Writer discovers you can go home again

After a 14-year absence, city native Stephen Haven returned to his hometown in 2003 hoping to comple
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After a 14-year absence, city native Stephen Haven returned to his hometown in 2003 hoping to complete a book of poetry.

Instead, he found the inspiration for a new project, which has earned him a nomination for a 2008 National Book Award.

Haven, a graduate of Wilbur H. Lynch High School, is currently the director of the master’s program in creative writing at Ashland University, in Ashland, Ohio.

In April 2003, the university granted him a sabbatical to complete his book of poetry, “The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet Smokestacks.” He spent four days in Amsterdam, having pizza and beer with old friends talking about old times.

“I started taking notes and then decided to turn those memories into a book,” he said.

The book, published by Syracuse University Press, is called “The River Lock: One Boy’s Life along the Mohawk.”

Haven said it’s nice to be nominated. But he noted that each publisher is eligible to nominate one book for the National Book Award, so there are a few hundred nominees.

Haven said the book is about his relationship with Christianity and his minister father, and how a person’s home is always in his subconscious.

“It’s about how you basically can’t leave home,” he said. “Wherever you go, by the time you’re a young adult you’ve been formed as a person and that home is inside of you and stays with you.

“That’s not something I knew. But I found it out more deeply by coming back,” he said.

The book is dedicated to Haven’s father, Richard Marshall Haven, who was the rector of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church for 28 years. Haven said his father grew up in a wealthy family in Albany, but in joining the ministry was influenced by a man who encouraged him to lead a poorer life and become engaged in social ministry.

In many ways, Haven led a different life from that of his father. He said he was always trying to balance his father’s idealistic teachings with his own social life, playing Little Giants football and Koller 49ers basketball.

“There was a difference between my home and church life and the rough and tumble life of an Amsterdam teenager. I was always trying to balance those two worlds,” Haven said.

Bob Cudmore, a radio personality on AM 1570 WVTL, plans to have Haven on his radio show Friday morning. Cudmore said Mohawk Valley authors, including Richard Russo, who wrote “The Risk Pool,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls,” have successfully used their hometowns as backdrops in their novels.

“There was a certain charm and reality to life in the area that people respond to,” Cudmore said. “The life that we knew has in large part disappeared.”

“There was a real culture to the mill town life, and a sense, when you lived here, that you were part of a bigger reality than you are now,” Cudmore said.

Most of Haven’s old friends have since moved away from Amsterdam, he said. While the characters in the book are real, some of the names have been changed, Haven said.

Haven went to college at the University of Iowa and graduate school at New York University. He continued to return to the area to visit his family until 1989.

Before returning to Amsterdam in 2003, Haven remembered the city as an industrial town where Coleco still manufactured Cabbage Patch Kids.

Haven said he was influenced by his roots and that it shows in his writing.

“I try to understand who I am as a human being and those are formative years before you’re 18,” he said. “That is very much a part of who I am, and I feel really lucky in some ways because I had some really close friends, and that’s a really important part of growing up.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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