.
That was the reason I didn't include her when I first tried writing the book. Mother had hijacked my fiction; she'd always done that. I have notebooks of stuff about my mom that I've written over the years. I wanted to make this separate.
If anything has happened, at least that's settled. I'm done. I don't think I have to write about it again, and I'm very happy about that. A lot of my stories, and the novel that is in a basket at home, include this territory, this landscape. Class, drunks.
Dave: Your mother diagnosed a life-threatening condition in horses. In doing so, she saved a famous TV horse's life. But she wasn't schooled at all in the sciences, was she? Did she have any kind of background that would explain how she figured out allergies were the source of these problems?
Dave: So was it just a wild hair?
Montgomery: Just a wild hair.
She had read an article in the Chronicle, a horse magazine, where someone had suggested the connection. I don't remember who that was, but I have a trunk full of stuff about Mother's research. She followed that idea and started experimenting with horses, and then she set up a board with allergists, all these famous people in Boston. They thought she was on to something, and she was. I just wish she'd have been smart enough to get royalties.
Dave: There's a line in the book, "This dying business is about endings, yes, but also quite possibly its difficulty carves a tiny space in people's hearts for something new."
How did your father's fight with cancer change you?
Montgomery: Death is a great advisor, and I'm not the first person to say that. When you look at life through death, that lens, it's much more precious. Trespasses are much more forgivable. You're able to appreciate the things that did go right, in my case the lovely things about our family and my parents. It provided perspective.
When I looked at my father at the end of his life and considered my own immortality, all of a sudden the fact that he wouldn't let me go out with what's-his-face, or whatever, all those things fell away. A lot of the sadness fell away. It was just gratitude.
It's not unlike the way you look at life when you're writing fiction: everything is frozen and held up to appreciate, to look at again. Everything is slowed down to a stop, the way it is when you're describing a scene or a landscape.
It completely blew my mind, watching my father take his last breath. It's a lot like birth, that whole process. For people that die of natural causes, there's a labor. It's otherworldly. I don't know that it made me believe in God, but I thought, This is much bigger than I will ever be able to understand. So there was that, too.
Dave: What traits did you inherit from your father?
Montgomery: I look like him. I've got knees like him, unfortunately. I wish I had legs like my mother. And I'm not practical, that's for sure.
He couldn't write to save his life, but one of the things I'm most proud about is that my dad was a real straight shooter. A real straight shooter, down to earth, a funny guy. And I think I have those qualities.
Dave: In retrospect, how do you feel about having spent your life so far away from your parents?
Montgomery: There's a part of me that wishes I'd stayed in Boston to spend more time with them. That was one of the saddest things about this period of time: I just didn't understand that it was going to be happening so soon. I thought Dad would live to be a hundred, like his mother.
It's a real trade-off. I could not have made any other decision. I had to get out of there to figure out who I was and to get away from them, but it wasn't without great sacrifice.
I moved to Topanga Canyon and started kind of a new family. It's a hard thing to do, but it seems that more and more people do it. My parents didn't move far from their parents. I think a lot about the support they had from my grandparents; I took that for granted and assumed they'd always be around. I regret that.
Dave: From the way you write about it, you didn't exactly fall headlong in love with Portland.
Montgomery: No, I did not. Not until I met Win McCormack and started drinking good martinis. I finally met someone who was bad.
Dave: You've been living here quite a long time now. What finally turned you around? Was it as simple as the martinis, because maybe the chamber of commerce could set up a bar at the Visitors' Center.
Montgomery: Maybe. But no, what was it? Portland seemed very small to me. I'd been living in Los Angeles. I was the editor of the Santa Monica Review, and I had another editing career, editing books. When I came up here, it seemed very quiet, and I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I was feeling a little despondent because the last thing I wanted to do was PR for a high tech company. That was a big part of my frustration.
Portland can be kind of a closed community for people in their forties — when we moved up here, I'd just turned forty. We didn't have kids. I wasn't working. It was very hard to break in. What turned it around was getting a job at Tin House. I could not have found that job anywhere else in the world, and it's the best thing that's happened to me professionally. It's made to order.
