Nicholas Montemarano: The Book of Why

Nicholas Montemarano’s latest book, The Book of Why, tells the story of what happens when a believer is put to the ultimate test. Self-help author Eric Newborn preaches the power of a positive mind to heal all. When his wife Cary becomes ill, he loses faith in his belief system and himself. Montemarano asks: How do you go on when your universe has failed you, and how do you choose what to believe next?

INTERVIEWER

You write about some dark stuff. What compels you to write about topics that are so difficult and sometimes really horrible to imagine? {Note: A good example of what we’re talking about is this story.}

MONTEMARANO

I think I tend to write about my fears. In my mind will be worst-case scenarios. I think when you write about your fears or dark things, you’re kind of testing yourself out a bit by seeing what those characters will do in those situations. It’s funny, this book, I feel like—compared to my story collection If The Sky Falls—is lighter. I think there’s a light to this book that there wasn’t always in some of my stories.

INTERVIEWER

As far as writing about the tough parts, how do you snap out of it? After you’ve spent an hour or a day in the mind of someone going through something really difficult, how do you, personally, go back into the world?

MONTEMARANO

It’s hard. Even if I’m writing about something that’s not quite so dark, that transition from being in this imagined world inside your head for hours and suddenly having to re-enter the real world, whether it’s going to teach a class or pick up your kid from school, it’s very, very hard. And the better my writing is going, the deeper I go into that trance state, the harder it is to re-enter real life. There are definitely times when my wife will look over at me and say, “Hey. Are you here? What’s going on?”

But even if I’m writing about something that is difficult or dark, it’s not like I don’t want to leave it behind. It’s on the page. It’s not with me anymore. I can let it go.

INTERVIEWER

Eric’s self-help theories all revolve around positive thinking. How important do you think positive thinking actually is?

MONTEMARANO

I think it’s important to be realistic about life and at any given moment you usually have something positive you can choose to focus your attention on. There are some moments in life when you maybe don’t have something positive to hold onto. If that is your reality—if things are really not going so well, I don’t think it does you any good to pretend that that’s not the case. I think when people try to force positive thinking no matter what they’re really feeling, that’s not a good idea.

That said, the book is about focusing on things that are good in your life…I just feel better if I have an energy that’s like, “Wow, I just had a book published, I’m gonna go and teach a class today with really smart students and get to talk about some of my favorite books, you know, somebody pinch me.” There are days when I’ll be able to focus on that and I do feel better. On those same days I could easily be like, “Oh, my book got a bad review.” Whatever it might be, I think most days you have a choice and that’s a good thing. But it’s got to be authentic.

INTERVIEWER

How many self-help books did you read in preparation for this book?

MONTEMARANO

I read a lot of self-help books, but the catch is that I read most of them on my own for personal reasons before I ever even had any idea about writing this novel. It’s kind of like a private pleasure of mine—a guilty pleasure. I’ve just really always been somebody who reads self-help books. The kind of self-help books I read aren’t the “how-to-lose-thirty-pounds-in-thirty-days kind—they’re very specific to a certain goal. Like Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle or Wayne Dyer—big question spiritual self-help books.

A lot of people see people who read self-help books as people who can’t help themselves. I think a lot of people who read self-help books are very self-reliant. They are actually going to go help themselves by reading a book. I wrote this piece for The Huffington Post a couple weeks back called “Wishful Thinking,” and it was this confession about my secret stash of self-help books. I have a whole box of them, boxes of them in my basement that I don’t really put out on my bookshelves. But to be honest, some of them are actually quite good.

INTERVIEWER

What are you reading right now?

MONTEMARANO

Right now I’m in the middle of reading a book by John Green called The Fault in Our Stars. It’s a young adult novel and I’m not even half way through, but it’s about a young man and a young woman, teenagers who have cancer. Kind of a love story. I read so many amazing things about this novel and I really, really like it so far. I’ve been reading more young adult novels recently than I ever have before. It’s a genre that’s kind of peaceful to me. I’m also reading a kind of self-help book, but it’s the kind of self-help book I just described. It’s called Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and the subtitle of the book is “Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.”

INTERVIEWER

I’m curious how being a dad has changed your writing either content-wise or logistically.

MONTEMARANO

When things change in my life, they inevitably change what I write about. I often have twins in my fiction because I have a twin sister. Once I got married, my stories tended to have more couples who were married in them. When I got a dog, dogs crept up in my fiction, including in The Book of Why.

I hadn’t really written about parenthood so much. I’m working on a new novel now, and it is about parent-child relationships but not a young child. It hasn’t really come in yet, but I know it will at some point.

