Stephen Alter ’74

2020 Recipient


Stephen Alter is an established author, a naturalist and conservationist, and was the founding director of the Mussoorie Mountain Festival. He has a long-standing association with Woodstock School, and we are proud to have him as the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, 2020


Stephen Alter (’74) is the author of twenty books of fiction, non-fiction and children’s literature.  He was born in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, and much of his writing focuses on the Himalayan region, where he continues to live and work. He attended Woodstock School from first through twelfth grade.  His father, Robert Alter (’43), was Principal from 1968-78 and his mother, Ellen Alter, taught English and served as Alumni Secretary. His grandfather, David Emmet Alter, was also Principal in the 1930s and early ‘40s and his grandmother, Martha Alter, taught at the school. Inspired by his mother’s love of literature Stephen began writing fiction in high school and continued his literary apprenticeship in college, under the guidance of professors Kit Reed and Paul Horgan.  His first novel Neglected Lives was published in 1978. 


His honours include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright Senior Research Grant, as well as an honorary degree from Wesleyan University, where he studied as an undergraduate.  He has received awards and fellowships from the Banff Centre for Mountain Culture, The American Institute of Indian Studies and the East West Centre in Hawaii. His memoir, Becoming a Mountain:  Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime received the Kekoo Naoroji Award for Himalayan Literature in 2015. His most recent work of fiction, In The Jungles of the Night: A Novel About Jim Corbett, was shortlisted for the DSC South Asian Literature Award in 2017. His children’s book, The Cloudfarers, was shortlisted for The Hindu Young World Good Books Award and the Neev Book Awards in 2018.  


Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth is his latest work of non-fiction. Ranjit Lal, reviewing the book in The Indian Express, has written: “Stephen Alter has given back to these mountains as much as they have given him in his lifetime, by writing an immense biography of this 2500 km long, 9 km high, shining mountain range… I would (if I could!) make this book mandatory reading for anyone planning to visit the Himalaya.  In The New York Times Book Review Edward Hower wrote: “Stephen Alter, an American who has spent almost all of his life in India, is at his best when evoking the mystery and complexity of that country… (His) vision is both unsparingly realistic and compassionate.  He is a sensitive observer with an unusual ability to see a foreign culture from the inside out, making its people alive and compelling to Western readers. 


For ten years, Alter was a writer-in-residence at MIT, teaching courses in Creative Writing.  Before that he taught for seven years at the American University in Cairo, where he was director of the writing program.  In addition to his books, he has written screenplays for both feature and documentary films.  From 2005 to 2015, he was founding director of the Mussoorie Mountain Festival, which brought more than 150 writers, mountaineers, musicians and artists to Woodstock and Mussoorie.  For two years, 2008-2010, he worked as Director of Development at Woodstock and remains informally engaged with the school, as an honorary advisor for the Hanifl Centre.  Inspired by Woodstock teachers Robert Fleming Sr. and Jr., Bob Waltner and Joe Devol, he has been a lifelong naturalist and conservationist and is closely involved with the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve.  


 Stephen Alter is married to Ameeta Law Alter (’73), a potter, artist and designer. They have two children, Jayant and Shibani. 


Since 2003, Woodstock’s Distinguished Alumni Awards have publicly celebrated the school’s most meritorious alumni. The Awards recognise the Distinguished Alumni’s lifelong achievement in their fields, philanthropic activities or voluntary service, in ways which represent the values Woodstock School strives to engender in its students.