Friday, October 26, 2007

Howard Frank Mosher -- An American Writer

Howard Frank Mosher is, in the best sense, an American writer. He captures the thrill of the frontier and the bitter friction between progress and tradition with a keen sense of his characters’ emotion and their place in a historical timeline. And he takes a particular setting, his beloved Vermont, and paints a visceral, nuanced picture in the imagination in his novels and short stories, including his latest, On Kingdom Mountain. Three of his novels have been made into films by director and fellow Vermonter Jay Craven, the latest being Disappearances starring Kris Kristofferson. I caught up with him by e-mail to talk about his extraordinary body of work.

You set up a lot of early expectations for a sort of feel-good rural anti-authority story in the beginning of On Kingdom Mountain and twist them all the way through. To some extent, that’s just what any author does to create a good story, but you seem to be purposefully destroying clichés (from the resolution of Kingdom Mountain road dispute to Henry Satterfield’s fate).

First and foremost, I’ve always regarded myself as a storyteller. In order to keep the story and characters of On Kingdom Mountain from being eclipsed by the preservationist theme of the book, I set the story in 1930, long before the term “preservationist” existed, and left the resolution of the story open-ended.

The level of historical detail is amazing in many of your stories. I’m thinking of things like measuring off dam partitions or how the Duchess’s gun functions. How much of this do you know from direct experience and how much do you have to research?

I’m an avid outdoorsman, and I’ve worked in the woods as a logger, on farms,
and for newspapers and magazines. Along the way, I’ve picked up a lot of information that has been useful. While I’ve done a fair amount of historical research on topics ranging from the great New England log drives to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, I like to write the early drafts of my books first, then incorporate the research later, in order to fit the research to the story instead of the story to the historical details. Also, I invent a lot of history-much to the dismay of my historian friends.

How much of the Vermont timeline (floods, political movements, treaties, etc) is true to life in the books?

Most of the Vermont timeline – the Great Flood of 1927 in Where the Rivers Flow North; the Prohibition-era rumrunning in Disappearances; and the French Canadian immigration in Marie Blythe – is fairly accurate. That stated, I’m an inveterate inventor. For instance, in On Kingdom Mountain I move the famous “St. Albans Raid” of 1864, in which 21 Confederate soldiers rode out of Canada and stole nearly $100,000 from several banks in St. Albans, Vermont, 50 miles to the northeast, and recreate the raid in my fictional Kingdom County.

You reuse a lot of names, Covilles and Kinnesons. In your mind, do all of these characters exist in the same setting? I could imagine, for example, Pilgrim, lost in On Kingdom Mountain, wandering into another of your short stories.

The Covilles, Kittredges, Kinnesons, Allens, and a host of other “Kingdom
County” characters from my stories do all exist in the same setting. Pilgrim Kinneson, Miss Jane’s uncle in On Kingdom Mountain, missing in action in the Civil War, will reappear in my next novel, Walking to Gatlinburg.

Are you trying to get to everyone’s story in the state eventually?

I’m trying to get to the story of as many of the great Northeast Kingdom (Kingdom County) individualists, whom I met and knew back in the 1960s and who dated back to the Depression and Prohibition eras, as possible.

When were you first inspired by Vermont?

I was first inspired by Vermont on the day my wife and I arrived in Orleans, about twelve miles south of the Canadian border. We had driven here from central New York to interview for a couple of teaching jobs. It was the last day of April, 1964, and we were just 21. Right in the middle of the main street were two guys having a fist fight, which they suspended to let us by. When I rolled down the car window and asked them for directions to the high school, they piled into the back seat and directed us there – then they got out and resumed their fight in the middle of School Street. We knew we’d come to a frontier.

Are people surprised by the mix of culture in Vermont – the French-Canadian influence, the traditional blue bloods, the rural traditions all battling within Vermont society. Not sure what comes to mind when the rest of the country thinks of Vermont.

There’s a wonderful mix of culture in Vermont, but also an insidious tradition of latent racism and xenophobia. In 1968, a black family moved to Irasburg, where we live – the first African American to settle in the town. Their home was attacked by nightriders with shotguns, and they were driven out of town. It was the kind of event I would have expected to happen in Mississippi in the 1930s but not Vermont in the 1960s. The racist attack inspired my fifth novel, A Stranger in the Kingdom. What’s more, until quite recently, there was a great deal of prejudice against French Canadians in the Kingdom. I think much of the country regards Vermont as picture-postcard perfect. What I’ve learned, over my 43 years in the Kingdom, is that racism and xenophobia are, sadly, universal.

Do you ever hear from people who visit Vermont because of your books?

Occasionally, readers from elsewhere in America do visit Vermont to see where my stories take place. Usually they’re baffled. The geography is quite different from the settings in my books. Not long ago, I visited Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. Suddenly, the tables were turned. When I looked for Faulkner’s town and countryside, and didn’t really find them, I realized that the only place they really exist is in his books. The same is true about my literary locale.

