Photo by Doug Schneider
Scarsdale’s Anthony E. Shaw has turned a lifetime love of reading into a writing career suffused with faith and storytelling.
Quick vocabulary quiz: Who knows what amanuensis means? Writer Anthony E. Shaw does. In fact, he casually drops the word into conversation. An amanuensis is a literary scribe or one who takes dictation. Shaw believes that he plays this role when he’s working on a book. “I hope you don’t think I’m nuts,” he says with a laugh, “but when I’m writing, the characters tell me what to write, and I just follow along.”
Shaw needn’t worry about hearing such voices. In fact, more than 60% of writers recently surveyed reported the same experience. (The University of Durham, in England, conducted this research, which was published in Psychology Today. Thank you, internet.) While writing his latest book, A Gathering of Broken Mirrors, Shaw’s inner dialogue must have been quite a din.
The work is a collection of 24 stories set in New York, each told by a different narrator. The stories are fictional, but many are based on actual events, such as a plane crash in Brooklyn in 1960 and a fireworks explosion on Staten Island. Others are more personal: A lonely woman comes to terms with the death of her husband; a man sees a ghost on the subway.
Shaw, a Scarsdale resident who was born in Queens and raised in Brooklyn, knows the city well, but A Gathering of Broken Mirrors isn’t autobiographical, he insists. Most of the characters are African Americans or of Italian descent, Shaw notes in the book’s preface, because “I am proudly descended from these people.” But he is quick to add that “these aren’t my stories. They belong to the characters, some of whom are based on people I knew or know, or perhaps myself, but only to a small degree,” he says.
Examining their individual lives lends insight into the whole of a complex city, according to Shaw. “When a mirror breaks,” he says of the title, “you get 50 or 60 views of the same thing. Your mouth is in one shard of glass, your eyes in another. Nothing is connected, which makes you see things differently — perhaps you gain something when you break it.”
To underscore this metaphor, Shaw cites the cubist paintings of Picasso and the sculptures of Giacometti, quickly adding that he is not comparing himself to artists of such stature. Shaw weaves myriad literary and artistic references into his writing and conversation but does so without ever seeming pretentious — no small feat.
An insatiable reader who finishes more than 100 books a year, Shaw simply discusses what interests him. In the short forward to A Gathering of Broken Mirrors, Shaw deftly mentions the Greek playwright Aeschylus, psychologist Alfred Adler, and artist Salvador Dali as he discusses the importance of memory. He isn’t trying to dazzle the reader but rather seems humbly determined to give credit to the great minds that have helped him formulate his worldview.
“I read voraciously,” Shaw says, “but I describe myself as a peripatetic reader. I put one book down, pick one up — I’m like a juggler, always five to six books in midair.” Some of his favorite writers include Rex Stout, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, and he professes a special fondness for Edith Wharton. “Anyone who doesn’t cry when reading the last scene of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence doesn’t have a beating heart,” he says.
This might be an interesting time to mention that Shaw, an apparent romantic, used to be the deputy mayor of Yonkers. Ultimately rejecting politics as a vocation (“I had no private life”), Shaw embarked on a successful career in corporate human resources. So successful, it turns out, that he was able to “retire” in his late 40s. “I was blessed to have this opportunity, but I don’t play golf,” he says, “so I asked myself: What am I going to do?”
Shaw started a consulting business and returned to a childhood dream of becoming a writer. His first book, The Faithful Manager, outlines his approach to management: “labor relations mixed with a faith in God,” he says. His second book, Wolfe Studies, is a critical examination of the writer Rex Stout and his fictional hero, detective Nero Wolfe.
“It’s all part of the process, something that my creator gave me, a modest gift. When the process tells me to write, I sit down and write.”
A Gathering of Broken Mirrors, meanwhile, has been dubbed “intelligently conceived and sporadically luminous” by Kirkus Reviews.
Shaw, now happily ensconced in Scarsdale, where he lives with his wife and school-age son (he has two adult children, as well), is grateful for the many libraries at his family’s disposal, the baseball fields, parks, and riverside hiking trails near his home. “I love Westchester County,” he says. “I love that all three of my children have been raised and educated here. It’s just the most pleasant place to live if you have a family.” As a writer, Shaw also appreciates “the free flow of people and cultures. Westchester is, from my experience, the ultimate accessible community — spiritually, culturally, and physically.”
His next project? Shaw says he’ll wait patiently for inspiration. “It’s all part of the process, something that my creator gave me, a modest gift,” he says. “When the process tells me to write, I sit down and write.”