When I first arrived in Vermont in the fall of 1969, fresh out of college, to teach high school English in Barton (and to write, I promised myself), by chance I moved into a place a mile down the road from Howard and Phillis Mosher. Five years my senior, Howard himself had been teaching at the same school until that spring, when he left to give himself the time to write. We had plenty in common, and Howard, ever the exuberant conversationalist, was full of stories and advice about the school, its students and faculty, our colorful Northeast Kingdom community, and the difficult craft we intended to pursue.
In his dedication and ambition, right from the start Howard proved as inspiring a friend as I've ever had.
A year later, Howard left Vermont to meander west across the country (allowing time enough for trout-fishing excursions along the way) to enroll in the graduate fiction workshop at the University of California, Irvine. Upon settling in Santa Ana a week before the start of the semester, Howard and Phillis found themselves so appalled by the place that they packed up the old Chevy and headed back to the northern climate and familiar comforts of the Kingdom. Howard then determined to steep himself in the culture and people that were to occupy the heart of his fiction for the rest of his life.
When I entered that same graduate program myself two years later, the folks there still spoke in wonder of the writer from Vermont who came, stayed for a week, and left. At Irvine I met a literary agent who was impressed enough with my fiction to offer to represent me. In turn, I urged him to have a look at Howard's work, then a handful of stories. He did, and soon the agent had placed Howard's collection, Where the Rivers Flow North, with Viking Press on the condition that Howard write a novel that Viking would publish first.
In a year's time, Howard produced Disappearances (1977), the first of his 12 novels, which was received quite well. Though not in all quarters. A review in the Montréal Gazette was headed: "Vermont Writer Should Disappear. " In gleeful outrage, Howard nailed the clipping to the side of his barn and blasted it with his 16-gauge.
Much later, when filmmaker Jay Craven gave me the opportunity to adapt both Rivers and Howard's crime novel A Stranger in the Kingdom to the screen, I was delighted, if a bit apprehensive. Naturally, Howard brimmed with confidence and effusive reassurance: "You'll do a magnificent job, Don! I'm sure of it."
As any writer who knew him will tell you, Howard was a writer's writer — one wholly devoted to his craft, but also, with unstinting enthusiasm, devoted to supporting the endeavors of anyone earnestly laboring over a keyboard. Howard was always available to read and respond helpfully to a rough draft, supply a glowing blurb, write a generous review, advocate energetically for an unpublished hopeful and promote the efforts of independent booksellers everywhere.
Howard loved all literature, the classic novels in particular — Dickens, Austen, Marquez, Twain — but, above all, Howard loved to write. His rich, original fiction, "full of hilarity and heartbreak," as Stephen King has written, has made an indelible mark on American literature. Anyone who reads him will agree that rural Vermont is a grander, more vivid place for his keen and loving imagination.
One ever-present theme in Howard's work concerns his reverence for the north, as the titles of his books, from Where the Rivers Flow North, The Great Northern Express, North Country and Northern Borders (his own favorite) to his forthcoming novel, Points North, make plain. When I last saw him a few days ago, I reminded Howard of a wistful passage we had talked about more than once, the lyrical closing paragraphs of E.B. White's Stuart Little. He nodded and smiled and squeezed my hand as I quoted them. "There's something about north..."
"There's something about north," [the repairman] said, "something that sets it apart from all other directions. A person who is heading north is not making any mistake, in my opinion."
"That's the way I look at it," said Stuart. "I rather expect that from now on I shall be traveling north until the end of my days."
"Worse things than that could happen to a person," said the repairman.
"Yes, I know," answered Stuart.
"Following a broken telephone line north, I have come upon some wonderful places," continued the repairman. "Swamps where cedars grow and turtles wait on logs but not for anything in particular; fields bordered by crooked fences broken by years of standing still; orchards so old they have forgotten where the farmhouse is. In the north I have eaten my lunch in pastures rank with ferns and junipers, all under fair skies with a wind blowing. My business has taken me into spruce woods on winter nights where the snow lay deep and soft, a perfect place for a carnival of rabbits. I have sat at peace on the freight platforms of railroad junctions in the north, in the warm hours and with the warm smells. I know fresh lakes in the north, undisturbed except by fish and hawk and, of course, by the Telephone Company, which has to follow its nose. I know all these places well. They are a long way from here — don't forget that. And a person who is looking for something doesn't travel very fast."
Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and somehow he felt he was headed in the right direction.
Howard now is headed north, and, yes, that is the right direction.