Joseph Monninger Interview by Tavia Gilbert
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to present an exclusive interview with novelist Joseph Monninger. Joseph is the author of several award-winning young adult novels and three nonfiction books, including the memoir Home Waters. His writings have appeared in Scientific American, Readers Digest, Glamour, Playboy, the Boston Globe, and Sports Illustrated, among others. Joseph was awarded two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and is a teacher in New Hampshire. Conducting the interview is Tavia Gilbert, an AudioFile Earphones and Parents’ Choice Award winner and recipient of multiple Audie® Award nominations. She is a producer, writer, and narrator—and is narrating Joseph’s latest novel, Margaret from Maine. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version simultaneously with the hardcover on December 24, 2012.
TAVIA GILBERT: Welcome, Joseph. Thank you so much for taking some time to join us today. It’s such an honor and a pleasure to get to talk to you. Congratulations on the release of Margaret from Maine, which was a lovely, lovely story. For those listeners who aren’t yet familiar with it, can you tell them a little about the storyline?
JOSEPH MONNINGER: Sure. Margaret from Maine is a story about a woman in Maine who is married to a man who was shot in Afghanistan. He’s injured to the point where he’s in a vegetative state. As a result, she is living on a dairy farm with her son and the man’s father—the boy’s grandfather. She receives a request to go to Washington for a bill-signing ceremony for greater care for wounded veterans. She goes, and along the way meets Charlie King, who she kind of has a hankering for. So the story becomes what do you do in that case and what’s your obligation to your husband, what’s your obligation to society, and how do you make yourself happy?
TG: Can you tell me what inspired this novel?
JM: It’s interesting. Most of what I write comes from sounds. I know that sounds a little peculiar, but I once read a long time ago where somebody asked, “Do you see what you write or do you hear what you write?” and I almost always hear what I write. It’s as if a voice is speaking to me. So typically I begin a novel sort of searching for a voice that intrigues me and interests me, and in this novel, the opening of the novel is actually about her husband being injured, and that sound came through very strongly, and I was able to write that scene rather quickly. Then I thought, “Well, who is this man married to, and what happens as a result of this injury to him?” So that inspired the story.
TG: That’s so interesting that sound would be a jumping-off point. It sounds like the sound inspires a scene, and then you develop the plot from there. Is that true, or do you have the plot, location, all of those details in mind as you begin to write?
JM: A little of all those things. I mean, obviously most writers are looking for a story. We’re always looking for a story. We’re looking for the plot, which is then, and then, and then … if we’re all sitting around a campfire, we all want to know what happens next, what happens next. But of course, a novel requires characterization. It requires characters and setting, so we need to put a character under pressure. That’s what I’m always trying to do. So I try to take a character who is an everyday sort of character who suddenly comes under pressure and has to make moral decisions—decisions about how to go forward. Whether they’re moral or not is a whole other question.
TG: I love the questions that the characters in this story grapple with, and when I first read through it to prepare for the audiobook, it felt like it was a quiet story, and then when I narrated it, there was so much tension, so much pressure. Not that I’d missed it in the first reading, but it became so much more alive as I voiced it. The plot is interesting in the way you create pressure. You’ve got this opening scene that is a war scene, but then the pressure that you put your characters under is a much more internal, subtler tension, I think. Would you agree with that?
JM: I hope so. I often live with the Alfred Hitchcock line that says, “Two people having tea is an interesting story but put a bomb underneath the tea table and it becomes really interesting.” The bomb could be metaphorical obviously. It could be something that’s not from outside—it can be inside—and as a result of that, Margaret, who has all the good impulses, and is a good mom and a good person, has to wrestle with what to do under these circumstances and how does she go forward. Do we sacrifice our own life for somebody else? And that’s kind of what happens.
