A Sit-down with Lon K. Montag

Montag sat down for a lengthy Q&A session yesterday where he addressed questions about himself, his work, art generally, and much more. 

–   Q: From your biographical blurb, it looks like you’ve been all over the place.  But The Dichotomy really focuses on the Southwest.  Was there any particular reason you chose that area, or was it just the one you were the most familiar with?

–  A: I think that a good story can be transposed to different times or places and the core of it will remain essentially the same though the details might change.  The Dichotomy is literally based on a dream I once had many years ago (well, three quarters of the first chapter are based on a dream, anyway).  The rest of the book is me just taking that idea and running with it.  To answer your question, the dream made very specific use of location and I didn’t see any need to change that when I put it to paper years later.  I think that there are some qualities which are very specific to the Southwest and I really drew on those, but I do believe that The Dichotomy could have taken place pretty much anywhere and still remained fundamentally the same.

–  Q: Your cast of characters is fairly diverse – your heroes are a white man, an Asian woman, and a black man romantically linked with a white woman.  But you don’t seem to take the opportunity to explore any social issues.  Why not?

–  A: Social issues are obviously very important since they affect us all, but when I sat down to write The Dichotomy, I was concerned with exploring the different facets of humanity that are revealed when we come face-to-face with fantastic and horrifying adversity.  I wrote a short essay recently which drew on Flannery O’Connor’s claim that we come to know who we are fundamentally only when we’re thrust into extraordinary circumstances (more specifically, violent ones); I think that what she says is largely true, though I wouldn’t agree that violence is the only sort of extraordinary circumstance that serves this function.  So in a sense, I wanted to explore some more fundamental themes and issues (which are, frankly, more interesting to me).

Also, I would say that I have a real hesitance to explore social issues in any sort of obvious way; I think that the temptation to really propagandize and proselytize is too strong when one tries to use fiction as a means of making a social or philosophical point.  I also wrote a short essay about this a few years ago; Sartre thought that fiction should be of service toward the end of making change in the world, of advancing particular philosophies or causes, and I think that idea gets things all wrong; as I wrote, writing in that way is inauthentic and manipulative.  I don’t mean to say that authors shouldn’t explore social issues, generally, only that they need to be careful to stay true to the characters and stories they tell; they need to resist the urge to manipulate characters and events like puppets.  A story, if it’s to be efficacious, needs readers to become invested in its characters; as such, an author needs to make use of real people (who just happen to inhabit a different, fictional world).  If an author fails to do this, then the work is robbed of its poignancy (since the characters in this case become paper thin stand-ins); or, worse, the work lies to us by making us feel for these lifelike constructions (when they’re really artifices which exist just to make a point).

–  Q: Are you at all concerned about the deeper intellectual talk going over the heads of some readers?

–  A: No.  Good works of art can be appreciated on many levels.  And the best ones are those which get better the more you read them, because you pick up on more.  I hope that The Dichotomy is first and foremost entertaining, entirely independently of any of the intellectual jargon going on.  And I hope that it’s something which gets richer upon re-readings and continues to offer people more as they engage with it on different levels.

–  Q: Lou seems to be a really haunted guy.  There’s a lot of loss in his past, and you’ve written some really poignant scenes dealing with those losses (as well as losses of other characters).  Why is this such a prominent theme?

–  A: I couldn’t tell ya’ [laughs].  I didn’t intend to focus on these things, it just happened.  I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but there’s a point where, after you’ve sat down to create something, the creative juices really begin to flow; at that point, you fade into the periphery and the story takes over.  For me it’s like watching a movie, sometimes from the perspective of the protagonist, sometimes from an anonymous third person observer.  And things just happen to the characters and I transcribe it and only later do I see the intellectual and thematic links in events.

One of my favorite writers, Stephen King, said, in his book On Writing, that the creative process is like an archaeological excavation.  You discover the tip of an artifact and you work to slowly uncover more of the thing, a little bit at a time; only after you’ve uncovered the entire object do you see how everything is connected.  The subconscious works in such smart and mysterious ways; a lot of the connections you might see in The Dichotomy were actually written without too much conscious intentionality.  Of course once the first draft was done I went and tightened things up, though.

