In Lancaster’s Chestnut Hill Cafe, a coolly comfortable shop on the city’s west end, author and Franklin & Marshall College professor Nicholas Montemarano tells me this is the place he often comes when he needs to get back to the basics. “If I hit a wall or something…if I need to get away from my computer…when I need to go back to writing longhand, I’ll come here,” he says. There’s the old cliche, a stereotype that truthfully applies to a fairly large number of us, that writers only write in coffee-shops. Normally the impetus for this is the atmosphere, the noise, the bustle, the setting which allows one to be within and without. For many, it’s the complimentary Wi-Fi. But for Montemarano, it is an escape from his computer, a return to the foundation of pen to paper, which he uses to break through a writing block.
And it’s been this way for twelve years now. Montemarano began working as a creative writing professor at F&M in 2002, shortly after the publication of his first book, a novel called A Fine Place (Context Books). After four years of commuting between Philly and Lancaster, he moved here. “It has really changed a lot. The arts community has grown tremendously,” he says.
Since receiving his MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2000, Montemarano has published three books. After his debut novel, his short story collection, If The Sky Falls, was published by Louisiana State University Press in 2005. Last year, his novel, The Book of Why, was published by Little Brown. When we sat down a few weeks ago to drink a cup of coffee and chat, Montemarano said he has also finished writing a new collection of short fiction.
His work, and especially his latest novel, tends to pull its tension and structure from plots and themes structured around death. I asked him whether or not he knew where this fascination stems from. He says, “It’s THE subject. This weird situation we find ourselves in, where we appear here, suddenly we’re alive, and then eventually we’re not. It’s the most mysterious, interesting, strange, and—it can be—anxiety-producing thing about life: that it ends.”
In Queens, where the author spent his childhood, his family lived in a neighborhood “surrounded by cemeteries.” He says with a laugh, “The joke is that there are more people buried in Glendale than there are living.” He grew up right around the corner from the same cemetery Harry Houdini is buried in. This setting became the childhood home The Book of Why‘s main character, self-help writer Eric Newborn, who “has this sort of death-obsession as well.”
“So, for sure, I think I have a preoccupation with [death]. Every day, when I open the Times, I turn first to two sections: Obituaries, and Books. Those are the two things I’m really interested in,” says Montemarano. I asked him if this lifelong rumination, this literary grappling with death has made him more anxious or prepared for his inevitable own. He says, “The thing that has moved me very slowly in the direction of death acceptance would be just simply getting older. Having a kid, life experiences—these things have moved me ever so slightly towards the side of acceptance of death. There are a couple of ways to look at death: there’s the anxiety of no longer being, or being here; that doesn’t really bother me as much anymore. The anxiety, for me, is separation from those you care about; that’s the anxiety of death… It’s more about separation and suffering, that’s what is a little bit harder to accept.”
Something that seems to bring all people towards a closer acceptance of their mortal fate is the practice of empathy, an act that Montemarano describes as the real joy of writing (or reading) fiction. In a recent article, the author says, “The most important reason I write stories, and read them, is to practice empathy.” I asked him to expand upon this idea of practicing empathy. He says, “That’s an opportunity we have, as writers. You get to try on the skin of other people through your made-up characters. I know that, for me, if at any point I start to feel that I’m standing above my characters, or I think I’m better than them or something, then I know I need to revise. I need to be able to feel empathy for them, no matter who they are.”
The problem with empathy, however, is that you can never fully know how another person, be they real or imagined, truly feels. We can interpret what we learn and observe about others through our own emotions and experiences, but it is never the same as living as that person. Trying on someone’s skin is not like actually having that skin, and Montemarano acknowledges this, trying hard to gain as complete an understanding of his characters and plights as possible.
For example, he’s currently writing about a character with Parkinson’s Disease. “I don’t know what it’s like to have Parkinson’s,” says Montemarano, “so I’ve been researching, reading books, memoirs.” For years, the author volunteered for hospice and spent time alongside patients who suffered from the disease. He says, “You have to try to find ways to more deeply inhabit that character’s skin.” Because, at the bottom of it, empathy is about recognizing that despite our myriad differences, people are fundamentally the same, which makes the anxiety of death a little bit lighter to carry. “Because,” as Montemarano says, “we’re all in the same boat, and I don’t want to live forever.”
Be sure to check out Montemarano’s latest novel, The Book of Why, and feel free to comment below or email us at thetrianglepa [at gmail] dot com with any questions or ideas for future articles.