Monday, February 11, 2019

Sonja Mongar: The IAN Interview

Sonja Mongar teaches creative non-fiction, journalism and professional writing part-time in the Western Connecticut State Low Residency MFA program. She is a journalist, photographer, indie songwriter and blues harmonica player. Former incarnations include retired tenured professor of English from the University of Puerto Rico. She currently divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and South Florida. Her first novel, Two Spoons of Bitter, was published under her indie imprint – Paradise Alley Publishing in Spokane, WA on her mothers 81ST birthday, June 3, 2018.

IAN: Please tell us about your latest book.
Sonja Mongar: Where do you run to escape your past?
Art therapist Ella Donovan says good-bye for good to the alcoholic grandmother who raised her and the cold, Podunk Minnesota town she grew up in. She arrives in a charming, antebellum city of colorful bridges and gleamingbeaches for a dream job working with teen addicts. But not all is as it seems in a place where the Confederate flag still flies over the downtown courthouse. Nearly unhinged by a boss who wants her to fail, Southern gentleman who aren’t so gentlemanly and a corrupt social service system complicated by an escalating AIDS crisis, Ella struggles to find her footing. Just when she thinks she’s mastered it all, family secrets threaten to uproot the very foundation of her identity. Two Spoons of Bitter explores the legacy of generations of betrayal and unfinished business. Ella must excavate her deepest wounds in order to redeem the past and heal her own life.
IAN: Is Two Spoons of Bitter published in print, e-book or both?

Sonja Mongar: Both

IAN: Where can we go to buy Two Spoons of Bitter?

IAN: What inspired you to write Two Spoons of Bitter?

Sonja Mongar: A diary I kept when I managed services for People Living With AIDS who were also recovering addicts inspired two Spoons of Bitter. I worked at a government rehab at the height of the 90s AIDS crisis in a small, coastal Southern city – the “buckle” of the Bible belt. I came into it a bit naïve – idealistic and was soon shocked by the level of agency corruption steeped in homophobia and antebellum-style racism among other abuses. My team and I confronted it publically but this was long before the current level of social consciousness and outrage. Things became very difficult for us. In solidarity, we resigned. I was also a freelance journalist at the time writing about music and the arts and really wanted to write something big exposing the corruption as well as the horrors of AIDS and its tragic human stories - to give the victims a voice.

Of course this manuscript has had many incarnations. Though it retains aspects of its roots - it’s a completely different story.

IAN: What is the process you went through to write and publish?

Sonja Mongar: I used the rough diary manuscript, entitled Myths From the Underbelly, as a portfolio to enroll in a grad program in creative non-fiction to polish my writing skills. But the program directed me more towards writing autobiographical stories. After I earned my MA, still feeling like I hadn’t yet found myself as a writer, I enrolled in an MFA program and finally worked through a creative non-fiction version of the original story entitled, It Works Like That. But it was a “hard story” and writing programs at the time were not dealing well with trauma on the page. The common consensus was to turn hard stories into fiction. But I wasn’t a fiction writer and I felt like fictionalizing it was a betrayal to the real people and events. After I graduated, I turned to a tenured position teaching creative writing and composition at the University of Puerto Rico. But it was all I could do to keep my head above water with the pressures of academia. It Works Like That sat in a box under siege by tropical termites and mold for more than a decade.  

I took early retirement after thirteen years because of an illness and moved to Spokane, WA. For the next four years, I tapped away at the story on my computer - sometimes doing nothing for months – sometimes going without sleep and writing non-stop for days. I was also coping with a debilitating autoimmune disorder, along with the loss of my job, which included a loss of status, income and stability. Julia Cameron, who suffered all her life with a bipolar disorder kept me sane with The Artist’s Way. “Morning pages” cleared the emotional fog and the “artist’s date,” which was mostly many long walks under gray skies along the Spokane River gorge kept blood flowing to the brain.

When I finished the book, I sent it out to a few agents who, in turn, didn’t even have the courtesy to send me a rejection letter. Publishing had become so much more inaccessible than I had remembered. Did I really want to spend several years in this dance? Did I want this story published or not? Having facilitated dozens of indie publishing projects including an arts and literary magazine; having worked as an indie musician as well as an arts-music-poetry producer over two decades, I knew I could do it myself. Twenty-three years after I first penned my diary – I found a local designer and printer (because I wanted to keep the dollars in my community) and published my novel. Holding my book in my hand for the first time was what I imagined it must feel like to be pregnant and not know until suddenly presented with a squalling baby.

IAN: What were the challenges? Writing Real Life as Fiction…

Sonja Mongar: IMAGINATION: Though my field, Creative Non-fiction, incorporates fiction craft, fiction felt dangerous without the facts to guide it. I rode some harrowing emotional rollercoasters - stared into the abyss each time the story took unexpected twists and turns and stubborn characters grew minds of their own.

