Frank Mosher finds inspiration

By Ben Beagle, Daily News Lifestyles Editor
April 3, 2004

For weeks, area readers came to know young Austen Kittredge III and the residents of Kingdom County. Readers connected with the fierce spiritedness of folks in Vermont’s rugged Northeast Kingdom in Northern Borders.
And author Howard Frank Mosher made connections of his own during a series of visits last week as the “A Tale for Three Counties” reading project wrapped up in Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans counties.

Mosher met an Arcade woman who grew up a few miles from Irasburg, Vt., where he has lived for decades. The woman, who brought her husband and four children to the author’s program, also knew Marjorie Moore, the inspiration for several Mosher characters.

“I was so impressed by how so many people, deep-rooted people, came with families,” Mosher said, while packing up his slide projector following his final program at Letchworth Central School. “I feel like so much a part of this community, as if they’ve invited me in.”

Mosher presented a slide program on the places and people who have inspired his writing and talked about his work during programs in Batavia, Medina, Arcade and Gainesville. About 300 people attended the programs, and many more have checked out the book at local libraries.

“So many people have told me they grew up in this area and tell me my book could’ve taken place here,” Mosher said. “I felt good about that.”

In Mosher’s own words, here is some of what he had to say:

Where is Kingdom County?

Mosher’s tiny home of Irasburg, Vt., provides much of the inspiration for Kingdom County.

“For years, people were upset with me because they couldn’t locate Kingdom County. They’d come up here poking around and they couldn’t find exactly where the story is set. The reason is because I borrowed places. I’d explain this and they’d say, ‘Yes, but where is Kingdom County?’

“Finally, I told them it was in the book,” Mosher said.

For Northern Borders, he used the common from Irasburg, a railroad and bank from Orleans, Vt., about 5 miles east of Irasburg; and the courthouse from Newport, Vt., about 10 miles north.

Mosher’s Kingdom County is a “loose approximation” of the Northeast Kingdom, the three northernmost counties of the state.

“I thought as a young guy just out of school, wanting to write, that I had found a diamond and I have,” he said. “This has been a good place for me to live, and a good place for me to write about.”

‘To Phillis’

Mosher has dedicated seven of his nine books, including Northern Borders, to his wife, Phillis, a high school science teacher and guidance counselor.

“Phillis sends her regards,” Mosher told the audience at his first program in Batavia. “She’s doing what she has for the last 40 or more years, supporting her ne’er do well writer husband.”

His most recent book, the comic novel The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark and Kennison Expeditions, is dedicated to Yellow Sage Flower Who Tells Wise Stories, aka Phillis.

Yellow Sage Flower is a young Blackfoot woman who shows up about halfway through The True Account.

“As I was chasing this character around through the drafts, (Phillis) was not only an inspiration, she was Yellow Sage Flower Who Tells Wise Stories,” Mosher said.

“Which posed a dilemma. What if she didn’t like the character? My greatest fear if she didn’t like it was that she’d stop teaching and I’d have to go back to work.”

He’s still writing; his next book, Waiting for Teddy Williams, arrives in July.

Camp Hard Luck

Mosher often takes afternoon walks through a field near his home to find inspiration or work out conversations between characters.

“I try out dialogue with the characters to hear how it sounds,” he said. “It’s something that no one hears except the deer, trout and me.”

At the end of his regular route is an old hunting camp with a tin roof in multiple shades of rust. He’s nicknamed it “Camp Hard Luck.”

“I knew it was perfect for the grandfather,” Mosher said. “But he might call it Labrador.”

Labrador is the region in Canada that Mosher visited to write a fly-fishing article. It also holds the key to understanding the grandfather’s misanthropy.

“If Camp Hard Luck was the inspiration for Labrador, then what was the inspiration for Abiah’s retreat (the grandmother’s Egypt room)? I haven’t a clue,” Mosher said.

Explaining Earla Armstrong

Young Austen’s teacher Earla Armstrong was hired for the one-room schoolhouse because she “kept good order.” She was prone to giving students Dutch rubs or a Hungarian dead finger.

“She was based so closely on one of my elementary school teachers that I didn’t even change her name,” Mosher said. “She hated us so much and we hated her so much, and since all her relatives were long gone, I decided to commemorate her in a book.

“I owe a huge debt to her.”

Mosher acknowledged that Armstrong gave him his best advice for being a writer: “She’d always preface it with, ‘You aren’t going to amount to anything anyway, Mosher, but since you insist on writing anyway …’ She said ‘Write what you know. Revise. And read all you can. But even then, you won’t amount to anything.”

Characters are his friends

Mosher talks informally when referring to the characters in his book. He calls them young Austen, old Austen and Ab.

“They’re my friends,” he said with a chuckle.

Sometimes, Mosher said, he will take a major character in one book and bring him back as a minor character in another. For example, Charlie Kennison, a wild, irresponsible young lawyer in Stranger in the Kingdom returns in Waiting for Teddy Williams as a retired Supreme Court justice.

“I love to keep exploring and keep developing these characters,” Mosher said.

“As a writer, I’m interested in telling stories. And I have more stories about this area than I will even begin to have time to write.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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