If I hadn’t made that access, this story would have vanished into thin air.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Laurie Gwen Shapiro had written novels and made award-winning film documentaries when she decided to combine the two skills to write a nonfiction story, allowing for dialog. The first step was to increase her nonfiction clips. Laurie took small jobs, one being a piece on the history of St. Stanislaus, a Polish Catholic Church in the Lower East Side of New York City. On Day 2 of her research, she came cross a headline, worded something like, The Polish Stowaway Kid Who Swam Across the Hudson and Got To Antarctica. Laurie’s reaction – “What!” At that moment, a major pivot took place. Laurie Gwen Shapiro was now on the road to what ultimately became her first nonfiction book, The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica.
The stowaway was Billy Gawronski, a first-generation son of Polish immigrants. Groomed to take over the family upholstery business, 17-year-old Billy had other ideas. His need for a more adventurous life led him to devise a plan to sneak onto The City of New York, a ship that was soon sailing to Antarctica. The expedition was the most significant event going on in the country in 1928, and its leader, Commander Richard Byrd, already famous for supposedly being the first to fly over the North Pole, was a worshipped hero. Billy was hyped and determined. After many obstacles, he arrived in Antarctica.
Several reviewers have applauded Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s fascinating and detailed portrayal of Billy Gawronski’s voyage and life experiences, beginning with his childhood. Her storytelling abilities are in the league of today’s top narrative nonfiction writers. Laurie’s high school English teacher, Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), would be proud. He mentored and taught her to look around her Lower East Side neighborhood for stories; to start with what she knows.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s next book, slated to be published by Viking in 2022, is about Amelia Earhart. It will unfold her decade-long relationship with George Palmer Putnam. In an interview with Jeannie Ralston of Next Tribe – Age Boldly, Laurie told the Zoom audience that a “narrative” nonfiction book had not been written about Amelia Earhart. Where will Laurie travel to research? While researching The Stowaway, she boarded a ship in New Zealand that began her travel to Antarctica.
Also in the interview with Jeannie Ralston, was a treasure trove of stories and writing advice that Laurie shares. She especially emphasizes the value of access. For The Stowaway, Laurie’s best access resulted from her deep dive to find someone related to Billy Gawronski. Cold calls landed her on the phone with his widow, Gizela Trawicka Gawronski. Jackpot! Whether you’re a writer or not, Laurie’s confidence and generosity comes across in the interview and will inspire viewers to keep at it – whatever “it” is.
The Stowaway is on its fourth edition, and published in French and large print. Read more about Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s work on the About page of her website.
Thank you for this fabulous postcard, Laurie! What luck to find it during the pandemic, AND with an image of the Lower East Side, Billy’s and your home! I love having it for my collection. 🙂