When Eugenie Montague ’97 arrived at Loomis Chaffee, her prefect in Palmer Hall was Maya Shanbhag Lang ’96. Thus began a long friendship between the writers.
“We used to stay up all night talking about books, yes, but also just about our ideas, our questions, things that didn’t make sense to us about the world,” Maya told students gathered in Gilchrist Auditorium on Thursday, October 19. “And if we could go back and someone tapped on our shoulders at that age and said, ‘One day you both will be published authors, and you’ll be back at Loomis reading your work,’ … we would not have believed it.”
Maya and Eugenie read some of their work and reflected on their road to becoming published authors as the Writing Initiatives program, with the support of the Ralph M. Shulansky ’45 Lecture Fund, hosted a Dinner and a Draft event with the visiting authors before the larger conversation in Gilchrist. The Norton Family Center for the Common Good helped coordinate the event. The dinner and discussion with a small group of student writers was held in the Burton Room with John Shulansky ’72 and his mother, Ruth Shulansky, attending.
Maya is the author of the memoir What We Carry, named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a “Best Of 2020” by Amazon. She also wrote the novel The Sixteenth of June, and her essays have been widely published. Maya also is president of the Authors Guild.
Eugenie has published short fiction in numerous formats, and her first novel, Swallow the Ghost, which originated as a short story, will be out in 2024.
Theirs is a friendship that has remained long after their days on the Island.
“We have always known what was going on in each other’s lives,” Maya said in an interview Thursday between the two events on campus.
“We would send each other letters during college,” Eugenie said.
“We sure did,” Maya remembered.
“And Maya’s were always so great,” Eugenie said. “She would write, ‘I was going to send this earlier but wanted to add this …’"
“One last thing,” Maya said, “and there would be two more pages.”
Maya could never quite let go of them. Even back then, it seemed like she was writing stories.
Over the years, they of course have talked about writing. Who best can understand what an author goes through than another author?
“When you are a writer, it is a solitary endeavor,” Maya said. “There is the time spent when you’re in front of a screen for hours and hours. Also, the publishing industry is a unique thing. … It’s hard to find someone who can relate to all that, the experience of writing and the experience of trying to get published, so Eugenie has been that person for me. And we have read each other’s work when it is in progress.”
Said Eugenie, “It’s a unique feeling to try to write a book, so it is helpful to know people who get what that means.”
What that means is the work is never far from your mind, even at 3 a.m..
“It’s not necessarily the idea you have at 3 a.m. is genius. For me it’s not,” Maya said. “For me, the more thought you give to the characters, the plot, the little things that might not make it onto the page — I think it’s the difference between Ikea furniture and antiques. One is more sturdy. And the inability for a story to leave you alone, the way it keeps tapping into your thoughts, that is something I love about the writing process. You feel like you’re in this wonderful company.”
Writing, said Eugenie, can feel a little crazy. “I’m hanging out with my kids and thinking a lot about this totally made-up thing,” she said with a laugh. “But a lot of it is your back brain, too. You're not consciously thinking about it, but something is working itself out in the back of your brain while you’re doing other things.”
Eugenie has a law degree from Duke University and a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing from UC Irvine. “Why write?” Eugenie said. “I can’t not. I’ve always wanted to write.”
Maya’s memoir, What We Carry, took a year to write and two years to edit.
“I wrote What We Carry while living it,” Maya said. “I was caring for a young child and my ailing mother [who had Alzheimer’s] at the time. Even though I was exhausted, I found writing necessary. It wasn't optional. The memoir was my way of making sense of that period: the surreal challenge of becoming a parent to my parent, and the personal realization that I had never really known my mom as a human being. I'd always looked up to her as a nearly mythic figure. That period was a reckoning, a time of seeing the culpable person behind the myth.”
Maya often uses house metaphors when talking about writing.
“Working on a book often reminds me of building a house — you spend time thinking about the entry, how to make the space more hospitable and inviting, whether certain parts should be demolished, if the structure works,” Maya said. “Those concerns of craft were similar, but with a memoir, the building materials are your life, so the process can be harrowing.”
It also is a process that lures you to that computer screen time and time again.
“All you have to do is start,” Maya said. “If you wait for the answers, you’ll never begin.”