Fred Marple is on a one-man campaign to put the town of Frost Heaves, New Hampshire back on the map, since—as the town motto goes—you can't get there from here. Fred (also known as humorist Ken Sheldon) has been featured on New Hampshire Chronicle, in the pages of Yankee Magazine and New Hampshire Magazine, and on the radio. He has appeared at town halls, church basements, and the homes of most of his friends, usually right around dinner time.
We had a chance to sit down with Fred, and his pal Ken, to discuss the history of the town of Frost Heaves, his new book, and what is was like writing with Garrison Keillor.
IP: Where is Frost Heaves?
FM: Frost Heaves is located in the southeast corner of New Hampshire, in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. The first settlers wanted to be on the sunny side of Monadnock, but that was already taken, so we took what was available. Being in the shadows means that winters are long and summers are short—pretty much like the rest of New England.
IP: Who were the first settlers?
FM: The first settlers of Frost Heaves were the Cootahachi Indians. They called it Minitiwakana-nishagook-tikanawaba-nokanok, which is hard to translate, but it means roughly, “You can’t get there from here.” The first white settlers came from Massachusetts, but they would never admit that afterwards. They traded the Cootahachis two bales of flannel cloth for the entire town of Frost Heaves, and to this day, the Indians still think they got the better end of the bargain.
IP: Why did you write this book?
FM: For some reason, I have become the unofficial spokesman for the town of Frost Heaves. That may be because people can’t figure out what I do for a living, so they assume I don’t have anything better to do with my time, which is only partly true. At any rate, we have been putting on a live variety show for a few years now, and I tell a story at each of the live shows. Putting those stories together into a book seemed like a good way to tell folks about Frost Heaves and maybe generate a little income without having to do any actual work.
IP: What’s special about Frost Heaves?
FM: Nothing. It’s just your average little New England town, with a market, a post office, a town dump, and a town clerk who knows everything about everybody who was ever married, buried, baptized, or anaesthetized within 20 miles of the town center. We may have a higher percentage of characters than other towns, but that’s probably just because we don’t know them that well. Frost Heaves would be a terrible place to be in the witness protection program because everyone in town would know your life’s story within fifteen minutes after you moved in. On the other hand, they wouldn’t speak to anyone from outside who came asking about you, so you’d probably be safe.
IP: How long did it take you to write the book?
FM: We’ve been doing the show for seven years, so I guess you could say it took that long. On the other hand, when it came time to write the book, I just collected the stories I’d already told, so it really didn’t take long at all. Let’s go with seven years, that sounds more impressive.
And now a little from Ken....
IP: Where did Frost Heaves come from?
KS: Years ago, my father was the business manager at a church camp. One day, a visitor came into the office with a question. One the way to the camp, she kept passing signs for some town called Frost Heaves, but never came to the town. She wanted to know where it was. Dad thought that was about the funniest thing he’d ever heard and told that story often. I thought so too, and began making up stories about Frost Heaves. I was traveling around doing folk music concerts and began telling the stories there. In 2008, my wife and I decided to create a live show based on Frost Heaves, and it was a hit from the very beginning. As Fred Marple says, “We had no idea people were so desperate for entertainment.”
IP: Where do you get your ideas from?
KS: All I have to do is hang out at the town dump (or “the recycling center and transport station”), the coffee shop, or the library. These days, people share stories with me all the time. I file the serial numbers off, change the names to protect the guilty, and there you go.
IP: What are your influences?
KS: As a kid, my three main influences were Bill Cosby, the Dick Van Dyke Show, and Peanuts (I have an autographed drawing of Snoopy sent to me by Charles Shultz when I was about eight). Among humorists, I like Dave Barry, Jean Shephard (“A Christmas Story”), Mark Twain, Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Tim Sample, and Garrison Keillor.
Among fiction writers, I love those who can craft fine prose while telling a story about ordinary people, especially in small towns: Richard Russo, James Hassler, Kent Haruf, Alexander McCall Smith, to name a few. Favorite non-contemporary writers include Graham Greene, Dickens, and Austen.
IP: What else do you write?
KS: I’m a freelancer, so I’ve written everything from book reviews to white papers on microprocessors. My favorite freelance writing these days is my column for Yankee Magazine, Only in New England. I’ve also written a couple of novels and several children’s books.
IP: Is it true that you co-authored a book with Garrison Keillor?
KS: That’s true, one book—as in one actual copy. Here’s how it came about. When my wife and I were dating, I visited her in her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. At the time, the St. Paul Tribune was running a contest as part of the 100th anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Keillor had written a short biography of Fitzgerald and left blanks for many pertinent facts. Contestants were supposed to fill in the blanks with made-up answers. Most people tried to find the correct answers, but I put in nonsense answers (e.g., “F. Scott Fitzgerald was the son of: Edmund and Ella Fitzgerald…”) based on all the things I was learning about Minnesota. I won first prize, which included a hardbound copy of my winning entry—the only one in existence—with the title "A Sort of Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald", by Garrison Keillor and Kenneth M. Sheldon. I also got a cash prize, which was enough to repair the car that I nearly totaled in a snowstorm on my way to Minnesota.
Thanks to Fred and Ken for taking time out to chat with us! If you are in New Hampshire, stop by Fred's launch party at the Monadnock Center, Bass Hall, 19 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH. Friday, May 22nd. 5-7 p.m. You can also pre-order a copy of the book here.