CHARACTERIZATION & DIALOGUE: This was especially true with two very unlikeable minor characters, which weren’t even in the original story. Ty Riley - a racist, womanizing, ex-football player and Arlin McKnight – a destructive, black Vietnam veteran crack addict. Arlin actually has the most profound transformation and even becomes heroic in his own way. Interestingly, readers mention Ty as a sequel. Perhaps signs of the times? They seem to want some sort of resolution to his toxic masculinity.

Ella’s wise-cracking – truth Tourette’s colleague, Jo Gaetano, was by far my favorite character to write but maintaining her character consistently all the way through the book required a lot of attention to every act and everything that came out of her mouth. This was true of all the characters, further complicated by the three distinct English dialects: Midwest, Southern white and Southern black; as well as Spanish and Italian language and lots of 90s and Southern slang and idioms. Admittedly, the first drafts were overwritten. It was an insightful colleague who luckily became my mentor, who helped me see that merely reminding the reader every so often of Midwest colloquialisms in dialogue for instance - was enough.

I think Ella was all about the “what ifs.” What if you were faced with all those overwhelming events and actually learned from them and changed and grew and figured out your own heart and how to live your life consciously when you were 21 instead of 51? Ella is a lot smarter than I was at her age. A nod to the younger generation coming up behind us. They have so much more wisdom and so many more tools and resources. They have names for the shame - the things our mothers and grandmothers kept secret when we were their age.

TRUTH: Being a journalist, I believe truth comes from facts. But so much time had passed. My original diary was cryptic at best. All the people I knew had moved on. One of the things I learned when studying, teaching and writing Creative Non-fiction is that even in non-fiction and to some extent in journalism - truth is a construct. For instance, when I wrote my Creative Non-fiction thesis – about growing up with my mother, four siblings, and a violent, mentally ill father - family members accused me of making things up. Indeed, five children growing up in the same home had five different memories of the same events; five different points of view. Memory is predictably unreliable. It exists in our minds like dreams – more symbolic than factual. All dialogue is a lie, for instance. The heart of a story – the truth of a story – the meaning of a story - according to writer, Patricia Hampl, is not what we remember but why we remember it that way. 

PROTAGONIST: Another challenge was letting go of “Sonja” as the protagonist. I was literally in the way with all my baggage – biases – agendas –needs - desires. I failed terribly at being unflinchingly honest under the scrutiny of the pen. First rule of any character – no one is all-good – no one is all-bad. I shifted from first-person to third-person limited point of view. I also changed the protagonist’s name to Ella (because of its many ambiguous meanings,) and made her an idealistic, naïve, twenty-one year old woman who has to overcome her past.

GENRE: I did not want to write genre fiction and especially not romance or young/new adult. But with such a young protagonist, it was a battle especially when I introduced Ty Riley into her life. I wrote adult literary contemporary fiction with strong socio-political themes. I really had to work to not let them slide into romantic mundanity. The story moves slower that genre fiction – takes time to develop. There was moment I worried that readers had changed so much they wouldn’t bother to stick with it. But I was wrong.

SEX SCENES: I didn’t want sex scenes to read as gratuitous. Of the two sex scenes - one borders on violence but I didn’t want to distract from the story. Ella focuses on exterior things – the crackle of the car radio playing a country western song, the tick of the clock, the headlights passing outside forming shadowy images on the headliner.

POINT OF VIEW: The whole prologue is written in second person “you” to heighten the emotional impact. Other key moments as well. The challenge was to be effectively consistent as well as identify parallel moments in the plot where it worked.

COPYRIGHTS: Use of music lyrics are limited by copyright laws. I had the designer find compatible musical note fonts and placed them with a few key words from a lyric – not enough to be construed as violating the law but enough to give the sound and sense of the song and music.

LEGAL ISSUES: I studied the laws regarding defamation and invasion of privacy, etc. Just changing someone’s name was not enough. I was also worried about offending people I once knew who might recognize parts of the story, which made me push the story harder.

FIELD RESEARCH: Just before I put the finishing touches to the novel, I drove down to Rosalia, WA – a little railroad town I had once lived in back when it was a busy railroad hub. It was a cold windy day and the street was deserted – the only sound was the snapping of the American flag on the flagpole. I shot photographs – and made notes and went home and rewrote the chapter of Ella’s return to LaRouge, MN and her dying grandmother. I had also taken a “field research” trip on the train from Spokane to Chicago a couple years earlier. It passes right along the Upper Mississippi River and past a string of Podunk railroad towns, which inspired La Rouge. I took photographs then too but was especially interested in catching snippets of Midwest dialect and sensibility. I call this method writing and teach this in my courses. Like method acting it’s a way to get into the character and the moment by putting myself there physically.

WWW RESEARCH: Culture, dialect, languages, food, music, regional idioms, and geography among others. It did help that I had lived in the South almost twenty years and I was a native Midwesterner from Montana.

LOGISTICAL: At about 100 pages, MS Word was a nightmare. I switched to Scrivener, which allowed me to build the story a scene at a time and move easily through the manuscript. I could also add all my photos, Internet links and field notes for easy reference.

IAN: How did you come up with the title?