–  Q: A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction deals with the breakdown of society as a whole – Mad Max, Book of Eli, The Road, that kind of thing.  But your protagonists only run into one other survivor in the whole book; it’s much more about their individual, internal struggles.  Was that a conscious choice on your part, or is that just how the work evolved?

–  A: Half and half, I think.  The world’s been ravaged by some otherworldly creatures who have as their primary goal the destruction of the human race; so, by all rights, there shouldn’t be many survivors.  I think this nature of the threat puts this story in a slightly different class than others, like the ones you mentioned, which bring about destruction almost incidentally (due to natural disasters or war or large-scale accidents, bad socio-economic policies, and what-have-you).  Small correction, though: the protagonists run into two survivors [smiles].

–  Q: What led you to write this in second-person present tense?  It’s such an unusual voice.

–  A: I think that style is a very important choice; and if you’re going to do something unconventional and potentially distracting, then it really needs to be in service of the story; it has to be the case that the story just wouldn’t be best told in any other way.  And I really feel that way about using the second person perspective.  Maybe it has something to do with the way this story first came about, in that dream, as I mentioned earlier.  The dream was rather like a first-person shooter, and I guess I want the reader to have the same experience I had; and I think the second-person is more efficacious in that regard because it has more immediacy and intimacy.  You’re not reading about an “I” which is different from yourself; it’s not someone telling you what happened to them, it’s someone telling you what happened to you.  And I think that the fact that Lou has amnesia really suits the second person POV because there are things he doesn’t know which the reader doesn’t know either, so there’s a parallelism going there.  So I think the POV is serving an important function…On the flip side, it probably also has a higher chance of alienating the reader (who might feel like, “You isn’t me” or “I’m reading a choose-your-own adventure, here!”).  I’ve been told by a few people that I ought to change point-of-view and I’ve gotten a good amount of negative feedback about that choice.  But I believe in my story and I hope that more people feel that I made the right choice than don’t.

I will say this, though: my next novel won’t be in the second person! [laughs]

–  Q: The book has such strong religious themes, I can’t resist asking, what kind of role does religion play in your life?

–  A: I’ve always been fascinated with big questions; that’s why I studied philosophy and religion.  As I was getting closer to the denouement of the book, I realized I was going to have to reveal the nature of these horrifying creatures and I wanted to transcend clear cut, black and white morality and present some really complex creatures.  I’d been studying jinn recently around that time, so they were fresh in my mind; and since they fit all of the criteria I required, they became a sort of forgone conclusion.

As far as the other religious motifs, which get a little deeper as the book goes on, I’d had someone very close to me going through a very hard time and many of the issues I wrote about were related to that.  Ultimately, I’m not proselytizing or advocating a particular religion (which I think is indisputable, seeing as how I made use of themes and ideas from Judeo-Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism), but I do think that it’s important for people to have rich spiritual/religious lives.

To finally get around to answering your question, though [smiles]: the study of religion, and the issues religions deal with, occupy a large part of my time and mind.

–  Q: There are strong overtones from a lot of different genres here – not least of which is Western – yet you market it primarily as horror.  Care to comment?

–  A: You’re right to pick up on the mishmash of genres.  My first two beta readers independently described it as sci-fi, interestingly enough, which was a surprise to me!  In all honesty, I think there’s definitely a “western” element to the story; there’s also a dash of fantasy and arguably a bit of sci-fi as well as the obvious horror overtones.  Honestly, when I sat down to write it, I was interested in doing horror but as I progressed, I just became interested in writing a good story.  I would be content to just call it “literature” (though I might be flattering myself there) [laughs].  Seriously, though, I think the subject matter’s a little too fantastic for that.  And I’ve found that it’s hard to really make an impact if you can’t box yourself in a little bit and give people a hook to grab onto; so I picked the genre which seems to reflect the work best, inadequate as it might be.

I’ll tell you, though, I really like the idea of constructing a new genre which, by definition, encompasses multiple combinations of other genres.  It would have to pick out a common theme, obviously, because we’d need something to hang our hats on.

–  Q: One final question.  Page 13.  Your hero, Lou Carter – wears briefs?

–  A: [laughs] Hey, if you were going to fight some post-apocalyptic horrors, you’d need support too.

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