Interview by Leslie Lindsay
In a way, all spaces are haunted. In a way, all spaces are about memory. In Halfway From Home (Split/Lip Press; November 8, 2022), a lyric essay collection by English professor and author Sarah Fawn Montgomery, readers are invited to sit and feel and think and remember. Throughout this nonlinear collection, Montgomery explores how we try to preserve our lives in things—in our homes, our forests, our oceans, our bodies. Her writing—her use of language—is at once brilliant and visceral, “rolling sentences in my mouth like bright berries,” and when she describes a wasp’s nest like that of a ‘womb, a wound,’ I found myself tremulous.
What began as a collection of nostalgia carved out in the recesses of time, Halfway from Home is a blend of autobiography, social and cultural critique, about searching for home during a time of emotional and environmental collapse.
With chapters titled “excavation,” “in search of nostalgia,” “chronostasis,’ and ‘something from nothing,’ one gets a sense of the way one may try to summon remembrance, while in the dearth of a pandemic. With a poet’s precision, Montgomery leads us through fossil beds and tangled grass prairies of Nebraska, stomps through snow and sleet and ripe berries of New England, and meanders fragrant orchards and tidepools and monarch butterflies of California. She polishes rocks and digs in dirt, revealing miniature worlds.
Montgomery uses a common convention in creative nonfiction where the writer has a personal passage followed by a scholarly-type passage expounding on the main theme of the previous passage, in which ideas and motifs circle back. Montgomery takes a tedious task of braiding research with emotion, creating a strong foundation for affective or sentimental attachment to the rest of her story.
Like Montgomery, I found myself creatively moored during the pandemic. While I suddenly had ‘more time,’ my attention was divided; writing was hard to come by. I began contemplating permanence; time. The paradoxes of humanity crept into my thoughts as did the concept of ‘home,’ an obsession that has remained before and after; this idea that we are all haunted by the past—and perhaps, the present, too.
Leslie Lindsay: Halfway From Home begins with “Excavation,” in a sort of vignette style essay in which you list ‘dig sites,’: your childhood backyard, perhaps with your father, a fence builder, and the treasures you unearth. I found this such a sentimental way to start the collection: earth, fathers, trinkets. You’re building a world here—for the collection and the essay—in a sense, beginning with the end. How does this essay connect to the rest of the collection?
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: I’ve always had a fascination with digging, with getting beneath the surface to unearth the story below. This was fueled by watching my father excavate earth as a fence builder, as well as by digging in my childhood treasure hole and finding all sorts of natural wonders and human artifacts. Halfway from Home is a collection about digging through the past in order to understand where we come from and where we might be headed. It’s about unearthing precious memories, family secrets, our own shames, our shared histories and hopes. It’s about trying to memorialize what is gone and trying to preserve what is still here. The act of digging, of turning to the natural world to cultivate curiosity is something that extends throughout the collection, which explores trying to find yourself by losing yourself in place—the coasts of California, the prairies of Nebraska, the tangled forests of Massachusetts.
The wonder we feel as children is easily buried by the burdens of the world if we are not careful, so I wanted to preserve this sense of exploration and discovery by weaving the child’s perspective and voice throughout this opening essay and the collection. The child who collects what she pulls from the earth—stones and shells, beads and bones—eventually becomes the adult who is still digging through natural and human history to understand where she comes from and where she is going. This is a collection about watching personal and political worlds change until they are unrecognizable. It is a collection about endings—of homes, families, natural worlds. This essay and the collection sift through the strata of memory and longing to try and uncover artifacts that display, the fragmented cohesion of our lives.
LL: I want to talk about this idea of a fence builder for moment, because that carries a very emotional and metaphorical weight. Your father built fences for a living, he also was obsessed with creating more space. In way, those concepts are a paradox: expand or contain. And yet, expansion, in terms of biology is about survival.
SFM: This collection is very much about my father, who taught me to dig and to build a home. As a fence builder, he constructed the borders and boundaries that made the world make sense. I’m from a small community and my father built the majority of the fences in our county during his 30 years of construction, so growing up it seemed as though he built my entire world. This mythos impacted me greatly—respect for boundaries at the same time that I understood that a fence border only stretched so far underground, that a fence, unless well-constructed, would not stand forever. Though his work, my father taught me paradox—contain but expand, boundaries but boundless.
He did the same at home. Our working-class roots and unusual family (I am one of eight siblings ranging in age from 50 to 15, many adopted from various families) meant that we were always trying to make something from nothing, always trying to survive on what we had. My father built rooms within rooms in our family home in order to fit everyone, but each time the number of rooms grew, the space shrunk. As a result, my sense of home was associated with security but also scarcity, with comfort but also chaos, with the idea that overnight my family could double with new adoptions or the many adults in need my parents allowed to stay with us over the years. Home was a place of permanence and impermanence, a place where my role and identity was always shifting.
These are the ideas that govern the book. How do we understand ourselves when our identities and the landscapes that contain us are constantly in flux? How do we build a home when our histories can be harmful? How do we contain the stories of our lives across great stretches of time or place? How can we contain our collective grief to sustain ourselves through hard times while also sharing our stories in order to make meaningful change? How does memory create the borders of our lives and what happens when the fences we have constructed around ourselves for purpose and protection come falling down or simply wear away with time?
LL: Would you say your father—and maybe you in these pages—were in the process of building a home when those connections are being stripped away? Is it about ‘making meaningful connections when we’re all ‘just hanging by a thread?’
SFM: Absolutely. This collection is a search for a place or time, a person or version of yourself to call home when our personal, political, and environment worlds are collapsing. My nontraditional family structure was my parents’ attempt to build connection despite the fragmentation of so many biological families and so many histories of addiction and abuse. My journey to find home has been much the same. In many ways, my search and this collection mirror my family structure—fragments brought together to form cohesion, an attempt to build connection at the same time that connection is being destroyed.
