'I choose to have hope' — Omaha Reads author and Creighton alumna reflects on reading, resilience and the apocalypse

Aug 13, 2020 By Micah Mertes

Kassandra Montag's "After the Flood" has been selected as the 2020 Omaha Reads pick by the Omaha Public Library.

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When it doesn't really look like hope is justified, how do we hang on to it? I think of hope as less a judgment of a situation than as a stance against despair.

Kassandra Montag
Kassandra Montag MA'11

Creighton alumna Kassandra Montag’s stunning debut novel, After the Flood, begins with the end of the world coming to Nebraska. 

“Water had already covered the coasts around the world by the time I was born,” explains the book’s main character, Myra. “Many countries had been cut to half their size. Migrants fled inland, and suddenly Nebraska became a bustling, crowded place. But no one knew the worst was yet to come … Nebraska had flooded only days before, water coming across the prairie in a single wave, returning the state to the inland sea it once was.”

Set more than a century in the future, After the Flood shows us a world transformed by climate change. Save a few mountaintop colonies, the continent is now just an endless expanse of ocean. Myra and her 7-year-old daughter, Pearl, live on a small boat, visiting dry land only for necessities. When Myra learns the potential whereabouts of her eldest daughter, taken from her years before, she sets forth on a voyage to make her family whole again. 

Montag, MA’11, never planned for her book to be read against the backdrop of a pandemic. But the themes of the book — survival, isolation, sustainability, the ballast of family and community in the face of catastrophe — now resonate in new ways. The book’s premise, meanwhile, is a bracing glimpse of a worst-case scenario and the cost of failure. 

About a year after its release, After the Flood has received great reviews, is being adapted into a TV series and will soon be published in 17 languages. The book has also been selected as the 2020 Omaha Reads pick. Each year, the Omaha Public Library encourages the community to come together to read one book, selected by public vote. The library orders extra copies of the title and hosts book talks, author events and other programming, in what amounts to a city-wide book club.

Montag grew up outside Kearney, Nebraska, where her life revolved around nature and books. To avoid chores, she’d run off with a good book and hide up in the old apple tree behind her house. She spent an unfathomable amount of her childhood at her public library. At the age of 7, she made her first picture book series, featuring a man who lived alone in the wilderness with his dog, fighting for survival.

Montag, who lives in Omaha with her family, says she’s thrilled to see the community coming together to read and discuss her book. She spoke with us about her love of libraries, the oceanic properties of rural Nebraska and why she chooses to have hope, even in bleak times. 

How did your Creighton experience shape you as a writer?

I had a really positive experience getting my master’s in English at Creighton. The small and intimate environment was really good for me. I was able to connect with people and felt like I had a lot of support from the professors. That was something I needed. I feel very lucky. 

I think about getting my master’s degree as the time I came into my own as a thinker and a writer. Two professors in particular really helped me a lot. Professor emerita Susan Aizenberg helped me with my poetry, and professor Brent Spencer, PhD, helped me so much with fiction and novel writing. 

A lot of fellow students became friends, and we would critique each other’s short stories and poems, even outside of class. Creighton was really the beginning of being able take myself seriously as a thinker and writer. I had always loved writing and reading, but that experience helped me step up to the next level. 

There are so many good, successful authors not only from Omaha or Nebraska but who continue to live here. To name just a few — you, Rainbow RowellLydia KangTimothy SchaffertLiz Kay and your fellow Creighton alumni Andrew Hilleman, BA'04, MA'07, and Theodore Wheeler, MA'08, MFA'15. Why is this a good community for cultivating authors?

The literary world can be a little bit chaotic. It can be nice to live somewhere that has a lower cost of living and where you can feel a little more stable. I hear a lot about people going to school on the coasts and then moving back when they're trying to make their way. There really is a sense of literary community in Omaha even though we're not a huge city. 

What does it mean to have readers in your own community come together to read and discuss your work? 

It's an honor for me and really exciting, especially as I look back on my childhood. Because I spent so much time at the public library in Kearney. I feel like I grew up there. We didn't have a lot of money growing up and being able to go somewhere that was free and had so many books and so many resources, it was a treasure. The children’s librarian always had recommendations for me. So much of my life was supported and developed at that local library. 

Now, to have the local library sharing my own book, it's incredibly meaningful and moving. It also makes me think about the young people in our community, how I hope they’re able to see someone local who is doing this and that they can see writing as a possibility for them. It can be difficult when you're a kid, when it can feel like certain careers and opportunities are out of your reach. But they’re not.

I had a similar close relationship with my local library growing up. I grew up in a small town in Kansas. I recall actually getting grounded because I had so many late fees. I remember I had that feeling you describe when my library brought in authors of books I’d read. It was always inspiring to see, oh, yeah, they're real people. 

