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John Houghton on Culver in his new novel, Rough Magicke

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John Houghton grew up in Culver and graduated from Culver Academy in the 1970s. He went on to receive degrees from Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, and Indiana University, among others, and has taught at Notre Dame as well as in Georgia, Baton Rouge, and at Culver Academy. His latest book, Rough Magicke, was just published in April 2005 by Unlimited Publishing of Bloomington (an earlier collection, Falconry and Other Poems, was published by Unlimited in 2003), and is a novel employing elements of fantasy, religion, mystery, history, and interestingly enough, a great deal of local history and lore. Much of the book is set in Culver and Culver and the Culver Academy are prominently featured in the story.

Following is an interview with Mr. Houghton about his connections to Culver, the Culver-related content of the book, and the book in general.  

Q: First of all, of course, you are no stranger to Culver and the Culver area. Can you give us some background and history of yourself and your family's involvement in the area?

A: Well, I was adopted, and brought here when I was about six months old, by Forrest and Leta (Kingery) Houghton, so I really don't remember any home but Culver. Mother's family had moved here from Flora, Indiana, where the Kingerys had been pioneers, when she was six: my grandfather Kingery worked with his brother-in-law, J. M. Miller, at Miller's Dairy for some years, then took over the Cloverleaf Dairy himself. My father's mother's family were Decks, from down in Delong, and his father's family descended from two brothers, James and John Houghton, who were pioneers in southern Indiana, then came up here with the first wave of settlement in Marshall County in the 1830s. John's son-in-law, Bayless Dixon (he was married to  Emma Houghton) founded Union Town in the south-west part of his farm in 1844, then sold it to John's son, Thomas K. Houghton, which is when the name was changed to Marmont. Then Thomas K. Houghton sold the north part of the farm—the part that wasn't in the village of Marmont—to my own great-great-grandfather, James's son, Thomas Houghton. That chunk adjoined grandfather Thomas's main farm, on the northwest corner of 17th Road and Highway 17, across from the old Three Sisters. Over the years slices of  what grandfather Thomas bought from his cousin have been gradually added back on to the north edge of town, most recently my great-aunt Ethel's land across from the high school.

Anyway, I grew up here pretty much the way everyone does, surrounded by lots of cousins, descended in my case from the Millers and the Decks and the Houghtons (including a number of Joneses and Prossers). I used to really like the Deck family reunion, which was always held on my birthday. I forget how old I was when it was explained to me that it was actually held on great-grandfather John Deck's birthday, which happened to be the same as mine (which also explains why I was named first for him and then for my great-grandfather William Houghton, rather than the other way around). I took piano lessons from your grandmother, and then later from my great-aunt Ethel. When I was small, we had a farm south of town, on Road 110, where we raised hogs and soybeans. (You'll remember that there's a soybean field at one point in Rough Magicke.)

I went to school through eighth grade in what was then the “new” elementary school and in the old high school building, and had classes with Alice McLane, Florence Page, Dorothy Manis, Bill Harris...the same names a lot of people around town remember. Summers, I went to Woodcraft and Naval School, and then in ninth grade I started at the Academy, where I was in the class of 1971.

Q: What have you been up to, generally, since you left Culver after graduating from the Academy?

A: Mostly either going to school or teaching. I was an undergraduate at Harvard, and took a master's in English at IU Bloomington; then many years later I went back to graduate school, and took a master's in religion at Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Divinity School (the Episcopal part of Yale), then a master's and doctorate in medieval studies up at Notre Dame. I've taught at the Academy, at a school in Georgia, at two different schools in St. Louis, and most recently I was the chaplain at a school in Baton Rouge. This fall, I'm starting a new position as chair of the English Department at Canterbury School over in Fort Wayne. I've had summer jobs at Woodcraft Camp, Specialty Camps and the Naval School—lately I've been spending the summers with an American summer camp in Oxford, England, which gives me a chance to visit my English cousins at least once a year. And, as you know, I even wrote a column for the Citizen, thirty years ago, on local history. Q: So you've been all over the world, really, from Harvard to Notre Dame, England to Baton Rouge...what motivated you to set this novel -- fictionally at least -- in this rural little Indiana town on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee?

A: Partly, I suppose, it's just a matter of writing about what you know; and partly, too, it was sort of sentimental for me, living in Missouri and Louisiana and such, to be writing a story that had a lot of Hoosier connections. Obviously, living on Houghton Street in Houghton's Addition to Culver, I was bound to grow up with a certain sense of place. But then, too, I wanted to write a story about magic and supernatural happenings, and I think stories like that gain from having a very ordinary background. And after all there was a certain amount of odd stuff that used to go on, superstitious stuff, at the least—I'm sure some people still plant according to the sign of the moon, and my grandfather Kingery used to have things he would do to heal people, like “measuring” babies who weren't growing well. Q: There are a number of "Culver" connections in the book: people, places, traditions. Can you discuss some of that for those who haven't yet read the book? What are some of the fun little clues that local people will immediately "get" which others who are less familiar with Culver, the Academy, and the Lake, might not?