Dave: At the Tin House Summer Writers Workshops, you participated in a panel about memoir. The brochure's write-up asked, "Has our understanding of truth become too flexible or are these liberties essential for the craft to excel as art?"
Did that discussion take you anywhere unexpected? Where did you stand on the matter?
Montgomery: Where did I stand? Tony Swofford was talking about recreating dialogue. He felt that you could take license with that. And I thought, Tony is so smart. Yeah, I guess you can.
Now as I read through my book at various times, I think, Was that verbatim? Or did I take a section of dialogue from one place and put it in another? I was trying to be very true to what was happening, but it's possible. And I think Tony's right: you have to be able to take some liberties. I don't think you can make up conversations, but you can maybe use sections of them. Also, things are filtered through memory, and you have to honor that.
Dave: There's a passage in The Things between Us where you recognize that you and your siblings have such different memories of the same events.
Montgomery: And completely different interpretations of what they meant. The same event can inspire all sorts of different interpretations.
My mother just died in February, and we were back there for a couple weeks during that time. It finally dawned on me why we had such different perspectives on this: they were older, seven and nine years older than I am, and they knew Mother when she was whole. They always looked at her through the eyes of loss. For me, by the time I arrived, she was pretty far gone, so I was just ecstatic to find any kind of normalcy in that environment.
Dave: Another panel at the workshops discussed what happens to a book after the agent sells it. So I'm wondering, as editorial director of Tin House's new book division, what did you learn bringing the first book in your New Voices series, Girls in Peril, to market?
Montgomery: Everything! I've worked as an editor, but this job as editorial director is new for me. The sales and marketing part of it, the bookselling, is very new to me.
Talking about a book to a sales force was horrifying. When I went down to the sales conference, I thought, What am I going to say? Because this is the worst choice for a first book. It's an unknown author. She doesn't have very many credits to her name. It's a novella. How could I possibly sell this book to these people?
The only thing I could do was tell them why I loved the book. And it worked, actually. The sales force really dug it. I didn't have to talk about sales and marketing, and I guess what I learned is that a lot of people in the publishing business truly love books. I wasn't so sure about that before. I always thought of them as the evil people who try to dampen writers' spirits.
Dave: How's the book doing so far?
Montgomery: Girls in Peril was chosen as a New Voice to Discover at Barnes and Noble. We just got our first sales figures from that, and it's doing really well. Go figure.
I have a precarious relationship with that part of the business. I'm learning as I go. We'll see what happens this fall with Gravity's Rainbow and these other books. It's an interesting process.
Dave: Compiling The Best of Tin House, you had a lot of material to work with. How did you choose the contents?
Montgomery: I wrote all the other editors at Tin House and said, "Give me your top five picks, or top ten." And they did. We went through and selected stuff that hadn't been in the original collection, Bestial Noise.
I had a pile of stuff that I liked and then started bartering with people, trying to figure out, Well, that got four or five votes... But it was surprisingly easy. We actually agreed on a lot of the stories we wanted to include, and people got a few of their favorites that might not have been as popular with the other editors.
Dave: Has the reaction to a piece you've published at Tin House ever taken you completely by surprise?
Montgomery: We're all a little stunned that the summer issue sold out because of the Stephen King story.
Dave: You want to talk about market forces and bookselling...
Montgomery: It didn't even occur to us to print more because of Stephen King, but the phone was ringing off the hook.
Dave: For all the aspiring ghostwriters out there, perhaps you can tell them how to get a foot in the door.
Montgomery: I really don't know. I worked for Dove Books for a couple years, so I had connections with agents that were dealing with that kind of book. An entertainment attorney friend of mine was working on a deal with Squiggy — his company represented Squiggy, David Lander — and the writing deal was falling through. He said, "Why don't you get on a plane and come down to meet David Lander?"
That was the one book I did ghostwrite formally. It was a trip. Squiggy was great. I liked him a lot. But the other jobs just came through various agents because of that. They were just book proposals, really, because nothing had sold.
Dave: Before you became an editor, you worked at Tufts in the Department of Psychology. How did you wind up in the sciences?
Montgomery: I studied biology and chemistry in college. I wanted to be a doctor or veterinarian. I wanted to be somebody important and serious.
