Birnbaum v.

Scott Spencer

Our man in Boston sits down with Scott Spencer, author most recently of Man in the Woods, to talk about writing, dogs, and show business.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Possibly you are aware of literary novelist Scott Spencer as the creator of Endless Love, the National Book Award nominee that Franco Zeffirelli transformed into a saccharine film (featuring a very young Brook Shields). Spencer is the author of nine other novels including A Ship Made of Paper, also nominated for the National Book Award, and most recently Man in the Woods.

The digressive conversation that follows reveals Spencer’s upbringing in a working class family on the south side of Chicago and an early commitment to progressive politics. Spencer took up writing at an early age and hasn’t looked back since.

We talk about Chicago, odd jobs, Big Labor, writing classes, publishing his first novel, Bark magazine, dogs as characters, the aftermath of writing a novel, Pete Dexter, Daniel Woodrell, Chicago’s Regal Theater, Harvey Swados, and more.

We also talk about Spencer’s new opus, of which Patrick Anderson says:

We don’t often encounter novels that combine shrewd plotting, strong characters and gorgeous writing, but Scott Spencer’s Man in the Woods does precisely that. It’s about many things, including love, God, and the random accidents that can change our lives.

Yes, indeed.


RB: I see you went to Roosevelt University in Chicago.

SS: Well, that’s what they say on the internet—that’s why you have to be careful. I did, but not for very long.

RB: I did, and I am peeved that I am not listed as a notable graduate.

SS: Yeah, well, I shouldn’t be.

RB: Why would you have been—you are from the East Coast, right?

SS: No, I’m from Chicago.

RB: North Side?

SS: No way.

RB: [both laugh] OK. I was raised on the North Side—does that end this conversation?

SS: I was born in Washington but when I was two years old we moved to Chicago—that’s where I was raised, on the South Side of Chicago. Because my father worked in a steel mill there.

RB: In Gary, Ind.?

SS: Basically, but it was still in Chicago, way on the far South Side. The Republic Steel mills were there.

RB: How long did you live in Chicago?

SS: I stayed from learning how to walk through high school, then I went to the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. But my girlfriend was in Chicago and all the stuff I was doing was in Chicago, so I left after a semester. And then I did a year at Roosevelt.

RB: What year was that?

SS: 1964.

RB: You’re older than me—you look younger. What’s your secret? [laughs] Your hair mousse? What was happening in Chicago—Second City? Lenny Bruce was still around, right?

SS: I did see Lenny Bruce at the Gate of Horn. Well, everything brought me back to Chicago: A. my girlfriend. B. and C., my girlfriend.

RB: D. the boredom of Urbana-Champaign.

SS: Yeah, that’s actually A. too. And I was really interested in leftist politics at that time and all my comrades were in Chicago.

RB: Were you in S.N.C.C. [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]?

I really felt that the little, flickering flame of whatever talent I had would be extinguished if I were criticized too much. I was very secretive about my writing.SS: I was in C.O.R.E. [Congress of Racial Equality]. But I was also in the Young People’s Socialist League.

RB: You were serious.

SS: Yeah. That was my main affiliation—yeah, I was serious.

RB: And you left after a year—where did you go?

SS: Then I went to the University of Wisconsin, where I did finally graduate. Where did you live in Chicago?

RB: I grew up in Rogers Park and then moved to the near North Side—west of Lincoln Park West—an area undergoing large-scale gentrification.

SS: Right—what was it called? Bucktown?

RB: That’s further west. It’s amazing. The last time I was there these little shotgun houses were selling for around a half a million dollars. Anyway, you graduated from Wisconsin. What then? Did you then go to Iowa?

SS: No, no, no—I never went to Iowa as a student. I taught there. I have never taken a creative writing course.

RB: Excellent. Because?

SS: They weren’t nearly as ubiquitous when I was a student. And I really felt that the little, flickering flame of whatever talent I had would be extinguished if I were criticized too much. I was very secretive about my writing.

RB: And the urge to write came upon you when?

SS: That was pretty early. I did like to write. I wrote as a little kid. I wrote a novel when I was eight. I thought it was a novel, anyhow.

RB: Gary Shteyngart told me he wrote a novel when he was four.

SS: Yeah, same deal.

There is nothing that has happened in my writing life that was as galvanizing and as joyous as having my first book accepted for publication.RB: Were you encouraged to write?

SS: I was, I was. My father was a working man but he was very bookish. He was a working man by choice. To him it was a righteous way of living.

