Hannah Grieco talks with Sarah Fawn Montgomery about the foods she loves and her new lyric essay collection HALFWAY FROM HOME.
When I think of the type of writer I want to be, I think of Sarah Fawn Montgomery. Exceptional at every genre, published in some of the very best publications, with a voice both unique and compelling. Sometimes raw, always hauntingly beautiful. There’s something about the way her voice carries itself, no matter the form of the piece. I will read anything Montgomery writes! So I was thrilled to get a chance to interview her in my quirky little food style, to celebrate her stunning new collection Halfway from Home, out November 8th from Split Lip, and to dive into
her secret foodie heart.
Hannah Grieco: Okay, what’s your interview snack plan today?
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: An earl grey lavender latte. I’ve been adding lavender syrup to everything lately and I have no regrets! I love anything floral or herbaceous.
HG: Now tell us about Halfway from Home!
SFM: Halfway from Home is a lyric essay collection about nostalgia, longing, and searching for your place during emotional and environmental collapse. I left a chaotic home at eighteen to chase restlessness, and over the years I’ve claimed places on the West Coast, Midwest, and East Coast, determined never to settle. But it has always been difficult to move forward when I long for the past. Since I left home, my family has been ravaged by addiction, illness, and poverty; the country is increasingly divided; and the natural worlds where I used to seek solace are under siege by wildfire, tornados, and unrelenting storms. The essays in this collection blend lyric memoir with cultural critique to examine contemporary nostalgia and sorrow, searching for how to build a home when human connection is disappearing, and how to live meaningfully when our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world. I take readers from the tide pools and monarch groves of California, to the fossil beds and grass prairies of Nebraska, to the scrimshaw shops and tangled forests of Massachusetts, asking readers to reflect on our past before we run out of
time to save our future.
HG: If Halfway from Home was a metaphoric recipe, what would the ingredients be?
SFM: Roughly chopped fragments of the places where I’ve found solace when it seems the world is ending. Finely diced memories from a childhood I wished would stretch forever. The brine of a California seashore. The savory earth smell of a Nebraska storm. The mellow depth of a Massachusetts forest. Summer tomatoes preserved in glass jars for the long winter ahead. A splash of the pickling liquid for depth of flavor and as a reminder that with care, things can survive well beyond their season. Root vegetables pulled from the dark of underground and held up into the light, sautéed to balance their bitter. A cup of nostalgia for sweetness. The juice of one lemon for the sting of remembrance. Seasoned well with time.
HG: And how about an actual recipe? Something you love to make and eat, and feels like your book?
SFM: One of my favorite dishes is a vegan mushroom risotto. Its ingredients remind me of the many places I’ve called home—the coconut milk reminds me of my California childhood, the grains remind me of living on the Nebraska plains, and the mushrooms remind me of my current home deep in the Massachusetts woods. The dish also has tart balsamic vinegar and savory nutritional yeast. It is light while still also comforting and warming. It’s exactly what I crave when the world seems too much.
HG: Let’s talk CRAFT. What do you eat obsessively while you write?
SFM: I’m a fan of the post-writing reward. I live down the road from a quaint New England bakery and after a long day of writing, there is nothing better than eating something rich and indulgent. While writing Halfway from Home I ate an obscene number of eclairs. Messy, difficult to eat, utterly decadent. It was the perfect comfort and congratulations for writing a book about how to find home and hope at the end of the world.
HG: What’s a food you can’t resist? What’s a food you hate?
SFM: I can’t resist anything spicy or sour. Give me heat, give me brine! Hot sauce! Chilis! Capers! Pickles! I like strong flavors that command attention.
I’m easily bored by foods with bland textures. Mushy or mealy food doesn’t appeal to me like a dish with contrasting textures. I need crunch, chunks, grain, silk. Foods need to engage all my senses, but so often recipes focus only on flavor. I’m simply not interested in food with unappealing textures. I also haven’t eaten meat since I lost a bet in high school…
HG: If this collection is optioned for the screen (Let’s manifest!) – how would it look to you? One large movie? Vignettes? Who would play you and the other people in your life? And what snack would you make sure each actor had on the Craft Services Table?
SFM: Since this collection is comprised of mosaic pieces collaged through time, the film has to be a series of vignettes washed with a nostalgic golden filter. It’s shot on location—the California coast in summer when sand dollars line the shore and bright poppies bloom along the sides of dusty backroads, the Nebraska plains in spring when prairie grass bursts forth for the bees and spreads up towards an endless sky, and the Massachusetts forests in winter when barren branches tangle and cardinals stream red across the relentless snow.
Except for a few voiceovers, nature is the soundtrack. There’s the slow, low West Coast tide frothing at the ocean shore, the squelch of footprints absorbed by the soil, the soft ease of disappearance. There’s the crack of lightning in a Midwest storm, ricocheting through a sky gone sickly green with premonition, and the low rumble of thunder that follows, a funnel already forming somewhere in the distance. There’s the rustle of an East Coast autumn, leaves bright as flame before they fall. There’s also the crackle of a record player and the sound a VCR rewinding the story of my life. This competes with the sound of a clock ticking, a heartbeat, all the ways we record our own vanishing.
My father is played by a 1970’s Clint Eastwood, all dirty boots and tough guy scowl. He smells of sawdust and seashore, and his toolbelt is full of the hammers and nails he uses to build the borders that make the world make sense, and the pebbles and feathers he gathers from construction sites give to his children.
I’m played by some shy actress from a small town like mine, a thousand people and no stoplight, farms and rolling hills so dry they catch fire every year. She’s desperate to leave yet can’t help but look back with nostalgia after it’s too late to return. She only appears in a few shots. Mostly the story is told by a dreamy girl child more concerned with going outside than growing up. She gathers pinecones and shells to line her pockets and the corridors of her memory. She memorizes birdcalls and moths. She spends her days digging in the sun, pulling up stones and old bones, trying to go back in time, to get to the story beneath the surface.
HG: Who are three writers you love right now and what would you cook for them if you could?
SFM: Only three?! In the last few weeks I’ve finished reading the new collections by Chen Chen, Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, and Anthony Moll, and their books pair beautifully together like a good meal. I would make my favorite late summer salads, which are full of flavor and the final, frantic bursts of the season before nature starts to slow down in order to survive the long winter. There’s a roasted corn salad with cherry tomatoes, shallots and basil, a red wine vinaigrette and coarse salt. There’s a zucchini salad with paper-thin medallions, sundried tomatoes and pine
nuts, and a bright dressing with balsamic and lots of pepper. And fruit salad is my favorite—strawberries, peaches, nectarines, kiwi, blueberries and blackberries still full of tart juice despite being at the end of their growing season, plus a citrus dressing and walnuts for crunch.
HG: What are you working on right now?
SFM: Lately I’ve been writing a lot of flash nonfiction. I’m fascinated by the ways brevity heightens narrative tension, as well as the way voice can be manipulated with this form. I also love the rhythms required of flash, and the sonic elements that link it with poetry. I’ve also been working on projects that feature “unlikable” narrators. I’m interested in using these narrators—some real, some imagined—to push against, or reject entirely, what is deemed acceptable for girls and women to express, to desire, to pursue, to destroy.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home, forthcoming in November 2022 with Split/Lip Press. She is also the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, September 2018) and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2017), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press, 2014). Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays for the last several years, and her poetry and prose have appeared in Brevity, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, New England Review, The Normal School, Passages North, Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and numerous other journals and anthologies. She holds an MFA in creative writing from California State University-Fresno and a PhD in English in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.