Interview with Terry Montague
About the Author
When I was about three, my mom said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I think she was expecting me to say, “A mommy, like you.” Instead, I popped off with, “I want to be a writer.” I can still remember her face. She said, “Well, don’t you think you need to learn to read first?”
I didn’t think so.
Terry Bohle Montague is a BYU graduate and a free-lance writer, having written for television, radio, newspaper, and magazines including The Ensign and Meridian Magazine. She has also been published as the author of book length historical non-fiction and fiction.
Her non-fiction work includes the book, Mine Angels Round About, the story of the LDS West German Mission evacuation of 1939 which occurred only days before the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Her LDS fiction, Fireweed, is loosely based on her interviews with the evacuated West German missionaries and their families.
Terry studied with Dwight Swain and Jack Bickham, as well as David Farland. Her writing awards include those from LDS Storymakers, Idaho Writers’ League, and Romance Writers of America
1. How did you get started as an author? What or whom inspired you?
I’ve always known I wanted to write stories. Even before I could read I knew I wanted to write. But, being a published writer is a different thing. I didn’t think about that very much until I was listening to an interview with a well-known author. She was interesting and made her professional life sound interesting so the next time I looked for something to read, I picked up one of her novels. I think I made it almost to the second chapter. I was seriously disappointed in the lack of craft and thought, I’ll bet even I could do better than that. So, I decided what I’d like to write and checked out a lot of books of that genre. Then, I joined a writers group and started attending conferences.
2. How many books have you written and in what genres?
For the LDS market, I’ve written two. One is a primary resource, non-fiction historical called Mine Angels Round About. It’s about the evacuation of the West German Mission in 1939 which was one of the events that incited World War Two.
The other is Fireweed which is about an LDS German family trying to survive in Nazi Berlin.
What writing projects are you currently working on? What can you tell us about these projects?
I’m trying to finish a piece of Women’s Fiction that is not Romance. Only a couple chapters left to write on that one. Briefly, it’s about a family renovating an old farm house in a quirky, rural town.
The one I’m researching is loosely based on my grandmother who practiced a form of healing/midwifery called Baruche. It’s considered a matriarchal calling from mother to daughter and is quite old. These are the women who were burned as heretics in Germany, deemed inappropriately religious by Russian authorities, and labeled as witches by their Protestant congregations in America. It hasn’t quite yet taken shape in my imagination which means I haven’t done enough research.
3. What does your writing process look like?
I begin with a circumstance and setting. Then, I shape my main characters according to what would most dramatize the backdrop. I create a chapter-by-chapter outline which becomes my working synopsis. I outline each scene in a notebook, beginning with a statement about what I want to achieve in that scene, were it is set, and who needs to be in it. Then I write the dialogue, add the emotional markers, then the sensory information.
Every day, when I begin, I go back and read the scene I’ve written the day before. If I find I’m blank about what I need to write, I go back and read the previous ten pages or so. Usually, I find I’ve made a misstep in part of my process so I fix that and get back to work.
In revising, I scrutinize the adverbs (especially “to be”), adjectives, and the qualifiers. I read out loud. Then, I ask my husband or our daughter to take a look for continuity and engineering. I do a little more revising and then pass it on to some trusted writer friends. Sometimes I ask for help from beta readers. Then, I let the manuscript cool for a while before I submit.
4. Where is your favorite place to write?
When I’m doing the background research, sometimes I write (long-hand) at my kitchen table. The table is next to a large picture window and I can stare out at the back yard where there are lots of plantings and birds and animals. When I’m working on the story, I’m at my desk where my chair is more comfortable and the desk is turned away from window so I’m not distracted.
I’d like to opt out of the photo here because I currently have piles and piles of research stuff all over the place.
5. What authors/novels that you enjoy would you recommend?
I really wish people would read Gone with the Wind. It’s so easy to assume you know the story from watching the movie. The book is so much richer in setting and character and plot. Rather than the story being a romance, as the movie depicts, it is more the story of Scarlett and Melanie. A wonderful contrast of complicated characters who have a hugely complicated relationship. I loved it in the book when Scarlett caught on fire and Melanie smacked her with a rug hard enough to knock her down.
Where is your favorite place to read and why? (Can I get a picture of this?)
Anyplace I can sit down! Ha.
6. What period of history interests you the most?
Whatever period reflects a lot of change in a society. Like 18th Dynasty Egypt. And of this country, I enjoy reading about the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th. The pilgrim era is also interesting to me because my mom’s family came to the Massachusetts and Chesapeake Bay Colonies in the 1600s. She also is a descendant of Boleyns so I feel I can talk somewhat knowledgeably about that period, too. Then there are the Hugenots who are also relatives. I also enjoy learning about Celtic Europe (not just Britain).
My dad’s side of the family were Germans who colonized what is now Ukraine. I have a stack of material on that group and am considering doing something with the women healers of that time and place.