In terms of how it’s changed my writing life—I was really scared about what it was going do to my writing life and it’s turned out to be the opposite of what I thought. I’ve become more flexible about my habits as a writer. I used to be somebody who thought, “I must write first thing in the morning,” or that if I don’t write first thing in the morning I’ve lost my window, I can’t write at any other time of the day. And now because I have a kid I have less time. I have to write whenever I can, so sometimes it’s the morning, sometimes it might be the late afternoon. It’s actually made me more flexible. I think I’m getting in just as much writing as I used to.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you decide to put your dog Ralph in the book? How did she really get a male name and are any of the other characters also based on real people?

MONTEMARANO

It’s really funny that when fictional characters have traits of real-life people it’s kind of hidden. It might be one little character trait here or there. With Ralph, because she’s a dog and there’s no problem with “what would the person think if you created a character that’s entirely like him or her,” I was just like, I’m gonna have a character be Ralph. Name and everything. I knew the couple in the book were going to have a dog, I knew the dog was going to be like its family in some way. Why not write about a dog I really knew and loved?

How did Ralph get a female name? My wife Nicole got the dog before she met me and so it was her doing. For a while she wanted to get a dog and the circumstances were not right, but she [had an imaginary] dog for a period of time.

INTERVIEWER

So pretty much like in the book?

MONTEMARANO

Yes, just like the book. She had kind of a fake dog and she named it Ralph, and she’d pretend to take it for walks. It was this running joke. [But] she ended up getting a female dog, and she said, “What am I gonna do? I’ve been pretending I have this dog Ralph for so long.” It’s just the perfect name for a dog, Ralph.

INTERVIEWER

I’m curious about Martha’s Vineyard, which is where the book is set, and whether you have a connection to the island or some secret dreams of following in Eric’s footsteps and retiring there some day?

MONTEMARANO

Just like Eric and Cary in the novel, [my wife and I] went to Chilmark on our honeymoon and loved it. It’s very peaceful. I think at the time we fell so in love with Chilmark that we thought, wow, wouldn’t it be great to have a place here and maybe someday when we retire we’ll move here? I’m not sure we think that way anymore. It’s a little too isolated to live full time but we really do love Martha’s Vineyard, especially Chilmark.

INTERVIEWER

You mention in your blog that you’re “in a novel state of mind” right now, as you have been for a few years, rather than short stories. Do you know how that happened and how I can get it to happen to me?

MONTEMARANO

It happened organically. For about ten years after my first book was published as a novel, I wrote nothing but short stories. Some of them ended up in If The Sky Falls and since [then] I’ve probably published another book’s worth of short stories in magazines. I noticed the second batch of short stories were getting longer and longer. A typical story in If The Sky Falls might have been 18 pages or 20 pages. My newer stories were 35, 38, 40 pages long, and I just was feeling an expansion going on inside me in terms of how I was viewing the story. And then suddenly I had writing that couldn’t be contained in 35 or 40 pages.

There were times where I didn’t know if I would ever want to write another novel. I thought my first book would be a novel and every other book after that would be a story collection. But now that I wrote The Book of Why and now that I’m 250 pages into the new novel, I’m very drawn to spending years with characters and really, really just getting to know them. [There’s] something nice about waking up in the morning for three straight years and knowing exactly what you’re working on. Whereas when you’re working on short stories you can finish one and there’s the satisfaction of finishing a story, but then you have to find the new one.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything you can put your finger on that got The Book of Why started?

MONTEMARANO

I’m sure there is something but I can’t remember what it could have been. When I’m working on a novel, I always remember what the trigger for it was and then when I’m finished with it, it’s very hard to remember what the trigger was. It could have been anything really because I was reading so many self-help books and I’d gone to see motivational speakers at various times.

There’s this one writer Wayne Dyer, and for a while he was like my spiritual man crush. He was just a guy that every time I would see him on TV speaking or something, I would leave it on. Any time he had a new book coming out I would check it out. There’s something about his methods that just made me very relaxed. I think I read somewhere that he was kind of sick. I think he had some form of leukemia. It wasn’t something that was going to be life threatening immediately, but it was something to do with his health and he was somebody who was constantly talking about positive thinking, and you just need to connect with a source. Maybe that was part of it too: What happens to somebody who has this belief system—what happens if something terrible happens to him? There have been a number of cases with self-help authors and motivational speakers in recent years who have had their lives take disastrous turns.

INTERVIEWER

How has this book in any way propelled you into the book that you’re now writing?

MONTEMARANO

When I’m working on a book project, especially a novel, at some point later in the process I’ll find myself jotting down ideas, sketching some thoughts and some characters. Another story will start to pull on me. Sometimes several stories will start to pull on me. I’ll write them down in a notebook and go back to the novel I’m working on, and then the closer and closer I get to finishing that novel, those other stories will start to pull on me even more and one of them will usually emerge and be like, “I’m the one. You should be writing this.”

After you write a novel and you’re able to finish it, the one thing it gives you is confidence that you can do it again.

Interview conducted by Lindsey Silken, who reviews books made of paper.

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