Christopher Shaw captures the Adirondacks and past in new novel
Categories: – The Daily Gazette, Entertainment
Originally from Schenectady, Christopher Shaw is known for capturing the Adirondacks, their culture, history and landscape through stories.
With his latest novel, he hopes to put the locally loved area on the literary map. The Power Line, released earlier this year, takes readers on a journey to Lake Aurora and Lake Saranac and back in time to the years after the First World War. It combines fictionalized memories of long-time residents with well-known regional landmarks and highlights how much the area has changed.
It is one of several books Shaw has written over the years that fulfill his vision of becoming a writer that he had on the Stockade since childhood.
“It was the first thing I wanted to do as soon as I read my first book. I went to shows and movies and found they were stories and I liked stories, ”Shaw said.
When he later attended Niskayuna High School, he and some friends ran a literary magazine with the comical title “The Hairy Eyeball”. Over the years they have given each other feedback on what Shaw calls their “bad beatnik poetry”. After graduating, he went to Bard College where things didn’t go according to plan.
“I went to a school full of writers who were all better than me. I got out and moved to the Adirondacks and after that it got difficult, ”Shaw said. “I was separated from any kind of literary culture.”
Shaw spent those tough years doing odd jobs, moving back and forth between Schenectady and the Adirondacks. During this time he studied and read as much as he could about the Adirondacks and often checked books in the Schaffer Library at Union College.
“I spent a summer in an apartment over a drugstore on Union Street reading from end to end [of the library] when I was about 19 or 20, ”Shaw said.
Still, he wasn’t entirely sure what to write.
“I lived in the forest in a geodesic dome and in various huts around Hadley looking for something regionally serious, but it resonated [works] that could have originated from other regions being repeated, ”Shaw said [were] A group of writers based in southwest Montana who put this region at the center of their dramas. . . but everything that has been written about the Adirondacks, and it remains true, was inward, was insular. They didn’t speak or communicate very well outside of the region, and there wasn’t a lot of literature. ”
Then, in the 1980s, when William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle was published, Shaw began to look at the area differently from how it might be represented in the literature.
“[Kennedy] did something to Albany and the wider area [William] Faulkner did in Mississippi and what [Gabriel García] Marquez did it in Colombia and it spoke to the world. But I also heard the twang of local regional speech in his characters. You could see that the writer knew and lived with these people and reported on many of these people. That opened my eyes, ”Shaw said.
He also started freelance writing articles on books and the Adirondacks. Eventually Shaw became the editor of Adirondack Life magazine. While he was only there for a few years – between the mid-1980s and 1990 – these were formative years.
“I wasn’t there that long, but I think we tried to give the magazine a more contemporary focus, to do real long-form journalism and to include poetry. . . even a bit of funky fiction here and there. I am proud that that transition took place then and that the view of the magazine has in some ways continued, ”Shaw said.
When he left that position, he began to work more freelance for branches like the New York Times Book Review. He also directed the Northern Voices show on North Country Public Radio.
He also began teaching at Middlebury College just before his debut book, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Ride With the Gods. The writing and editing took years and was based in part on his travels up the Usumacinta River. The novel has received acclaim from national outlets such as the Washington Post and others.
After all of the work that went into this book, Shaw said he just wanted to get back to writing and started working on The Power Line in the early 2000s.
“I wanted to write a book like my friend Jay Parini in a year. So I got down to it and wasn’t teaching full time yet. I was over an illness and got it out in 18 months, which I thought was pretty good, ”Shaw said.
However, there were a couple of snafus with the agent who had the book, and after Shaw took a full-time teaching job in Middlebury and ran an environmental journalism scholarship, The Power Line was swept under the rug so it wouldn’t get dusted until he retired in 2018.
When he got back to it, the story was scattered in different files, some digital, some physical. After bringing all the chapters together, he hired an editor and graphic designer and published the novel through Miller Pond Editions, Saranac Lake, and Outskirts Press in August.
‘Connected to the outside’
In retrospect, Shaw doesn’t quite recall what originally sparked the idea of the story, but his goal for the novel remains clear.
“I wanted to write fiction that snapped and moved. I wanted to write it based on the Adirondacks ‘experiences and the Adirondacks’ ways, but on the Adirondacks being connected outward, not just inward, ”Shaw said.
“The Power Line” follows the adventures of Fran Germaine, an engineer and violin player, and his friend Lonnie Monroe. You work for Paul Smiths Electric Company and as a pirate for Legs Diamond, a gangster during the prohibition era.
At the beginning of the novel, which begins in the 1980s, Monroe shares his fading memories with an amateur historian and scholar, Abel St. Martin, who records the memories of longtime residents of Lake Saranac and Lake Aurora. The interview tapes partly explain what happened in the alleged shooting at Donnelly’s Corners, Saranac Lake, in 1929. They also document some of the close escapes and misfortunes of Germaine and Monroe.
The novel later deals with the magazines of Rosalyn Orloff, a political theorist and well-known lover of Carl Jung. The magazines not only reveal more about Germaine’s history, but also the Adirondacks’ influence on American philosophy, which Shaw believes is often undervalued.
“The other thing that was going on then was. . . This rich, intellectual stew is completely ignored in stories of Adirondack history. You hear someone [like] Robert Louis Stevenson was here, Emerson was here, but it didn’t mean anything because they didn’t live here. . . But it actually meant something, ”Shaw said.
The first part of the novel is action-oriented, with a classic Western or perhaps gangster tone, though the Adirondack landscape and its changes over the decades are seriously reflected by additional infrastructure and transforming technology over the decades.
It’s a gripping novel and one of several Shaw has planned for an Adirondack series, including a “Power Line” prequel, “The Crazy Wisdom,” a book about his long friendship with Schenectady-born Jon Cody and ” Adirondack Mind “. a collection of his essays on the Adirondacks spanning more than 15 years.
“I’m pretty much determined that they’ll get out one way or another, and if I have to do that myself, I’ll do it,” Shaw said.
In the meantime he writes for Adirondack Life among others and spends his time between Bristol, Vermont and Saranac Lake with his wife Sue Kavanagh.
His advice to young writers?
“To have [a few] Things that always interest you and become an expert to always write about. One has to have equanimity with sucking. When it’s awful, you just have to keep going. Most of the writing takes place in many versions of rewriting and rethinking. . . . All of these things are based on finding a way to live and work. You have to be willing to take things like vacation to work, which I’ve found very effective. ”
“The Power Line” is available on outskirtspress.com and as an eBook on iBook and Nook. Visit cshaw.net for more information.