Juggling the many tasks of being both a City College screenwriting instructor and an award-winning writer, Johnny Shaw released his latest novel “Floodgate” last month.
“Floodgate” tells the story of a cop in the fictional East Coast city “Auction City,” a place driven by crime and corruption. As Shaw’s three previous novellas all have played out in the desert by the Mexican border, he now aims to portray a different environment.
“The idea of a city that is controlled by a criminal conspiracy that operates under the surface had been floating in my head for a while,” Shaw said. “But it took until now to figure out how to approach it as a novel.”
Johnny Shaw was born and raised on a farm in the middle of nowhere, as he describes it himself. His childhood on the Calexio-Mexicali border worked as inspiration for his novels “Dove Season” and “Big Maria,” which have won him both the Spotted Owl Award and the Anthony Award. But it was also this life that gave birth to his dedication to writing.
“When I tried writing, I found I had a medium where I had something to say,” Shaw said. “The challenge has never ended. It’s the kind of challenge that can sustain one’s interest for a lifetime.”
He explained there are several challenges of being a writer, especially for a new one. But he said it is very rewarding to experience the journey of making the story come alive.
“I like being able to sit by myself for hours and live in the worlds in my head. I put a ton of work into what I do, but there’s definitely a part of it that’s professional daydreaming,” Shaw said. “Oh, and I like getting paid, too. Getting paid is cool.”
Apart from his career as a professional writer, Shaw has also been working as a screenwriting instructor at City College for the last 15 years. However, this semester he is only teaching the class online after his move to Portland, Oregon.
“Time management isn’t the sexiest topic in the world, but it’s an essential skill for any working artist,” Shaw said. “I write every day. It doesn’t matter what I’m working on, whether a screenplay, a stage play, a novel or a short story.”
What separates Shaw’s class from other courses is it requires students to build a story from scratch. He emphasizes the benefits of knowing how to craft stories, and wishes to reach out even to the less motivated students with his teaching.
“There’s nothing better than seeing a student who is kind of interested in the subject, or taking the course because it’s a requirement, become fully engaged with writing,” Shaw said. “I have very little to do with that shift, but if someone finds their passion during the course of the semester, that’s incredibly rewarding.”
Oren Brimer, a former student of Shaw, became a producer for The Daily Show from 2010 to 2012. He is now a writer and producer for Crashing, a new HBO series starring Pete Holmes, with executive producer Judd Apatow. Apart from learning the fundamental skills of screenwriting, Brimer developed a friendship with Shaw who became an inspiration for his interest in classic comedy. They still keep regular contact.
“Johnny is still my teacher” Brimer said. “I still send him my writing and films for his notes, somehow avoiding his tuition fees, and I learn about joke writing and prose every time I read his amazingly funny novels.”
As for the future, Shaw plans on continuing his three-dimensional career as screenwriter, instructor and novelist.
“I’ve been writing screenplays for over 20 years, I’ve been teaching at SBCC for 15 years, I’ve only been writing books for the last 5 or 6,” Shaw said. “ I really enjoy doing all three, so I don’t see any reason to not keep going how I have been.”