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Chasing the story: Author credits Northern Shenandoah Valley as inspiration for writing

Max Watman, author of “Chasing the White Dog,” stands on the Deer Rapids footbridge across the North Fork of the Shenandoah River near Strasburg, where he was raised. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Max Watman began writing nonfiction after studying at Columbia University and then working as a reporter in New York. He returned to his roots in the valley to write his latest book. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

This photo shows the cover of “Chasing the White Dog,” by Max Watman. Courtesy photo (Buy photo)

By Jessica Wiant -- jwiant@nvdaily.com

STRASBURG -- Sure, a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University comes in handy when writing nonfiction, but for Max Watman, sometimes it's his time growing up in Strasburg that comes to the rescue.

Watman, who now lives in New York's Hudson Valley, has written two books: "Race Day," about the history of horse racing, and "Chasing the White Dog," which came out in February.

He's just finishing up a nationwide tour for the latter, published by Simon & Schuster. It's subtitled "An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine."

In the book, Watman goes over the history of moonshine-making and into some of its more interesting stories along the way, including a federal case that played out in Franklin County.

Watman credits the time he spent in the Northern Shenandoah Valley -- from fourth grade through early adulthood -- as a source of inspiration and, well, education.

Returning to his old stomping grounds between tour stops on a recent morning, Watman said his country roots have proved helpful more than once.

Standing with a bunch of moonshiners while researching his book, Watman said, he could "lean against a truck and drink a beer without freaking out," unlike some other outsider. It allowed him to gain enough trust to be taken to a functioning still -- something he doesn't think anybody but one other "outsider" has ever done, with the exception, of course, of law enforcement.

"It really came in handy with the moonshine thing," he said.

Growing up in Strasburg has been beneficial to his writing career in "weird ways," he said. "I know how to jump a fence, and I don't care if my shoes get dirty."

After his father moved his family from the Washington suburbs, Watman grew up in the Deer Rapids area outside of Strasburg.

Watman has "a parade of cliché childhood memories" that unfolded at places like the Deer Rapids swinging bridge, the fire tower at Woodstock, the Elizabeth Furnace recreation area and Half Moon Beach, he explained.

He grew up exploring the national forest near his home, fishing and perhaps attending an infamous field party or two.

His first kiss likely took place on a tube on the Shenandoah, he joked.

Some of his first writing took place for the "Koo Koo News" that neighbors Kris Viemiester and Leigh Henry helped children produce all on their own.

"Kris taught me all sorts of things," he said in an e-mail. "He taught me that you can make things yourself, no matter what it is, even if it seems crazy to try.

"It was a great experience, and we did all the layout and reporting, and we made real papers that we printed. They were very influential."

Though Strasburg was home to Watman, he did feel like somewhat of an outsider at the time, he explained, being the only Jewish kid and aspiring to become a professor.

He quit high school to attend an early college, Bard College at Simon's Rock, in Massachusetts. When it didn't work out so well, he returned once more to the valley, working at Shenandoah Valley Golf Club in Front Royal, attending Lord Fairfax Community College and even doing some time in the press room at The Northern Virginia Daily.

Later, he left again for school at Mary Washington, then quit to play guitar for a jam band called Mr. Flood's Party, named after the poem.

It was around that time, taking an English class here or there, that Watman began writing "kind of seriously," he said.

Eventually, he finished an undergraduate degree, then attended Columbia, focusing on writing.

"When I was in school I thought I was going to be a novelist," he said, and he might someday still, he added.

During his time in New York, however, Watman became the reporter who "knew how to jump a fence and wasn't afraid of animals."

He was doing a variety of journalistic work including book reviews and features, when, as a fan of horse racing, he lucked into a big story: He pitched and wrote a feature on Funny Cide, a New York-bred horse that went on to win the Kentucky Derby in 2003, and win Watman the first and only horse-racing beat at the New York Sun. "Race Day" followed.

For his next project, he turned to something he'd always been interested in: moonshine.

He was able to be successful at exploring the topic, he said, in part because he knows how to talk to people who live in the country.

That he likes to "be on the ground," travel and report, was also important.

But it was perhaps simply because he grew up in the valley that he wanted to -- and was able to -- show that "redneck" culture is more complicated than it's stereotyped to be.

"If I'd stayed in Reston, I'd have believed the stereotypes," he said.

Of course, Watman did spend about 10 years living in New York City.

"I'm a weird blend, ultimately," he said. "I'm a combo. That's the fun."

Nowadays, he's living out in the country again, with a little red barn and chickens in the backyard.

Something that holds his interest, he says, is the contrast of high and low culture -- moonshine at a fox hunt, or fancy food on a picnic table.

Though Strasburg certainly had an impact on his subject matter, and the telling of it, it doesn't explicitly appear in the pages of "White Dog."

He didn't want to write about somewhere he is familiar with -- he wanted to report, not reminisce, he said.

"And I didn't want to get anybody I knew in trouble."


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