TG: There’s a paragraph that I marked that’s one of my favorite moments in the book. It’s when Blake is talking to Margaret’s father-in-law, Grandpa Ben, and she’s watching him try the nut on the bolt on the tractor, and she’s marveling that Grandpa Ben had been a boy once, had been a young man, had had his days, and she wonders why she had never seen him in that light before. And it’s such a beautiful, simple moment that you’ve captured that I think extrapolates to the rest of the book that people, no matter what age, no matter what circumstance, have this life in them, have this fire and this drive, and even while her husband is lying in this bed in a coma, he’s still alive. And she’s wrestling with how does she honor the life of this man who’s not alive in the way he used to be. Do you think that is the central question—how do we honor a life? Our own? Each other’s?
JM: I think it is, and thank you for that scene because that scene meant a lot to me. In fact, out of the book, it’s probably one of my favorite scenes. It’s a very small moment. It’s not about two of the main characters, it’s about two of the side characters, but I think in that small scene, all of the themes of the book come home to roost. It’s a friend of Margaret’s who comes over and meets Ben. Ben is a kind, gentle old man who has in some ways made his own sacrifices to provide a life for these people, and she sees what he goes through every day, and she wonders aloud: “What’s the payoff for him? What does he get out of all this?” Let’s be honest. We all wonder that about our lives. We all have those moments where we wonder, “Well, what are we doing here? What is the purpose of this?” And that’s implicit in that scene. I appreciate you picking that up because I like that scene a lot.
TG: Me too. I had to take a moment because it brought tears to my eyes. It was just a beautiful scene. Nature is clearly a very big part of your life, a passion in your life. On your website you mention that you’re a fly fisherman, you have taken a bicycle tour across Europe, have sailed near the Great Barrier Reef. What draws you to the outdoors and nature, and what is the relationship of that to your writing life?
JM: It’s interesting. I’m spending a semester abroad here in Ireland as we’re doing this interview, and I love Ireland. Ireland is just a gorgeous, gorgeous place with lovely people and wonderful cultural moments, and we hear traditional music and there is great food and different things, but I still miss nature in the sense that America has nature. Ireland has beautiful seascapes and everything else, but there is a wildness and an ability to get into nature in the United States that I’ve never found anywhere else in my travels. Just knowing that driving at night you might run into a moose or see a deer, it’s just all around us, and I think most Americans would go along with this, unless they live in a city. We don’t really appreciate how much country we have, how much land we have around us, and I’m drawn to that. I can’t imagine living without that. Does it influence my writing? I suppose it does in some sense. How it does is a little more difficult to pinpoint. Faulkner always said you write in the morning, you walk in the afternoon, and you drink at night. I don’t follow that recipe exactly, but I know what he was talking about.
TG: I really enjoyed the descriptions of Maine. Even though the story doesn’t take place exclusively in Maine, it was really a delight to see the natural world of Maine and then all of the travels that Charlie and Margaret take integrated into the plot. You have been not only a writer and a teacher but you have been an outdoor person—a fishing guide, Peace Corps volunteer, a dogsled musher. It seems like you are drawn not only in your writing but in your working life to be outside and outdoors. You just said that it’s hard to quantify how that’s influenced your writing, but do you feel that the outdoors and natural settings and work in nature weaves its way through all of your writing?
JM: It definitely does. When I think of stories, I never ever, ever, ever think of a city story—although I grew up in New Jersey, not that far from New York, and my dad worked in New York, and I had experience going into New York. I lived in New York for a very brief time. It would never occur to me to set a story in a cityscape, and I guess actually your question is prompting me to wonder why I never think about doing that. Whenever I’m in the city, if I have to go to New York for business or different things, I’m always waiting for the time when I can get out of there. And much of my family still lives in New Jersey and New York, but it seems to me that life is suspended while I’m there, and then to go back to nature is what I’m waiting to do. I’m not a kind of what we used to call an old, you know, “back-to-earth” or anything else. I live in a perfectly nice house, but I always want to get back outside. I don’t know why that is exactly.
TG: Let’s talk a little bit about Faulkner’s prescription for the writing life, that you write in the morning. What’s your writing life like? What is your writing process?