RB: Which is where you got your politics.

SS: Yeah.

RB: Are you still a progressive?

SS: By American standards. [laughs]

RB: You have by now published 10 novels—you can call yourself a writer, right?

SS: Yeah. I can.

RB: Did you call yourself a writer when you published your first novel?

SS: Yes. Exactly. That’s all it took.

RB: And before that did you call yourself a writer?

SS: Whatever I was doing, that’s what I was. I would never announce myself as a writer or even a wannabe writer.

RB: When you socialized and inevitably you were asked what you did—

SS: You know, whatever job I was doing.

RB: What kind of jobs have you had?

SS: I have had a lot of terrible little dopey jobs—from moving mattresses out of a warehouse to washing pots at a hospital. But then I got better jobs. I had a job writing public relations for a union—for what was then the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union.

RB: What is it now?

SS: It’s now merged with what used to be the International Ladies Garment Workers. This is to remind us how deeply unionized the American working class was. There was a separate union for people making men’s clothing and for the people making women’s. And they fought all the time, by the way.

RB: Of course—who is more fractious than the lefties, Jews, and Cubans? [both laugh] Do you know Irving Bernstein’s two-volume history of labor in 20th-Century America, which was just republished? I wondered who was going to read them, given the animus that seems to exist around unions in this country?

SS: I know, the bullshit about so-called Big Labor. [laughs]

RB: That’s one of the great tricks foisted on working people—vilifying unions.

SS: I know—it’s amazing. People talk about special interest groups like oil companies and labor unions—really, you put those on the same plane, or even in the same sentence. [laughs]

RB: So your progression as you published novel one, two, and three has been difficult? A struggle?

SS: There is nothing that has happened in my writing life—or I guess you could call it my career—that was as galvanizing and as joyous as having my first book accepted for publication. Because as we were just saying, I thought, “OK, I’m out of the closet now, I can call myself a writer.” I had this great fear of just being seen as an unrealized person. And having people feeling sorry for me, calling myself a writer and that it was just some delusion that I had. Once that was done, I felt pretty OK. I never really expected to make a living at it.

RB: Did you expect to persevere—to continue writing literary fiction?

SS: Yeah, I did because I like writing and I like that engagement. It’s a comfortable thing for my mind to do. Thinking without writing is not easy for me. So writing is somehow just agreeable to me. On a cellular level.

RB: There is writing and then there is writing novels.

SS: Yeah, well, I like novels. And I kind of get how they work. There is something about how my mind works that I get how novels are structured.

RB: So it’s not hard work?

SS: Writing the novel is hard work. The language is hard. The truth of it is hard. But knowing how the whole thing might hang together is not that hard.

RB: Once you start you are not troubled by doubts about the direction or the ending?

SS: I usually don’t know what it is. I just somehow have this inner feeling that if I keep going and keep going I am going to get there.

Everything in my life, except for my family life, revolves around writing. I do other things. I play poker. I play tennis. But it’s really just to relax in between writing. Nothing else really matters to me.RB: Did you know the ending of Man in the Woods?

SS: I did. That was a very uncommon experience for me. I knew the ending when I was maybe 25 percent finished. And then I—I wrote it, always willing to be proved wrong. But I wasn’t. That was the ending.

RB: I reviewed this book for Bark magazine.

SS: I have heard of it. A friend of mine, Zack Sklar, has written a couple of things. And the woman I live with is a dog maniac and she gets Bark. Did you give it a good review?

RB: Sure. The editor hadn’t known of you—her first response was “If something bad happens to the dog, don’t tell me.” And then she heard you on Fresh Air and she became interested.

SS: Yeah, Terry Gross—

RB: Do you know of a book by Curtis White called The Middle Mind—it’s a well-argued unpacking of a number of cultural mediocrities, Saving Private Ryan, etc., and holds very little respect for Terry Gross.

SS: In the same article?

RB: Yes.

SS: Good, I am glad to be in Bark magazine. I tried to hold myself to a high standard in writing about the dog.

RB: That was, of course, why I thought it was of interest to Bark. Usually dogs are some kind of gimmick or plot device to inject sentimentality, tear-jerking aspect into a story. But, for example, the little piece where the dog deliberates over the deer scat was well rendered—

SS: Yeah, I don’t want dogs to be like us. We have enough us. [laughs] I’ve had some dogs and I have a dog named Shep who is that dog [in the book]. One of my dogs went out on the pond in April, still icy but not icy enough for this big old Rottweiler mix. And she went right through it. And she was screaming—we didn’t even know—I wasn’t home. A jogger came by and called it in. It has a happy ending though, the dog made it.

