Words // Lin Stone
Once upon a time and not-very-long-ago, a local newspaper article about a Phish concert in Coventry percolated inspiration for Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s debut novel, “Shape of the Sky.” Shapiro had read that a local farmer didn’t plant crops in his fields that year because he could make more money renting them to concert campers for one weekend than he could by planting for a full growing season.
Shapiro said, “Although the book is not based on that concert, it made me question how the event affected farm life and that community. It led me to think about all of the different perspectives of the town’s people, concertgoers, and the ways in which their lives intersected.
“At the time I read the article, I was taking piano lessons and had just learned about the circle of fifths, which is a visual representation of the relationships among the 12 tones of a musical scale and the major and minor keys. It just felt right to me to connect that structure with a music festival and with characters in the story. Each chapter looks at the event from one [major and minor] character’s perspective – I imagined how different people would react while also exploring the interconnectedness of one small community and one big weekend’s chain of events.
Would you tell us about some of the story’s characters and where that inspiration came from?
“Well, I always start writing with characters, and characters lead to my plots. In ‘Shape of the Sky,’ my biggest writing surprise was the elderly man walking in the woods – I didn’t expect that he would stumble upon a dead body – but as mentioned, my characters always lead me to plot.
“A character I really loved was Chris, the cop. His story was very real to me, and it engendered great sympathy. When he was just a little boy, his older sister disappeared without any trace or any resolution. Imagine how that would affect a child and then follow them throughout life…
“The most difficult character for me to write was Rita. I avoided her because she was not a good person, and finding her voice was explosive for me…but now? Now Rita is four chapters.”
Is this book a murder mystery?
“To me this is not a book about a murder; ‘Shape of the Sky’ has a murder mystery in it but it’s not a murder mystery. The music and concert brings different people with very different lives together at one intersecting point in time. To me, the book deals with the power of human relationships: how we interact, nourish, support each other, and ultimately, about how our relationships can save us.”
Author Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s radio show “Write the Book” is heard weekly on 105.9 FM The Radiator, an arm of the non-profit organization Big Heavy World, which serves Vermont music and youth. Shapiro has interviewed more than 300 authors; archived podcasts can be found on iTunes. She holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, which she says is “One of the very best things I ever did for myself,” and she is a contributing editor for their literary journal, Hunger Mountain. Her stories have also appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, the Baltimore Review, Short Story, Gulf Stream, and others.
Shapiro lives in South Burlington with her husband Jerry. She is the mother of three grown boys who trained her to write around the thrum of cars, radios, guitars, saxophones, drums, video games, computers, and basketballs.