Chronicler of the Kingdom10/02/08

Courtesy photo by Phillis Mosher
Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher, pictured above, visits Dorothy Alling Memorial Library on Saturday. Read More…

Chronicler of the Kingdom10/02/08

Author Howard Frank Mosher to visit Williston

Oct. 2, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Not long after Howard Frank Mosher moved to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, he discovered the region brimmed with enough colorful stories and eccentric characters to inspire a lifetime of writing.

He and his wife, Phillis, first came to Vermont to interview for teaching jobs in 1964. It was a late April afternoon and they were lost in the mill town of Orleans when they chanced upon two men fighting in the street.

The brawl blocked their way, so Mosher figured he’d ask for directions. The men halted their fisticuffs. Without waiting for an invitation, they piled into the backseat and guided the couple to the school. When Mosher glanced in his rearview mirror, he saw they had resumed fighting.

“My wife was looking at them too, and she smiled and said, ‘Well sweetie, welcome to the Northeast Kingdom,’” he recalled with a laugh. “So we knew right on the spot that we had found a gold mine of stories.”

Forty-four years and 10 books later, Mosher continues to tap a rich vein of stories from the wild, sparsely populated corner of Vermont. He visits Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston on Saturday to talk about his writing. The presentation, titled “Transforming History into Fiction: The Story of a Born Liar,” begins at 1 p.m.

Mosher talked about his life and work during a telephone interview last week from his Irasburg home.

His first book, “Disappearances,” was published in 1977. His latest, “On Kingdom Mountain,” was published last year. In between, three of his books and stories, “Disappearances,” “Where the Rivers Flow North” and “Stranger in the Kingdom,” have been made into movies by Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven.

Mosher’s fiction — he’s also written one travel book — portrays a slice of Vermont that is both unspoiled and unsparing, a region that offers many opportunities to commune with nature but few chances to make a good living.

His books are populated by farmers, loggers, smugglers, judges, ministers and assorted misfits. Stubbornly independent, his characters struggle with harsh weather as well as social and geographic isolation while remaining deeply rooted to the landscape.

Mosher, 66, grew up in the Catskills of New York. He attended Syracuse University as an English major. He and Phillis married after graduation. They have two children and one grandchild.

A few years after moving to Vermont, Mosher traveled to California to attend graduate school. But he said he felt out of place.

Stopped at a red light at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles, he encountered a truck with Vermont license plates. The driver, noticing Mosher’s plate, shouted out his window, “Go back while you still can!” He returned a few days later.

It would take about another decade, a period Mosher calls “my long apprenticeship,” to teach himself how to write novels and to learn about the Northeast Kingdom. In the meantime, he listened to stories and met people that would provide fodder for his books.

Critical acclaim

His publisher, Boston-based Houghton Mifflin, does not release sales figures, but Mosher said none of his novels have made the bestseller lists. His called his books “relentlessly mid-list.”

“Stranger in the Kingdom,” based on a real-life racial incident in Irasburg in the ’60s, sold the most — 60,000 to 70,000 copies, Mosher said. “Waiting for Teddy Williams,” about a boy who grows up to pitch for the Boston Red Sox, did especially well in hardcover, likely because it was published just a couple of months before the team won its first World Series in 86 years.

Mosher is proud that all of his books remain in print, which he attributes to consistent book tours, visits to bookstores and talks at schools and libraries like the one next week in Williston.

His novels have won critical acclaim and several awards. A review in the Montreal Gazette said, “Mosher does for Vermont what Faulkner did for Mississippi.” The Los Angeles Times likened his writing to Hemingway and Thoreau.

He has received Guggenheim and National Endowment of the Arts fellowships, the American Academy for Arts and Letters Literature Award and the New England Book Award for “Stranger in the Kingdom.”

Greater ambitions?

But has Mosher limited his horizons by living in Vermont and writing about a little-known part of America? After all, he’s primarily known as a regional writer and lives hundreds of miles from the center of the publishing industry, New York City.

“It’s a question I’ve asked myself without ever coming to a very satisfactory answer,” Mosher said. “I’m not sure I would have gotten any further with it in terms of recognition or renown.”

Sometimes authors overreach, he said, trying to write about sweeping themes when they should just stick with entertaining stories.

“I try not to make too many pronouncements in my books, because I’m primarily a storyteller,” he said. “The themes to me are kind of secondary.”

One thing he doesn’t miss is the big-city literary scene.

“I sure as hell don’t have any regrets about not being a part of the just dreadfully incestuous academic and literary world,” Mosher said. “I understand those worlds, and I want nothing to do with any of it. I wouldn’t last two days living in New York City and drinking cocktails with other writers.”

More tales to tell

Mosher is working on two books. “Walking to Gatlinburg” is the tale of a man who walks from the Northeast Kingdom to Tennessee during the Civil War in search of his brother. A nonfiction book titled “The Great American Book Tour” will intersperse personal experiences with true stories from the Northeast Kingdom.

Mosher has five more books in mind. Since it takes him an average of five years to finish a book, he’s worried he’ll run out of time.

Mosher is sometimes credited with documenting a disappearing way of life. But he said his main aim is to faithfully record the stories of his beloved Northeast Kingdom.

“What I think what I’m really up to here is preserving the stories of the area,” he said. “Even if I change them radically for my own purposes, they are rooted in real stories.

“I thought from that first day we came into Orleans and saw those people slugging it out that there are these wonderful stories in the area, and it would be a shame if somebody doesn’t tell them,” he said. “So that, in a kind of haphazard and half-assed way, is what I dedicated my life to doing.”

Book talk

Howard Frank Mosher will visit Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston on Saturday, Oct. 4 at 1 p.m.

Mosher will talk about how he uses real historical events to shape his novels. His books will be available for purchase (cash or checks only) and can be signed by the author.

The visit is being sponsored by the Friends of the Library. Marti Fiske, Dorothy Alling Memorial’s director, said Mosher’s fee is being paid for using donations to Friends of the Library and not from the library’s taxpayer-funded budget.


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