RB: Wow.

SS: And Shep is there—these two dogs sleep together and play with each other. Their whole lives are wrapped up with each other. About a half an hour into the ordeal, Shep starts picking up the sticks trying to get someone to throw them.

RB: Right. Enough, already.

SS: Life goes on [laughs].

RB: The dog lasted a half an hour in the icy water?

SS: Maybe it wasn’t [half an hour] but it was a long time—enough to call someone who came there, who then called someone else who came with ladders to put on the ice—

RB: And the dog let itself be pulled out?

SS: The dog was screaming like a human being.

RB: You hope that they know better—but they don’t.

SS: Well it could happen to anyone—they are not thinking, “Hmm, April, the ice might be getting a bit thin.” [laughs]

RB: How did you come to write this story [Man in the Woods]?

SS: Paul [the main character of Man in the Woods] sparked it and I wanted to write about someone who is off the grid. In his way. I know people like that.

RB: They’re admirable.

SS: Yes, and also I identify with them because I don’t have all those skills. I don’t have any institutional connections. I am on my own all the time and so I am not carving my living out of slabs of oak, but I am carving out my living by carving the same 26 letters.

RB: Being unaffiliated is an interesting position to be in today. Health insurance is an issue. On the other hand not taking orders—

SS: Right, there’s that—especially true if you have oppositional disorder [both laugh]. Also, your life is more of an adventure. Even going into contract for books, I don’t like to do.

RB: Really?

SS: I like to write the book and then get a contract. Three-book deal? Oh my god!

RB: No book, no contract?

SS: You try, but sometimes you are out of money.

I don’t really like to hear writers complain about their work.RB: By this, your 10th novel, are you making a living?

SS: I am, sort of, making a living.

RB: You teach—must you?

SS: I don’t teach very often. And my last gig teaching was at a maximum-security prison—the Bard Prison Initiative. Basically it’s volunteer work. I’ve taught a few times. The last time was in Iowa. And I did it just for a change of pace and also because the woman I live with is from there and a lot of her best friends are there. We both taught out there—

RB: A lot of her life is in Iowa and she is living in New York?

SS: Much of her early life. She’s from Moline.

RB: Moline, Ill.—the tri-cities.

SS: Quad cities. It’s funny you said “tri”, because no one can ever think of the fourth one.

RB: And none of your books have been made into movies?

SS: Two have. Endless Love was a movie. And Waking the Dead.

RB: Oh yeah, with Jennifer Connelly. And about the other eight books—do you care?

SS: [pause] My first experience at having a book made into a movie was mixed. Endless Love was a very successful book. And then I got movie money. I had a kid that was just born at the same time—so to have all that happen was pretty great. On the other hand, the movie was not very good and kind of besmirched the book.

RB: I don’t remember seeing it.

SS: Franco Zeffirelli made it with Brooke Shields, and it had this song by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross.

RB: No wonder—I couldn’t imagine connecting you to that kind of movie.

SS: Well, thank you.

RB: Sounds saccharine and—

SS: These were problems, but they were better problems than I had before. [laughs]

RB: So are you done with this book—does it still occupy your thoughts?

SS: I am not done with this book completely because I am setting my next book in Leyden—it’s possible that one or two of the characters from this novel will walk through the next one, also. I am starting to use that setting as—I have been using it all along but I am starting to think about filling in everything about it. Maybe getting seven or eight books out of it—I don’t know.

RB: Would you revisit Paul’s situation?

SS: [long pause] I might revisit the aftermath of it. Not directly. I may be done with him except for a little bit—except for a little bit. He is hard to write.

RB: What about Shep? [laughs]

SS: Shep’s in Philadelphia. [laughs]

RB: I know. [both laugh]

SS: Paul was really hard to write for me—he is not very verbal. And most of my protagonists have been pretty verbal. As a writer it is easier for me to conceive of someone—

RB: You let them talk.

SS: You let them talk, let them deal. The word choices, the humor. Paul’s not funny. So I really had to make everything he said count. I believed in him and I believed he was really smart. But I needed that smartness to come through in different ways than just snappy repartee.

RB: So you used his girlfriend as his mirror.