A: Sure, I'll try. Of course, the most obvious thing is just having the story set at a military academy in a small town on a large lake in north central Indiana—that kind of narrows things down a bit! Then the county seat in the story is Withougan, which, spelled with a  “y,”  is a name associated with Plymouth. We find out that the old railroad north of Annandale was the Nickle Plate Line, which is the road that  ran through Burr Oak before it was merged into the Norfolk and Western in 1964. And there's a neighboring town called “Wolf Creek,” which was the site of a Native American village, and a battle between the Pottawattomi and the Fox.

Part of the story revolves around the legend of Pau-koo-shuck, the son of Aubenaubee, and actually there I ended up using (more or less by accident) several details mentioned in the histories, including that Aubenaubee lived for several hours after Pau-koo-shuck attacked him, and that white folks reburied Aubenaubee and piled stones over him. And I moved one of the Fulton County round barns up to the east side of the lake.

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Then there are some games with names. Several of the characters, all noted, I hope, in the Author's Note, have the names of real people—friends or colleagues of mine, including Dr. Davies, of the Culver history faculty. There are several references to the Trout family of Indianapolis having cottages on the lake, whereas historically we had the Vonneguts here, and Kurt Vonnegut invents a fictitious hack novelist called “Kilgore Trout.”  There is one reference to two Indiana political families having been associated with Annandale, and the Bayh and Quayle names have both appeared on rosters at Culver at one point or another. And there are just some nods to local figures, like a couple of references, as you noticed, to your own Voreis ancestors, or one to Ellis Licht and his pie business—we're sort of related, through the Decks and the Duddlesons. One or two things are more elaborate—at one point Jonathan refers the first wife of the founder of a neighboring town being named “Bertha,” which is a reference to the mad first wife of Mr. Rochester, in Jane Eyre. Q: How did you decide what changes to make in the local places and lore? Obviously some of that was a matter of what fit in well with the plot of the story (such as establishing an Anglican Abbey just off of East Shore).

A: Right, some things were required by the plot; on the other hand, a lot of others were just whims. CMA had barracks named “Argonne” and “Chateau Thierry”—now rather gruesome names for girls' dorms—whereas Annandale has “Ypres” and “Verdun,” all four being battles of  World War I. CT and Argonne were appropriate for CMA because they were major battles for Pershing's American Expeditionary Force, whereas the battles remembered at literary Annandale are the ones mentioned in Carl Sandburg's poem “Grass.” Culver has a Logansport Gate, Annandale has a Wabash Gate, and so on. In a few cases, I wanted to avoid trademarks, so Annandale has a “Happy Villa” nursing home. There are a few places in the published version of the book where all this renaming got out of hand, so that the fictional “Glenarm's Bay” appears once as the actual “Aubenaubee Bay,” for example. Q: In the back of the book, you cite Meredith Nicholson's well-known novel, The House of a Thousand Candles, which is rather famous locally for having been set in a fictionalized version of Culver. In fact, you chose to keep Nicholson's fictional name, Annandale, for Culver. Can you talk about that book, its impact on you, and how you see your book fitting into the legacy of The House of a Thousand Candles?

A: Well, when I was growing up, I thought it was the neatest thing in the world that my town had been the setting for a novel, much less that the novel connected to a particular house here in town. When I was just a kid, my Dad used to mow lawns at couple of the old Vonnegut cottages, including "The House of a Thousand Candles," so I remember being in and around the buildings. And a copy of Nicholson's book was the first thing I ever bought at an auction, when I was in sixth grade or so. I had to take a bushel basket full of old books to get the one I wanted. Actually, the story of the second copy of the book I bought is even better—I was walking past the shop window of a men's clothing store down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on my way home from the grocery—and there it was being used as a prop in the display. So I went in and offered them $10 for the book—which was a good deal less than they would have asked for anything else in the window. The clerk had to go into the back to check with the manager, but pretty soon I was on my way home with a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk and a second copy of the book.

