January 24, 2007


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City in character
Lawrence nativeís novel brings hometown to life
By Brian†Early bearly@hippopress.com

Jay Atkinson is the author of City in Amber, a historical-fictional story of Lawrence, Mass. Since he was a child growing up in Lawrence, he wanted to write about the city, a place he ďloved the way youíd love a broken-down alcoholic uncle who used to be a champion sprinter.Ē Atkinson teaches writing at Salem State College and plays for the Amoskeag Rugby Club in Manchester.

Q:How would you describe the book?
Itís an adventure story, but the main character is the city. ...characters come and go, but the city endures.

Why does Lawrence need its story told?
Writers by their very nature are rooted in their home town. Hemingway wrote about Illinois, Michigan and Paris, Faulkner wrote Mississippi, and Flannery OíConnor wrote about Georgia. Iím writing about Lawrence, Mass., because itís just as mythic as any other place.

How did your views change of Lawrence while writing the book? What did you learn about what lurks behind the scene?
Even when I was growing up, the mill buildings were empty ... we would go down to Essex Street, the main business district in Lawrence, [and] the stores were all busy. But even back then ... the mill buildings were these massive empty buildings that [had] this ominous appeal for me. As you drove by, you could see it was a building a mile long, totally intact, made of red brick with nothing inside, no machines, no people, nothing. It was sort of like the Pyramids of Giza. It planted a seed in me ... I wanted to explore where these buildings came from, who worked there and what were they all about. And then it took me 30 years to get the chops as a writer to tell the story.

How did you write this book?
I spent two and a half years at a place now called the Lawrence History Center that has genealogy records, old newspapers, old letters.... Essentially, Lawrence was a planned industrial utopia. The same company, Boston Associates, that owned the Essex Company that built Lawrence also owned the Amoskeag Company, which built a lot of mills in Manchester ... I spent two years ... steeping myself in all that ... then it took me another almost eight years to weave that together with a story ... about the inhabitants of Lawrence over the ensuing generations.

You describe a present-day interaction between Walter Beaumount, an old retired banker in the city, and the Latino gang leader Kuko Carrero. How did you write that?
My great uncle was president of Lawrence Savings Bank, and some of his history matches Walter Beaumont. He rose from undereducated mill worker to bank president. And Iíve also written extensively about law enforcement and about the criminal element in Massachusetts. Iíve talked to gang members, Iíve seen gang members in action.... I have a story coming out this week in Commonwealth Magazine where I spent three months investigating violent street gangs in greater Boston. I was able to take my family experience and my experience as a journalist and put it together in this novel to create characters that are fairly realistic, but they are fictional.

What similarities [exist] between Lawrence and Manchester?
The obvious similarities: the same people built the cities on the river and used the water power from the river.... Amos and Abbott Lawrence were investors in both the city of Lawrence and the city of Manchester. If you look at the history, they were planted from the same seed. If you look at which city has rebounded ... and generated new small businesses and used the mill buildings to incubate restaurants, spas, housing, gyms, small start-up businesses, itís Manchester. Manchester has certainly turned that old stock of red brick mill buildings from the 1840s to the 1900s into something thatís blooming today much more than Lawrence has. There are lots of places you can go out in Manchester; there are some places in Lawrence.

Whatís your next project?
Iím writing a book for John Wiley & Sons called ďParadise Road.Ē ... Iím reproducing the five major the trips that Jack Kerouac took around the U.S. and into Mexico to write On the Road. He took those trips from 1947 to 1949, so 60 years later Iím taking some of those same trips ... and Iím writing about how America has changed and [how] it remained the same. Itís been a fascinating project. I just finished a trip on the West Coast with one of my friends from New Hampshire. It was a lot of fun, but it also gave me some perspective on Kerouacís relationship with his friends when he was traveling.

Do you take the trips in a similar style?
Iím not driving in a 1933 Hudson or anything. One of Kerouacís friends who I visited ... David Amram ó heís a composer for scores on some major films and collaborated with Kerouac on Pull my Daisy ó I hitchhiked to his house in upstate New York from Manhattan, which is very difficult to do in this day and age. We had a cup of tea and we talked about ... his memories of Kerouac. As I was leaving he said, ďRemember youíre not a Civil War reenactor. Go out there and have a good time of your own.Ē And I think that was real good advice.

óBrian Early