His American Odyssey: Mosher returning to WNY to talk about his Civil War tale

Saturday, April 24, 2010
By Ben Beagle bbeagle@batavianews.com

Howard Frank Mosher can’t resist a good story.

He recalls the time, about a decade ago, when a friend told him a story about her great-great-grandfather, Jasper Memory, who did time in the infamous Union prison camp in Elmira.

Jasper — “a great name for a character,” Mosher, whose 10th novel, “Walking to Gatlinburg” was released last month, says — had been conscripted into the Confederate Army as a teen. He was captured early in the war and sent to Elmira. While in prison, Jasper only had one item of value: a small gold button from his overcoat.

Another prisoner, who had been a dentist, fashioned the button into an engagement ring. At the end of the war Jasper walked all the way back to the Smokey Mountains — some 1,000 miles south — proposed to his girl and they got married.

“You could not be a novelist and not want to write that story,” Mosher says.

Problem was, someone already had.

Mosher thought the story too similar to “Cold Mountain,” Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning novel of a Confederate deserter who walks for months to return to his North Carolina home and the love of his life.

So Mosher filed his story away.

“The story would not let go of me,” Mosher says in a telephone interview from Minneapolis, Minn., where he is in the midst of a book tour that brings him to Western New York next week. He plans slideshows and signings Monday at Lift Bridge Books, Brockport, and Tuesday at Hallwall’s Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo.

Inspiration finally struck during a walk near Mosher’s Irasburg, Vt., home about a year later.

“It occurred to me that my guy could be a young Vermonter who has an older brother who goes missing,” says Mosher, the featured author for the 2004 “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.

Thus began Mosher’s own odyssey which would lead to his 10th novel, “Walking to Gatlinburg.” The story starts in Mosher’s familiar Northern Kingdom.

“Gatlinburg” chronicles the nightmarish Civil War-era journey of 17-year-old Morgan Kennison who ventures south from Northern Vermont to the Great Smokey Mountains in search of his brother, Pilgrim.

The book arrived to acclaim early last month, reaching the top 20 of “The Indie List” of best-selling books and going higher on some regional lists.

Bruce DeSilva, who has reviewed Mosher’s last three novels for The Associated Press, writes that “Gatlinburg” is again “beautifully told in Mosher’s charming, homespun style.”

Mosher, DeSilva writes, is “a supererb storyteller who is the closest thing we have to Mark Twain.”

“Walking to Gatlinburg” shares many of Mosher’s signatures. The suspense-filled journey is populated by quirky characters, unlikely encounters and a hint of the supernatural in the form of a mysterious, rune covered stone holding secrets of the Underground Railroad.

The story includes a dying gypsy and his pet elephant, three colorful villains obsessed with murdering Underground Railroad stationmasters, a seductive slave girl, a pair of ghosts and several more.

One of the villains is inspired by his own great-great-grandfather who tried to blow up his family.

“He went off the deep end and built a powerful bomb with the intention of blowing up the rest of his family while they were sleeping. Fortunately, the old psychopath was the only casualty,” he says.

Mosher spent a year writing the first draft of “Gatlinburg.” It was a hefty 1,150 pages — “a complete work of madness,” he says.

Only then did Mosher begin doing reading and research on the Civil War. He also retraced the journey of his hero to battlefields and prison camps.

“That was deliberate,” he says. “It seems counterintuitive, but I wanted to fit the research in around the edges of the character rather than shaping the story and character to fit the research,” he says. “I’m not really a historian, but I am a storyteller.”

Mosher will share his stories Monday at Lift Bridge Books, 45 Main St., Brockport, and Tuesday at Hallwall’s Contemporary Art Center, 341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo. Both programs begin at 7 p.m.

The event will feature the author’s new slide show, “Transforming History into Fiction: The Story of a Born Liar.”

The liar, Mosher laughs, is him.

“I’m definitely a born liar, from the word ‘Go’,” Mosher says. “Though I hope I’m not thought to be so much of a fibber when I’m outside the world of my books.”

For his next project, Mosher is venturing from fiction to non-fiction. He is finishing a memoir called “The Great American Book Tour,” the chronicles travels and adventures from his 2007 tour for “On Kingdom Mountain” that stopped in 100 American cities.

“I’ve had more fun with these tours, even late at night staying up in a cheap motel,” Mosher says.

He may share other experiences, such as stories from his first years as a teacher in Northern Vermont where he “found a gold mine of stories that I’ve been mining ever since.”

If you go

Howard Frank Mosher, the 2004 “A Tale for Three Counties” author, is scheduled to make two visits to Western New York next week. Both programs will include his new slide show, “Transforming History into Fiction: The Story of a Born Liar.” His itinerary:

MONDAY: Lift Bridge Books, 45 Main St., Brockport. 7 p.m. Free. For more information, call (585) 637-2260.

TUESDAY: Hallwall’s Contemporary Art Center, 341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo. 7 p.m. Free. For more information, call (716) 854-1694 or www.justbuffalo.org.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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