Getting out of Buffalo, and finding a writing life in Greensboro
by Jordan Green
Greg Shemkovitz is far more self aware than Eddie Lanning, the protagonist of Lot Boy (see accompanying review).
Seated at a café table outside Spring Garden Bakery in Greensboro on a cool weekday morning, he’s explaining how he conceived the character — his attitude, backstory and dialect — how he built a world around a Ford dealership and service garage on the south side of Buffalo, and how he experimented with second person to convey perspective and drive the narrative forward.
A lot is happening all at once for the 35-year-old Shemkovitz, a Buffalo native who moved to Greensboro with his wife in 2010. Lot Boy, his first novel, comes out on July 21 on sunnyoutside, a small publishing house in his hometown. He’s carrying around first drafts of five other manuscripts, including one started in 2011 that he’ll be revising over the summer. After bouncing between adjunct gigs at area universities, he’s landed a faculty position at Elon University. He and his wife have bought a house in Greensboro’s mannered Sunset Hills neighborhood. And they’re expecting a second child any day now.
“All the signs that indicate the baby’s ready to come out — they’re all there,” Shemkovitz says as he fills his to-go cup from the house coffee urn.
Whatever the pressures of turning out a novel, pursuing a teaching career and being a father, he seems to be maintaining a good equilibrium and taking joy from the process. In that regard, he’s 180 degrees from his character Eddie Lanning, who is responsible for the most menial jobs at the car dealership his father owns. With only the smallest glimmer of circumspection, Eddie lurches into an ill-conceived criminal scheme while creepily stalking an ex-girlfriend, an addict in recovery and amputee.
“It can be considered autobiographical in some ways,” Shemkovitz says. “I lived there, I worked there, and I left. I did barely any of that stuff that Eddie did. That should be obvious — or at least I hope it is.”
While taking some time off from his undergraduate studies at SUNY Oswego, Shemkovitz worked as a lot boy — a job that entails everything from detailing cars and emptying oil pans to ferrying customers home.
“I was cataloguing what was going on,” he says. “Stephen King says he lets his characters go and records what happens. That’s kind of my approach.”
In its first incarnation, Lot Boy was written as a novella for Shemkovitz’s MFA thesis at UNCG. He put the project aside, and in fact didn’t write at all for two or three years, while he was teaching GED classes to welfare clients in Philadelphia.
“I kept thinking about the novel,” he says. “You get these ideas. You want to get the story right. I sat down with it again. I said, ‘I’m going to revisit this story without the deadline of graduation.’”
Shemkovitz wanted Lot Boy to be an entertaining read, above all.
He admires the book’s stripped-down prose, noting that he could probably turn it into a young-adult novel if he excised the profanity from his characters’ dialogue and interior musings.
“You don’t have to have a dictionary nearby to read it,” Shemkovitz says. “There are no 10-cent words. This a book with a lot of buy-one-get-one-free words.”
Beyond providing enjoyment, Shemkovitz believes literature can also be enriching.
“With this book I’m not trying to changes lives,” he says. “It’s enriching enough to get a glimpse into a service garage and go along for a ride with a guy that does things you and I would not do. That’s what a documentary does. He’s not really sympathetic, but you’re stuck with him. He’s real: There are guys like that in the world. Beyond the fraud, he takes cars off the lot and wrecks them. He drinks and drives. He’s not really a bad guy. Nobody’s really bad.”
“Wilford Brimley’s bad.”
Then he laughs.
In the novel, Eddie calls the fence “Wilford Brimley” because he resembles the grandfatherly actor in the Quaker Oats commercial. The conceit is that the fence is the most ruthless character in the novel. He never gets a real name, just Eddie’s mocking reference.
Suddenly Shemkovitz is mortified by a thought, and stops to Google the actor’s name on his smart phone.
“Wilford Brimley’s not dead, is he?” he asks. “If he’s not alive I’ll be a jerk. Okay, he’s alive. He’s 80.”
Then the author wonders aloud whether his protagonist is a sociopath.