Exactly. And I think the more that people can see that, the better. For it to be an equalizer. To see that it's really just about a love of language, a love of stories, connecting with some of the more basic human impulses and being able to come together and feel less alone. I'm really excited to be a part of that. 

That's some of the themes After the Flood touches on, too. During this time where people are struggling with the pandemic, it is my hope that some of those themes of community that are in the book will also be inspiring to readers. 

Yeah, the story and themes of After the Flood really are largely about the importance of community but also the inherent risks of rejoining the fold. Many months before the pandemic, you ended up writing a really uncannily relevant book. It really nails the necessity of connecting with a community but also the danger of it.

The book doesn't shy away from some of those deeper, darker risks of reentering community. I think it was my hope to make it realistic by having the main character grapple with those risks. How can I find a community, one that provides shelter and support during the most difficult times?

It sometimes feels like the pandemic has put any collective effort at fighting climate change on hold. How do you, both as a storyteller and as a human, find hope in such times? 

That's something I was grappling with so much when I was writing the book. The main character is grappling with that question: When it doesn't really look like hope is justified, how do we hang on to it? I think of hope as less a judgment of a situation than as a stance against despair. 

After my husband first read After the Flood, he said he thought of this quote by Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man — “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” I think that really captures the spirit of hope for me, the sense of continuing to play in the face of certain defeat, making the decision not to succumb to despair even when things look bleak. Hope gives you the energy to continue on. 

I don't know how things will turn out. None of us do. So, I'm going to choose to keep going. I'm going to choose to have hope. I’m going to accept that even if I don't have control, I’m going to continue to play, continue to try. 

A couple hundred years from now, your book and other apocalyptic fiction could serve as an instruction manual. Maybe sooner that that! Hopefully not.

There is this interest in certain circles in survivalism and in some of these older ways of living. Even outside of their more pragmatic uses, there's also something really calming about going back to simpler, older ways of doing things — canning, fishing, sustainability. I wonder if in some ways this climate is making people think about that, about trying to find an escape from the technological.

I think a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction has an element of wish-fulfillment to it. A slower world where social media doesn’t exist.

Yes, the need to escape that constant stimulation, the constant need to engage on various platforms. 

You’re from a small Nebraska town. You grew up in the country. You made your own clothes and made forts and built rafts that sank in the creek. Your book’s main characters are also, by necessity, very resourceful makers. Did your past as a makeshift inventor inspire the characters?

I definitely was a bit of a Tomboy and did have this sort of free-range childhood running around. We lived near a creek. I was often trying to build things. I was never very good at it. I would try to be resourceful, but I was often a failure. 

You ended up being able to build novels, at least. 

That's true. I was successful on that front at least. But I do think that with that childhood steeped in nature I was also very interested in the history of the plains growing up and in the western frontier days. That is definitely the germ for a character like Myra. 

She is so resourceful in a similar way to the immigrants who settled here in the frontier days, when you had to figure out how to do a lot with very little. I’ve always been very interested in the history of Nebraska and the people who lived in that time. I thought of them as I shaped my own characters. 

With After the Flood and its upcoming TV adaptation, you've done a service to your state in writing a book at least partially set in Nebraska that many people will read outside of the state. Beyond it being a place you know and love, why do you like Nebraska as a setting for storytelling? 

I have a strong emotional connection to it, to its landscape and its history. When this book was optioned for TV, the production studio sent me to LA to meet the producers. One of the first questions they asked was, “Why did you write this maritime book when you're from the most landlocked state in the U.S.?”

I told them the prairies have a sheer expansiveness that really does remind you of the sea, that reminds you of the smallness of humanity against the greatness of nature. Willa Cather captured this beautifully. It makes Nebraska a good setting for mythic stories, where heroes grapple with their choices against the backdrop of something so much larger than them. Nebraska is sometimes given short shrift. There is so much more here than people realize. There’s a lot of room to tell stories here.

You seem like the kind of writer who would have continued writing her whole life whether you sold anything or not.

Absolutely. It’s something I do. It's a part of me. 

Writing is a tough life economically. Increasingly so. Even if you are a published novelist, you're often going to need to have another stream of income. What advice do you have for aspiring writers? What have you learned? What's the thing you wish you knew before you started? 

I have so many answers to that. (Laughs.) The first thing that comes to mind is patience, which I didn’t want to hear when I was younger. But it is true that a writing career is a marathon. I would definitely caution people to take their time. If you're patient, there's more room for self-forgiveness. It can be really easy to beat yourself up. Giving yourself the space to be OK when things don't work out the way you hope is key to protecting yourself psychologically.

I also tell aspiring writers that good things can happen for you. It's not a good idea to expect them at every turn or to be impatient for them, but if you're working really hard and you’re putting in the time and constantly learning, there are good things waiting for you. There is hope to be had. 

It sounds to me like successfully writing a novel and surviving the apocalypse require a similar mindset. 

Resilience is needed in both cases.