SS: Exactly. And that’s one of the reasons I brought her back from Ship Made of Paper. She had a lot of the best lines in that book and even though she was not the most likeable person in that book, I gave her a pass because she was half drunk and so I sobered her up—she is still a pretty good talker.

RB: So she may be back?

SS: She might. The next book is definitely not about her.

RB: Have you started the next book?

SS: Sort of.

RB: In your head?

SS: A little bit in my head. A little bit on the page. I am still trying to figure out the best way in.

RB: Does the role of the [for the purposes of this conversation] successful writer interfere with writing? You have to spend much time traveling to talk about your book?

I don’t like it when I am not involved with reading a book. It’s like a little atmosphere where you can go to and something to look forward to and it’s this alternate life that you have going on the side.SS: Not very much.

RB: No 30-city tours?

SS: No, I’m doing four or five and they are all in the Northeast, except I am doing Miami and maybe one other place that’s far away. It’s not too bad. It’s not too much to ask of a writer—I don’t really like to hear writers complain about their work. What we do is a lot less taxing than what my father and his friends had to do.

RB: Do you have any non-literary writing goals or ambitions?

SS: No.

RB: No climbing Mt. Everest?

SS: Everything in my life, [pause] except for my family life, revolves around writing. I do other things. I play poker. I play tennis. But it’s really just to relax in between writing. Nothing else really matters to me.

RB: This could get more extreme as you get older and more sedentary, right?

SS: [laughs]

RB: No tennis—

SS: I worry about that.

RB: Write standing up so at least you are burning some calories.

SS: You know, I started off with fairly modest expectations and I haven’t revised them upwards. I just wanted to be able to write. And I was going to have a job that didn’t just kill me and I would have nothing left over.

RB: Is Lynn Nesbit [S.S.’s agent] Pete Dexter’s agent also? In Spooner he wrote a hilarious acknowledgement in which he kept on thanking his agent. [Nesbit is not Dexter’s agent.—ed.]

SS: So he must have complete contempt for that kind of acknowledgment.

RB: Something like that. Do you know his work?

SS: I loved Paris Trout.

RB: His latest, Spooner, is hilarious.

SS: I found a writer who I had never read before who just kills me he is so good.

RB: Who?

SS: Daniel Woodrell [author of Winter’s Bone and Mulholland Books’ forthcoming The Bayou Trilogy].

RB: Oh, sure. Did you see the movie [Winter’s Bone]?

SS: That’s what brought me to him. I went out the next day and got the book. I read it and now I have Tomato Red with me. Have you ever met him?

RB: No, I don’t know that he travels—or at least travels to the East Coast. He lives in the Ozarks.

SS: There is a guilty secret embedded in his bio, however.

RB: Really.

SS: University of Iowa. [Both laugh]

RB: The movie is a stunner.

SS: The best movie I have seen in five years. There wasn’t one bad thing in it.

RB: The ability to make a place in the center of this country seem as foreign as Afghanistan was just brilliant.

SS: Even the trees are ugly here. That scene when they put her in the boat. So frightening, and that’s not in the novel. In the novel they do it differently. They actually improved it in the movie.

RB: How did you come to it?

SS: We have a little art house in our precious little town of Rhinebeck [N.Y.].

RB: It was interesting to see who was in the audience when I went.

SS: So who was there?

RB: Most of the people were of my age, and a few younger.

SS: That’s who goes to art houses. The same thing when I saw it. I was one of the few people there without a walker. [both laugh]

RB: The feeling that someone could still make a movie like that was a double pleasure.

SS: Exactly.

RB: Going to the movies is no longer a great pleasure.

SS: Also, televisions are so nice today, why bother?

RB: I still have the memory of going to these great [Balban & Katz] movie palaces.

SS: I am older than you—when I went there they had stage shows. At the Chicago and the State Lake.

RB: Ever go to <a data-cke-saved-href="<a href=" href="<a href=" http:="""" wiki="" regal_theater,_south_side_%28chicago%29"="">the Regal Theater?

SS: Absolutely. Some of the greatest moments of my life. I saw James Brown, I saw Ray Charles three times.

RB: I saw a lot of Chicago R&B acts at the Regal. It was odd to be one of the five white people in the audience.

SS: Yeah, it could be. When I was there once, the group the Flamingos did their act and then they stopped and announced, “And now we are going to do the Negro national anthem.” And they went, “Our day will come…” And people just went leaping out of their seats and I just couldn’t. [laughs] I saw some great shows there and you could see these guys at two in the afternoon.