JM: I wake up very early—I used to wake up earlier than I do now—but I used to wake up at five o’clock in the morning and write a thousand words a day. And I’ve been writing a thousand words a day, with exceptions—with a few vacations here and there, and Christmas, and different times that I don’t—every day of my life for the last forty years. So I get up and I write, and to me it’s like jogging or it’s like exercise or yoga or anything else: I get up and I do it. I have a small cabin out in my backyard. I live in a rural part of New Hampshire and my son had a play fort. He was done with it, so I said, “Can I take it over?” And he said, “I don’t care,” so I insulated it, put a wood stove in there, and now I go out there every morning. It’s a three-minute walk from my house and has a spectacular view over the mountains, and I go out there and I work at a standing desk—I always stand up—and I try to write a thousand words every day. I’ve always got a project to work on. I’m always working to find the next story, the next scene, what’s going on, and I’ve become pretty expert at stopping at a point where I think my subconscious will work a little bit on the story the next day. So that’s more or less what I do, and then I have a bunch of procedures about how to handle manuscripts and what to do and the stages that a manuscript has to take. I love it. I can’t imagine not doing it. I just read an article in the New York Times about Philip Roth, who’s a wonderful, wonderful writer and one I admire—
JM: —greatly, and it was about his retirement. He’s been very prolific and has written wonderful books and worked very hard, and he stopped. And I was very curious, and I guess it had never occurred to me that I actually could stop. It was interesting to read his reflections. He seems to be handling it pretty well. I was quite moved by the end of that just because I know a little bit of what his struggles might be in that he talks about how he can no longer take the idea of writing whatever it was, five hundred words for the entire day, sitting at a desk for three or four hours, or whatever it might be, writing five hundred words and then looking at them later that afternoon and realizing they’re all lousy and he needs to go back and junk them and trade them. So that’s what writing is. I mean, we all kind of grow up with this romantic idea. We get too much Hemingway and sort of the expatriate experience in Paris. There’s a famous line from Trollope. It says something like this: “It’s dogged as does it,” which is a weird way to phrase it, but that’s when you listen to it. “It’s dogged as does it.” In other words, you have to be dogged about it. You have to just keep going at it over and over and over again. And so it’s never just completely clean. You don’t go from page one to page three hundred. It just doesn’t happen that way, so while you’re finishing one novel, you’re doing proofs on the novel that’s coming out soon, and somebody’s sending you a book jacket, you have to look at that. It’s never as clean and as easy as you want it to be, but at the same time it has these amazing rewards.
TG: You’ve alluded to the fact that you’ve always got something coming up. Can you tell us anything about your next project?
JM: Well, yes. Actually, I’m working on a book I’m calling The Great Summer. I don’t know whether that’s good or not. Titles are horrible. Titles are very, very difficult to come up with. But it’s again a similar story in some ways. More a story … I believe a lot of people who fall in love for a second time and get married for a second time also fall in love with the children of the people that they are falling in love with. So it’s a package deal, you’re not just falling in love, in this case, with a woman or, in a woman’s case, with just a man, but they’re bringing along family members and children. So this is a story about three people really. It’s about a man, a woman, and a young boy who’s experienced an injury. And he’s in recovery, he’s okay, but it’s not coming along that easily. So this is the story of this man’s intervention in their lives and what becomes of it, and I haven’t finished it yet, so I don’t know exactly what happens, but that’s the general setup. And again, it’s set in Maine, and it’s set on water, and it’s got fly fishing.
TG: Interesting. You’ve also mentioned two authors, Trollope and Faulkner. Who is your biggest influence as a writer?
