Indie author Sonja S. Mongar has paid her dues. The Montana native freelanced across the Pacific Northwest and Florida before mentoring aspiring writers in Puerto Rico. Now based in South Florida, Mongar has recently transformed a journal she kept during her Jacksonville years into her first novel, Two Spoons of Bitter. As she prepares to embark on a promotional tour of independent book stores across the Sunshine State, the author spoke to Folio Weekly about a process that took decades.
Two Spoons of Bitter invites readers to step back in time to the early 1990s and visit Blanchard, a fictional Florida metropolis that feels a lot like Jacksonville. Names have been changed because, although ultimately uplifting, the story “ain’t a purdy wun.” The plot follows the author’s experiences as a Midwestern transplant working in the rehab industry and bewildered by local phenomena like twang, Cracker machismo and the ubiquitous, Southern-style racism.
What really inspired the story, however, was the community’s response to the AIDS epidemic.
“I witnessed a lot of things that were upsetting,” says Mongar. “It was horrible to see people dying and then to see the stigma that surrounded them. There was so much resistance to scientific research. It is the Bible Belt, after all. I guess I was naïve.”
Mongar knew the story had to be told, so she kept a journal of all that transpired. But as life moved on, sweeping the author along to Central Florida and ultimately Puerto Rico, she was never quite able to turn her notes into a viable narrative.
“It was too difficult to be the protagonist in my own story,” she says. “And it was just as difficult to write about my friends and contacts. I ended up leaving the project in limbo for years.”
Eventually, Mongar found a way out of the impasse. She turned the journal into fiction, adding an extra layer of emotional distance that—along with the years that had passed—would allow her to finish the manuscript. The revision also gave Mongar latitude for artistry.
“All the characters are composites,” she explains. “None of the events happened exactly as described, but they represent things that really did happen and really do exist. It’s set in a city sort of like Jacksonville. The character is 21 years old, which was hard to write because I’m obviously not 21 anymore. But that’s fine; I didn’t want it to be ‘me’ anymore.”
By the time Mongar officially launched her debut novel this past summer, Two Spoons of Bitter had been in the works for more than 20 years. It was such a longstanding work-in-progress, in fact, that Mongar is still having a hard time adjusting to its completion.
“I never thought I’d really finish this book,” she owns. “I never imagined I’d ever have it in my hands. It’s such an incredible process that engages every part of your existence. It’s not something that comes out easily.”
The book is published by Mongar’s own DIY imprint Paradise Alley Publishing and sold outside the traditional circuits of chain stores and Amazon.
The author-cum-publisher is sanguine about the scale of success she can expect as an indie in a world regulated by corporate distribution. So, as a one-person operation, Mongar has narrowed her promotional focus to communities in which she has roots: her native Montana, the Pacific Northwest and Florida.
Initial indications are promising. The novel was printed in a very limited edition of 160 copies, and more than 100 have already sold.
“I never believe anyone who tells me that I have to follow a formula to be successful,” Sonja Mongar says. “I also don’t buy in to what people define as success. Art is all about the process, not the product. That’s where the reward lies. I write because I have a story that needs to be told and heard. That’s how I work.”
Mongar dicusses her book and her journey, 10 a.m. Oct. 6, San Marco Bookstore, 1971 San Marco Blvd., sanmarcobookstore.com, and 1 p.m. Oct. 7, The Book Loft, 214 Centre St., Fernandina, thebookloftamelia.com