RB: Right, the revues went on continuously. There were 10 acts on a bill and each would do two or three songs—

SS: Right. And then you would see a Western.

RB: So, you are a writer, that’s it. How boring.

SS: It’s pretty boring.

RB: Have you been subjected to a lot of interviews and press attention?

SS: First of all, I would never call it “subjected.” [both laugh]

RB: You like the attention?

SS: It’s not that I like the attention, it’s that I realize someone is choosing to do this and they are taking their time to do it, and it brings people to your work. And, I don’t have to do it. I am against whining for writers.

RB: Clearly you have not done television.

SS: [laughs] That’s true.

RB: That’s what I had in mind—media that hasn’t got a clue who or what you are.

SS: But everyone knows that. You know that going in. I have done a little bit of TV, not national. They are not going to sit down and read a 400-page book for my seven minutes. They are just not going to do that.

RB: So what do you make of the state of literature in the U.S.? Are you concerned about the Kindle and e-readers?

SS: I have a Kindle. I don’t like it too much. But it is very handy if you are going to be traveling for a long time. I don’t have to lug eight or nine books with me and then open them up and realize I took the wrong books.

RB: Are you always reading?

SS: I am not the hugest reader in the world but I always have a couple of books going.

RB: How do various titles get your attention?

SS: You have the authors you always want to read—

RB: Who are those?

SS: If Robert Stone has a book, Denis Johnson—

RB: Ah, you like these dyspeptic writers. Is there anyone who puts his characters in more jeopardy than Stone? Subjects them to the tortures of the damned?

SS: No.

RB: Have you ever met him?

SS: Yes. Very serious guy.

RB: Do you read The New York Times Book Review?

SS: Not religiously. I page through it and look at the ads.

RB: Do you like to read about books?

SS: Not entirely. I don’t mind it. Sometimes you can read a thoughtful review of a book and it sort of exempts you from reading the book. I was just reading a review of a biography of Pearl Buck. There is no way I am going to read that book. But I would like to have a little bit of that information. So I appreciate that. But, really for me, life is a little more difficult if I am not involved with a book.

RB: Because?

SS: I don’t know, it’s like my second home, really. It’s just a place to go to.

RB: Are you cranky when you are not writing a book?

SS: I don’t think so. [laughs]

RB: Displaced?

SS: I don’t think so.

RB: We’ll have to ask your dogs.

SS: Exactly. [laughs] I don’t like it when I am not involved with reading a book, either. It’s like a little atmosphere where you can go to and something to look forward to and it’s this alternate life that you have going on the side. I find it comforting and exciting at the same time. You have that alternate voice, that writer’s voice—it’s very companionable.

RB: Do you write nonfiction?

SS: Not books, but I have done journalism. For Rolling Stone. Pieces of journalism, here and there.

RB: How about writing a biography of an unfairly ignored figure?

SS: [long pause] I would like to do that some day. That would be, really, an interesting thing to do. I have written little mini-biographies of musicians who are not really obscure but who I was surprised by how many people didn’t know their work.

RB: What else can we talk about? We could talk endlessly, but maybe there should be some kind of arc to this chat—I don’t know that there will be one. Who would be that admirable person you might write about—who is in your pantheon of admirable people?

SS: [pause] Yeah. [pause] I was thinking of Harvey Swados.

RB: There’s a name from the past—he’s not been written about?

SS: Maybe he has, but probably not. His daughter became quite a thing for a while—

RB: Elizabeth Swados, yeah. The obvious ones frequently escape attention. How many bios of Thelonious Monk are there?

SS: One just came out.

RB: Right. Or Nina Simone—another one that just came out.

SS: I read her autobiography.

RB: She was troubled.

SS: Yeah, yeah. My cousin died a couple of years ago and he is the guy who taught me about jazz. The first record he gave me was Monk’s Music—the album cover with him sitting on a little red wagon with his sheet music. There are two saxophonists—John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins and Art Blakey is the drummer—anyhow, he was dying, my cousin was dying and it was a tough death, lung cancer. Painful. And what kept him company was Nina Simone. He had an endless loop of it playing, day in and day out. It gave him some place to go.

RB: It’s great that music can do that.

SS: At some point I wanted to write a novel about someone who follows James Brown around the country.

RB: That would make him the second hardest-working guy in show business. [both laugh] Well, let me thank you for taking the time—thank you.

SS: Of course.