“He’s not Don Draper,” Shemkovitz says. “He has the traits of a sociopath, but he doesn’t have the power. Isn’t that every teenager? Can you be a sociopath and not have power? Because he’s a 27-year-old lot boy. He hasn’t mentally grown up. Teenagers at their worst don’t have the cognitive backing to make rational decisions. Yet here they are desiring to break the rules and test boundaries.”
Shemkovitz carries around a smallish notebook where he jots down ideas for his manuscripts: problems that need resolution, ideas for pacing and scene setting, new perspectives. He advises against waiting too long to revise a first draft, considering that the author’s perspective can shift over time.
“I didn’t think about whether Eddie was a sociopath when I was writing Lot Boy,” he says. “I can’t reread it now without asking myself that question.”
Review: 27 Views of Greensboro: The Gate City in Prose and Poetry by various authors, Eno Publishers, 2015
Greensboro is a city of silos — not in the literal sense, though there’s plenty in this place to suggest its not-so-distant agrarian roots.
The silos in Greensboro are invisible, constricting our view of the larger picture through racial segregation of schools and neighborhoods, socioeconomic stratification, selective memory and inherent tribalism.
From 27 Views of Greensboro, a compilation of essays and poetry by some of the city’s best-known authors, journalists and educators, the reader gets the sense that it’s always been this way, and it always will be.
Recollections of idyllic childhoods run alongside disturbing memoirs of inequality — sometimes in the same piece, as with News & Record Editorial Editor Allen Johnson’s story about the house he grew up in while the downtown neighborhood was transitioning from white flight.
That underpinning of racial tension is a theme that runs through nearly every story. Logie Meachum’s recollection of the bus lines that ran past the Magnolia Hotel called the place “a known safety zone, even for the more famous and well-known coloreds, as we were called in those days.” Journalism teacher and former N&R columnist Lorraine Ahearn tells the story of a grand old house from the city’s Gilded Age that slid into dereliction after its street was renamed to honor Martin Luther King, and then back to respectability as the neighborhood gentrified into Southside. Memories of the 1960 Woolworth’s sit-ins come from all sides: the black participant and the white observer and the clueless child who didn’t understand until years later.
The most compelling of the racial memoirs comes from author Linda Beatrice Brown, who in “A Nice, Nasty Town” busts the sit-in from its own silo and contextualizes it with the story of Josephine Boyd, the first black student to attend Greensboro Senior High in 1957.
She was pelted with eggs, threatened by a Klansman and called the N-word so many times she may have become numb to it, but probably not. Her family’s pets were murdered, a large tree felled across their driveway and her father’s business, a snack bar, “inexplicably burned down.”
Another theme concerns the transitory nature of the city beyond its generational residents. Historian and journalist Jim Schlosser’s captivating snapshot of the dirty days of Hamburger Square and the trains that moved people through lays the groundwork for the sentiment, with a slew of essays by writers who thought they were just passing through and ended up staying for decades.
It’s best captured by journalist Ed Cone, whose family history is analogous to that of the boom days in Greensboro, with his piece “Ghost City.”. He manages to find a connective thread, defining us by what we were, what we aspire to be and, most tellingly, what Greensboro is not not.
“We brag about our GPS coordinates in terms of proximity to the mountains and the beach, and even the geological designation of piedmont is defined by the region next door,” he writes
Fred Chappell manages to capture an abstract portrait of the city in just a few brushstrokes with a few observations from the bar at the O. Henry Hotel during an ice storm.
Filling out the volume are separate pieces — funny, poignant, whimsical, authentic — that give a mosaic of what it means to live in this city where the trains run through all day and the shadow of Feb. 1, 1960 still looms large.
And that, perhaps, is where the book misses its mark. Because while the writers have an enlightened view of this vein of racism running through the city’s history, there is not much about the sentiment that moved some Greensborians to throw eggs at Josephine Boyd in 1957, other than a sort of blanket condemnation.
Perhaps, in silos of our own, it’s possible for us not to see that in some ways, the eggs are still flying.