Think of the low-budget horror movie The Blair Witch Project and you will have an idea what John Ballam’s birthplace looks like. The film was made in the woods near his family farm in the quaintly-named village of Harmony in Maryland, USA.
John’s grandfather was a British Army boxing champion who put down roots in the Appalachian mountains. His grandson made the reverse journey and is now a British subject and director of the Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing in the University of Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education.
So I wondered which side of the Atlantic would evoke the response to the question.
“If you were shipwrecked on a desert island which antique, work of art or antiquarian book would you like to be washed up on the beach?’ Would he be inspired by his life among the dreaming spires, or the setting of his books The Road to Harmony and the recently released Toymaker, both set in the Appalachians?
“My first thoughts were that I would like something practical on this desert island. I grew up living with and using antiques. Our iron frying pan was cast from iron ore dug by hand out of the mountain under our home. Tools forged and carved by my family were still in use. Parts of old machinery were remodelled and reused. Maybe I should take one of those?
“Still, although antique tools might be useful, they wouldn’t enrich my life.
“My next idea was something diverting and nostalgic. My family had an enormous Philco radio, as big as an armchair. It made sitting around and listening to it a family event. We also had a giant phonograph on which we played 78rpm records by Elvis Presley and Hank Williams.
“In the 1940s, my grandfather built a television set. No one in Harmony had even seen one before. It had a 12-inch screen and the community gathered around to watch programmes that connected us with a world beyond our valley.
“But there won’t be electricity on this island, and while they will remind me of former times, they would stimulate ideas of escape. So instead, I have decided to go for a small cardboard box.
“The contents came with me from Harmony and all of them were found on our farm. Some may be 250 years old, others may be thousands of years old. They are stone arrowheads. I think they are aesthetically pleasing and each is as different as its maker.
“Before the coming of the Europeans, our farm was part of the nomadic life of one of the Six Nations, the Tuscarora. Like the Mohicans, they were driven out by the middle of the eighteenth century and are now almost a vanished people.
“I have a clear picture in my mind of why the arrowheads were found in the valley because my family hunted deer in the same place. At the same time each year the deer behave in a similar way, coming down the mountainside and along the valley where the Tuscarora braves would have been waiting, ready to shoot their arrows.
“Handling them has always been a marvellous mystery, connecting my experiences to the earth I once farmed and the place of my childhood memories. With them on the desert island I would feel that I had not completely lost contact with the past. I enjoy having and using antiques and I am fascinated by the materials being used – especially to the ways they connect us to people who lived very different lives long ago.
“I suppose, going back to my first thoughts, the arrow heads could also be practical: I could use them to hunt. In some respects, life in Harmony included the aspiration of self-sufficiency.
“Old timers used to boast that if they had 20 dollars in November, they could survive until March.
“Perhaps, life on a desert island might not be very different from life in Harmony, where we hunted for mushrooms, berries, nuts and fruit; where hunting, fishing and cooking in the outdoors during the summer were all normal. The main difference would be that I would have to imagine so many people who gave my old life its shape and its rhythm.”
John Ballam’s journey to the Desert Island Born in 1963 in Frederick, Maryland, John lived in Harmony (near Myersville) until the age of 25 when he moved to England (1988). He graduated from York University with First Honours and then read for his PhD at the University of Bristol. He has taught at various UK universities since 1994 and held various posts at the University of Oxford since 2004, including visiting Fellow at Harris Manchester College; Chair of Examiners in Creative Writing and Departmental Lecturer in Creative Writing. He was appointed director of the Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing in 2008.
Dirk Bogarde described J.D. Ballam’s autobiography The Road to Harmony as “a book to cherish”, and Joanna Trollope likened it to Cider with Rosie and Angela’s Ashes. His latest book, a novel entitled The Toymaker, was published in March. Like The Road to Harmony , The Toymaker is set near his birthplace in the Appalachian mountains. It is a story of “witchcraft, murder and Blue Ridge Mountain magic”.