"Northeast Kingdom" a treasure trove for US writer

TOKYO, April 12 Wed Apr 11, 2012 11:09pm EDT

TOKYO, April 12 (Reuters) - The writer Howard Frank Mosher has lived for nearly half a century in such a remote part of the northern U.S. state of Vermont that Internet connections are very slow and even landline phone reception can be terrible at times.

Yet the area known as the "Northeast Kingdom" - the three northeasternmost counties in the state - proved to be such a fertile source of inspiration that Mosher, born in 1942 and with 12 books behind him, has ended up spending most of his life there.

In fact, his one try at leaving after settling there in 1964, to attend graduate school in California, ended rapidly Realizing he was unhappy and taking a drive with his wife to think things out, he was stopped by a red light at a crossing in downtown Los Angeles, which he called "probably the least inspiring place I've ever been."

"I've always figured that if the light had been green, the arc of my career would have been entirely different," the award-winning author said in a telephone interview.

"But it was red, and a telephone truck pulled up beside. The driver must have seen our green Vermont license plate because he rolled his window down and quickly called out to us, 'I'm from Vermont too, go back while you still can.' So we realized that was the voice of the muse, and we turned around and went back."

Born and raised in the Catskill mountains of New York, Mosher relates in his new memoir "The Great Northern Express" how he and his wife came up to interview for teaching jobs in a local high school and fell in the love with the Northeast Kingdom, hooked by natural bounties that included plentiful trout streams and rugged, beautiful scenery.

Even more appealing was the essence of the place itself.

"What we discovered very soon after we moved here that this Northeast Kingdom - what I call Kingdom County in my novels - was just a goldmine of stories that no writer had ever told before," he said.

"That was the sheer luck, finding a place like this that was just loaded with folklore, and semi-mythology and history, and just good, old-fashioned stories. With people who dated back to the Depression era and Prohibition who had lived very hardscrabble lives and often had to get by by making moonshine or running whisky, like people in Kentucky or West Virginia."

After his abortive foray to California, Mosher returned to Vermont, where he took a job with a local logger for a season and began to write. This led over the years to 10 novels and two memoirs as a writer whose rooting in place brings to mind William Faulkner and his fictional Yoknapatawpha County.

"I grew up in this distinctive little woodworking community over in the Catskill mountains. And although that was not a wealthy area, far from it, the people who lived there had a strong sense of the place where they lived," he said.

"A strong sense of themselves being shaped by that place where they fished, they hunted, they trapped, they worked in the mill. So I grew up with that sense of place and it's always deeply fascinated me."

Not all of the stories are happy. One novel, "A Stranger in the Kingdom," is based on how the first black family to move into Mosher's town was driven out within weeks by people who shot at their house and used trumped-up legal charges in ways Mosher says were more reminiscent of Mississippi in the 1920s than Vermont in the 1960s.

Mosher also acknowledges that in many ways, the strongly independent-minded area can be a hard place to live, mainly due to diminishing economic opportunity. When he first moved to the area there were 680 dairy farms in his county, but now there are under 60, meaning that most young people have to leave.

He said that author Wallace Stegner once said of a town in Saskatchewan that it was "a grand place for a boy to grow up but a hard place for a man to live," adding that this was probably true of the Northeast Kingdom as well.

"I think that if I had not been a writer, we would not have continued to stay here," he said.

"But it's not a decision we regret. This place has become home - with all of its imperfections." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)

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