Kassandra Montag: Poetry to Prose with Debut Novel
|Nicholas E. Barron||Sep 3, 2019|
Kassandra Montag shows up on Google as a poet. But that may need to change.
Montag is the author of After the Flood: A Novel. The book is available for sale starting today (paid link).
Montag's publisher, HarperCollins, bought the publishing rights for After the Flood at the London Book Fair last year. And production company Chernin Entertainment bought the TV rights to After the Flood.
It's the kind of debut about which writers dream. And it could be the launch of a career that will change Google's identification of Kassandra Montag from poet to novelist.
After the Flood is a post-apocalyptic novel set in Nebraska in 2130. A flood has turned the Earth into an archipelago of mountaintops. Myra and her young daughter join a large ship to search for Myra's other daughter.
In the interview below, Kassandra Montag talks about growing up in Nebraska, moving from poetry to prose writing, and the After the Flood TV show.
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Q&A with Kassandra Montag
What was it like being a creative child growing up in a rural area?
It was wonderful and at times, humiliating. Wonderful because I lived near a river that served as both a sanctuary and a conduit for my imagination, giving me security and space and stimulation to create. Humiliating because to admit that you’re creative in a place where pragmatism is one of the highest values, there can be this sense that something is wrong with you.
In kindergarten, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told the class I wanted to be an artist. My teacher laughed. Later, my teacher told my mother about my aspiration with concern, as if I’d told her I wanted to be something as impossible as a mermaid.
That being said, I was lucky to find people in my town who were immensely supportive and nurturing to me.
How does your background influence your writing?
My background primarily influences my writing in my obsession with the natural world and animals. After the Flood deals with an environmental catastrophe of global scope and it was delightful to imagine what the natural world would look like once it was transformed.
My main character also spends a fair bit of time engaged in survivalist activities. While I was never a survivalist, I do have memories from a more rural childhood that informed the book: chopping wood in the winter, building campfires in the spring, and fishing in the summer with my brother.
Who were some early influences on your writing?
Don Welch was a local poet who mentored me in my writing. He was a retired professor who still had a mailbox at the local university where he used to teach and I attended. I’d drop off several new poems in his mailbox each week and he’d write comments on them and I’d pick them up when I deposited new poems.
Later, we began meeting in person to discuss not just my work, but other books and poets he recommended to me. It was the best education I can imagine for a young writer, very much a master and apprentice type of model, and I’ll always be grateful to him.
As a younger teenager, some earlier influences were Greek mythology and frontier stories of adventure, such as those by Jack London. I also remember being particularly fond of The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.
Kassandra Montag on After the Flood
From where did the concept for After the Flood come?
It came from the confluence of a dream, an image, and a line in my journal. The dream was of a wave of water coming across the prairie, all the way from the oceans, a flood that spanned the whole continent.
After having this dream, I saw the image of a mother on a boat in a future flooded world, sailing with one daughter, but separated from her other daughter.
Years before I had the flood dream, I had another image that kept recurring in my mind’s eye and that I detailed in my journal: “A group of people huddle around a campfire, struggling to survive and looking for a safe haven.” These two storylines, of a mother separated from her daughter in a flood, and a group of people trying to survive, began to brush up against each other, suggesting possibilities.
What role, if any, do you think being a mother played in your writing of After the Flood?
The imagery of a global flood and changed landscape was a transparent metaphor for my anxieties about becoming a mother. Specifically, my anxieties about what world I was bringing my child into and how I could navigate the increasingly disparate responsibilities I felt.
Responsibilities that seemed at times in opposition to one another—such as how to be a mother and how to maintain my identity I’d had in the larger world.
I also found that being a mother while writing about a mother helped my writing be more nuanced in an organic way. As a mother, Myra, isn’t always just sentimental and loving toward her daughters. She has moments of ambivalence and rage. She realizes that becoming a mother has ushered her into a new way of life, while also making her aware of just how fast her own life is passing.
How did you react when you got the news that Harper Collins purchased the publishing rights to After the Flood?
When I got the call I was crouching up in my attic, high enough up to get a signal (the rental I lived in didn’t have cell phone reception) and low enough to keep an eye on my bickering toddlers on the main floor below through an open staircase. I told my agent I couldn’t believe it.
When the call dropped from bad reception, my kids were screeching for their supper so I went and prepared it. It felt like my ears were ringing.
Any insight or info you can share about any TV or film production of After the Flood?
It is in development as a TV series with Chernin Entertainment, who is also partnering with Margot Robbie’s production company. The magnificent Linda Woolverton is adapting it, which is thrilling for me because I’m a huge fan of her work (she wrote the original Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland). Apple has bought the rights.
Going Poetry to Prose
What was the transition like for you from poetry to prose?
Very challenging. Poetry doesn’t function as straightforward communication in the same way prose does; it is not primarily a transfer of information.
One of the difficulties in moving to prose after writing poetry is in learning to lean toward movement more than stillness. Poetry will often take a single moment and expand it, letting the reader drop more deeply into that moment. In contrast, prose moves from event to event in a chain of cause and effect.
To transition, I spent time studying storytelling in general—from novels to movies and television. I also spent time thinking about adaptations and the differences between story and plot—how we can tell the same story in different ways.
Any advice for writers thinking about making a similar transition from poetry to prose?
I’d recommend writers wanting to make the leap from poetry to prose to study structure and plot and characterization in their favorite books. In particular, pay attention to narrative momentum and pacing and how the narration leads the reader forward through the story. In general, consider not just how to evoke the scene (which poets tend to do well already), but what is happening and what characters want. And then, practice, practice, practice.
Have you read any good books lately?
Circe by Madeleine Miller, Upstream by Mary Oliver, Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, We have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Anything else you'd like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about Kassandra Montag or your work?
Something that has affected my reading and writing habits was the process of learning to trust in my own tastes. Own your preferences; never let anyone make you feel silly for what you enjoy.
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