Meet Lee Montgomery
As a prolific writer, editor, ghost writer, manuscript consultant, teacher, and more, Lee Montgomery is one of the Attic Institute's beloved writing fellows. In her interview with us, Montgomery talks bout her literary pursuits, her love for Melissa Febos, and her time in the Portland literary community.
How are you?
All is well over here in northeast Portland. A little lonelier and a lot plumper, but all in all OK.
What have you read recently that you really enjoyed?
I am reading Melissa Febos’ Bodywork and loving it. (I love pretty much everything she writes.) I just finished and admired Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso and am attempting (again) Matrix by Lauren Groff. I am a fan of Groff but am having a little difficulty getting into 12th century nuns. I’m off to War and Peace this summer along with this companion piece Tolstoy Together, edited by Yiyun Lee.
What has been your favorite workshop to teach at the Attic?
I love teaching Personal Essay (and Writers’ Lab). Contemporary authors who are exploring personal essay have blown top off narrative—especially women. I think hands down it is some of the most interesting writing today. So it’s great fun introducing students to the possibilities of the form and watching their own life stories come to life.
As a writer working across multiple genres, do you start a new writing project without thinking about how it might be categorized upon publication, or is it the other way around?
This is such a great question. I usually do know what genre I am working. Fiction and nonfiction use different muscles. That said, I often cross over. A great deal of my fiction—my stories for example are all autobiographical. And I have a finished book of essays that I’ve been thinking about changing into stories.
A side note, I never intended to write nonfiction. I learned to write on community newspapers but was wholly committed to writing fiction. Until I wasn’t.
How has your editorial work informed your own writing practice?
My editorial practice…. hmmmm… I love working as an editor and feel I have an intuitive knack in understanding story by authors other than myself. I have decades of experience as an editor and ghostwriter. So, the short answer is I guess I wish I was as smart as a writer as I am as an editor. It may be a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. All to say, I sometimes feel as though I have wood for brains when it comes to evaluating my own work.
I’m sure my editorial work has rubbed off on my writing though I don’t know that it has always been positive. I have many many many pieces stored away because I don’t feel they are quite finished or are not good enough, whatever that means.
When I first started working as an editor at the Iowa Review, I read zillions of stories, and I could tell within the first few pages if it was going to be something for us. Same for my work at the Santa Monica Review and Tin House. There is an energy that I look for. Frank Conroy once described it as how one could feel a soul pressing up against the sentences. I strived to find my unique voice very consciously on early pages.
George Saunders has a simple answer to what makes a good story. He once asked this editor at The New Yorker was editing one of his stories, what he liked about the story. The editor responded: I read one sentence. I like it. I read another.
Saunders has a story club based on his fabulous book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. He breaks stories down brilliantly beat by beat.
How has living and writing in Oregon influenced your work? What has been your experience of the PNW writing community?
The literary scene in Oregon has always been strong and it’s a pleasure to be part of it. Portland Arts and Lectures and Powell’s were two reasons I wanted to come to Portland. The literary community has exploded since I arrived almost 25 years ago. Since then Tin House, Glimmer Train, a myriad of other publications, and a graduate program at PSU and OSU have created a city crawling with writers and why not. It rains all the time in the winter, so the cocoon of clouds creates a fertile atmosphere for reading and writing.
I don’t know that Oregon has influenced my writing. It sounds stupid, but I feel like I’m in exile from New England, a place I grew up and loved. I couldn’t stay for complicated reasons that are hard to articulate. But that’s my work, making sense of those people and that place.
Any advice for writers who want to work in the editorial field or publishing?
People who are interested in working as an editor need to volunteer at a publication or get a graduate degree. At Tin House we hired all our interns. I don’t know what’s happening over there now, but at one point the interns were running the place and had zero credentials beyond their time at Tin House.
Can you explain the process of ghost writing? In your experience, how collaborative has it been? How does writing for another person inform/limit your creative freedom or prose style?
Working as a ghostwriter is like writing fiction. You’re writing through somebody else’s POV. Of course it’s limited, you have to work toward capturing somebody else’s voice and tone. If they say golly gosh darn it, you have to write it. Biggest problem with working as a ghostwriter is not the actual writing—it is dealing with the people who hire you. These folks – celebrity, etc. – can be tricky.
Are you working on any new projects that excite you?
I have a few projects up my sleeve for the summer, but I might just say fuck it and go windsurfing.