JM: Wow, that’s always a tough question. If I’m completely honest, if I really go back to where I became interested in writing, I’d have to go back to something like Jack London and The Call of the Wild. I was not a super big reader as a little boy, although by the time I got to be twelve or thirteen, I became a reader, and my dad put The Call of the Wild and a number of what we used to call “boys’ books” in my hands. And I plowed right through those immediately. The Hardy Boys, I loved those kinds of things. I loved comic books, I loved Sports Illustrated, lots and lots of stories about sports athletes and about big games and all those kinds of things. Those things mesmerized me, but a book that nobody reads any more or very few people read that just completely blew me away was a book called Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett, who was a British writer, and he grew up in India, and he lived in the jungle and went in to rid villages of man-eating tigers.
JM: And it was a nonfiction thing, and I’ve read since then that this guy was a remarkable man, and those stories transported me in a way that no other read ever has.
TG: How wonderful, and it seems to have some touches of what’s going on in your own writing. There’s nature and conflict.
JM: Well, you do have to have a tiger too, right, in every story. There were certain stories as a kid that just took me away. It’s interesting to me, I know The Hobbit is about to come out soon, but that was certainly a book—The Hobbit and then the trilogy afterwards—were a sequence of books that just took me away, transported me away from my everyday life. So that’s the kind of book that I’ve always been grateful for. Whether they influence me as a writer, probably not as much. In other words, I don’t think their writing informed my writing quite as much, but the storytelling thing was just so compelling.
TG: I’m fascinated that you’re so entranced with books from your childhood, but I’m wondering if there are differences for you between the way you write for adults and the way you write for young-adult audiences. You have several young-adult novels. Are there ways that you approach it differently?
JM: The answer to that is yes and no. In other words it’s still writing. Every bit of writing that I’ve ever done is still writing. Even if it’s trying to write an article for a newspaper, it’s still writing, so you’re wrestling with the same materials in a way but you’re aiming at a different audience. I always use the example, if you talked about last weekend and you talked to your minister or your rabbi, your best friend, your mother, there are three different stories you’re going to tell about that weekend as a result of the audience. So when I focus toward a young-adult audience one of the things that I’ve been doing and wanting to have come across is 1) I want nothing electrical in there or very little, just the minimal, 2) I want it to be about animals because I have a great love of animals and the rapport between children and animals I think is one of the glorious things that we get to experience, and I want them to be uplifting stories, I hope that they’re not hokey—I aim not to make them hokey, but for young adults, I think they hear enough cynicism and everything else. Yes, life can be tough, but there are these small moments of beauty that are worth capturing. So that’s what I aim at for the young adult. And I also aim at similar things for the adult things, but they take longer to get to, I think. That’s one of the beauties of young adult. I heard somebody actually say about young adults, “It’s the same things as adults, they just don’t suck as much.”
TG: That is so true. (laughing) I completely agree and I enjoy so much finding opportunities to read young-adult books because it reminds me of when people didn’t suck so much. Well, I really am so grateful for your time and I won’t keep you anymore, although I could talk to you for so much longer and ask you so many more questions, but I’m so grateful to have a chance to speak with you and really it was such a pleasure to narrate your book. It was one of the most lovely projects that I’ve been honored to narrate, so thank you for writing and please keep writing more.
JM: Thank you.
GROVER GARDNER: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Joseph Monninger and Tavia Gilbert. You can find Margaret from Maine and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in November 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Margaret from Maine
Brought together by war, separated by duty—a love story for the ages by an author hailed as “Henry David Thoreau meets Nicholas Sparks” (Publishers Weekly)
Margaret Kennedy lives on a dairy farm in rural Maine. Her husband, Thomas, was injured in a war overseas, and he will never again be the man he was. When the president signs a bill in support of wounded veterans, Margaret is invited to the nation’s capital. Charlie King, a handsome Foreign Service officer, volunteers to escort her.
As the rhododendrons blossom along the Blue Ridge Highway, the unlikely pair falls in love—but Margaret cannot ignore the tug of her marriage vows.
Like Nicholas Sparks’ Dear John, Joseph Monninger’s Margaret from Maine is a page-turning romance that poignantly explores the dilemmas faced by those who serve our country—and the men and women who love them.