Schenectady native Christopher Shaw is known for capturing the Adirondacks, its culture, history and landscape, through stories.
With his latest novel, he hopes to put the locally loved area on the literary map. Published earlier this year, “The Power Line” takes readers on a journey to Lake Aurora and Saranac Lake and through time, going back to the years following World War I. It weaves together fictionalized memories of longtime residents with well-known regional landmarks and highlights how much the area has changed.
It’s one of several books that Shaw has written over the years, fulfilling his vision of becoming a writer, which he’s had since his days growing up in the Stockade.
“It was the first thing I wanted to do, as soon as I read my first book. I’d watch shows and movies and I’d realize that they were stories and I liked stories,” Shaw said.
When he later attended Niskayuna High School, he and a few friends ran a literary magazine comically called “The Hairy Eyeball.” Through the years, they gave each other feedback on what Shaw calls their “bad beatnik poetry.” Once he graduated, he went on to study at Bard College, where things didn’t go according to plan.
“I went to a school that was full of writers, all of whom were better than I was. I dropped out and moved to the Adirondacks and after that it got hard,” Shaw said. “I was separated from any kind of literary culture.”
Shaw spent those rough years working odd jobs, moving back and forth between Schenectady and the Adirondacks. Yet, during that time he studied and read as much as he could about the Adirondacks, often checking out books from Union College’s Schaffer Library.
“I spent one summer staying in an apartment above a drugstore on Union Street and read from one end to the other [of the library] when I was about 19 or 20,” Shaw said.
Still, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to write.
“I was living in the woods in a geodesic dome and various cabins around Hadley looking for something regionally serious but that echoed in the way that [works] that might have arisen out of other regions echoed,” Shaw said, “There [were] a bunch of writers around southwestern Montana that made that region the focus on their dramas . . . but anything that was written about the Adirondacks, and this remains true, was inward-looking, was insular. They didn’t speak or communicate outside the region very well and there wasn’t much that was literary.”
Then, in the 1980s, when William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle was published, Shaw began to look differently at the area in terms of how it could be portrayed in literature.
“[Kennedy] did with Albany and the greater area what [William] Faulkner did in Mississippi and what [Gabriel García] Márquez did in Columbia, and it spoke to the world. But I also heard in his characters, the twang of the local regional speech. You could tell that the writer knew those people and had lived with those people and had reported on a lot of those people. That was eye-opening for me,” Shaw said.
He also began to freelance, writing articles about 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 to 1990 — they were formative years.
“I wasn’t there that long but I think that what we tried to do then was give the magazine a somewhat more contemporary focus, do real long-form journalism and include poetry . . . even a little bit of funky fiction here and there. So I’m proud that that transition happened then and somewhat that way of looking at the magazine has continued,” Shaw said.
When he left that position, he started doing more freelance work for outlets like the New York Times Book Review; he also ran the Northern Voices show on North Country Public Radio.
On top of that, he started teaching at Middlebury College shortly before his debut book, “Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods,” was published in 2000. It took years to write and edit and was partially based on his travels along the Usumacinta River. The novel was praised by national outlets like the Washington Post and others.
After all the work that went into that book, Shaw said he just wanted to have fun writing again and started working on “The Power Line,” back in the early 2000s.
“I wanted to write a book in a year like my friend Jay Parini. So I set out to do it and I wasn’t teaching full time yet, I was getting over an illness and I cranked it out in 18 months, which I thought was pretty good,” Shaw said.
Yet, there were a few snafus with the agent who had the book and after Shaw took a full-time job teaching at Middlebury and running an environmental journalism fellowship there, “The Power Line” was swept under the rug, not to be dusted off until he retired in 2018.
When he came back to it, the story was scattered in different files, some digital, some physical. After gathering all the chapters together, he hired a copy editor and graphic designer and published the novel through Miller Pond Editions, Saranac Lake and Outskirts Press in August.
Looking back, Shaw doesn’t quite recall what initially sparked the story idea, but his goal for the novel remains clear.
“I wanted to write fiction that snapped and moved along. I wanted to write it based in the experience of the Adirondacks and the ways of the Adirondacks but about an Adirondacks that was connected outward, rather than just inward,” Shaw said.
“The Power Line” follows the adventures of Fran Germaine, an engineer and fiddle player, and his friend Lonnie Monroe. They work for Paul Smith’s Electric Company and as bootleggers for Legs Diamond, a gangster in the Prohibition era.
At the start of the novel, which opens in the 1980s, Monroe relays his fading memories to an amateur historian and scholar, Abel St. Martin, who is recording the memories of long-time residents of Saranac Lake and Aurora Lake. The interview tapes partly explain what happened in the rumored shootout at Donnelly’s Corners, Saranac Lake, in 1929. They also document a few of Germaine and Monroe’s narrow escapes and misadventures.
The novel later delves into the journals of Rosalyn Orloff, a political theorist and reputed lover of Carl Jung. The journals reveal more not only about Germaine’s story but about the influence of the Adirondacks in American philosophy, which is often undervalued in Shaw’s view.
“The other thing that was going on at that time was . . . this rich intellectual stew that gets completely ignored in stories about the history of the Adirondacks. You hear that somebody, [like] Robert Louis Stevenson was here, Emerson was here, but it didn’t mean anything because they didn’t live here . . . But in fact, it meant something,” Shaw said.
The first part of the novel is action-oriented, with a classic western, or perhaps gangster tone, though throughout there are serious reflections on the Adirondack landscape, and how it has changed through the decades with additional infrastructure and transforming technology.
It’s a packed novel and one of several that Shaw has planned in an Adirondack series, including a “Power Line” prequel, “The Crazy Wisdom,” a book about his longtime friendship with fellow Schenectady native Jon Cody, and “Adirondack Mind,” a collection of his essays about the Adirondacks which spans more than 15 years.
“I’m pretty determined that they get out one way or another and if I have to do those myself I will,” Shaw said.
In the meantime, he continues to write for Adirondack Life among other outlets and spends his time between Bristol, Vermont, and Saranac Lake with his wife, Sue Kavanagh.
His advice for young writers?
“Have [a few] things that you will always be interested in and become an expert in that you can always write about. You have to have equanimity with sucking. When it’s terrible you just have to keep going. Most of the writing takes place in many versions of rewriting and rethinking. . . . All those things are predicated on figuring out a way to live and work. You have to be willing to do things like go on vacation to work, which I have found very effective.”
“The Power Line” is available on outskirtspress.com and as an eBook on iBook and Nook. For more information visit cshaw.net.