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'Rural writer' loves life on the farm

Brad Kessler, author of 'Birds in Fall,' says he feeds himself and his work by tending goats and making cheese.

December 24, 2007|John Curran | Associated Press

SANDGATE, Vt. -- For a long time, writer Brad Kessler thought his time on the farm was taking away from his real job. These days, he's not so sure.

The author of "Birds in Fall," his 2006 novel based on the 1998 crash of a Swiss Air jetliner off the coast of Nova Scotia, has found inspiration on the 75-acre farm where he lives with his wife, gardening, raising goats and making cheese.

"I think about my friends back in New York and writers who are drinking cappuccinos and having these brilliant conversations and going to salons and here I am, digging potatoes. I think, 'Where did I go wrong?'

"But lately I think, no, it's actually feeding my work," he says.

To be sure, it's a long way from the suburbs of New York, where he was raised, to the creaky 19th century farmhouse where Kessler -- who has also lived in New York's East Village -- and photographer wife Dona Ann McAdams moved 10 years ago.

Located 5 miles up a secluded, semipaved road in a tiny (population 300) southern Vermont town 60 miles east of Albany, N.Y., the farm's stretches of pasture, apple orchards and thickly wooded hillsides have proved an ideal hideaway.

The 44-year-old Kessler, who fancies himself a "rural hermit writer" in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, has jumped into farm life with both feet.

Despite having no experience with livestock, the couple bought Nubian goats and taught themselves how to care for them, raise their young and use their milk. Now, their life revolves around the animals.

They are up before dawn to milk the goats, take them for walks, and process the milk into chevre, tomme and mozzarella cheese. The cheese is for their own consumption; they don't sell it.

"I've always been fascinated with goats," Kessler says, sitting in a chair in his backyard on a sun-splashed afternoon. "When I traveled to India and other places, goats have always been around. I've always felt this strange kinship with goats. They're horribly entertaining, and smart."

Now, his two principal pursuits are coming together.

He is at work on "The Goat Diaries," a nonfiction account of his experiences on the farm, which is due to be published in 2009.

Last month, he was one of 10 people to capture Whiting Writers' Awards, which have been given annually since 1985 to "emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise." The award, which came with a $50,000 prize, was for his body of work.

In addition, he won a $10,000 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for "Birds in Fall," a book that was a long time in the making.

These days, Kessler is writing about something closer to home -- and finding it easier.

"It's so much different between a novel and nonfiction," he says. "A novel is so much harder to write, for me. With a novel, especially when you're just starting, I'm only good for a couple of hours a day, in the morning and the evening. The rest of the day I've got to do something else.

"With nonfiction, it's a little different. I almost can spend all day."

Besides his four-legged muses, Kessler gets inspiration from bells that ring at the Charter House of the Transfiguration, a monastery just over the hill.

"I've been writing about making cheese, which is what I do now, and how cheese-making is traditionally a monastic craft, as it was developed in the monasteries. So there's this weird parallel -- what happens on the other side of the hills and what happens here.

"The writing life, in some way, there's a kind of a secular monasticism to it," he says.

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