I think I did that for my father. I was frightened of doing anything else. I had two examples: my father, who was sane and interested in science, and my mother, who was insane, and she was the singer and the painter and the writer. So I studied biochemistry.
I came here to Oregon and worked at OHSU. That was my first job. And I had a couple jobs in Boston; I worked at Harvard and at Tufts. I was always trying to leave, but I had no idea what to do. I had spent so much time stuffed up, trying not to break out. I think there's some kind of process that happens when you grow up with a drunk: you don't trust yourself, you don't trust your instincts. I was trying to do something that wasn't quite right for me.
Dave: Eventually you left for the chance to get a job at an English-language magazine in Paris.
Montgomery: My boyfriend, whom I later married, had moved to France. I chased him. And that's where my life began to change. I had an inkling that I wanted to write. I had a lot of encouragement in writing in high school. People liked my letters, things like that. But that's where I received my education in literature, through my husband-to-be. We walked around Paris and I read many books.
When I was in high school, I read whatever it is you read, but I didn't take English courses in college. No interest. I was going to be a serious scientist. Then I discovered this new world.
Dave: What are you reading lately? Is there a writer that continually blows you away?
Montgomery: I've been reading Joan Didion's novels, Democracy and Play It as It Lays. She's very interesting. As a journalist and a nonfiction writer, you'd think she would be wed to linear narrative, but her novels are so oddly structured. I've also been reading Chris Kraus: I Love Dick.
Dave: Amy Hempel recommended that recently.
Montgomery: It's a pretty amazing book.
I feel like I'm so traditional. And I really show my education at Iowa, but those people, my teachers: Deborah Eisenberg and Denis Johnson. And Charlie D'Ambrosio wasn't a teacher of mine, but I'm a huge fan of his work. Michael Ondaatje has always been a favorite of mine, as well.
Dave: In grad school, we had to construct an independent study around the work of one author. I wanted to focus on Ondaatje, but they said he didn't have enough books. This was twelve years ago, but I felt like he'd already covered so much ground in terms of form and subject matter that to gauge his output by page count kind of missed the point. The early books, Billy the Kid and Coming through Slaughter, and then In the Skin of a Lion, they're amazing.
Montgomery: He is amazing. I thought it was very funny that at the workshops he couldn't remember parts of his book. That was great. I could see that happening, easily.
Dave: I interviewed him when Anil's Ghost came out, and I remember him talking about continually starting over, using everything you possibly can in writing a book and then being completely bereft when it's done. It sounded as if he was purging himself of all thoughts and ideas with each book. So I can see him forgetting. The way he described it brought to mind some higher state of contemplation.
Montgomery: Were you at his reading at Reed?
Dave: No, I was out of town.
Montgomery: He talked about how he revises. He writes longhand, so each revision he writes out all over again.
A long time ago, he did an interview that we published in the Santa Monica Review, and one of the things he said that really helped me, impressed me, and made a difference in my own writing, was that he worked as a poet, like a poet. He would not write chronologically. He would write all over a book. He would start with a scene and, as a poet would, put pages in a drawer every day. Eventually he would have a book.
At the time, I thought you were supposed to start at the beginning. No. So now I write all over a book. That's how I wrote this book. Longhand scenes, and then you have to start stapling pages together. That's a very important part.
Dave: The stapler as a key tool of prose writers.
Montgomery: To rewrite final drafts, it's the computer, definitely. But for me the main work needs to be done longhand. That tearing apart and rearranging is important.
Lee Montgomery visited the Powells.com ranch on August 16, 2006, in advance of her August 29th reading at Powell's on Burnside.
One day last winter I was having a business lunch at Paragon when I spied the Tin House gang in a nearby booth. When my meeting wrapped up, I crossed the room to say hello. After a few minutes of conversation, Lee asked for my card.
I'd already stepped away from their table when she called me back. "Wait," she said. "Of the Framingham Weiches?"
The previous year, as a joke for family, I'd printed a small batch of business cards with my job title replaced with that phrase.
of the Framingham Weiches
Somehow one had been in my wallet still. "Oh," I muttered, "sorry. That's not really my card. Here, let me..."
"Framingham?" Lee asked.
And thus we discovered that our families back east lived less than a mile apart.
÷ ÷ ÷
Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State