Lost Stories: An Interview with Laurie Gwen Shapiro
By Kim Steutermann Rogers
I met Laurie Gwen Shapiro in Northern California one fall evening. In a cozy courtyard on the University of California-Berkeley campus, I was chatting with an editor from The New Yorker when, mid-conversation, we got interrupted by a dark-haired woman.
When I learned she was writing about a teenager who stowed away on a 1928 expedition to the Antarctic, I forgave her interruption. I love a good adventure story to remote places, and the unbelievable tale of how teenager Billy Gawronski jumped into the Hudson River to sneak aboard Rear Admiral Richard Byrd’s ship triggered my imagination.
Charles Lindbergh had just crossed the Atlantic solo, barely besting Byrd. Byrd decided to get his “first” by leading the first American expedition to Antarctica, dragging an airplane with him, to become the first to fly over the South Pole. So Billy Gawronski’s story also captures a nostalgic era in time, the Polish immigrant experience, and how science—in this case, aviation—inspired exploration.
The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica is Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s first book of nonfiction. She’s a native of New York City’s Lower East Side. Prior to writing nonfiction, she published several novels and made award-winning documentary films. The Stowaway was named a best book of the year by Publisher’s Weekly. It was recommended by Scientific American and excerpted in Outside. After its publication in January 2018, The Stowaway was selected as an Indie Next Pick and Best History Book by both Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
I spoke with Laurie Gwen Shapiro to find out how The Stowaway is shaped by place, from the wilds of Antarctica to the immigrant communities of New York City.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: First, how the heck does a woman who was born and raised in New York City, who doesn’t have a driver’s license, who is married with one teenage kid and still living in the childhood apartment in which she was raised—did I get all that correct?—how does she wind up writing about Antarctica? And going to Antarctica?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: Yes, you have that right, and please add in a 97-year-old widowed father who’s just moved back in. Quite a mix.
I think you need a little back story. I published very early in my late 20s—a first novel from Algonquin Books called The Unexpected Salami that did pretty well with a nice TheNew York Times review, a film deal. No complaints. But as a young woman in the Bridget Jones Diary era (1998), I was pushed into chick lit, which made money but left me unsatisfied as a writer. At the same time, I was having a concurrent career as a filmmaker with bigger stories—winning an Independent Spirit Award and Emmy nomination. My films took me to the Amazon, to the Indonesian half of New Guinea, to India. No matter how successful documentaries are, it is almost impossible to make a living off them. Awards don’t pay bills and even after an HBO payout, you still have to pay staff.
Then my father, who is in a wheelchair, moved into my home. How could I navigate this new life? I decided to marry my filmmaking skills with my novel skills. I wanted to tell a true story that unfolded like a novel. I switched agents to one who saw my vision. She signed me up without a new book but saw my determination. She wanted me to practice my nonfiction skills. I started writing articles, and she said when I find the right story, I will know it.
This was 2013. January. Right after my New Year’s resolution to write a nonfiction book. I took a small blog job for $200 about the history of a local NYC Polish Catholic Church called St. Stanislaus. I used my film skills to research it and came across mention of a first generation Polish stowaway being cheered by hundreds of kids from the church in 1928. What?! Could this be my story?
I needed more. I guessed no one could be bothered to spell long names correctly and spelled his name, Billy Gawronski, several different ways—Cavronski, Gavronski, Gawronski—and got more hits. But not enough for a book. I needed a descendant.
As a filmmaker I would have made a chart. So I did—of all the Gawronskis and Gavronskis up and down the Eastern Seaboard. I called and asked if an ancestor had jumped in the Hudson River and stowed away to Antarctica with Admiral Byrd in 1928—and the hang-ups were fast!
On the 16th call, I reached an older woman in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, who seemed to have Polish accent. I thought, this can’t be her—Billy was born in New York in 1910 and his kid or grandkid would have an American accent. But I did my spiel anyhow and she said softly, “That was my husband!” I had a frisson. I knew this was it. Then she said to come to Maine—that she had everything—notebooks, photos, yearbooks, scrapbooks, stories. All of this was achieved using documentary skills.
