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Telling it from the Foothills

Geoffrey Smagacz can never be accused of forgetting where he comes from. The Chautauqua County native and SUNY Fredonia graduate honored his hometown, his heritage, and the area’s cultures by writing the novella and short story collection “A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills.”

Some have questioned the book’s title; after all, people in these parts don’t consider themselves Southerners.

“I was born at Brooks Hospital and raised in Lily Dale in Chautauqua County,” Smagacz said. “The book includes a map of the Appalachian region, clearly showing Chautauqua County as one of the 450 or so counties in Appalachia.”

The author further explained:

“() Cassadaga valley, between ridge hills, is nowhere near the North Carolina piedmont or Walton’s Mountain, Virginia, for that matter. Technically, it’s located in the Allegheny foothills in the Allegheny plateau which is part of the Appalachian region. But that wouldn’t make a very intriguing title, would it?”

And before readers assume his writing focuses on Lily Dale’s spiritual fame, they should know that Smagacz purposely took another route.

“The collection is 100 percent Chautauqua County in general and Lily Dale in particular. But Lily Dale without the Spiritualism,” he said. “It’s all fiction, of course, but distilled like alcohol into a very distinct flavor.”

Smagacz respects and cherishes all of Lily Dale’s history, but, he said, there is another side to Lily Dale that many people haven’t seen and don’t know about.

“It probably sounds odd to talk about a Lily Dale without Spiritualism,” he admitted, “but there existed in that small town two distinct cultures when I grew up there in the ’60s and ’70s.”

This, he said, could be because of Lily Dale’s two faces: the summer tourism boom that happens every year, and the locals who call Lily Dale home.

“Maybe all summer communities have two cultures,” Smagacz speculated. “I don’t know. But the differences between the 90-day wonders that came to Lily Dale in the summer to experience Spiritualism and those 250 or so who remained the rest of the year seemed vast. Year-round Lily Dale was full of Appalachian rednecks and ragamuffins. I know that for a fact because I used to be one of them.”

The novella and short stories will capture the interest of those who have been to Lily Dale and those who haven’t even heard of the town’s name. Smagacz, well-read himself, even took a page from the most famous bard’s book:

“The title of the short novel, ‘A Waste of Shame,’ comes from a Shakespeare sonnet about lust (one of the seven deadly sins), which Shakespeare characterized as ‘murderous, bloody, full of blame, savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.’ These adjectives aptly describe my novel. The rest of the stories explore other aspects of man’s sinful nature. That’s why they’re ‘sad tales,'” he said.

Smagacz began the collection back in 1999 at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he was met with a surprise.

“Each week 12 of us would read and critique chapters from our novels in progress. One week, a woman presented a chapter of a novel set in – of all places – Lily Dale! I was dumbfounded,” Smagacz remembered. “What are the odds that in a city of eight million residents, two out of a group of 12 aspiring novelists would be inspired by Lily Dale? I’d say astronomical.”

Smagacz admits the life of a writer isn’t easy. For each quality page a writer produces, he or she may have thrown away hundreds deemed unworthy of the final draft. His daily goal is two handwritten pages in a comp book, and more “when (he’s) in the throes of creation.”

Luckily for readers, those “throes” happened for him with this collection. However, the novella and stories went through many stages to get to the book’s present published state.

“Altogether, the short novel, ‘A Waste of Shame,’ took 11 years to finish but not before it became a screen play, got broken into short stories, then refashioned into a better novel,” Smagacz recalled. “Two of the standalone chapters had been published in literary journals. The first chapter was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Six of the tales have also been previously published. The book won a 2014 Independent Publisher IPPY gold medal for regional fiction.”

That’s a lot of notoriety, and a lot for Smagacz to be proud of. But for local readers, what might be most amazing is the fact that they can see THEIR Chautauqua County in the stories.

“A squinting reader might hazily recognize possible Chautauqua County locales,” Smagacz said. “For example, in one story we encounter a character (who could be the devil) at a concession stand at a fair. Could that be the now-defunct Stockton Gala Days or the Chautauqua County Fair in Dunkirk? In another, the characters go off drinking in a college town named Hadleyburg. Isn’t Hadleyburg Mark Twain’s fictitious name for a corrupt Fredonia? Could be.”

Readers can find out more about Smagacz and his work by going to www.wisebloodbooks.com/geoffrey-smagacz.html pr www.geoffreysmagacz.com. The book can be purchased directly from Wiseblood or from www.Amazon.com and other on-line venues. Pick up a copy and see how many local landmarks you recognize!

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