Dede Montgomery's deep roots in the Pacific Northwest inspire her writing, first in her 2017 memoir, My Music Man, and now in her debut novel, Beyond the Ripples.
Dede recently talked with Rose City Reader about her new book, community, and what comes next:
How would you describe your new book, Beyond the Ripples?
Ultimately, this book explores the connections formed between people. I believe that the universe works in a way that offers us multitudes of opportunities to connect and experience others, especially when we pay attention. Beyond the Ripples is also about the power of friendship, and the regrets and choices dotting family relationships. It is about secrets and how we all are given opportunities to forgive, learn, love, and move on. My own childhood act of writing a note, putting it in a bottle, and launching it into the Willamette River gave me the initial inspiration for the beginning of the novel. While an older man living downriver did answer my letter, this novel allowed me to imagine what else could come from something as simple as answering a letter from someone you don’t know.
What is your professional or personal background and how did it lead to you writing fiction?
I come from generations of writers, including my grandfather (history-filled books like The White Headed Eagle), my great-great-grandfather J.K. Gill (of J.K. Gill Company) and my dad, a journalist. I have always loved to write, and while my writing skills have been important to support my work in my technical career, it hasn’t been my main thing. When I was young I did want to write a book, but college, graduate school, and my career took me in another direction, although I have always actively journaled.
Five years ago, when my dad died, I began writing my memoir (My Music Man, BInk Publishing, 2017). Prior to writing this memoir, I would not have imagined that I had a novel “inside” me. Yet, writing memoir, while staying as true to facts as my memories allowed, helped me understand how I could now use my own creativity to develop a new and fictional story. It has been a beautiful, fulfilling process for me, and the best thing I could have done during my mid-life journey.
There is a theme of human connectedness that runs through the story in Beyond the Ripples. How does that theme manifest itself in your new book and are there other themes you tried to bring out?
Not only does this theme manifest itself in how the characters meet and relate to each other, but since writing this I consistently notice connections, or opportunities for connecting with others, that I am not sure I would have paid attention to before. By reaching out and talking or asking or noticing, I have connected with people who have added great richness to my life, and sometimes make remarkable serendipitous discoveries (for example, striking a conversation on the bus with a man who worked for my grandfather and with my dad long ago.) There are so many lonely people in our society today – and many of us frequently feel isolated at times. By opening ourselves up more we can add to a richness in life.
Other themes in Beyond the Ripples explore secrets and forgiveness, relationships between mothers and daughters, and daughter and fathers, and my belief that it is never too late to work toward a better place with someone.
Did you know right away, or have an idea, how you were going to end the story? Or did it come to you as you were in the process of writing?
I wrote the first two chapters of the book without really knowing what would happen. I knew how it had to start. After finishing those early draft chapters, I scribbled some notes to myself about the things I knew would have to happen to keep the story moving, but without a lot of detail. The details came as I wrote. It was a very organic process and one of the most exciting and engaging experiences I have ever had.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I learned, or perhaps better recognized, how intrigued I am with people. The way my characters feel, and trying to show that, is an important part of my writing craft. Throughout the writing of this book I would observe people around me and think to myself – “that’s just like Amelia,” or some sort thing related to my characters as they do live in my head. I was most surprised at how this book (as with my memoir) simply jumped out of me. I absolutely could not force myself not to write. Sometimes I wonder if having a day job made it almost easier to avoid “writer’s block” because I had so much in me that when I finally got that time early morning or late night or weekends I barely had enough time to get it down. Many times I would stop during my bike or bus commute to work, pull out my phone, and dictate a sentence or paragraph so it would still be there later. The other thing I only now have learned is to spend more time on selecting character names in future writing. I very much relied on instinct for my chosen character names, and think I would have benefited from giving more thought to those decisions.
Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up? What sorts of books did you have in the house?
Books were very important to my family, going back many generations. I have a chapter in My Music Man called “Books.” I have been very fortunate to have grown up with access to libraries and shelves of books in our homes. Some of our books, especially those of my dad’s, addressed Pacific Northwest history. We certainly had the classics. Many of our books had been in family for awhile. Toward the end of my dad’s life, one of my favorite things was to pick up the books he had ordered from the library and then guess on a couple of other titles for him.
As a kid, I read most anything and everything, except I never tried a single Nancy Drew mystery, and I rarely read science fiction. When I was eleven or so, I ran out of reading material once and took The Catcher in the Rye off the shelf. I didn’t fully understand it, but I read it cover to cover. I drowned out the noise and commotion of four brothers, my parent’s early marital challenges, and growing up without neighbors my age or gender, by keeping my nose in a book. I loved the Little House and Box Car Children series, some of the traditional classics, but spent a lot of my pre-teen and teen years trying to read every fictional book I could find about people experiencing injustice. The library was one of my most favorite places, and most of the books I read in childhood were from school or public libraries. It always felt like a very big deal when the Scholastic Monthly book lists came out, and I got to order a book or two.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
It’s a bit embarrassing, but I’m not always great about remembering the titles and authors of all of the books I have read. Years ago, I started a paper list (before computer-based tracking or platforms like GoodReads) but it started to feel cumbersome and exhausting. A few times I’ve started a book only to realize I had already read it! My lifetime favorite authors are Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Kate Atkinson, Lisa See…..this gets hard, as there are so many! I like authors who make you work a bit and would like to think that influences my writing as well. I definitely enjoy character-driven books more than plot driven, and pretty certain that is the way I write.
What are you reading now?
I recently finished The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers, and felt it was one of the best books I had read in a long while. He was a new author for me, so just the other day I began Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement. I also have begun Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, but take breaks for other reads.
You have a terrific website and blog and are also on Facebook and Twitter. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?
I began my blog/website almost three years ago when I signed the contract for My Music Man. I felt the writing practice would be good for me and I knew it was important to somehow attract some “interest” in me or my writing. I found how freeing it was, since I lead up a professional blog within my workplace at OHSU, which I enjoy, but must stay focused on its relationship to our work mission. Since beginning my personal blog (Musings on Life in Oregon) I have enjoyed blogging 2-3 times per month and never seem to run out of ideas for content. Unfortunately, I think it’s keeping me from moving very fast or far on my third project/book.
In today’s world, social media can feel like a curse in that it sucks time, and is also so easy to compare yourself with others who may be finding more “success” than you, or at least look like it. I’d much rather have a face-to-face conversation with someone, or spend that time reading. Yet, with the dizzying number of books out there an author has to use SM to try to get noticed, especially if you either have a small press and/or no agent. It’s mostly free and some of the other promotion alternatives can cost more than your book sales might bring in. Did I say I am thankful for a day job that I love most of the time?
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
I’ve finished the last of my scheduled readings until next March, although I hope to schedule some more. I have a book group or two to meet with which I really enjoy, and will also be at several upcoming book events and art festivals. You can learn more about the specifics of my events on the events page of my website. I would love to meet with book groups that have read Beyond the Ripples, as I am finding that to a most satisfying part of this experience.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
This is a great question I keep asking myself! I have started a bit of work on two very different projects, and find myself waiting for that tiny voice in my head to help me decide which should be next. The first is a sequel to Beyond the Ripples. The second is a reworking of my blog content and poetry into an e-book. Stay tuned!
BEYOND THE RIPPLES IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT!