The Profiler: Denby Montana

The Profiler: Denby Montana

Luis Taganas III

Local author Denby Montana – a.k.a. Owen Mould – is a man of adventure. Having “hitchhiked north to south in this country,” gathered experiences in a slew of different odd jobs and earned a masters degree in creative writing, he seeks to “restore a sense of humanity” in his work. In his new novel, Mule Sonata, Montana writes about the history of Alta California, intertwining the stories of three families from the beginning of time. He recently answered questions from The Alamedan about what prompted him to write the book; an edited Q&A is below. Meanwhile, Montana’s new book is available online.

What brought you to the world of writing?
I have been writing stories and poetry since the age of 10 or so. I have always felt verbal language to (be) elusive, slippery, untrustworthy. But with writing, you have an artifact you can verify and easily correct. I felt that with writing I could say what I wanted to say precisely. Also, with writing as an artifact, the writer has the opportunity to re-invent the reality of the world or at least construct a world that has different rules than the physical one. To paraphrase Nabokov, in this written world, truth, justice and beauty are the norms.

What experience helped you as a writer?
There are many writers who have done well who seldom venture out of doors, seldom travel, and have not had a great many adventures. Proust, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and Wallace Stevens come to mind. Then there are the people like Ernest Hemingway, William Vollman, Roberto Bolano and others who charged into dangerous situations and lived life with zest. In my case I feel that exposure to a wide variety of people in a manner that goes a bit deeper than tourism has helped me understand what unites people across differences. Living with people in a variety of circumstances has helped me develop a stronger sense of justice and injustice than I would have possessed otherwise. It also helps provide a broader palette of occupations and people than I would have had I decided to remain in a cork-lined room.

With a well-traveled person as yourself, do you have deep ties to this area? What do you find special about Alta California?
I have lived here, off and on, since about 1977. The military adherent family that tried ineffectively to raise me roamed all over and I have never really owned the concept of a hometown. My entire life I have always been "the kid from somewhere else." I have moved away for years at a time, lived in foreign countries, traveled about to all kinds of beautiful places, but the Bay Area is the place where I have felt the closest to something called home. I helped raise two girls here who went to school in Alameda – helping raise a kid is about the best a guy can claim to do. I have not found another place like California, with its wide variety of people and terrain.

This new novel of yours is heavily based around the history of California. Did you do any special research on the events you write about?
My bookshelf does not even begin to show the extensive amount of reading and site visits I did for this book. I actually had a 15-page bibliography at one point, listing books, articles, photographs, websites, newspaper entries, documentary films, bibliographies, and even audio podcasts such as the audio pieces. I used the Bancroft books as well as more reliable first-person accounts and am indebted to the project that is translating much of the Spanish accounts of things like the engagement at Natividad and the two battles that took place on the field of La Providencia.

Do you see your writing as having a specific style? If so, can you describe it?
The book's style changes from a sort of comic book (a la) Tom Robbins with hints of Vonnegut sort of language to a more formalized and serious style. The Narrator comments on how and why this language style changes as we gradually move from idealized events in the heroic, remote past to times more recent, similar to the way documentation photography and film changed and developed over time. I felt acutely the greater need to pay heed to people's real and perceived heritage the closer to the present the story ran.

Who are your inspirations when it comes to writing?
I suppose the inspirations for writing extend from the literary through a longstanding fascination with historical process as well as an attuned sense of outrage over what I see as injustice. Nabokov has been a great inspiration by way of his attempt to reformulate the reality of a previous time, and in failing that, to try to create a more perfect world to inhabit. More recent authors who have influenced me include Isabelle Allende, Junot Diaz, Neal Stephenson and Garrison Keillor. Of course Heroditus is a must read, even when you know that he does present a distorting bias. Alice Walker's The Color Purple affected me a great deal, as did the works of Mary Austin. We have a wonderfully rich community of writers in Oakland, all of whom have inspired me one way or another. Ishmael Reed, for example.

This is an interesting take on giving a lesson in California’s history. Why tell it this way?
When I started the book some 17 years ago much of what had happened to the Native Americans here seemed buried. The California textbooks at which I looked treated the Ohlone and all the native groups as a section to be disposed with before moving on to "really important" stuff. The things the historians find important, I find uninteresting. I am not interested in Crocker or Judah or Huntington. I am interested in the men who actually did the work, like Strobridge. I am interested in the men without names who died in the avalanches. I am interested not so much in Junipero Serra as I am in Father Duran, a smaller light who nevertheless brought music to the Mission San Jose. I am interested in Telequis, the acolyte who shaved his beard and the people who died at Sacalanes, also without being named. With fiction, I can dramatize and present points of view that a classical historian should not do. Besides, it's fun.

We have reason to speculate that Denby Montana is an alias. Can you speak to this?
The frontispiece with publishing information states clearly that Denby Montana is a pseudonym. Denby Montana began life over 30 years ago as a stage name for myself when I did poetry readings in San Francisco. I like the name and I liked the little town in Montana named Denby. I dropped the use for a while, but then picked up the name to give to a character in what turned out to be a long-running blog series called It typically ends with a kind of monologue-style set of stories set on a semi-fictional island that is located in the San Francisco Bay. By now there are over 30 regular characters that come and go. Think of Lake Wobegon, but with a wider variety of people.

I published a book of short stories called Orion's Belt under the name Denby Montana a couple decades ago and decided to revive the name to set the beginning and ending "frame" parts of the novel and to unify the narrative voice throughout. The original intent was to separate the literary activities from the other activities that involved making money. In the book, the Narrator is often biased and not always likeable, but that is okay. The truth should be obvious.