Government, law and fiction are three words seldom used together, aside from perhaps in a sarcastic jest about written legislation. However, former state lawmaker, corporate attorney and novelist James A. Shapiro has seamlessly combined all three in his career.
While the stresses of legal practice may lead to restless nights for some lawyers, Shapiro usually sleeps soundly.
But the idea for his first novel, an adventure book for young adults called Killmaiden’s Compendium of Uncommon Occurrences, came to him as an inventive dream.
"It sounds unlikely," said Shapiro, who lives in Stamford. "Other than my 4-year-old waking me up in the middle of the night, I’m usually not prone to waking up like that. But when I woke up, I still had the idea fresh in my head, and I thought, ‘This is terrific.’"
A lesson learned; he now keeps a pad of paper and pen on his bedside table.
Published early in January, Killmaiden’s, in its most general sense, is about explorers sent on missions to uncover mysteries of the Wide World—a world in which an epic encyclopedia (the Compendium) chronicles hundreds of years’ worth of exotic journeys and adventures.
These days, Shapiro is an assistant general counsel at the Stamford headquarters of Pitney Bowes. At the global technology company, he’s involved in everything from online and digital business, to software distribution, to defending the company in government investigations. "Lawyers cover a lot of ground at Pitney Bowes," Shapiro said.
Earlier in his career, he was director of legal affairs — handling intellectual property and other corporate duties — at Barnes & Noble in New York City. It was there he was first bitten by the creative writing bug.
"I sat on the ‘Discover Great New Writers’ panel, and I was reading two galleys [proofs of books] a week on the train in and out of Manhattan," he said. "I was so impressed with the writing that I thought if I could do anything half this good, I would be pleased. That’s when the germ of writing a book first started with me."
This hidden itch wasn’t scratched until years later, when Shapiro was deep into his own political adventures as a state representative.
Shapiro, a former Stamford City Council member, was first elected to the legislature in 2004 and served for six years. As co-chair of the General Law Committee, the Democrat used his legal expertise to push for consumer rights legislation, including a bill to ban the sale of plastic baby bottles containing bisphenol-A (BPA), a harmful chemical to newborns. "In politics, I got a daily dose of ideas that were impossible to get the votes for," Shapiro said. "In writing the book, those barriers don’t exist."
He said writing the book was the yin to the yang of politics.
A legislator, Shapiro said, spends a lot of time in "big rooms with lots of people and shuffling and shouting and people calling your name. When I was writing, it was me and a room in my house with my laptop and hopefully enough imagination to fill a page."
He’s done some exploring of his own — watching wildlife in Australia’s Outback, traveling through Eastern Europe, skiing in "strange places" out West, to name a few — and he drew on those experiences and locales in writing his book.
He also drew on his experiences in the law. While writing legislation or a contract may seem very different from writing creative fiction, Shapiro said the goal is the same: to express thoughts clearly and concisely. "You don’t want to leave room for doubt in a contract, and you don’t want to leave doubt in a [novel] reader’s mind," Shapiro said.
He is planning to write a sequel to the open-ended Killmaiden’s.
"People have asked me, ‘Oh, isn’t it so exciting to see your name in print?’" he said. "But for me, that’s not the interesting part of this, having been in politics. For me, what I want most of all, is for the journey to continue, and for the characters to keep the story alive."
For now, Shapiro is pleasantly surprised at the breadth of the audience for Killmaiden’s. He hopes in reading the book, "a new generation of young adults will want to be explorers — and that is absolutely something they can do — and we’ll all be better off if they do it," Shapiro said. And he hopes adults who read the novel can, with their imaginations, take some trips they wouldn’t have otherwise, learning more about other cultures and the planet.
In the meantime, Shapiro will continue to live his dual life as writer and lawyer. "It keeps things interesting," he said. "I like my legal job and I enjoy writing, so as long as I can keep that and get enough sleep, I’m happy to do both."•
To learn more about James Shapiro and his novel, Killmaiden’s Compendium of Uncommon Occurrences, visit www.killmaidens.com.