No question so I’ll ask my own. Who are your favorite writers? Answer: Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Jane Austen.

Do you collaborate with Jay Craven on the film versions of your work?

Jay Craven has consulted me closely about each of his films based on my stories. I love his movies. His vision, however, is entirely his own. I believe he is unexcelled at casting his films, directing them, and exploring the complex relationships between the characters.

Are you and Mr. Craven neighbors? I know he does a lot of filming within a few miles of his house.

Yes, Jay and I are Northeast Kingdom neighbors.

I don’t see a lot of writers capturing the sense of wonder and adventure that you capture so well. Do you think a lot of writers stay away from that?

With the notable exception of first-rate suspense writers like James Lee Burke andElmore Leonard, many “post-modern” American writers concentrate on exploring the inner lives of their characters. I’m a bit more of a traditional storyteller. Books I love best – Lonesome Dove, Cold Mountain, Richard Russo’s just released masterpiece, Bridge of Sighs, in which, for a whole town, the great American dream goes about as wrong as it possibly can yet still seems worth pursuing – tell a great story and explore the psyches of their wonderful characters. That’s the best of both worlds.

I’ve heard from a book rep that you’ve already finished the next book, which he says is you best yet. Care to offer a quick preview?

Yes, thank you. My next book, Walking to Gatlinburg, is the story of 17-year-old Morgan Kinneson, who, in 1864, does in fact walk from “Kingdom County,” Vermont, to southern Tennessee, down in the Great Smoky Mountains, in search of his older brother, Pilgrim, missing in action. Talk about non-stop action and adventure. Walking to Gatlinburg is a Howard Frank Mosher adventure novel to rival my first novel, Disappearances. Of course, the first major review of Disappearances, back in 1977, was headlined “Vermont Writer Should Disappear.” I nailed that review up to the side of my barn, blasted the smithereens out of it with my sixteen gauge shotgun – and kept right on writing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

John Oliver is an Optimistic Curmudgeon

John Oliver’s job on “The Daily Show” is to take what’s essentially bad news – the collection of half-wits running for president, terrorism, racism, et cetera – and make fun of it. Considering that he is dealing with the same news cycle as network news programs, his first reaction to tragedy has to be to find comedy in it somehow.

“My instinct is always no, oh, that could be funny,” he says. “There’s something funny in that. Well, wait a minute, let’s just let the gravity of the reality sink in. then we can trivialize it.”

Watching the news, it’s easy to think the world is in the worst shape it has ever been. And, as the cliché goes, if you’re not upset, you’re not paying attention. But taking a historical perspective (read Voltaire’s Candide), it seems things have always been pretty terrible, and you wonder if you just need to ignore the worst of it to preserve your own sanity and trust the world will keep turning, an idea I brought up with Oliver. “You’ve just got to have some half-hopeful voice saying, let’s hope our gardens grow at the end of the day,” he says. “That’s pretty much all you can hope for.”

That’s when I brought up the idea of being an optimistic curmudgeon, a philosophy that seems to resonate with Oliver. “I think that’s the best way to be, though,” he says. “That’s the only to balance it out. There’s no point in being cynical all the time. But equally, blind optimism just seems willfully inappropriate.”

Oliver says that’s why he has always been a political comic, going back to his days in stand-up and writing for the BBC in his native England. Comedy has been his way of dealing with more serious issues (Will Kaufman wrote an excellent book about this dynamic, called The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue, which is now out of print). “I guess that has always been my coping strategy with the world,” he says. “If I can’t laugh at something, I don’t really know how to relate to it. That’s kind of got even more entrenched working here. Because now, when you see the news, something terrible,

I interviewed “Daily Show” correspondent John Oliver for this week’s Comedy Notes column in The Boston Globe, which you can read in the Friday, October 12 edition. We did wind up addressing the philosophy of the optimistic curmudgeon, so I thought I’d include that detail here. See the Globe for a more in-depth story.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ken Carlson and The Comedians magazine

I first heard about The Comedians magazine when their editor, Ken Carlson, contacted me about a profile of Boston comic Tim McIntire he was writing. I was excited to hear about any magazine that would write a lengthy profile of a comic that I knew so well from the local scene for a market outside of Boston. Shecky and Punchline are both great publications – I’ve had some great conversations with Brian and Traci over at Shecky, which is a great industry resource for comics, and I occasionally contribute to Punchline.

But The Comedians has its own niche, with longer pieces on a few bigger name comics like Mario Cantone and Jim Norton but also great, lesser-known acts, at least on a national scale, like McIntire and Matt McCarthy. (If you notice a New England bias, that’s partly because Carlson played rooms like the Comedy Studio and Portland’s Comedy Connection when he was a comic, before the demands of grown-up life forced him to put it aside). The Comedians is also a fascinating peek inside the New York City scene, where the print version is mainly distributed, but Carlson will sometimes stray as far as Israel for comedy to interview comics like Yonatan Friedrich.

