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Saturday Rumpus Interview With Ben Strader

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I spent the first ten years of my life on a commune in the Adirondack wilderness of New York State, then the commune broke up and my family moved away. When I was in my early twenties I returned to the Adirondacks for a month long residency at The Blue Mountain Center.

You enter The Blue Mountain Center on a narrow, raked private road that winds around the edge of a lake, over two small bridges with bent sapling railings, then it opens up into mown green fields scattered with daisies and dandelions. There are deer lounging about. Pull up at the main lodge, enormous, rustic, with a copper roof. Think logs and stone and Mission leather furniture inside. The grand porch strewn with Adirondack chairs looks out on a long, sloping lawn to the lake. There are no other houses on the lake. There are loons.

Two giant glass jars on the counter are magically refilled with homemade oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies everyday.

I wrote during the day, then in the afternoon I’d either swim across the lake or sometimes jog down the dead end dirt road. For a mile or so there was nothing, no houses, nothing but trees. A desultory forest, young, skinny birch and pine and things fallen down and covered in moss. Sometimes a skitter or crash in the woods startled me. I would stand for a minute gasping at the end of the road, next to an abandoned airplane hangar, staring out at the lake, and I’d think, I am really alone. Then I’d jog back to the colony where I’d eat dinner with talented and charming people. Even though I’d only published a few short stories, I was treated as if I were a real writer.

Harriet Barlow, the Director of The Blue Mountain Center, was a force of nature. Tall, wild grey hair and the kind of eyes that shot out blue sparks, that seemed old fashioned, like the eyes of an abolitionist or like the eyes of Laura Linney playing Abigail Adams. Eyes with vision. She cheerfully insisted that everyone treat each other kindly. We didn’t even have to do our art if we didn’t want to. This was a retreat, she told us, and you could sit in an Adirondack chair, gorging on cookies and staring at the lake for a month if you wanted to.

Best. Happiest. It’s hard to describe joy. It was like I had come home, but the way home would be in heaven: yes, a community in the Adirondacks, but cleaner, fancier, peaceful and safe. More art and more cookies.

I literally loved everyone there, but the younger residents hung out together with the staff, and one of the staff was Ben Strader. He was a good looking guy just out of college, boyish, curly, dark hair, tanned, a world traveler with a Peter Pan grin. I thought he was Young Writer Adventure Boy, and like all of us, just passing through.

But I was wrong about Ben Strader. He stayed. He stayed and stayed for the next twenty years, moving from staff person to managing director to co-director with Harriet Barlow. I wondered what that must be like, spending not a month at a writer’s colony, but your whole life. What was it like living on that huge, empty estate in the Adirondack wilderness when the writers and artists went back to the cities where they lived? I called him up and asked him.

***

The Rumpus: How did you end up at The Blue Mountain Center?

Ben Strader: I came to BMC when I was seventeen in 1984. My mother was a close friend of the Executive Director, Harriet Barlow. I was trying to escape suburbia. I loved it there. I completely loved it. It was exotic, thrilling and not home. A real insight was meeting people who had had changed their lives. Like someone who was a nurse and abandoned it all to be a poet. It was liberating, exciting. A playwright from Texas had me show him the courses I was planning on taking at the University of Virginia, all intro classes. He told me I had it wrong. Instead, he told me to go off and take Ibsen and The African Novel. He was right.

I interned there for three summers, and then I thought that I was never going to go back to that tiny little corner of the world. There was so much to do and see everywhere else.

The Rumpus: So how did you end up back at BMC?

Strader: After college I went to Wyoming to work on a newspaper, got the travel bug, went to Asia. After Asia, I was in Tucson, and my buddy and I decided to hitch to Boston for a wedding. We held up a sign that said Unarmed Students. The sign was getting pretty soggy by Syracuse–three days, a lot of rain, no sleep, so I ditched the sign and hitched to the Blue Mountain Center, just showed up. And that’s when you were there, 1991. Harriet offered me a place to sleep. She offered me a job to come back on the staff. And I’ve been there ever since.

The Rumpus: How come?

Strader: I was really attracted to the idea of a seven-month job. Plus I managed to make it into my thirties without owning a key. I would drop into BMC, live in a bedroom in the old servant’s quarters over the kitchen. Live and breathe BMC and then spend the other four or five months traveling. About five years in, I fell in love with a suburban transplant and moved here full time. I have a five year old and an eight year old.

The Rumpus: What is your relationship to the land? What’s it like to be there in the Adirondacks when no else is around?

Strader: The winters alone are kind of an antidote to being a host to people, my quiet time to be with my family and explore the wilderness here by myself. The Adirondacks are the largest wilderness in the eastern half of the United States. Our county, Hamilton, has two people per square mile. It’s a vast wilderness area. We’re on a two thousand acre estate. Of course, this morning it was ten below. And there’s about two feet of snow for most of the winter. But there’s no flies or bugs.