I made my way there and within six weeks had a book deal. I had two years to deliver. Now I had to become an expert. I read for a year. But it nagged at me—I must go to Antarctica. So much to my husband’s chagrin, I took a good chunk of the advance and bought a ticket to New Zealand to an expedition headed to the Ross Sea. I spent four weeks in Antarctica.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: Will you tell us more about your trip and how it deepened your understanding of Billy’s experiences?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I couldn’t imagine writing about Antarctica without going. I searched for an expedition that left from New Zealand to the Ross Sea and, frankly, those are very rare and expensive as most trips leave from Ushuaia, Argentina and visit the Antarctica peninsula, which allows for an easier, shorter trip. The one I found that satisfied my specifications was over a month long and semi-circumnavigated Antarctica, leaving from the bottom tip of New Zealand and arriving in Ushuaia. This also allowed me to visit Dunedin, from where the old explorers often left, including the American expedition of 1928 on which Billy was a stowaway.
There were very rich people on my trip! We had helicopters on the ship, too, so we could land on the ice if we could not get there by inflated Zodiac raft. When I got the bill I was mortified—I’d spent a good deal of my advance—but I got the cheapest room, a triple by the engine room. I had faith it would be worth it. It turned out to be the right instinct and greatly influenced the writing of my book.
I was amazed as we passed the worst storm I’d ever been in that I was not ill. My two roommates could not stop throwing up and were bedridden. Out on deck I imagined this was a bit like Billy Gawronski felt when he realized he, too, could be an immigrant kid from the Lower East Side and manage waves without getting seasick. Then as we drew closer I saw the penguins in the same order that the men on the expedition saw—first the adorable Adelies, tiny cuties that are actually quite fierce. And as we got even closer to the South Pole, I saw the Emperor penguins made famous by the film Happy Feet. Fortunately, Gary Miller, one of the world’s foremost penguin experts, was a lecturer and guide on board. He even coached Happy Feet, and from our Zodiac rafts he made calls the penguins answered. On the way over, I even saw the rarest penguins in the world, the yellow-eyed penguins of the sub-Antarctic Campbell Islands.
One thing I did not write in any drafts before visiting the area was the overwhelming smell of penguin guano—a big cow-barn smell I will never forget. Everywhere we went that had penguins were carcasses of penguins that did not survive. We visited the huts of former explorers, and I felt part of a continuum seeing Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds frozen in time as he left it. The weather was too fierce to visit the nearby Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans—the fierce katabatic winds were in full force that day, the strongest winds in the world. Everyone was disappointed, but Antarctica controls the day’s itinerary.
I saw many kinds of whales up close. And I could experience that thrill over and over. Instead of reading about the birds like skuas, snow petrels, and sheathbills in a book, I experienced them flying directly overhead or landing next to me on a Zodiac.
Another thing I learned was it was silly, especially in summer, to say Antarctica is all white, and just talk about whiteness. Looking back on my first draft before visiting Antarctica is downright embarrassing. The different colors of the sunset were incredible. It is hard to understand the gradations of color without being there. I learned the names of different kinds of ice.
I was a New Yorker, who, like my protagonist, experienced true silence for the first time.
