Sonja Mongar, author of “Two Spoons Of Bitter”

#YourNextBeachRead is a way to introduce you to a new author and their works in the hopes that you’ll find the next book you want to take with you to the beach, the pool, or the comforts of air conditioning.

Today’s featured author is Sonja Mongar, author of Two Spoons Of Bitter.

What’s your name and where are you from?

Sonja Mongar. I was born in Montana but have lived all over the US including Puerto Rico and also Canada.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

7-26 - Sonja Mongar author photoI went back to university in my early forties, after a divorce, and studied journalism — started writing and publishing. I had intended to pursue it as a career, but was struggling to support myself. While I was still freelancing, I went to grad school, studied creative non-fiction and started teaching. That led to my tenured teaching position at the University of Puerto Rico. I really struggled to write and publish while I was teaching because of the demands of academia. It wasn’t until I took early retirement and was recovering from an illness that I really dug in and fulfilled my desire to write. That’s when I finally finished Two Spoons Of Bitter, my first novel last year. For a while, I felt like I had lost all that writing time teaching but I realize now I was in a process that left me with tons of materials and numerous projects in the works.

Who are some of your influences?

Long before I was a writer, I was a reader. I was that “book a day kid.” All the classics. As a young adult, I loved James Michener. Nothing better than settling into one of his tomes while my kids were napping or the laundry drying. He brought magnificent, cinematic landscapes, complex cultures, eras and every day people and real life dramas into my living room. The research and attention to detail!

Most of my influences are creative-non fiction writers and journalists. Montana writer, Mary Clearman Blew, where I began to understand landscape as character. Mary Karr broke all the rules of creative nonfiction including playing with point of view which I also do in my novel. Journalist Joan Didion writing for social justice. Judith Ortiz Cofer and her intergenerational storytelling and rich imagery. She helped me find traditions and rituals in my own family. Many more. Readers often say my novel reads more like a memoir.

What is your book about?

Where do you run to escape your past? Ella Donovan is an orphan, being raised by Grand Ma, her cruel, alcoholic grandmother. They live in a run down trailer on the “other side” of the railroad tracks in a cold, Podunk Minnesota town. Early on, Ella realizes that her only chance to escape is to get her education, get out of town and never look back.

With her art-therapy degree in hand, she arrives in a charming antebellum city in Florida and takes a dream job helping teen addicts and their families. Full of idealism and determined to make a difference, she feels like she is finally in control of her own life.

But it’s not that easy to walk away from vindictive Grand Ma and her secrets. Ella must overcome the challenges of culture shock and find her own moral compass in face of systemic racism in the agency and discrimination against clients with AIDS. Can she find her footing? Does she have the power to make a difference and save her clients? And who is it that really needs saving? It’s a tale of reckoning — about how we cannot move on and live full lives until we face the secrets and shame of our family and ancestral pasts.

Where did you get the idea?

Just after my BA in journalism, I took a job managing grants disseminating services for People Living With AIDS to pay the bills. It was the height of the early 90s AIDS crisis in Jacksonville, Fl. Florida was #3 in the country for AIDS. The ignorance-fueled hysteria was palpable. Despite the fact I was already in my 40s, I was pretty naïve and went in to shock over the discrimination against PLWAs as well as the corruption and abuses in the social service agencies. Seeing the ravages of the disease firsthand sent me into a spin. I started keeping a diary with the intention of exposing the injustices and giving voice to the voiceless. I used it as my portfolio to get into grad school and study Creative Non-fiction to widen my range as a writer, which seemed a logical segue from journalism. Little did I know I would encounter many detours, such as the demands of creative non-fiction — to write about my own life. Still, I vowed to write it — always floundering until about five years ago when I surrendered to the idea of fiction. Being an advocate of truth via facts, that was a tough sell. As soon as I took myself out of the story as the protagonist, the characters took over and took me for a ride. I found a much greater truth than I had ever imagined.

How long did it take you to finish it?

If I count the day I sat down to pen my diary in 1995, add in the many incarnations as memoir, creative non-fiction, short story, and finally a fiction novel – in 2018 – that’s 23 years.

Is this your first book, or have you written more than one?

This is my first novel. I have an unpublished memoir, which was my Creative non-fiction thesis through the University of New Orleans MFA program – The Bear Went Over the Mountain and other Montana Tales. I have several others in progress. One started out as an auto-ethnography based on my great grandmother’s diary when she was the 14 year-old daughter of a Central Montana rancher in 1907 as Victorianism faded and Modernism emerged on the last American frontier. I decided recently to convert it into a 1920s Western screenplay called Riders of the Dust. I always say a story chooses it form and I think this one needs the epic landscapes of the big screen. I’m also working on a memoir called Harmonica Diaries – basically focused on my adventures as a blues harmonica player.

We all like to write about people we know, even if we never name them. Who are some people who inspired characters or situations?

