I’ve never done an obituary on my blog before, but it is with heavy heart that I report that Raymond Almiran (R.A.) Montgomery, co-founder of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series and author of many of them, is dead. The news was just announced this afternoon, but according to reports Mr. Montgomery passed away quietly at his home in Vermont last Sunday, November 9. He was 78. He is survived by his wife Shannon Gilligan–also a CYOA author–a son and several grandchildren.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I am a huge fan of the CYOA books and have reviewed many of them. (A list of the Montgomery-authored books I reviewed is at the bottom of this article). I also had the great honor to interview the CYOA series co-founded Edward Packard last year. Mr. Montgomery’s death at this time is a particular blow to me, because only a few weeks ago I received word from his company, ChooseCo, that he had agreed to do an interview with me. In fact I was planning to finish up the questions for the interview and send them off to him this weekend before I departed for Norway.
R.A. Montgomery thrilled, enchanted and entertained us for decades with his wonderful books. He was a devoted educator as well as a writer, and believed that interactive fiction was a useful tool in helping and encouraging kids to read. A full list of his impressive accomplishments, in both writing and education, is available here on the CYOA website’s obituary which went up today.
The following is the text of the interview questions I had finished compiling for Mr. Montgomery just Wednesday night. They will remain unanswered forever. My deepest condolences and sympathies go out to Mr. Montgomery’s family, friends, co-workers and fans. This is a great loss, but for all of us who still love the Choose Your Own Adventure books, it is not–and never will be–The End.
[My interview questions for R.A. Montgomery]
Mr. Montgomery, I want to thank you for doing this interview. It was a tremendous honor to interview your colleague Edward Packard last year and I’ve wanted to do one with you as well. First question—how did you get involved in the series? How did you meet Mr. Packard in the late 1970s, and how did the series come to be?
The first book you wrote was Journey Under The Sea, correct? What was it like writing your very first one, never having done it before? How long did it take? Did the process of writing it surprise you? What were your inspirations for this “maiden voyage”?
Of the early books, The Lost Jewels of Nabooti seems to stand out. You bend genres (adventure, spy, science fiction etc.), it has a breakneck globetrotting pace, difficult choices, and some stuff that’s totally off the wall, like the exploding robot dog. I would argue that this book is significant because it really was the blueprint for your unique style at least with the hard-core adventure stories. Do you think that’s a fair statement, and was there anything you perceived as unique about this book at the time?
Let’s talk about #13, The Abominable Snowman. Was this the biggest hit in the whole series? (I notice it’s the very first one to be published when you rebooted the franchise 10 years ago). How do you account for this one being one of the gold standards of the series, one of the first ones people remember? What’s special about it to you?
Personally I think House of Danger is the ultimate CYOA book. Everything just comes together so perfectly—the adventure, the outlandish plot twists, the goofy sidekicks (Ricardo and Lisa), the creepy ghost story, everything up to and including holographic attack chimps. It’s actually pretty daring but comes off well. Kind of the same question as Nabooti, I’m just curious if you perceived something special about this book, perhaps just some extra little click that makes it hum along so perfectly.
I know your background is in education and publishing, but I sense that you have some adventurous interests that come through in your books—mountaineering (Snowman, Nabooti), flying small planes (Escape), etc. Have you done some of these things or been to these places in real life?
Africa. It appears several times in your books as a locale. In some of your “about the author” blurbs it is mentioned that you were in the Peace Corps. Can you tell us a little about your experiences there, and how they have come into your writing?
For you, the Choose Your Own Adventure series has been a family affair—your wife Shannon Gilligan has written several books and there are also some by your children. I’m reminded of the actors from the original Star Trek who probably never dreamed, when they walked into an audition 45 years ago, that they were entering into what eventually became a lifelong commitment to Star Trek. Did you have any inkling, when you helped start this series, that it would be so central to your life and family, and that you’d still be involved more than a generation later?
There are various conventions that appear over and over again in the CYOA books. I talk about them sometimes in my reviews—the “adventurous relative,” for example. “You” (the character) seem to have an unending supply of relatives, usually uncles, who draw you into various adventures. The mysterious phone calls or packages arriving are also conventions. Are these just ad hoc—story mechanics that happen coincidentally to resemble each other—or is there sort of a style secretly at work here?
Obviously with the CYOA books and the audience they are aimed at, the books you write and stories you choose have some limitations. Have you ever wanted to try interactive fiction or hypertext stories in a different context, exploring different themes than you might be able to do in the CYOA series? A much longer book, for example, aimed at an adult audience, or something of that nature?
Anyone who loves adventure, whether a child or adult, should feel a loss at the death of Mr. Montgomery.
Let’s talk about the gender issue—something I raised with Mr. Packard. In the early books the illustrators seemed either to switch off depicting “you” as either definitely a boy or a girl, or else making the character appear somewhat androgynous so “you” could theoretically be either/or. Other techniques are sometimes used to obscure gender, like making all the illustrations “point of view” pictures that never show “you.” This only works, though, if the stories themselves are strictly gender-neutral. (Your book The Mystery of the Maya contains one of the only specifically gendered references to the protagonist character I ever found in the whole series, where a priest shouts “Don’t let her escape!”) Long lead-up to the question: do you find the gender neutrality limiting or frustrating from a story standpoint? How do you write a purely androgynous protagonist?
Are there any books you wrote that, if you had it all to do over again, you would write differently?
What’s your favorite book of the series that you didn’t write? Which ones—your books or others’—do you think really stand out as the best of the best?
What else would you like to tell those of us, like me now adults who grew up with the CYOA books, and who still find them fun, compelling and relevant today?
My reviews of R.A. Montgomery books: