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MFA Spotlight: Margaret Montet

Margaret Montet writes travel narratives woven with memoir, culture, research, and conversations. She is a college librarian who teaches wickedly sophisticated Music History courses to older adults. Her work has been published in Library Journal, Solo Travel Network, Mature Years, America in WWII, Edible Jersey, and Danse Macabre Magazine.

Margaret Montet

"Not much happens in Cape May Point unless you know where to watch." Your opening line from "My Precious Cape May Point" is a wonderful hook for the reader. How do you find your perfect opening line when travel writing?

I spend a lot of time on first lines. I read somewhere that the opening line of a piece is like a hand extended to the reader, and I take that very seriously. I often look at the first lines in a collection of essays, compare them, and try to predict what path the narrative might take. I’m delighted when the story is nothing like what I expected. When I create my own first lines, I ask myself what parts of this journey will interest the reader, what might be the most unique part of my story, and what personal connection I might have. Then I try to incorporate some of those into my first line while leaving plenty of surprises for the narrative. This is one of my favorites: “As the café’s Gypsy band played Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ my cousin’s son proposed to his girlfriend and presented her with my Aunt Grace’s antique engagement ring.” I did not witness this event, but it was told to me, and that is how I got into my essay about images of Prague.

In both "My Precious Cape May Point" and "Memories of Kindness on the Danube," you address the reader as "you." Do you feel that travel writing lends to this familiar voice?

Besides my travel experiences, my travel essays are often inspired by lectures I present to the community or short three-week courses I teach at retirement villages. Sometimes it works the opposite way:  my essays inspire the lectures or courses. Therefore, I am always thinking of my “audience,” whether that is a group of people in an auditorium or community room, or the readers who may encounter my work. That’s where the familiar “you” comes from, because I am imagining telling my story to real people. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes about his connection between speaking and writing and that he is conscious of his lecture audience when he writes. He said that most of his published writing was spoken first, and so he is very aware of language as spoken language. My connection between speaking and writing is similar.

When choosing to include dialogue in your writing, do you feel that dialogue must be verbatim from the speaker? How much influence might you feel is fair for a non-fiction writer to give themselves for perspective and memory? (How exact must truth be?)

The dialogue in my writing must be as close to verbatim as I can recall. It’s not practical for me to carry a notebook and pencil (or mobile device) everywhere I go and request a time-out so that I can jot down a great quote. If the speaker of the quote is available to me later, I can ask to reconstruct the quote. Often they don’t remember exactly what they said, either. Otherwise, I’m satisfied to signal the reader that I am recollecting with no guarantee of complete accuracy by introducing the quote with, “Jeanne said something like ‘……’”.

How do you decide which details to include to set your location? How do you discern what will pinpoint a reader to an exact place and time?

I spend considerable time deciding on features of a place that are unique. For example, Mid-Atlantic beachgoers are probably familiar with my hometown of Cape May, New Jersey, as a beach town, but people outside the region might not know it as such, or that this city has a spectacular collection of Victorian architecture. Because of its location at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, it played an important role in World War II and a German submarine was sunk just off our coast near the end of the war. Facts like that go a long way to describe the geography, history, and culture of a place, and what the tourism leaders choose to curate for visitors. The cluster of Mozarts outside the Vienna Opera, the yellow bridges over Pittsburgh’s three rivers, and the statues of saints on Prague’s Charles Bridge are details which further pinpoint the location. Music is my favorite device for telegraphing time to the reader: Johann Strauss waltzes for fin de siècle Vienna, Glenn Miller’s big band arrangements of swing tunes for World War II, and suave Duke Ellington tunes for the Harlem Renaissance.

"... the town’s specialty, some kind of alcoholic apricot jam" from "Memories of Kindness on the Danube" is both very specific and also an unnamed brand. How do you strike this balance in your writing between the specific and the general?

I thought it was important for readers to know what was inside those jam jars:  apricots mixed with alcohol called Drunken Apricot Jam. That product may not be unique to the town of Dürnstein, but it was celebrated there. I actually couldn’t recall the labels from the jars and what the brand name might have been. On that walking tour, I was distracted by my sister’s sudden back problem and getting her back to the ship, so I didn’t think to take out my notebook to jot down the jam name or other details. I think my not reporting more information about the jam might signal to the reader there was something else going on besides the tour at that moment which took my focus away.

Your travel writing braids poignant narratives and scenic locations. How might you decide how much time to focus on the people, the events, the place itself, and the things found specifically in that place?

This is a delicate balance, which might not feel right to me until the third or fourth draft. Once I think I have achieved a good balance, I’ll read the piece aloud to myself, another person, or even my dog! Many times my last edits come from those readings because I can hear when the piece is unbalanced or descriptions are not clear. I focus on the unique features or experiences in a place. For example, if I wrote that I went to the beach on a summer day and it was hot and dolphins swam by, a reader would not be compelled to read on. But if I wrote that I went to the beach and saw a large bird tangled in fishing line, and a man who looked like my late father came out of nowhere to hold the bird’s wings out while another man cut the line with his knife, the reader would be more interested. The dolphins are still interesting, but they have faded into the background and won’t get as many words. The unique experience of the father lookalike helping to save the bird would get the focus. I’m very conscious of form and usually use some kind of mind map, storyboard, or other graphic organizer to fit my ideas together and figure out connections, links, and hierarchies. Sometimes I count words just to analyze lengths of sections. Regardless of which organizing techniques I’ve used, the ultimate refinement comes when I read the piece aloud.

Do you find that the place or the narrative rouses your interest before the other or are they inevitably linked from origin? How much do you find that setting relies on narrative? (And the opposite?)

When I’m reading the travel works of others, it could be either place or narrative that attracts me. Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux could go anywhere and I’ll read what they write because they are such talented storytellers. If I have a connection to a place or a strong desire to go there, I might be drawn in by the location. Sometimes narratives about a place where I know I’ll never visit peak my interest. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams falls into this category. I am not going there. With my own writing, I may be attracted to a place just to experience a culture or climate different to what I’m used to (Granada, Spain), or I might have an essay idea and strategize relevant locations (historic homes in Concord, Massachusetts). I just like to go to places I’ve never been!


Interview Credit:  Rachel A. Phelps
Photo Credit:  Brian Johnstone