I caught up with Carlson by e-mail recently to talk shop about comedy and his vision for the magazine.

Did you set out to create a local New York magazine for comedians, or have your plans always been for a wider audience?

When I started the comedians, I wasn't quite sure of the path it would take, but I am happy with its direction. One night last summer, I was sitting in the back room of an ordinary Lower East Side bar watching a free comedy show. One after another, the host introduced these really talented comics with solid credentials (this guy wrote for "The Chappelle Show", this guy recently appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman", this woman was on "Live at Gotham", etc). At that moment I knew I wanted to develop something that would focus on creative comics and try to discuss their craft in an honest way. It's certainly a niche product, but not solely intended for comedians. While New York represents the center of stand-up, so many of the acts work nationally, so it has appeal in other markets.

How did you get in touch with Yonatan Friedrich in Israel?

Yonatan is a comic from TelAviv who contacted me. He liked the website and reached out to me. We emailed back and forth a few times and I thought it would make for an interesting story to get his perspective on stand-up. We ran that article over the spring and I received a lot of positive feedback from it. That was one of those instances that opened my mind a bit to include more than just comic interviews with local performers and reviews in the comedians. Now we feature improv groups, humor columns, foreign comics performing in NYC like Glenn Wool, a Canadian working out of London, and industry professionals.

That's something that fascinates me - how stand-up comedy is perceived and created in countries that don't have a tradition of it. How do people even conceive an act in that kind of environment, and how do you judge expectations?

You have to take a few things into consideration. One, certain cultures are incredibly uptight about controversial material. Look at America where we have "freedom of speech," but comedians have been lambasted and arrested for what they've said on stage. But while jokes about car bombs or the holocaust may get you into trouble here, in Israel, it's something that has affected every single family and thus more acceptable, as I understand it, because the comic shares the common background.

How did you make the move from Internet to paper?

The first couple of issue of the comedians were published online and in print. The website and the copies I handed out for free acted as sort of a test to see what people thought. People were very complementary about it so I decided to move forward. I focused on the print because it's written with print in mind and I thought it would stand out against all the websites. It's a bit of a throwback. One comedian I spoke with said it reminded him of an engineering journal from the 50's. I like printed materials. They give the reader a sense of permanence.

How do you choose who to cover? Is there a specific set of criteria?

There are a lot of smart, creative comics that perform in New York. I try to feature those that generally reflect the entire comedy scene.

Do you see yourselves competing with online mags like Shecky and Punchline?

Not at all. There's plenty of room for media outlets of all forms. Shecky and Punchline are two good ones. It comes down to content and point of view. A lot of websites treat stand-up in a goofy, immature manner. From the start, I have tailored the feature articles in the comedians from in-person conversations I have with the artists. The majority of the text are the comics' words, not mine. I'm not terribly interested in their bios or backgrounds. I want to know what they think about their craft.

What's your view of the stand-up timeline - who created stand-up, when were its golden years, what the scene is like today?

Stand-up started with Mark Twain. If you combine the performances of Twain with the antics of vaudeville and the nightclub era comedians like Bruce, Rickles, Dangerfield or early Pryor, you have the current form. As far as deciding on what the golden years were or are, it comes down to how old you are. As a baseball fan I'm partial to the players I watched when I was a kid - Rice, Fisk, Yaz, etc. It's the same with comedy. My folks are convinced Jack Benny was the funniest man ever. Today, the kids dig Dane Cook and Dave Chappelle. Many comics will tell you Louis CK is their favorite, but half of this country has never heard of him because he's never had a long-running network sitcom like Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Rosanne, or Kevin James.

There's a stereotype that comedians are actually often anti-social or irretrievably pessimistic. What's your view of that perception?

I wouldn't say anti-social. They can be a bit guarded and apprehensive in certain settings. If you take into account that many of them developed their sense of humor to deal with problems at home; then once they move up everyone seems to want a piece of them, it seems understandable. Really good comics give their audience a sense of who they are and I think that can create unfortunate circumstances as well. That's why most comedians' friends are other comedians. I wouldn't say pessismistic either. Jaded certainly. What successful comic gets up there saying everything is great in my life and nothing is wrong with the world?

What's your view of comedy competitions - good or bad for comedy?

I don't put a lot of stock in them, but I don't suppose they do any harm. If they get exposure and some of the sponsors' money for talented performers, I'm all for that. I'd have more respect for a performer who's spent the last twenty years making than someone who wins a contest.

Do you think the mainstream would ever accept a magazine focused mainly on comedians?

I doubt it. The only exception would be for a major player, like Comedy Central, to use it as a support mechanism to promote their shows. But they have their website which is more in tune to their younger market, so why would they bother?