Author On the Bookcase: Ann Joslin Williams, author of Down From Cascom Mountain
Author On the Bookcase
Ann Joslin Williams
I'm excited to welcome Ann Joslin Williams, author of Down from Cascom Mountain, to On the Bookcase. Set in rugged New Hampshire in the aftermath of a fatal accident, Down From Cascom Mountain explores grief, desire and identity. Mary Hall overcomes her grief from the death of her husband. and find new friends and in the process, discovers herself.
Ann chats about the New Hampshire landscape and how "many of the things I experienced in these places eventually found their way into Down from Cascom Mountain, shaping events and details."
Ann, please tell us about the land you love and the novel it inspired.
I started writing Down from Cascom Mountain while I was living in San Francisco, far from New Hampshire, where I’d grown up. As much as I liked living in San Francisco, I often dreamed of being in the woods or climbing mountains in New England. Setting my novel in a landscape I loved and knew so well was one way of being there. Every morning I’d transport myself to that terrain following my characters as they hiked up Mount Cascom, got lost in the deep woods, or crossed the old fields and rushing brooks in Leah, New Hampshire.
Though Down from Cascom Mountain is set in this place, the geographical names—Cascom, Leah, and others—are fictionalized. They’re the names that my father, Thomas Williams, a National Book Award winner, invented to use in his own fiction.
Before I was born my parents had built a cabin in northern New Hampshire, overlooking a granite-domed mountain. This would become the retreat where my father could find time and quiet to write during summers. Later, when I’d started writing, often setting my stories in that landscape, my father suggested I use his fictional names. He passed them on to me, and I am honored to use them in my fiction now.
I spent my childhood summers at that cabin, and sometimes at the nearby lake where I attended girls’ camp. When I was a teenager, I worked as a crew member for the Appalachian Mountain Club at the lodge just down the road from my parents’ cabin, and later, I went farther north to work in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range. Many of the things I experienced in these places eventually found their way into Down from Cascom Mountain, shaping events and details.
As crew at the AMC, living in a small building next to the lodge, we cleared trails, cooked and served meals, washed dishes, cleaned rooms, mowed fields, dug drainage ditches—just about everything you can think of that needed to be done, including taking part in search and rescue. In our free time we loved the wilderness, hiking, discovering different trails, getting to the top of mountains. We’d dunk in the freezing, rock-carved pools in the brook or play king of the raft in the manmade pond near the lodge. Stretched out on our backs in the grass or on the raft in the middle of the pond, we’d name constellations, breathe in honeysuckle. Some evenings we sat around the campfire, playing music, singing along with the guitars and banjo, falling in and out of love. There were nights I snuck from the crew’s quarters, ran across the wet grass to the lodge and up the stairs to the crew boss’s room. I’d be back in my own bed by sunrise, though I’m sure everyone knew.
When I was nineteen, I went to work in Pinkham Notch at the base of Mount Washington—the tallest peak in the northeastern United States and a wilderness rich with ghost stories. While there, I participated in the search for a missing albino man—the spark for the legend of the ghost girl who appears in Down from Cascom Mountain.
There are other events from those days on crew that have crept into my fiction, though in different forms. After I left the AMC for college, I learned that a boy on crew had fallen to his death from a ledge while hiking overseas. Someone told me he lost his balance while stooping for his knapsack.
It was that small bit of information—that he lost his balance while reaching for his knapsack—that haunted me. It seemed so unfair—a kid who knew mountains, had climbed so many, probably very steep and treacherous ones, could fall while reaching for his backpack.
Years later, working on the novel, happily and imaginatively ensconced in my landscape of choice, I’m following Mary and her new husband up Cascom Mountain when, in an instant, he loses his balance at the edge of a cliff. I suppose I knew it was coming, but now I had to imagine what it would take, what it would look like, how it could happen. I had no idea what would take place afterward. That was to be discovered along with the other characters who began to reveal themselves, among them a young girl who works on the crew at Cascom Mountain lodge and a troubled boy who finds solace in the woods of Leah.
Setting my fiction in this terrain is rewarding for me not only because it can be rugged and sometimes dangerous, which is good for creating tension, but the natural world is also beautiful, full of mystery and magic. There’s mica sparkling in the granite, sunlight blinking through the leaves overhead, the thunder of a grouse taking flight, the smell of pine sap, a glimpse of a ghost or two between the trees. It’s a place I like to be literally and in my fiction.
By way of some miraculous circumstances, I have since moved back to New Hampshire, land that’s in my blood. Or is it really miraculous? Maybe inevitable is a better word. It’s as if I never left.
Thanks so much, Ann, for sharing your love of place. Reading Group Alert -- the New Hampshire landscape as a character in Ann's book is a great discussion point along with loss, love, identity.
"There seems to be no element of these people and this landscape to which Williams is a stranger. She sees straight to the heart of her characters, and it is a pleasure to witness them yearning and grieving and loving their way through these pages, one living human presence after another, the mountain and the forest rising up around them in all their mystery and specificity."—Kevin Brockmeier, author of Illumination and The Brief History of the Dead
Ann Joslin Williams grew up in New Hampshire. She earned her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She is the author of The Woman in the Woods, a collection of linked stories, which won the 2005 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. She was awarded an NEA grant for her work on Down from Cascom Mountain. Williams works as an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Please learn more about Ann.