by Claire Shang
When halfway through our Zoom call, I referred to Sofia Montrone, CC ’21, as an author, she stopped me gently. “An aspiring author,” she corrected. “It doesn’t hurt to have that word there to modify whatever comes after. I’m in many ways an aspiring student of a lot of things.” We had just been talking about the novel—rather, “project in the shape of a novel”—that she’s working on. “I feel like I have to qualify it,” she took care to clarify.
At the same time, Montrone is one of those rare people who knows themselves so well that even her intended major, four years later, has remained the same: Creative Writing, with a specialization in fiction.
Last fall during Senior Fiction, her capstone class of the major, Montrone began working on a longer-form project, one “that I know I’ll be spending, like, three years on, minimum,” she explained.
After some minutes together, I asked her to characterize the novel, and her eyes lit up: “Oh, sure!”
The work centers on a translator who decides to write an autofictive account of her life and move into her family’s old dry cleaning business, leaving her husband and adult children. It’s emblematic of Montrone’s larger interest in the ways that domestic materials and spaces affect how women write and what they write about.
“It started as kind of a joke,” she said. In the initial stages of working on the project, Montrone was living with her dad in Hoboken, where “on every corner, there’s a dry cleaners.” Soon, she found herself researching the industry and 1970s New Jersey. To embark on a writing project, she described, is to lean into learning, to embrace the “absolute miscellaneous nonsense.”
Throughout our conversation, Montrone indulged in all of these things: the absolute, the nonsense, and the miscellany in between. I learned that she has read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake over ten times, each perusal an attempt to better understand how Lahiri constructed every sentence to perform its magic. Minutes later, she was talking with equal urgency about her favorite Wikipedia pages. She told me about presidential cat Socks Clinton, notably abandoned by Bill Clinton, and her “big project” over winter break—reading through Jimmy Carter’s extensive page.
Montrone both speaks and works in this constellatory way, relishing her fascinations. She described her own writing style as often at odds with commercial contemporary fiction: instead of quick-paced and dialogue-heavy, she wants to be “deliberative, even plodding,” she said.
This extended reflection on her own authorial habits feels apt for someone whose characters are often writers. The protagonist of her novel is a translator and author, and that of her short story “Tributaries,” selected by Jeff VanderMeer for Quarto's 2020 fiction prize, an obsessive novelist.
For Montrone, writing about writing means writing about compulsion. Telling a story is always motivated by something else: “a desire to be seen, or a desire to connect with other people, or a desire to absolve yourself, or make excuses.”
On the side of the reader, though, Montrone pursues a hedonism of sorts. Art can only level social critique or feel truthful if it is first and foremost pleasurable, if it “seduces us.” So when she writes, it’s in dialogue with an imaginary reader, an inspiring writer, a current professor; it’s wondering out loud whether they’ve found enjoyment in her words. For Montrone, once a piece is sent into the world and “engaged with something larger than your own interest in it,” writing exits the space of the individual obsession and becomes, by necessity, a collaborative act.
Montrone’s approach reveals that she isn’t just a reader and a writer, but also an editor—a job predicated on communication and interaction. She joined The Columbia Review in her first-year fall and served as its editor in chief during her junior and senior years. With the literary magazine, creative writing workshops, and a literary agency internship bookending her time at Columbia, she has formed a more comprehensive understanding than most of what it means to be an editor.
As she defined for me, editing is “picking a piece of writing and handing it to somebody else and being like, ‘Read this. I promise you’ll get something from it.’” Whether it’s curating Review submissions or giving comments in a workshop setting, to edit, for Montrone, is to find value.
She paused. “Maybe there's a little something arrogant about being an editor.”
Perhaps she’s right. But at the same time, she and I agreed that editing can also be an exercise in humility. Montrone pointed to her experience fielding thousands of poetry submissions, a genre she’s naturally less familiar with. “It’s like being taken out at the knees,” she said. Even after four years, “I’m always sort of groping around in the dark trying to figure out what’s going on” in individual poems.
As co-editor in chief, Montrone compiled weekly packets of these submissions for the editorial board to read, discuss, and vote on. “We were basically asking [the editors] to find value,” she recalled, “or take time out of [their] day to read something that we thought was interesting or funny or smart.” Whatever arrogance lies behind serving as editor and arbiter isn’t absolute, but depends on the trust between editor and reader.
During her tenure as EIC, The Review formalized its expansion into online content, and now regularly publishes book reviews and recommendations of contemporary works. “On a personality level, [the publication has] really changed. I think we’ve done a lot to unravel the patina of neglect that had built up over years,” she told me. Beyond the new posts, Montrone’s personal mission after her slightly disorienting experience as a first-year on the magazine was to change its board into more of a community.
Bringing newness to the nation’s oldest college literary magazine certainly wasn’t the most straightforward task, but Montrone felt accountable to The Review’s status as a campus publication. Even though the magazine mostly receives and publishes work by non-University affiliated writers, Columbia students at large have always been the readers in mind.
In this way, Montrone’s definition of the campus literary community is capacious—she’s still “reaching for its perimeter.” Part of The Review’s job is to bring this amorphous group into a shared space by prompting them to write, submit, and, most importantly, read.
Cautiously, I asked her what the future looks like, and she answered graciously. She hopes to enter an MFA program after graduation, in part to build towards her goal of teaching writing courses. The step is certainly fiscally practical but also driven by her eagerness to keep learning in a workshop setting: “It feels like an indulgence of my own desire to continue being in that sort of space.”
Being named a Phi Beta Kappa inductee in December kicked off a long chain of reminders about her impending graduation, and she referenced her “panic” about the future a few times.
But then, slipping into a smile, she grounded herself: “When I’m just by myself in [my] apartment, flopping around doing work, I’m not one age or another, or an adult or a young person,” she said, her words punctuated with laughter. “I’m just an individual with my own problems and hopes and things to pay for.”