A Heart Wide Open: An Interview with Nicholas Montemarano by Curtis Smith

Nicholas Montemarano recently published his first memoir, If There Are Any Heavens (2022). He is also the author of a short story collection, If the Sky Falls (2005), and three novels, The Senator’s Children (2017), The Book of Why (2013), and A Fine Place (2002). He has published over forty short stories in magazines including Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, Tin House, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, and AGNI. His writing has won a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He is the Alumni Professor of Creative Writing and Belles Lettres at Franklin & Marshall College.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on If There Are Any Heavens. It was a fascinating and wonderful read. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially in the indie press world. Can you tell us how you wound up working with Persea on this project?

Nicholas Montemarano: My agent submitted If There Are Any Heavens to a combination of larger publishers and reputable independent presses. She was very careful in choosing specific editors who would be likely to connect with this kind of book. Almost every editor who read the manuscript had a positive response. On the one hand, the book is timely—it’s about a pandemic we’re still living through—but on the other hand, it’s a spare, intimate book written in verse, the kind of book some profit-driven publishers might love but “not know what to do with” (as more than a few said). This is one reason why independent publishers like Persea Books are so important: if they love a book, they will find a way to help it reach as many readers as possible. I’m not surprised that the connection happened with Persea because they publish primarily nonfiction and poetry.

CS: This is your first book of nonfiction, correct? In terms of process, do you find the writing of fiction and nonfiction different? Were there any tools in your fiction-writing toolbox that made the task easier? Was there any aspect of nonfiction that you found especially difficult—or especially rewarding?

NM: This is my first book of nonfiction, but I have published short pieces of memoir and nonfiction in The Washington Post Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, DoubleTake, and in a terrific anthology called Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton, 2016). The most obvious difference, in my experience, is that when you publish nonfiction, especially memoir, you’re more vulnerable. I have always enjoyed the way fiction can include and hold truth while imagining around that truth. The reader of fiction never needs to know what’s true and what’s not—though they often seem to want to know. When I teach fiction workshops, I tell my students that writing a great story starts with three things: make me care, make me worry, make me wait. The same holds true when writing memoir. That said, If There Are Any Heavens feels closest to narrative poetry: it’s telling a story with carefully chosen and arranged words, and the lines are broken.

CS: The book was written in a very tight time frame, correct? Can you talk about that period—what it was like and what motivated you? Had you experienced that kind of energy/drive before while working on your fiction? Did writing at this kind of pace bring anything unexpected to your work?

NM: I started writing the book a few days after my mother’s funeral. But I had no idea that I was writing a book. I was simply writing because I had to. I needed to write down what had happened because I didn’t quite believe that it had happened, and because I didn’t want to forget any details. Looking back, I’m not sure how I wrote this book in less than a month—except that I had to. There was no other way this book could have been written. The pace with which I wrote it definitely gives the book a quality of urgency and immediacy. When you write quickly, you’re less likely to censor yourself, and that’s how magic can find its way in. I have had similar experiences writing short stories: it feels as if the story is writing itself and I’m simply trying to keep up.

CS: The book’s structure is unique—it’s a memoir but it also utilizes poetry and stream of consciousness. I’m guessing this is because these structures spoke to what you were feeling/experiencing at the time—or perhaps you chose them because they best reflected the experience. Can you describe how the book’s form came to you? Was it there from the beginning? Or did it emerge once you started writing?

NM: From the moment I wrote the first words, the lines started breaking. It immediately felt organic to the experience. Only as I moved deeper into the book did I make the connection between a line break and a slight pause or half-breath. Given how COVID-19 attacks the lungs and breathing becomes difficult, these pauses throughout the book felt, as I said, organic—even though I wasn’t conscious of the reason behind this choice.

CS: The book is, of course, set in a unique time in our history. Most of the book has a tight focus of you and your family—yet there’s also a larger, wider element—the country as a whole as it navigated the pandemic’s early days. We get some of the time’s confusion and fear—and also some of society’s backlash. I’m interested in this balance between your experiences and this rendering of the larger world. How important was it to you to give your readers both? What did you want it to bring to the book?

NM: It was most important to tell my family’s story—the story of one life lost to the pandemic. But of course as I went about that, there were natural openings for the broader picture, whether a chorus of COVID-19-deniers or anti-maskers or how anxious I was staying in a hotel at the peak of the pandemic in the U.S. The day I drove 600 miles to see my mother just happened to be January 6, 2021, which will forever be known as the day the U.S. Capitol was attacked, and my mother’s funeral just happened to be an hour after Joe Biden became President. So the larger cultural picture, while not the focus, naturally entered the book in glimpses.

CS: I tell my students we all need to make our individual peace when writing creative nonfiction—what we can address and what we want to leave unsaid and the sometimes necessity of roping off sections of our hearts. Did you have to set up any barriers for yourself—or was everything in play? If you did set up some barriers, how did you navigate them?

NM: I definitely did not rope off sections of my heart—though I like that phrase. If anything, my heart was wide open as I wrote. The one thing I didn’t want to take over the book was overt politics. Someone else can write that book, or those books—I’m sure there will be many. My book contains hints of the politics of the pandemic, but its heart remains the loss of my mother and what she and my family went through.

CS: What’s next?

NM: When I finished If There Are Any Heavens, I didn’t know if there would be anything next, to be honest. I felt emptied. But what I’m writing now—I’ll just say that it’s completely unexpected, something I never could have predicted.

Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020. 

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