“We were clearly lost and the dashboard light blinked desperately, telling me I was running on empty.” So begins the story of Augustine Shaw and sets the tone of his literal and metaphorical journey into the past to wrestle with the guilt that plagues him.
Shaw is an amalgam of people that became incarnate in the stories Michael Hartigan wrote as an undergraduate at Providence College, which happens to be the principal setting for his first novel, Stone Angels. In fact, Hartigan stitched these stories together over the course of a decade to produce this book, which earned him the 2015 Merrimack Media Outstanding Writer Award.
Merrimack Media is a small press in Cambridge, which enables independent writers to self-publish. Each year, though, they host a contest in which the “winner receives full publication of his or her book, both as a paperback and e-book with a custom cover, [and] an interview on the Author Connection,” the online channel featuring independent authors. Hartigan entered on the advice of a co-worker. Now this Saugus native is hailed as “a master builder of suspense and plot” by literary colleagues such as Kelly Easton.
Much of Augustine’s story is told in retrospect as he travels back to school with three of his friends after a road trip to Key West. The protagonist is also the narrator. What we read is what he recalls and the process of redemption on which he has embarked. “Augustine is a college senior who is responsible for some bad things,” Hartigan says. “There’s a cheating scandal and some broken hearts, but mostly he feels responsible for killing two of his friends and for keeping his involvement in their deaths a secret. Right from the outset, the reader is dropped into Augustine’s mind.”
Having been trained in literary studies, it is no surprise that Hartigan’s influences are the legendary authors of the Western canon. On the website for Stone Angels, Hartigan notes, “I am a sucker for the classics.” He cites MacBeth as his favorite Shakespearian play, and he and his wife named their daughter Cordelia after a character from King Lear, but clearly his writing has been influenced by Hamlet. Prince Hamlet is said to be the first modern character in literature (even though he appeared a century and a half before the Enlightenment), because through him the author gives his audience insight into a character’s conscious moral deliberation. This is the narrative approach Hartigan employs with Augustine Shaw.
Although it is his debut novel, Stone Angels is not Hartigan’s first rodeo as a writer. A seasoned journalist who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English and psychology, as well as a Master’s degree in journalism from Boston University, Hartigan penned articles for USA Today, The Arizona Republic, and Destinations Travel Magazine.
Hartigan is also a political writer. Currently, he is the communications director for U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (Massachusetts Third District). He began this position in 2012 and has worked for Tsongas in her Washington, D.C., and Lowell offices. Hartigan is the congresswoman’s spokesperson and is in charge of all public and external relations. “I work closely with members of the local and national media,” he says, “handling all proactive and reactive media inquiries and interviews. I am responsible for the majority of what is disseminated publicly from the office, so I do a lot of writing—speeches, press releases, opinion pieces, and the like.”
Prior to this, Hartigan worked as public information officer for the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office where he was responsible for internal and external communications for the agency’s 850 employees and the county’s 1.5 million citizens. Hartigan claims, “My experience both in journalistic writing and public relations have had a positive influence on my fiction writing and my ability to tell a better story. It has taught me how to appreciate every word, and how to take something complex and distill it into something appetizing to a broader audience.”
To promote the novel, Hartigan has been featured at bookstore signings and library readings throughout New England—sometimes alone, other times with a fellow writer. One of those recent appearances was at Barnes & Noble in his hometown. Wearing a sweater, sipping on coffee, and standing next to a card table with a dozen copies of his book, he chatted congenially with patrons.
The old adage claims you can’t judge a book by its cover. The cover to Stone Angels, however, is exquisitely haunting. Black, gray, and white hues cast the silhouette of an angelic figure that seems to be rising out of granite. The title is equally alluring. “Actually, the book went through several title changes over the years,” Hartigan reflects. It wasn’t until it was complete that Hartigan was able to step back and look at the novel as a whole. “Augustine is a young man looking for answers, looking for guidance on how to alleviate this enormous guilt weighing on him. I arrived at Stone Angels and immediately loved it, and the layered meaning it has for Augustine and his journey.”
We think of angels as ethereal guides and protectors. Augustine is looking for the former. However, “the image of a stone angel is opposite of this,” Hartigan says. “It is cold, unyielding, and unhelpful—that is what Augustine is feeling, like he’s getting no guidance from anywhere.”
Will Stone Angels have a sequel? Possibly, but not until Hartigan’s next writing project, which will most likely be a collection of his travel writings. But even if he does not embark on a sequel soon, he envisions having some of his characters, such as Augustine Shaw, making appearances in future works of fiction.
Like most artists, Hartigan enjoys the overwhelming response his book has garnered. “Hearing readers say they truly enjoyed the story is motivation enough for me to dive into writing the next book,” Hartigan confesses. “The next one is up there, in my head ready to go.” www.stoneangelsbook.com