The most memorable experience was reaching the Ross Ice Barrier, which in 2018 is called the Ross Ice Shelf. Our expedition leader had planned on using the two helicopters on board to land on top of the Barrier. But the weather was terrible. They decided to have the Zodiacs out but only a few people would risk it. Gary Miller, the penguin expert and now a friend, convinced me to go in the very scary and dangerous weather. There were six of us on board the raft with him, and he sang us songs to calm us down. He turned the Zodiac around, so I could touch the Barrier, saying to me, “Laurie, you are now in the southernmost place in the world you can reach by ship.” I had a chill, and not from the weather! A true frisson of excitement.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: Sounds amazing. I’m curious if you think Billy’s attraction to adventure was fueled more by the idea of Antarctica or by ship life? I find cars, trains, planes, and ships trigger a kind of wanderlust for people.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I think Billy’s adventure was fueled by the library. He loved adventure books the librarians put aside for him. And also hero worship. His hero was Richard Byrd (commander at the start of the expedition, admiral by the end). However, I have photos of Billy dressed as a sailor after he went on an early childhood sea trip with his mother to meet her family in Europe. By his wife’s account he was determined to live a ship life even though he was doomed to the family business of upholstery.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: Do you think it was what ship life offered him—camaraderie, say—or that ship life satisfied his thirst for adventure? That is, what a ship represents—exploration, travel to foreign lands?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I think he was imprinted by being on a sea voyage at a young age. He loved it so much and refused to get out of his sailor suit when he returned. He crossed the Atlantic twice as a very young boy with his mother.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: I know you enjoy history, especially that of your hometown. I’m wondering what you learned about NYC in researching and writing The Stowaway that surprised you?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: My high school English teacher and mentor was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt, who always advised his students to stay local. This story is more of a story of my neighborhood, the Lower East Side, and that’s how I found it—by starting local. I did not know about the large, very progressive Polish Catholic community that once lived here—or that the Polish Catholic boys learned to swim in rivers of New York.
Billy’s connections to his neighborhood greatly influenced his career. When he returned to the sea during the Depression, he heard some of the wealthier Jews fleeing Hitler in the mid-1930s talking about the atrocities. Billy spoke Yiddish and German because there were many Jews in his old neighborhood. My neighborhood. He rose as an officer because of his way with these passengers and became one of the youngest sea captains in World War II. Mr. McCourt was right—you don’t have to travel far to find a great story. Explore your own neighborhood you think you know, and stories will come.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: Such great advice from Frank McCourt and how amazing to be a high school student of his! Did he have other words of wisdom that have stuck with you over the years?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: He was tougher on me than other students, because he felt that others weren’t destined to be writers. I had told him my desire to be a writer, and he truly mentored me. Stuyvesant, my public high school in Manhattan, was full of mathematicians and scientists, and he just wanted them to write well. But for the kids he thought might write for a living, he took another approach. He really pushed us to talk about things that embarrassed us, and own those stories. He gave me low marks one semester, and I had no idea why. Then I got a 100 for my final grade after I pushed myself to read a story about having a disabled father in front of the class. He told me he did that to me so I didn’t coast.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: You dedicated The Stowaway to your father, Julius Shapiro, recognizing him as “my hero and lifelong champion.” Will you share a little of what makes him so special and how he championed you as a woman, a writer, and a person? I know you adore our world’s wise elders and often write about them. Might there be a book or something else in the works about your father?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I have written about my dad for Narratively, but no plans for a book although my agent has asked me to. My dad himself has persevered—he lost two wives to illness, was partially paralyzed in World War II when there was a shortage of penicillin. But even at 97 he wakes up every day with a game plan.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: I know the book is the story of Billy’s adventurous spirit that led to his experiences as a stowaway, but I’m wondering what happened to Billy. How did his adventures change him? What did people back home think of his travels?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: It is important to understand why Billy, who was once quite well known around the world, faded from memory.
First off, this expedition takes place from 1928 to 1930 and straddles the wealthy Jazz Age New York. When the almost-all volunteer staff return from Antarctica, it is 1930, and the nation is beset in a financial crisis due to the stock market crash. Yes they have a ticker tape parade; yes there is some fanfare; but the world is less distracted by the idea of parades and heroes. They want jobs and food.
It really worsens around 1932, when Billy has been admitted to Columbia University—with Byrd’s help. He was the Ivy League stowaway now and the newspapers covered that, too. However his parents, who had supported him despite his defying them, lost their upholstery and decorating business. And secretly, his mother had written Byrd begging him to not let her son join him on a second expedition to Antarctica. I saw the correspondence in the archives of Ohio State University and then called his widow. She was as shocked as I was, and said Billy died without ever knowing why Byrd did not ask him back.
