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April 5, 2007

Books, Journals & More/ A closer look: George Shames

“We all have stories to tell. It’s just a matter of whether you sit down and get the discipline to tell it,” says George Shames. The Pitt professor emeritus’s first work of fiction, “The Company of Truth,” was published in 2006 by Pittsburgh-based Towers Maguire Publishing.

Shames, 80, retired in 1990 from a 40-year career at Pitt as a professor of communication disorders and psychology. A noted expert on stuttering, he has written technical works on communication and counseling issues, including a textbook on communication disorders. Even his nonfiction works, Shames said, include snippets of poetry, as does his novel.

And just as poetry has found its way into his clinical writing, his professional experience has found its way into his storytelling. The novel, a suspenseful drama, features a protagonist who stutters, a device that allows Shames to describe for his readers the frustrations people with communication difficulties face, and the treatments available to help them.

The fast-paced story opens with a 10-year-old Hank Miller facing challenges and taunts at school on account of his stuttering, then follows him into adulthood and his odyssey through the legal system when he is jailed for a murder he didn’t commit.

In addition to consulting doctors and other speech experts, Shames also contacted legal experts and a homicide detective to ensure verisimilitude in the legal aspects of the tale. “Some of them I knew, some I just contacted and they were very helpful,” he said.

Shames has drawn on situations gleaned from his years of clinical experience as well as from his personal life to flavor his fiction writing.

“I was fortunate,” he said. “I had a lot of experiences.” Situations and amusing anecdotes, some decades old, can be woven into his tales.

“All novels have nonfiction in them,” Shames contends. His theory is that the nonfiction lies in the feelings described in the story. “You’re not making that up. It’s based on real experience,” he said. The circumstances for those feelings are where you make things up, he said.

Following his retirement- he prefers to call it merely “changing headquarters” — he took creative nonfiction classes at Pitt and began writing, encouraged by his wife, Joan.

He also has continued to teach as a visiting professor at a number of universities and frequently teaches a course, “Counseling as a Real-Life Encounter” through Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, part of the College of General Studies.

While Shames has not given up his clinical writing — a new book, “Natural Speech for People Who Stutter,” is in production — he also has completed three novels.

“The Company of Truth” is the most recent of the three, written in 2002. Shames is seeking publishers for the other two, both of which were started more than a decade ago. “I have enough rejection letters that I could write a book about rejection letters,” he jokes.

Although his two earlier manuscripts are largely complete, until they’re accepted by a publisher he still tinkers with them, changing a word or two on occasion when he is struck with an improvement to the story.

For the moment Shames is taking a break from writing to concentrate on getting his other two novels into print. But he has several other ideas in mind for the future. He said he is considering writing a book version of his Osher course. And he left the door open for a sequel to “The Company of Truth.” He has some ideas in mind for his central character. Hank Miller. “I think I could probably work out the kind of problems I want him to deal with because he’s been successful in resolving his own problems,” Shames said, adding that he didn’t initially intend to make room for a follow-up to the story.

“I had no idea how it was going to end,” he admitted. “You start writing and see where it takes you.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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