Howard Frank Mosher is the author of Walking to Gatlinburg and many other novels, three of which, Disappearances, A Stranger in the Kingdom, and Where the Rivers Run North, have been made into acclaimed feature films. He has lived in Vermont’s fabled Northeast Kingdom since 1964.
Mosher: Some of the essays in Sex and the River Styx are set in Africa, which you’ve visited five times. How has the continent changed since you first began going there?
Hoagland: In the seventies I could stay in a hotel in Nairobi that was for Africans, not expats or tourists, and walk the streets at night without fear of being mugged. Now that would not be possible in Nairobi. On the other hand, at the same time in the seventies, Idi Amin ruled Uganda and in fact used one of the international hotels there as a torture chamber. So while westerners could stay there on business, they would be kept awake all night by the screams of Ugandans being tortured by secret police. Now, though, Kenya is on the verge of civil strife, and Kampala, Uganda, is an extremely pleasant city to visit–and for most of its people also, as long as they are not dissidents. At that time, in 1977, I was living within 17 miles by footpath from the northern border of Uganda and the Acholi tribal people there, who lived on both sides, were extremely frightened if they lived in Uganda, but relatively at peace in the southern Sudan. I still remember how Sudan seemed at that time. It was ruled by Arabs from Khartoum and an Arab policeman in the village of Gilo told me I would be shot because there had been a coup attempt in Khartoum and he assumed that I was in the village to scout out a landing field for paratroopers to come down and aid the coup (which was actually foiled). The local people said, “Don’t shoot our white man.” (These are the people who voted for independence just recently.) After I got to the nearest airport I was held up by security there and wouldn’t have been allowed on the plane except that when they examined my notebooks they asked if I was CIA and I said yes–so that they would let me on. Mosher: For many decades, you divided your time between New York City and the remote mountain in northern Vermont where you still spend a third of the year. How have the places you’ve called home shaped your work? Hoagland: I got my locus and focus in Vermont, and I got my energy and ambition in New York. If I were a full-time Vermonter I would have published half as many books. But if I were a full-time New Yorker they would not have been as good. Mosher: Over the course of your writing career, you’ve also taught at many of America’s best colleges, including Bennington, Iowa, the University of California system, Brown, and Columbia. What kind of general advice do you give aspiring writers of fiction and nonfiction? Hoagland: To pick out models and mentors. (In my own case I had lunch with John Steinbeck when I was 17 and met Saul Bellow, who I equally admired, soon after leaving college, after working closely with his friend, John Berryman.) Also, it’s important to pick and be loyal to editors who will understand and help you, without arguing with them about money or the like. For example, some of my best essays were published in the Village Voice when I was young, where I was paid only $35 for each, but one of these essays, since then, has earned me a thousand times as much as that in anthology fees. The encouragement of the editors you work with is of primary importance when you are starting out. Mosher: How has the writing profession changed since you published your first book, Cat Man? Hoagland: It’s become more mercenary, cynical, and attention-defict-disordered. I feel sorry for young writers starting out today but all the writers one admires worked from love of the genre or their own obsessions. That will continue to be the case. Mosher: Many writers, including John Updike, have called you our best living essayist. The Washington Post once referred to you as the finest since Thoreau. What distinguishes an essay from other types of nonfiction like memoirs or journalism? Is the essay an endangered species in 21st-century America? Hoagland: Essays are an even older genre than novels. Montaigne’s were published 25 years before Don Quixote, for example. So their resilience has a long history. I think novels because of their length are endangered. Essays are where a writer speaks directly to the reader not as a storyteller or in reportage but as him- or herself. The popularity of their poor relation, blogs, may prove peoples’ hunger for personal observation. (I spend an average of an hour for every 20 words in an essay when you count the separate drafts. A blog by nature is a quicker process.) Mosher: At one point in Sex and the River Styx, you write that heaven is on earth. Could you expand on that? Hoagland: This is what Emerson also thought: that the seethe of life “is an ecstasy,” and the only ecstasy we will ever know. Like Emerson, I don’t believe that god created man in His own image or vice versa, but that life itself and its energies are our heaven. Mosher: In its focus on aging, on our assault on nature, and on what appears to be a world-wide shift from family- and community-based societies to a much more materialistic, solipsistic, “electronic” era, Sex and the River Styx seems thematically different from your earlier essay collections such as The Courage of Turtles, Red Wolves and Black Bears, and Walking the Dead Diamond River. You once wrote that what people want to read is something they haven’t read before. Sex and the River Styx seems to fit that description. Do you regard it as different, in theme and tone, from your earlier work? Hoagland: The environmental emergencies we face are much clearer and more drastic and therefore my emphasis has changed but also I have been changed by old age. One of the comforts of old age used to be that people knew the world would remain as they had loved it when they were gone, but that is no longer the case. However, much of my work in the past, going all the way back to exulting in the circus 60 years ago, has been an elegy. Mosher: You have written about Africa, India, China, Antarctica, Alaska, British Columbia, the American West, Deep South, and New England–the list goes on and on. Where in the world that you haven’t been would you like to visit and write about? Hoagland: The Amazon. I’ve been on the Nile five times, but never the Amazon, and that is because my very bad stutter years ago prevented me from learning foreign languages. So I have limited myself to areas of the former British Empire like India and the Nile; and that is not simply cowardice. A friend of mine, the writer Alex Shoumatoff, once saved his own life on a tributary of the Amazon because he could understand Portuguese and heard his guides plotting to kill him for his money. Indeed on the Nile I once heard two guides plotting a cruel joke on me but it was in English, so I could clear out. Mosher: What books or writers have most influenced you? Hoagland: Besides The Iliad, War and Peace, and Moby-Dick, there was Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook and Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. Mosher: Word is that you’ve just finished an African novel and a Yukon River memoir quite different from anything else you’ve written. What’s next on the agenda? Hoagland: I’ve been working for several months on an essay on what’s happening to America and I have a Vermont novel I would like to figure out. I don’t know how it ends. Read the original interview at Amazon.com. Check out Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, available in both hardcover and paperback formats in our bookstore now.