On a recent Tuesday evening, 42 people gathered at The Flying Pig bookstore in Shelburne village to listen to author Richard Alther read from his latest novel, “Roxie and Fred.”
Fiction writing is the most recent career turn for this entrepreneur-painter-master-swimmer and part-time Ferrisburgh resident. Alther has deep roots in Vermont, thanks to a home his grandparents rented and where he now resides. “I was here every summer in my boyhood,” he recalled fondly.
“Roxie and Fred” is Alther’s fourth book, coming nine years after his first work of gay fiction, “The Decade of Blind Dates.” Subsequent novels explored anti-Semitism and the roots of homophobia.
While Alther inhabits the role of novelist with ease, the path to his current vocation has taken many creative turns, and his life experiences inform his writing today at age 77.
An English major at Cornell University, Alther went to work for a Madison Avenue advertising agency after graduation in 1962. Five years later, he and his wife decamped for Hinesburg with the goal of starting a family, and he founded a Burlington ad agency.
“I was full of steam at the age of 27,” he said, “and there was very little competition.”
Alther soon had major clients such as Bolton Valley Resort, Trapp Family Lodge, Orvis, and Harrington’s. Another client was Troy Built lawn mowers, which was based in Charlotte. Eventually, Alther closed the ad agency to work full-time there.
A change in ownership led to the creation of Country Home Products, which moved from Charlotte to Vergennes and had a large facility in Shelburne with roughly 300 employees at its largest point.
“I did all the writing,” Alther said. “I like to think the directness I used in copywriting put me in good stead for writing fiction.”
Living in Vermont helped Alther in other ways. “I became a serious athlete,” he said. “If I had stayed in New York I would have simply left the house at 7 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m. Instead, when I was 50, I was swimming in the top ten nationally, which is amazing because when I went to my first national meet in Stanford I couldn’t do a flip turn.”
After coming out as a gay man, Alther won four gold medals and a silver at the Gay Games in Chicago in 2006. He is retired from competition now, but still swims in Lake Champlain whenever he can, and hikes and bikes at his summer home. “That’s why we live here,” he said. In the winter, Alther, and his husband, musician Ray Repp, make their home in Southern California.
Twelve years ago, Alther and his business partner sold Country Home Products, which freed up his time for more creative endeavors. “I’ve been painting my whole life,” he said, “and by my early 30s, I was exhibiting at Four Winds Gallery in Ferrisburgh. I had a lot of exhibits with my watercolors and had representation in Montreal, London, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.”
Alther’s watercolors were lakescapes, which he describes as almost Impressionistic, but 20 years ago he transitioned to large abstract oils that are not representational. He had a show at his alma mater with 15 of those paintings. When his Burlington-based doctor requested one, Alther donated the entire collection to the University of Vermont Medical Center, where they hang today.
Alther still paints, but his new passion is fiction based on meticulous research. “I write and rewrite for two to three years, and when I finally let go, it’s really sad,” he said.
Alther explained that his latest novel deals with the psychology of creativity. “Writing is cerebral and painting is from the gut,” he said. “I wanted to write about a character who stares at the easel for hours on end.”
The Roxie character in the new book has led an unconventional life. She worked for the betterment of women, children, and the impoverished, but was a misfit as a wife and mother. After living in the city, she heads to the country to grow her own food, hike, practice yoga, and simplify life at the age of 88.
“Roxie became my fantasy of a female following her own course,” Alther said. “She is how I’d like to picture myself in a decade or so.”
An unconventional romance unfolds with Fred, 40 years Roxie’s junior, who is trying to leave his conventional background and push his boundaries, including his painting.
The audience at The Flying Pig was captivated by Alther reading excerpts, according to shop owner Elizabeth Bluemle. The store gets its biggest crowds for children’s books, so she was pleased at the turnout for Alther. While some were discovering his work for the first time, others had obviously read his earlier novels, she said.
Bluemle quoted one one audience member who said she would follow Alther anywhere. “He has a lot of fans,” she noted.