Sonja Mongar: The story had three titles. The first, Myths from the Underbelly, was inspired by Eric Begosian’s Notes from the Underground – a diary structured fictional tale of an urban introvert with first world problems of his own making –which I was reading at the time. Juxtaposed to what I was seeing everyday – vulnerable people being treated cruelly by caregivers and others dying horrible deaths from AIDS posed too much of a paradox. This was real life - the real life that happens in the shadows, well hidden from self-absorbed society. Later, I learned Begosian was troping Dostoevsky’s novel of the same title.

It Works Like That was the second title – a nod to RUN D.M.C.’s song – It’s Like That. It’s sort of a fatalistic theme reflected in the fatalism connected to addiction.

Two Spoons of Bitter evolved from some of my own family backstory, which I drew upon to create Ella and her family. It got me thinking about how destructive paradigms are passed from generation to generation. We live by these invisible rules and never question them. Like when my grandpa used to say – “two teaspoons of bitter for every tea spoon of sweet.” He had a hard life so he came to expect to lose every good thing – to be always tainted by the bitter – a fatalistic point of view that played out in much of my family – don’t try too hard – don’t want too much - don’t think too much of yourself. I thought it would be a good title because Ella will not survive unless she names and rejects this family legacy of failure.

IAN: How much of Two Spoons of Bitter is realistic?

Sonja Mongar: Two Spoons of Bitter is a work of fiction. It draws on my own fragments of memory and imagination and talent for invention. Fiction  - but  - completely realistic.

Blanchard is a made-up antebellum coastal city where the confederate flag still flies over the courthouse and La Rouge is a made-up dying railroad town in Minnesota – but I’ve lived in both of them. The Majestic really existed – back in the 40s in a little Podunk railroad town called Three Forks, Montana where my mother grew up. Grand Ma – Ella’s grandmother is sort of a composite of my grandmothers – two of whom were waitresses. It really intrigued me that my third great grandmother, who was also a Methodist abolitionist and suffragette before the Civil War signed her letters “Grand Ma.” I found that intriguing. Grandmothers hold the world together by sheer will and the sinew of their bones – they are also the keepers of the secrets, which is why I dedicated the book: “for our grandmothers.”

IAN: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

Sonja Mongar: James Michener. I read all his books when I was a housewife/mother – while I folded towels and changed diapers. This was long before I ever went back to school and I imagined myself a writer. He mesmerized me by the level of detail in his settings, the history, the geography, the cultural details. I was a diligent researcher too. I wanted to give it the best level of realism possible.

IAN: Do you see writing as a career?

Sonja Mongar: No. Maybe once I thought it could be but there was a lot of selling my soul involved and very little money. Writing is my art. My passion. Something carefully sketched, painted, sculpted, shaped and rendered – taking as much time as needed to create the masterpiece. I’ve always said – especially when I teach the creative process – the art is in the making - it’s about the process not the product. I actually get annoyed when I see entities advertising some shake and bake version of writing and publishing. Or pushing directives to write for your audience, or just to please publishers or agents. Fortunately, the indie publishing industry is shaking all that up. That’s why I coined the phrase for my publishing company – Indie publishing IS resistance!

IAN: Who designed the cover?

Sonja Mongar: I gave two friends who were illustrators - copies of the book to read. I was interested in their experience of the story and how they might translate it into an image. It didn’t work out. 

I cut up some magazines and made some montages as well as tried to buy some images online and do some digital mock ups. Failures. Finally, I scrolled through my thousands of photographs and found one of the Williston, ND train yard. I was laid over there on the Amtrak because of flooding. I had originally shot the photo out of the rain-spattered window. I turned it sepia. With Preview (Apple) I added text in a typewriter font and took it to my book designer. He set it up. I gave him another one of my photographs of a palm tree and he blended it into the design for the back creating a subtle sense of the two worlds Ella lives between.

The wonderful thing about working with a designer and printer in my community – I was total in control of the entire layout and design. His first draft – almost 95,000 words – was barely two hundred pages long, which was so crowded it gave me a headache to look at. Of course, the first concern a printer has is paper. But saving print costs was destroying rhythm, the beats of the story. It’s as much about the words as it is about the pauses. The spaces. The silences. After changing the template to a more spacey layout  – the book ended up a pleasing, readable 350 pages which increased the cost of the book about one dollar.

IAN: Do you have any advice for other writers?

Sonja Mongar: Advice is a guide – not absolute. Trust yourself.

IAN: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Sonja Mongar: Two Spoons of Bitter has something for everyone because it’s about what we mean to each other without all the barriers and social constructs. It’s about the resiliency of the human spirit. Where do you find hope and redemption and healing? It’s always right here within us, bound in the great capacities of the human heart. The true key to survival of humankind in these difficult times will ultimately be about love and compassion above all.

IAN: Tell us about your next book or a work in progress. Is it a sequel or a stand-alone?

Sonja Mongar: Riders of the Dust (working title) is a stand-alone novel – a 1920s Montana Western featuring a female protagonist.

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