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Honoring Howard

Jensen Beach accepts his award. Photo by Anthony Pagani

by Thomas Christopher Greene

A year ago last weekend, I stood on the stage in Alumni Hall at the Vermont Book Award Gala and called the audience’s attention to Howard Frank Mosher, an iconic Vermont novelist and a friend of mine. The spotlight moved to Howard, and he stood in a room full of people dressed for the gala, suits and cocktail dresses, the occasional gown and tuxedo. Howard, always himself, wore a flannel shirt, jeans, and boots. He waved to the crowd, and the crowd responded in kind, for no one sat at the center of the Vermont literary community more than Howard. There was no way of knowing that, for most of us, this was the last time we would see him.

A week ago Saturday, I again stood on the stage at the Vermont Book Award Gala, and this time, eight months after Howard’s death at age 74 from cancer, and with his wife of more than half a century, Phillis, in the audience, I announced the creation of a scholarship funded by the owners of Phoenix Books in Howard’s name that would provide $10,000 annually to a different emerging Vermont writer to support their attendance at VCFA’s MFA in Writing & Publishing program.

Six months previously, I had been introduced to Renee Reiner and Michael DeSanto, the owners of Phoenix Books, and we began a conversation about how we might work together to promote the literary community here in Vermont. What started as a conversation about the Vermont Book Award turned quickly to how we could honor Howard, someone we all loved, admired, and missed. Their decision to step up and fund this scholarship felt to me like the perfect way to honor Howard’s legacy, for no one in Vermont did more to support emerging writers in our state than Howard.

To wit: back in 2001, I had finished my first novel, “Mirror Lake.” I was trying to figure what to do next now that I had written it, and I looked up Howard Frank Mosher’s address in the phone book and mailed him a copy of it with a cover letter. I don’t remember what inspired me to do it, and I suppose I didn’t expect to hear back—after all, he was a famous writer, and he didn’t know me from Adam. But then three weeks later or so, I got in the mail a handwritten note, and one that anyone who has ever corresponded with Howard will recognize, written on yellow legal paper. He loved my book, he said, and he gave me some feedback on it but also a blurb I could use as I sought a publisher.

Howard was the first writer to get behind my own work as a novelist. Later, I would learn this was a familiar story. He was also the first one to blurb Chris Bohjalian, Richard Russo and many others.

For Howard believed, to quote John Cheever (who said this but seldom practiced it), that writing is not a competitive sport. We all benefit from more literature, from more writers, and certainly from more readers.

Over the next several years, Howard and I maintained a correspondence. We wrote about our shared love of the Red Sox, about the writing life, the challenges of the publishing world, writers we admired, and what we were reading. He introduced to me other writers like Jeffrey Lent and Richard Russo, both of whom would later support novels of mine when they needed such support. Sometimes, after I started VCFA, Howard would come by College Hall when he was in town and chat for a minute or show me something. I remember in particular a day when he popped in, impish grin on his face, to show me a map of the United States and the hundred-city book tour he was about to go on, visiting most of the major independent booksellers who had supported him over the years. He was enthralled with this idea, an almost childlike glee, and I remember thinking, watching him talk about it, that I needed to enjoy this work I was lucky enough to do more and stop taking it for granted. Howard never took it for granted. And he never stopped loving it.

In the days after Howard died, there was a tremendous outpouring of sadness and gratitude among the literary community here in Vermont and beyond. Howard had touched a lot of us, had encouraged us along the way and often directly supported our work without ever asking anything in return. In short, he modeled for me, and for many other writers, how to be literary citizens.

I have always believed in the Irish idea that as long we as are telling stories about you, you can never really be gone. Howard Frank Mosher lives on in stories like this, and in his own work (his final book will be published next January), and also, thanks to Phoenix Books, in the scholarship that bears his name and will help a Vermonter achieve the dream that Howard did. This idea would please Howard greatly. When I started the Vermont Book Award, I remember Howard saying to me, “I don’t want to ever win that. That should go to younger writer. Someone who needs it.”

It will, Howard.

Thomas Christopher Greene is the founding president of VCFA and the author, most recently, of “If I Forget You.”