Even with a scholarship, Billy was needed at home. He could not get work. But his life at sea saved him. He was able to get menial jobs at the seaport that no one else would take—like the coal room. He started to get gigs at sea as a sailor on such ships as the SS Manhattan. He was exceedingly well-mannered, as he had trained under Byrd. The wealthy Jews were escaping Germany at this time and he—a Polish Catholic young man from the Lower East Side—could talk to them in Yiddish and in German, and they marveled and told officers this kid was officer material himself. He was encouraged to become one and rode up the ranks to become a Captain in World War II, one of the youngest. By all accounts, and I have spoken to people who served under him, he was a careful, well-loved captain who made safety and respect highest priorities. Byrd was not the most exciting explorer—“safety first” is less exciting than swashbucklers at sea—but he taught Billy well.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: While reading your book, I kept thinking about the next great frontier. We often say there are no places left to explore. What your book made me realize was this could have been said back in the 1920s. Others had beat Byrd to Antarctica, but he didn’t let that stop him. He turned to a growing technological invention—the airplane—to explore the place in a deeper way, making new geographic discoveries and, in the process, logging the first flight over the South Pole. What new science do you think will allow us to learn more about a place?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I think interstellar travel will change humanity—and certainly Mars comes to mind. We need to think in terms of deep time. One day 2018 will be ancient history.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: Is there a 21st century equivalent to the stowaway, do you think?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I would say there is a 21st century equivalent to the 1920s stowaways. As I said in my recent piece at the The New Yorker, “The cheeky stowaways of the roaring 20s have more in common with today’s young people who chronicle outlandish exploits on social media—the ones who make themselves briefly famous by sliding down the median of an escalator in the London Tube or by live-streaming themselves atop the roofs of tall buildings.”
Kim Steutermann Rogers: I know you’ve recently published for the first time in the The New Yorker and Outside magazines. And, of course, you journeyed to Antarctica to write this book. What other surprises, good or bad, have turned out for you as a result of things associated with TheStowaway?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I recently heard from the great grandson of the stowaway on Shackleton’s journey during the heroic age who was fascinated to know there was a stowaway on American explorer Byrd’s most famous expedition. He lives in Wales but we have become friendly on Facebook. I heard from someone who served under Billy when he was a sea captain. The greatest surprise for me is what an expert I’ve become on the expedition—an expedition that overwhelmed me when I began.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in writing this book? Was it some aspect of research? Finding a narrative structure?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I have struggled with books, but this one was a joy from start to finish. Part of it was that I woke up every day wanting to learn and write more. Even the book’s release has had wonderful support. I adored the cover—I gasped in delight when I saw it. I am so grateful to have seen this to fruition. My barometer for success is the chance to publish another book again.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: I also just heard about a dinner invitation you received from a group of Freemasons at the Grand Lodge of New York. Tell me more about that.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: So I get a call from a Mason—“We liked your book and we want to throw a dinner for you.” At first I thought it was a joke. But he persisted, and they threw a dinner in my honor at the Grand Lodge in Manhattan. They toured me around the lodge and even made me an honorary Mason (women cannot be full Masons). They had an amazing cake decorated with an edible cover of my book. But this particular lodge had a connection to explorers. They call it the Explorers’ Lodge Freemasons Kane Lodge No. 454, and Admiral Byrd was a member. In fact they threw a dinner for Byrd back in 1930 when he returned from the very expedition covered in my book.
They took me to a usually off-limits room that was filled with expedition relics and even polar bear taxidermies from a very long time ago. I’m positive not many women have had access to this room, let alone had a dinner in their honor. This is the fun of writing—meeting people you don’t cross paths with in everyday living. Many of the men on early expeditions belonged to secret societies. It was a way to ensure loyalty. Seventy-thousand people applied to be a volunteer on Byrd’s Expedition, and almost all of those chosen, even the cook, were Masons. The exception of course being Billy Gawronski, the stowaway.
Kim Steutermann Rogers: Lastly, what’s next for you?
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I have just started research on my next book, which is another spectacular but all-true narrative nonfiction story, though this time the main part of the story is from 1968-1970. Like The Stowaway, which is set in 1928-1930, it shows America as a character, straddling two eras—optimism and disregard for authority. I have found my milieu! I love bringing lost stories back to life. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to fiction. This feels right.
Kim Steutermann Rogers is a freelance journalist based on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, where she frequently writes about science and nature. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, Popular Science, Audubon, and elsewhere.