Elaine Carson Montague’s first book, Victory from the Shadows (ABQ Press, 2019), tells her husband’s story of “growing up in a New Mexico school for the blind and beyond.” Gary Ted Montague, who coped with low vision from birth, went on to academic success and a three-decade career at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. Victory from the Shadows won the James McGrath Morris silver award for published nonfiction in A Celebration of Writing (November 2019) presented by the Albuquerque Museum Foundation. The book was also a finalist in the biography category of the 2019 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. To learn more about Elaine and Gary, visit ElaineMontague.com.
What is your elevator pitch for Victory from the Shadows?
Pull on Gary Montague’s cowboy boots to see his world of low vision as he abruptly leaves his farm home at age eight for a residential school and enters the culture of the blind. Celebrate the strength, resilience, and optimism of the human spirit by author-educators who understand that diverse needs require diverse solutions.
What do you hope readers will take away from the memoir?
That those with physical challenges, especially vision loss, can live successful lives and do meaningful work with courage and determination. A lot of success is made by your inner self. We hope to erase some misconceptions. Also that education of the visually impaired has had a paradigm shift in the last sixty years. Family, volunteers, and music played important roles in Gary’s success.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Over the nine years we worked on Victory, I attended local writing meetings, conferences, and workshops and studied online to develop writing skills. Deciding what voice to write in, extracting information from my husband (because he did not want to relive his experiences), and turning statements and letters into scenes were most challenging.
When did you know you wanted to share your husband’s story, and what prompted the push to begin?
For fifty years, I wanted to tell his fascinating story. I guess exasperation and desperation led me to challenge him to let me tell it if he refused to do so. We were well into our seventies, and time was fleeting!
Tell us more about how the book came together.
I rewrote the book in its entirety at least four times and revised it many more. It took Gary two years to enjoy the project, then we sustained our focus and dedication for another seven. I always believed the story needed to be told. It became a mission, a God-driven project, which got us over many humps like ill health, quieting my struggle for perfection, and presenting difficult topics in an uplifting manner without whining. We found we could work together to achieve a common goal over a long period even when we disagreed or felt discouraged. We celebrated little accomplishments, such as a scene about the bland subject of broomcorn harvesting or a sensitive family issue. I gave Gary a snow globe with a replica of a Woodie station wagon inside, perfect to celebrate our first proof copy. It was a Woodie that came to pick up Gary and his mother at the Alamogordo train depot in 1944. I also found I had to remind myself of our theme during hard times. If it was good enough for the reader, I had to live it: Persevere with integrity whatever the challenge. It was not easy.
When did you know you had taken the manuscript as far as it could go, that it was finished and ready for publishing?
Gary was ready long before I was, but he humored my rewrites and multiple readings for his approval. A good editor recommended chopping out at least a third to a half, and I went forth with a hatchet. Gary and I had agreed to include specific points. Once I made sure those were in the manuscript, I chopped everything not advancing those points. Hard at first, it became fun to see what I could eliminate. In year eight, I set a time at which I promised myself I would stop “perfecting” Victory and move on. We published in year nine.
What was the most rewarding aspect of putting this project together?
Seeing my husband happy with Victory from the Shadows and knowing it would help people deal with their situations in life relative to visual impairment or other challenges.
In the course of writing the memoir, were you ever afraid of revealing too much of yourself or your husband? If so, how did you move past that fear?
I wondered if I made us vulnerable to scammers by publicizing our lives. Family issues were considered carefully. It was important to be honest. Sometimes I did not know if I was Elaine or Gary because I wrote the final version in first person. We prayed for guidance, reviewed our goals, and took risks.
What is the hardest thing about writing?
For me, it was getting started and asking for help from the right people. I wanted Victory to be considered a history book as well as an interesting memoir, so I tried to be very careful about accuracy.
Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you started writing the memoir today?
I would write a shorter book, start with an action scene, be satisfied to aim at a narrower topic and audience, and be satisfied sooner with the product. I might use fewer graphics. Enter contests sooner.
Where do you think a writer’s responsibility lies when memories of incidents occurred in decades past—with the facts or with the perception or feelings about the incidents?
While both are important, I think the reader wants to know perception or feelings and forgives facts, but that depends on whose memoir is being told.
Why do you think people like reading memoirs and biographies?
To relieve their anxiety and validate their own lives, for enjoyment of good times, and to grow spiritually and emotionally.
What is the best encouragement or advice you’ve received in your writing journey?
Just start writing. Keep writing without editing till you’re done. Worry not!
What writing projects are you working on now?
All my writing now is related to promoting Victory from the Shadows because I am a one-person team for doing that. My husband and I cannot travel, so I rely on social media and my long-term plan for contacting teacher-training programs and service providers across the country. We have had the book recorded for the print disabled and would like to have it converted to braille. I am entering contests, too. For the future, I am mulling over issues related to aging in place and assisted living.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
My husband and I make book talks to small groups when invited. We will be at Organic Books on March 28, 2020 and at Bear Canyon Senior Center on June 3, 2020 (both in Albuquerque). My entry about medical rehab won a second-place medal in the SWW Poetry and Prose Contest in 2019, and I have contributed to the SWW Sage newsletter.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.