That’s a good one. Obviously, I had to really work to create a new protagonist for my story. Somebody not me. Ella is 21 but she’s 21 in the early 90s – around the time my kids were growing up in Jacksonville- so they provided cultural details like slang. The culture shock Ella faces is very similar to what I went through when I first came to Florida when I was 17 from Montana. Jo – Ella’s wise-cracking side-kick is a lot like my daughter who has a heart the size of Texas and who’s always coming up with some smart remark.

Grand Ma is a composite of a couple of my fierce Montana grandmothers. I even used one of my grandmother’s surnames – Donovan. I found that using ancestral names carries a little bit of their essence into the story.

Some of the characters in rehab were based on people I knew there. But when I wrote Miz Lou – Ella’s boss, one of my beta readers said she was too stereotypically Southern, so I had to push the character and give her more backstory and motives, desires. A reader can feel sympathy for her now. I did that with all of them, which added to the richness of the story and took it in new directions. I certainly ended up with a story much different than I started out with.

What’s your favorite scene in the book?

7-26 - Sonja Mongar book coverThere’s several that just take me down again every time I read them. I’m gonna say it – “bring Kleenexes!!!!” but don’t despair – there’s hope at the end.

Prologue – having lived in a little railroad town just like LaRouge
Chapter 19, Abandonado –GrandMa’s death scene
Chapter 31, Bitter Fruit – Arlin plays Strange fruit on his trumpet, on his porch in the middle of a storm
Chapter 35, DWBWCC – Ty hits Algernon and Ella and Algernon are stopped by police
Chapter 42, Amaziah Grace – Amaziah becomes the poster child of shame and failure as she confesses her sins on camera
Chapter 44, Step Nine – Ella is called to detox and finds Arlin succumbing to ravages of AIDS

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

Chuck everything you know about writing. Don’t listen to advice. Trust yourself. Write the truest story. Julia Cameron’s workbook, The Artist’s Way was a lifesaver in helping me stay focused and encouraged. Still, I about drove myself crazy not only trying to live up to standards of the academic canon – (I mean could I ever even write a book as good?) but also trying to absorb advice about trends in literature such as “genre vs literary,” the impossible “write a book every 6 months” or “plan in terms of a series,” “write for the reader.” And I teach creative writing so my own standards were unrelenting. I was my worst critic. I had to unschool myself, shut out the world, and get back to the rawness of storytelling that was innate within me- the feeling not the structure. Anyone who studies any kind of art or music knows – unravel the theory – crash the cannon – transcend formula – make real art.

What’s the worst?

Write for a prescribed number of hours every day. It doesn’t work for me. I have felt so guilty about that for so many years – as if I was flawed in some way. But I’ve realized I have a process all my own. A lot of writing goes on inside my head. Sometimes I go weeks – even months not writing a thing, or I spend weeks just jotting down things down- bits of dialogue, slang words, mini scenes. Sometimes I will take a trip and shoot photos – location shots. I actually traveled by train through Minnesota, where the book opens, and shot photos and videos. My cover image is from that trip.

Other methods entail computer research – trying to find pictures that best resemble the people and places I’m writing about. It took me a long time to find the perfect photo of the 1940s mission style truck stop café where my protagonist’s grandmother worked for instance. I really need to “see” my story and my characters and “feel” the landscapes they exist in. When I finally sit down to write, I write for days, even weeks of ten or twelve hours – I barely sleep. My neck goes into terrible spasms because of degenerative disc disease. I get so immersed in my story, I lose track of time and even place. I have walked out of my apartment some days puzzled by the landscape – where am I? I call my process “method writing” after the Stanislavsky concept of “method acting.”

Where can we buy your book?

My print and ebook is available through your local indie bookstore (which I prefer,) can be requested from any local library and of course through all the major distributors. I prefer KOBO, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. A complete list is on my website: http://sonjamongar.com
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Include your author’s bio. ?

A product of railroaders, printers, pioneer ranchers, and a smidgen of suffragettes, outlaws, abolitionists and moonshiners, Sonja Mongar was born a fifth generation Montanan – in the Clark Fork Valley, Missoula, Montana. Searching for better economic opportunities, her parents left Montana, making stakes in four states and two provinces before they landed permanently in swamplands of Florida when she was 17. But the traveling blues was already in her blood, so she kept on movin’ – the marvelous adventures and shattering mishaps imprinting themselves upon the landscapes, characters, and dramas of her imagination. There will always be a train, a lost highway and a character adrift in her stories.     

She currently mentors new writers in the Western Connecticut State Low Residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program. Former incarnations include tenured Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez where she “got schooled” on enduring friendships, the language of ants, and the art of hurricanes. An occasional car auction driver, she’s also a freelance journalist, poet, songwriter and blues harmonica player. She’s played and recorded with bands around north and central Florida and Puerto Rico. 

These days she divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Florida where she bear’s witness to the magical unfolding of her four grandchildren’s lives. 

She is also a semi-finalist in the 2019 Royal Palm Literary Award from the Florida Writers Association.