And this extends beyond my father or my family. It is increasingly impossible for many in this country to make a home when ownership is reserved for the privileged, when paying rent is a struggle, when the safety of home can be taken away—by inflation, by illness, by natural disaster—at any moment. It is hard to find connection in a social and political climate that continues to separate us from one another, when we are physically separated due to a pandemic, when even the natural world is disappearing beneath our feet.
But as much as Halfway from Home is about disconnection, it also about hope. It is possible to connect to ourselves, to connect to others, to connect with natural and human histories, to connect with the environments in which we live. We can’t feel at home or at peace when we are disconnected from place and our role within it. In order to understand ourselves, we must seek to understand our communities and to extend this understanding outward to others and even back in time to see where fragmentation first began so we can work to build a sustainable world for ourselves and others in the future.
LL: I found myself haunted while reading Halfway From Home. The images and motifs came to me in dreams, they followed me throughout the day. I dwelled in the silence, the deaths, the overdoses, the doom. I felt tangled in the root systems, attacked by the wasps. I felt sparkling bits of dust on my skin; it was a visceral read. Instead of abandoning darker passages, you expanded on them. You reimagined place. Can you talk about that, please, this idea of being haunted?
SFM: I’m so glad these images resonated! Longing, yearning, and nostalgia are a kind of haunting. Memories are spirits that return to us time and again, a presence we feel for reasons we do not always understand, specters that inform our past and present and have the power to shape our future if we do not confront them. I have always been haunted by bittersweet memories of childhood, but I am increasingly haunted by the encroaching darkness. This collection is about witnessing my family struggle with violence and addiction and illness, and about the ways trauma can transform people into strangers. It is also about witnessing our social and political landscapes actively destroyed in recent years and the struggle to imagine a future during so much devastation. And it is about being haunted when the places I’ve called home are impacted by climate change. Now California is helpless to fire, Nebraska endures months of tornados, and Massachusetts is ravaged by winter storms that leaves us abandoned in the cold and dark for too long each brutal winter.
But we cannot navigate darkness unless we explore it. While I certainly explore the beauties of my family—picking bright berries with my parents as a child or pulling treasures from the earth—I also have to shine a light on the darkness that haunts our family tree. I cannot know how we are to grow if I don’t get underground to examine our roots, the many secrets and shames we have buried. And I can’t share the abundance of the places I’ve lived if I don’t also examine how and why they are now in peril. As much as this is a book about things that are gone, it is also a book about what remains, for hauntings are also a kind of hope.
LL: I want to shift to this concept of time. What is time? Is it a vessel? A voice? A clock? A passage? A photograph? Did any of these objects inform your writing? What about other, non-tangible things…is time a sigh, a gasp, a fragment?
SFM: All these things! Time is a construct, a myth made of all the objects we use to mark its passing, and all the abstractions—yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness—we’ve created to understand our longing for more of it. I’ve always been fascinated by time, by the way it is both meaningful and meaningless, by the way we live our lives by its passing yet so often fail to honor the past, live in the present, or prepare for the future.
Time is one of the central themes woven throughout the collection, the voice of a child juxtaposed with that of an adult, natural and human histories examined alongside the present, memories presented as artifacts of time. One essay, for example, explores the invention of clocks and various timepieces throughout history alongside an examination of the ways children learn to tell time and how our perception of times shifts as we age, adults perceiving time going more quickly than it does when we are children and a golden summer or afternoon stretches slow and seemingly forever. I also have an essay about reflections and photographs, and the ways these capture time while also evading it, for both photos and mirrors do not reveal a true image, and the time it takes for us to perceive the image means that we and the world have already changed.
Time influenced my craft as well as my content. I wrote much of this book during the early months of the pandemic, when time was limitless but seemed fragmented. Like many, I was sick with nostalgia, missing my home and my family and the many lives I’d lived before the social, political, and environmental worlds started to fray. I struggled to make meaning of the new world, so I wrote in fragments, sections, weaving memories across great stretches of time together in a way that made sense of my past, allowed me to cope with the present, and tried to give me faith for the future.
LL: Finally, in an attempt to draw personal and professional boundaries, you reorient yourself from west to east, traveling from California to Nebraska to Massachusetts for your education, your career. Now, in the Boston area, you are physically located as far from your origin as possible. I’m mulling over this idea of west to east. West to East. WE. It’s a way of reinvention, or rearranging, and perhaps: repurposing but also reattaching, reimaging. I find that poetic and powerful.
SFM: Movement has always been tied to education for me. As a first-gen student, I attended college very close to home, but then moved further away in California for my MFA, and further still to Nebraska for my PhD. Now as a professor in Massachusetts, I live more miles away from my parents than those that divide the width of the country. While I grieve the distance that exists between me and my first home, I also credit movement with my sense of security, for in many ways I have escaped my family’s struggles with violence and addiction, illness and increasing financial insecurity.
I have been fortunate enough to carve out a life and a career that I could never have imagined when I was a child in my tiny town with no stoplights, no stores, just a railroad rattling to somewhere better and fires that swept across the dusty land each year. Mine was a place where no one ever left and yet I have built a life around leaving in order to begin again.
As I write in the book, endings have always overwhelmed me with grief and nostalgia and longing, and so movement has been a way to reimagine life as full of beginnings, promise, hope. I cannot stop the places or people I love from ending, but I can reimage conclusions as introductions, leaving as discovering. But this doesn’t mean I turn my back on any of the selves I have been or the places I have called home—even though the place where I live in Massachusetts is the curve of land that reaches into the ocean as if to escape, it also curves back home to California, as if pointing the way back to my roots.