The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features Ken Sheldon, who is well-known for playing Fred Marple, the unofficial spokesman of the fictional town of Frost Heaves. Frost Heaves is a small town with views of Mount Monadnock, where the people are frugal, clever, familiar, friendly, and funny.
Sheldon’s new book, written as Fred Marple, gives us short stories and bits of news and wisdom from the town of Frost Heaves. It’s called Welcome to Frost Heaves. Take a listen to Sheldon's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below his book picks.
Ken's Top 5 Book Recommendations
1. Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo. "This is my favorite of Russo’s novels, who is probably my favorite author. He has a generosity of spirit towards his characters, even the ones who are complete idiots or scoundrels."
2. Plainsong by Kent Haruf. "Haruf isn’t well known, and sadly, he has passed away. Plainsong is the first of several books set in the little town of Holt, Colorado and featuring characters trying desperately to make sense of life. His writing is full of grace, as clean and spare as a Midwestern landscape, and just as moving."
3. Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. "I love children’s literature, and this was my favorite book as a boy, and it still bears up. McCloskey was a fine, funny storyteller and just about every one of his books is a classic."
4. David Copperfield or anything else by Charles Dickens. "Dickens is the master, even if his books are often plotted with a heavy hand and fraught with coincidences. In Dickens, the bad guys are really bad, but he could also create characters who were very funny without knowing they were, as could Jane Austen."
5. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. "For my money, Greene may be the greatest English writer of the 20th century. Most of his books are deeply philosophical, but he also wrote popular thrillers and this hilarious spoof about a vacuum cleaner salesman who is mistaken for a spy."
My experience with Frost Heaves has, up until this point, been YouTube videos. I haven’t made it to a performance. And I was wondering if the accent that you use when you’re playing Fred Marple was an affectation, something you had to put on, and it sounds like, just from talking to you a few minutes ago, that it is.
Fred is his own person, yes. He’s—well, I do shows as Fred Marple and I often look in the audience and there’s about a half a dozen Freds looking back at me. Because it’s the typical guy with the plaid shirt and suspenders and the baseball cap and, yeah, the New England accent, or the New Hampshire accent is different from the down east. So you know, Fred, he kind of talks like this, it’s kind of slow and he rolls his R’s, that kind of thing. So yeah, it’s a character.
Do audience members ever critique your accent and say, “Hey, you didn’t quite get the New Hampshire accent right for this particular word.”
I think back when I first started, I think somebody accused me of channeling Bert & I. And I probably had been listening to a lot of Down East, and the Down East thing is much deeper, dear, you know, it’s just deeper and thicker than the New Hampshire accent.
Sounds like it’s out of a Stephen King movie there. I wanted to ask you what you were trying to accomplish or show about New Hampshire by writing all these short stories about the people who live in this fictional town.
Well, as Fred says, he’s been telling these stories for years at the show, and he thought that putting them all together in a book would be a good way to make a little extra money without any extra work. I’ve lived all over New England, growing up. We moved about five or six times, and I lived in every New England state except Rhode Island, and invariably, it was in a small town. So Frost Heaves, to a certain extent, is all those small towns I lived in, and all the characters that were in those towns. New England is just kind of unique, I mean, each state has its own feel, you know? But in a small town, you can have a Pulitzer Prize winner who lives in a really nice house next to the guy who plows his driveway who lives in a trailer, you know. So I’m just trying to capture those small towns and how great they are and all the people who live in the town, and there’s repeated characters. If you live in enough of these towns, you meet the same people.
Reading this book, it’s hard not to think of A Prairie Home Companion in some ways, and thinking about what Garrison Keillor has had to say about the Midwest and how people behave in churches and other public spaces, and then what you hear, sort of stereotypically, not just the bad stuff about the South, but the good stuff, too—it seems like rural is rural is rural, no matter where you are.
Yeah, Thornton Wilder has a famous quote about Our Town that he said, basically, he set in New England, but it could have been any small town in Greece or Ireland—I’m paraphrasing—but he said, a small town is a small town to a certain extent. The classic thing is that everybody knows your business. You move in and its scary. People know where you came from and who you bought the house from and what time you go out the door to get your mail, and that’s scary on the one hand but great on the other hand, because if you have a need, people know about it.
And a true Yankee, as you say in this book, will slam the door on your face if you go up to her and say, “Hey, do you need help?”
[Laughs] Right. We keep to ourselves.
Well, let me ask you, if it’s true that there are so many common things between rural areas no matter where they are, then what makes rural New Hampshire rural New Hampshire?
Well, you know, my wife is from Minnesota, so she helps me see a lot of things with an outsider’s perspective. And you know, we have this reputation in New England or New Hampshire of being a little cool, a little standoffish, a little reserved, and it’s completely true. In the South, if you’re walking down the street, people will say hi to you, but in New England—my wife and I have talked about where this comes from. I think people don’t want to bother you. And so, that’s where that reticence and reserve—there’s a lot of reticence and reserve. And then there’s the whole Yankee, “Fix it up, use it up”—I can’t remember it now—“make it do or do without.” That sort of resilience, that stick-to-it, get the job done, make-do—to me, that kind of epitomizes the Yankee, the classic New England spirit.
What’s next for Fred?
Well, he’s been doing a new show called “The Guide to New England for Locals and People from Away.” The shows he has done in the past and still does are about Frost Heaves, but this one is a look at all of New England and the things that we do. The way we eat, the way we behave, the words we use, like the fact that we call a water fountain a “bubbler,” and just traveling around, talking to people, [in Fred’s voice] trying to raise the profile of the town of Frost Heaves. We’re tired of taking a backseat to other towns. We want to move up to the front seat. We don’t need to drive, we can be shotgun, that’s fine, but we want to move up to the front seat.
Well, Ken, consider the profile at least a little bit raised today.
Absolutely. This is a big doings, here, being on NHPR, my goodness. In town we got WHAT Radio, run by Harold and Thelma Delmar, but it only reaches the outskirts of town on a breezy day, so this is a big deal, here, Peter, thank you very much.