7. What inspired the idea for Fireweed?
Usually, I just give people a standard response about growing the story out of some research from Mine Angels Round About. But since your questions are somewhat more searching, I’m including something I wrote several years ago. It is below.
Except for the time I spent at school (I graduated from BYU) I’ve spent my entire life in Rupert, Idaho. I grew up in a small German community here. The community is descendant of the German colonies founded by Catharine the Great in Ukraine, along the Volga River and on around the west shores of the Black Sea. About the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, the anti-German sentiment forced many Germans out of Russia. They came to America, looking for homesteading land, settling on the plains. Our family followed the railroads into the Dakotas.
Though our German family spent more than 100 years in Russia, they never referred to themselves as Russian. Some of our old-timers were heard to say, “Just because a cat had her kittens in the oven, doesn’t mean they are biscuits.” They were fiercely German. Our grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the neighbors next door and across the street were Russian-Germans. Everyone spoke German. The church we attended had services in German.
As more and more homestead land opened, our family moved west, to Montana, Washington, California, and onto the fertile Snake River Plain of southern Idaho.
My dad was a young man when they came to the Rupert area. Like all the rest, he was snapped up by the draft during World War II and sent to Europe. He was injured in the Battle of the Bulge and left behind to die. It was so cold there, the blood from his head wound froze before he bled out. He stumbled around the Ardennes for several days, sometimes crossing enemy lines before he found an American radio hut. It’s only since he’s gotten older that he’s felt like talking about those experiences or the confusion he might have felt having an enemy to whom he was so closely connected.
While I was growing up, we watched a lot of tv. Old war movies, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons, and shows like Combat. I remember that, often, characters who barked out German were referred to as “dirty Krauts”. My grandparents spoke German in their home and I refused to believe my tiny grandmother was a “dirty Kraut.” I was in the sixth grade when I started reading about Nazi Germany and the history of World War II Europe. Even at that age, I’d begun the attempt to reconciliate my decidedly American heritage and my German (“dirty Kraut”) lineage.
From before I could read, I knew I wanted to tell stories and later my husband, Quinn, encouraged me to write. As I was trying to find an engaging subject, I met Norman Grant Seibold who was then one of our County Commissioners. His experiences as a missionary in Nazi Germany inspired me to research the West German Mission evacuation of 1939. Over a five-year period, I tracked down nearly sixty of the almost eighty missionaries involved in that dramatic and historically significant incident.
Often, I traveled to a former missionary’s home to find he had family members, some of them German, sitting in on the interview. If, during the interview, the missionary had to retrieve a journal or set of letters from another room, his German family members would say to me, “Now let me tell you what happened to me.”
When my research was as complete as I could make it, we released it as a piece of primary resource historical non-fiction, titled Mine Angels Round About. Then, because I knew I needed to tell another part of the story, one from the German point of View, I began writing Fireweed.
This is where Lisel, Marta, Papa, Frau Heidemann, and Kurt were created. It wasn’t easy writing a full-length novel, but my characters helped me by showing up in my dreams and talking to me about themselves and what they were doing and what they should be doing and what I should be doing. All of them were real to me. So real that now, sometimes, I miss them and have to go back and read a part of my manuscript just to reconnect with them again.
I wanted to make their experiences real for the reader too. So I did something a lot of my friends had fits over. For the last several chapters of the book (about six weeks’ worth) I decreased my calorie intake to less than 800 a day to be able to realistically describe the hunger the characters felt and what that hunger did to them.
I was careful, though. I drank adequate amounts of water and took some heavy-duty vitamins. The first effects showed up in my verbal skills. Often, I couldn’t finish the sentence I had started. This was particularly troublesome when I was invited to speak to a writers’ group in Cache Valley. I’m still embarrassed about that.
Another phenomenon was that I didn’t seem to have any emotional control and spent a lot of time crying. I had no particular reason to cry but I did anyway. I was also angry and very pessimistic which is not like me at all. Another revelation was that if you’re hungry over a long period of time and bend over, you see bursts of light and that standing too long makes you really dizzy.
That was a miserable learning experience but I think it made a better story and that’s what mattered most to me. What also matters to me personally is that through this writing experience I’ve bridged that gap between my American and German heritages. And now I think I understand with even greater clarity how suffering and joy and hate and love is the same for all humans no matter what language is used.
8. What other hobbies do you enjoy when you are not writing?
I don’t have a lot of time for hobbies, right now. Our daughter is struggling with cancer, her husband is in China, and we’re looking after their two little girls and their puppy. (Can laundry and dishes be a hobby?) In the past, however, I’ve enjoyed doing family history research and, sometimes, my husband buys me a beat-up house to renovate. That’s every woman’s fantasy, isn’t it?
Check out my review for FIRE WEED.
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