Nicholas Montemarano is the author of the short story collection If the Sky Falls (2005), and the novel A Fine Place (2002). His fiction has been published in Esquire, Zoetrope, DoubleTake, Agni, The Antioch Review, Fence, and many other magazines. His short stories have been cited in The Best American Short Stories for 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2006. He has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Edward F. Albee Foundation. He is Assistant Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Many of the stories in If the Sky Falls deal with violence that feels almost rote, expected, even banal. Cruelty in these stories isn't judged so much as it's presented for our interpretation, or identification. Let me first ask, are you tired of getting asked about how and why your stories are violent?
More often people ask why my stories are so dark. That’s the word they use. Readers seem even more intrigued after they meet me and discover that I’m a happy, well-adjusted, sensitive guy. The truth is, and people think I’m nuts when I say this, I don’t see my stories as dark. All of the stories in the collection are written in the first-person point of view, and so no matter how difficult the subject matter, there’s still that ‘I’ telling the story – there’s life and light in the telling. And if there’s energy and beauty in the prose, which is what I strive for, then there’s light in that too. One of my favorite short stories is “The Patron” by Jayne Anne Phillips from her collection Black Tickets. The subject matter – a dying old man who spends most of the story coughing and gagging; the young man who takes care of him and likes watching porn in his spare time – is pretty dark. But the sentences are beautiful, and that’s enough for me. I don’t finish the story depressed as much as elated. I feel alive and hopeful, despite the grim subject matter. All that said, I can’t deny that I seem to be interested in violence and its aftermath – the evidence is in my stories and even in my first novel, A Fine Place. I suppose I’m not afraid to look at things, especially those things that trouble or frighten me. Most of the stories in my new collection don’t explore violence, but they’re certainly looking at things that can be difficult to look at. No matter what I’m writing about, my intention is never to judge the characters or their actions. Quite the opposite, actually. To not judge.
Outside of, say, school and reading, what life experience would you say has had the most impact on your writing?
Therapy. Without question. I’ve been in therapy for over ten years and it changed everything for me, not just in my life but in my writing. What I discovered, among many other things, sitting in a chair for an hour or two every week, talking about myself, was that my life was interesting and rich and worth writing about. When I was around 27, just before I started writing my first novel, I found myself suddenly writing much more autobiographically than I ever had. I suppose I used to look for my stories somewhere in the ether. Now I was looking inward, which is where I still look. That inclination to look inward, rather than outward, came from practicing every week in therapy. It’s probably why Virginia Woolf is my favorite writer: her novels are so much about the interior lives of her characters.
How did the story “The November Fifteen” come about (in which a group of men are tortured and there is a subsequent commercialization of the tragedy using the symbolic '11/15')?
Some people read this story in Esquire and assumed that it was inspired by Abu Ghraib. It was published in September 2004, only a few months after the Abu Ghraib story broke. I’m sure that’s why Esquire rushed to publish it so soon after accepting it. But the truth is, I started that story a few years earlier. There were two triggers for the story. The first was that I knew someone who was tortured, and I’ll leave it at that. Later, I found myself reading a book about torture, and I couldn’t believe how often it happens and how rarely something is done about it. The second trigger was the one-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I was watching the news, and it seemed like everyone – the media, politicians – was trying to appropriate that tragedy in some way. It bothered me, and I started writing. I’ve written about torture since then, too. It fascinates and angers me that your body can so easily be used as a weapon against you.
In one story, you describe the fatigue and frustration of a home healthcare worker caring for two elderly, severely disabled people. In another, you describe a woman leaving behind her child at the park to teach her a lesson. In another, there is a brother who somewhat reluctantly goes to the aid of his sister who is getting abused by her boyfriend. The common thread in these is a kind of play with the reader's sympathy--your characters being partly, but never simply, sympathetic. Is the idea to make all readers identify, on some level, their own flaws or lack of sympathy?
The most important thing is that characters are never simply one thing or another – they must be complex. Flawed yet sympathetic. Human. If you can pull that off as a writer, you’re doing okay. If readers identify their own flaws, fine. If readers feel sympathy, great. If readers are changed as a result of reading one of my stories, great. But the first goal, before any other, is to make readers read the story. Get them to the last word. Make it so that they can’t stop. What happens during that journey, what emotions are evoked, isn’t something I could predict, and wouldn’t want to, especially not while I’m writing.
What is the earliest creative thing you can remember writing?
A pretty bad story when I was a senior in high school that had something to do with fate, a Twilight Zone type of thing. Guy somehow gets a message – maybe he’s psychic or something, can’t remember – that his sister is going to die in a car accident, so he gets in his car and races to stop her, but in his haste to find her he loses control of the car and hits her, etc. It was rejected by the high school literary magazine, and I remember one of the editors coming up to me – he was a real smug kid – and saying, “Hey Nick, nice try with that story.” Part of me wonders if my ego wanted me to become a writer just to shut that kid up.
What books or writers would you say had the greatest influence on you or on your style?
Virginia Woolf showed me that sentences must be beautiful and that everything can happen even when not much seems to be happening. To the Lighthouse is, in my opinion, the greatest novel ever written in English. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried showed me how much I value emotional honesty and the fine line between fact and fiction, which interests me greatly and keeps showing up in my own work. In general, I’ve always been drawn to writers with distinctive prose styles – writers whose work I would be able to identify even if their stories were published anonymously. Hubert Selby, Jr. didn’t need to sign his name to his work, if he didn’t want to. Steven Millhauser wouldn’t have to. David Means wouldn’t have to. José Saramago wouldn’t have to. You just read the first few sentences and think, Okay, I know who that is.