I get around on a combination of cross country skis and snowshoes. If I want to get lost in a marsh or the backwoods I get on snowshoes.

There’s numerous deer. The black bear are asleep, but there are fisher cats here, pine martens chasing squirrels. Mink live in the boathouse. Otters and beavers in the channels. This fall we saw a bald eagle dive bomb a duck. So there’s a lot to see.

The Rumpus: Are the woods always peaceful? Have you ever gotten lost?

Strader: I have gotten lost a few times. I wouldn’t call it peaceful. It’s getting to the edge and having to rely on the lay of the land. It raises your attention and focus. And it reminds you that nature doesn’t really care about you. That seems profound to me. Once, I was off trail snowshoeing with my dog and got turned around a little bit and it was dusk. One of those grey days when you can’t tell where the sun is. Finally, after stumbling though a spruce thicket and losing my hat and digging around in the snow for it, I asked the dog to find our way home. Within fifteen minutes she had me back on the trail.


The Rumpus: Do you ever get lonely?

Strader: I had a few winters where it was sort of lonely. I turned a corner about ten years ago when I realized I had to get out of the ivory tower here at BMC and start to connect to my local community. It started with pick-up basketball games. And I joined the local planning board.

Then I joined the fire department because there aren’t that many people in the area who can pull a hose. If you’re under the age of seventy you sort of have an obligation in a town of 130 to be on the fire department. I’m on that. Now we’re resuscitating an old movie house. That’s brought me to a whole new level of thinking about how these small, rural towns are going to survive.

And there’s something about the cyclical nature of the year that allows me to throw myself into the residence period and then live a quieter life in the winter.

The Rumpus: I remember when we first met you wanted to be a writer. Is that right?

Strader: At the time I thought I was going to become a writer. Living with writers and artists for the last thirty years has weaned me. That’s the only reason I’ve lasted. It’s extremely difficult to devote long days to supporting other people doing their work if you’re wishing you were writing. As polite as you’re trying to be it’s not sustainable. The people who last here are those who love art and literature but who aren’t trying to sneak off and do it themselves.

The Rumpus: You’re hosting these writers and artists who want time to themselves but it’s also a community. Is it tricky?

Strader: Some people come to BMC once and feel that it’s a little more social then they were looking for. We don’t see them again. On the other hand, a lot of people are aching for a feeling of what community can be, how supportive it can be. There’s something to be said for getting up from the breakfast table and seeing other people heading up to the blank screen. They’re struggling through the same aches and pains you’re struggling through. There’s a real power in that. A community is formed. It’s profound for many people. We are on the side of more community building, like taking people up for a hike to Castle Rock or paddling or climbing a mountain. We had a young woman this summer, a grad student from New York City, and as I was driving her to the train station on the way out she said that since she was in junior high any relationship she’d had immediately moved to a digital platform, and it would be a dual relationship between texting and talking. Even her best friend she would be afraid to call on the phone without texting first. And yet she’d had this month where there was no digital relationship. For her, it was a reminder of how relationships can develop in an old style way.

The Rumpus: What’s your relationship like with the residents?

Strader: I’ve been here for over a thousand residents. That keeps alive my love of reading and the arts and film and music.

For many years I was younger than all the residents, and then I started to be the same age. In my late twenties I went to New York City and stayed with a resident I had become friends with. You know, BMC is lovely and people are given a level of status and respect. It was eye opening to see a resident waiting tables, living in a beat-up apartment, trying to scribble a few lines of poetry at night. Eye-opening to see how tough the world treats creative people.

The Rumpus: What is it like to work with Harriet Barlow? Are you intimidated by her?

Strader: Yes. Aren’t you?

The Rumpus: Totally. She’s this huge figure. Towering. But I guess she’s a normal human being to you.

Strader: Yeah. We’re really close. I’ve known her since I was five.

The Rumpus: (I never actually straight out asked him if he walked around in a constant state of joy, as if in heaven, but he told me this little anecdote, which pretty much answers that question.)

Strader: At one point we created a Needs and Wants book for residents. In case the staff were busy at the moment and couldn’t help right away. One resident wrote 49 times in 30 days.

The Rumpus: What kinds of needs and wants did she have? Were they esoteric, like I need companionship?

Strader: No, more like non-fat yogurt. Wheat free granola bars. Paperclips.

The Rumpus: (I realized right then that someone is actually baking those cookies– every, single day. Duh.)

The Rumpus: Do you ever write? Do you keep a journal or diary?

Strader: I don’t. But there are wonderful stories that happen all the time.


Micah Perks is the author of the novel, We Are Gathered Here, the memoir, Pagan Time, and a lot of short stories. Pagan Time is now an audio book on audible.com She Co-Directs The Creative Writing Program at UC Santa Cruz. More from this author →