Anyway, when I decided to tell a story about a fictional version of Culver, it just seemed natural to use the one that already existed. In fact, part of the story takes place in the House of a Thousand Candles, and the narrator actually comments that Nicholson wrote his novel there—so the real Nicholson shows up even in this second-hand version of his fiction, if I can put it that way. I guess part of what I was feeling was a kind of Hoosier pride—saying to my readers, if there are any, that look, there's a lot more to Indiana writing than just this little story—if they go back to The House of a Thousand Candles, which is still a good read, though it may not be Great Literature, they may also read  Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons—which was a movie by Orson Welles, starring Tim Holt (who was CMA Class of '36 and also appeared in Spirit of Culver ), and has since been made into a 2002 mini-series from Welles's original script—or Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie or American Tragedy. Not that I'm claiming to be in the same league with the “Hoosier Renaissance,” nor even to have read a lot of the writing myself—but I'm happy if Rough Magicke points back to those authors and that “Golden Age” in Indiana history. Q: An interesting thing about this book, besides of course its local content, is that there's a lot of variety in what's going on in the story and even in the genre of fiction it occupies. It's not a book that's easy to pin down; there are elements of  mystery, fantasy, adventure, intrigue, and suspense, but there are also a lot of intellectually stimulating elements of history, theology, liturgy, and even literary references in the story. Can you generally discuss the story itself and the varying elements of style going on in it?

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A: You're right, it is hard to categorize. There's a place on the back cover where the genre is supposed to be stated, and the book designer and the publisher and I had to try several times before we settled on whatever it actually says now...Fantasy (Contemporary, Epic), I think it is, and I'm still not sure about “Epic.” But I did want there to be more to it than just a fantasy story: I mean, I hope that a person can pick it up and have a good read, but at the same time that there will be things to attract the readers' attention, whether to make them think, “I wonder where that came from?” or just to say “That's an interesting question.”

I guess if the genre or style of the book is more like one thing than another, it's probably in the tradition of a couple of English authors from the first part of the last century, Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers. Williams wrote supernatural thrillers set against a background of ordinary city or country England, which is sort of the pattern of what happens in Rough Magicke; and Dorothy Sayers writes detective stories full of philosophical questions and literary references, which is somewhat like the style of RM. Q: The main character of the plot, an Episcopal chaplain of the Academies, is at least somewhat autobiographical, yes? How are you and Father Mears alike and different?

 

A: Oh, we're very different: Jonathan likes classic Coke and I like Diet, for example. But, no, seriously, there are obviously some autobiographical elements in Jonathan—even his name, Mears, comes from the family name of John and James Houghton's mother's family. Jonathan's family founded the town of Annandale, as the Houghtons were in on the ground floor of Culver. Jonathan and I have had similar educations at AMA/CMA,  Harvard and Yale, though he came home to Annandale straight out his version of Yale/Berkeley and never went to IU or Notre Dame. But obviously Jonathan is, as the story starts, an experienced Anglican priest, whereas I'm just now beginning the ordination process; then, too, a certain amount of the plot revolves around Jonathan's brother and niece, whereas I grew up as an only child. Q: You've set up a website, annandalemilitary.com, that actually "pretends" to be the real website of the actual Annandale Military Academy, which could be a fun read for local folks. Can you talk a bit about what's on that site?

A: Yes, well, as an English teacher, I have to say that one thing on the site is a page of corrections to all the mistakes I've noticed since the book went to the printer! But I'm not sure that counts as a fun read, except in some cruel sense. Besides that, there are some things that are meant as aids to reading the book—a genealogical chart of the Mearses, a dictionary of some of the Annandale campus slang, a map of the Annandale area, and a campus map. The campus map also has photos of some of the Annandale buildings—the First Class Club, for instance, which has a strange resemblance to the Carnegie Library, or the Memorial Building, which is based on Herstmonceux Castle in England (which is also the model for the Culver Legion Memorial). The AMA naval building is actually the Royal Naval Museum in Greenwich, England. There's a page, too, with links to real world things that are mentioned in the book, so that the reader can go off and read about the real Mears family, or see a picture of things referred to in the story. Oh, and in the slide show on the first page, one of the pictures shows two of the real people who have characters named after them, Richard Platt and Rob English.

Besides those sorts of things, there's a school song, to the tune of “Scots Wha Ha'e Wi' Wallace Bled” (complete with a synthesized bagpipe accompaniment) and of course a school tartan and coat of arms, and even a school plant (rosemary, as it turns out). The English Department and the Religion and Philosophy Department have course descriptions posted, though again you have to wonder what kind of person would find those “fun,” exactly. And there's a Chapel page with some actual sermons and links to some resources on spirituality and daily prayer—I thought I ought to include something edifying for anyone who wanted to poke through that far. Q: Lastly, how can people get their hands on Rough Magicke?

A: It can be ordered on-line from Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, and most bookstores can order it for a person, as well (the website has, under the Quartermaster's Store section, a sheet that you can print out and take to the bookstore with specific directions). Also, Mary's Shoppe on Main Street in Culver will be stocking the book.

Interview by Jeff Kenney

Note: John Houghton also wrote a series of articles on Culver history in 1974-75, printed on our website here.

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