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Mark Spragg
An Unfinished Life


Original Airdate: April 6, 2006

 

About the Author

Mark Spragg is the author of Where Rivers Change Direction, a memoir that won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, and The Fruit of Stone, a novel. Both were top-ten Book Sense selections and have been translated into seven languages. His second novel, An Unfinished Life was published in August 2004. He was born in Pittsburgh, PA and now lives in Cody, Wyoming.

 

About this Book

Jean Gilkyson works in a dry-cleaning shop and lives with her boyfriend, Roy, in his trailer in Iowa. Her ten-year-old daughter, Griff, is relieved when she and her mother finally drive away alone, determined to start a new life. With nowhere else to turn, Jean takes Griff back to her hometown in Wyoming, a place Jean never told her about before. Unable to deal with the guilt she feels from the night when her young husband, Griffin, died in a car accident while she was driving, Jean ran. Griffin's father, Einar, can't accept his son's death, nor can he forgive Jean for the accident. Einer is alone now, except for his friend Mitch. The two old men have become each other's family. When Jean and Griff arrive at the ranch, Einar's emotions and temper flare. Slowly, as he learns to love a granddaughter he never knew existed, he is forced to come to terms with the destructive grief that he harbors. With grace and determination, and driven by the need to salvage her own young life, Griff unites these suffering adults in the hopes of creating two things she has never known a real home and a stable family.

 


Transcript

Hello, welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer, Mark Spragg, author of "Where Rivers Change Directions," and more recently, "An Unfinished Life," Which is this year's "OneBookArizona” selection. Welcome.

Mark Spragg: I am delighted to be here.

Ron Carlson: The novel of "Unfinished Life" has had quite a little career here in the last couple of years.

Mark Spragg: It has, and unexpectedly. I must say, this book started very differently than any other book that I had written had. I was working on the novel, "The Fruit of Stone," and in my daydreams, I kept seeing this fella. He always appeared the same. He was about 70, sitting on a porch chair, screwed down tightly in the chair, obviously, deeply upset and bitter about something, and then I was working on another novel, studiously, ignored him. They started to show up in my night dreams. I know this sounds terribly
artsy, but it's nonetheless what happened.

Ron Carlson: No. Good. Good.

Mark Spragg: So over about a year, my wife and I live in Wyoming, and often to see friends or family, it requires a three to five-hour drive. Many of us who live in
the West realize that. We started to ask the inevitable questions about this character, who had damaged him so remarkably, who else shared his life, did they feel the same way about whatever the incendiary event was that had hurt him, so was our chance for his personal redemption. So, over about a year I preferred to drive. My wife was kind enough to make notes, and she filled about three notebooks with assumptions we had made about this man's life.

Ron Carlson: This is interesting. So your process is these motoring consultations?

Mark Spragg: Yeah, it is. And in fact, if I get stuck on this next book I'm starting, I'm thinking of some road trips to try to iron it out.

Ron Calrson: You still live in Wyoming?

Mark Spragg: Yeah.

Ron Carlson: And so, um, let's talk a little bit -- first of all, let's let everybody know about the book a little bit. It's the story of a kind of a rough homecoming.

Mark Spragg: It is.

Ron Carlson: Why don't you just tell us --fill us in a little bit.

Mark Spragg: It's a story, ultimately, about forgiveness, and essentially, in different ways, we choose not to forgive ourselves and one another. There's this deeply, embedded
old man who finally became a man named Einar Gilkyson, whose daughter-in-law comes back --

Ron Carlson: Jeanne.

Mark Spragg: Jeanne, through a chain of events that neither one of them could have imagined. It's the last place in the world to which she would want to return, and she brings her daughter, this man's granddaughter, whom he did not know that he had, nor did the little girl know that she had a Grandfather, and so --

Ron Carlson: Her name is Griff, and she is named after his son.

Mark Spragg: Griffin -- Right, Right. Yeah.

Ron Carlson: It's sort of this prodigal homecoming, and they have to reconcile their differences with one another.

Mark Spragg: They have no choice. They don't have any choice. Neither one of them do.

Ron Carlson: But, of course, the book has a lot of other features. Now, let's go back to the process of writing it. So your -- did you finish the other book, first of all?

Mark Spragg: I did finish the other book. And it's called, "The Fruit of Stone."

Ron Carlson: Right. That novel has been published?

Mark Spragg: Right.

Ron Carlson: So that's your first novel.

Mark Spragg: Mm-hmm.

Ron Carlson: Then you wrote a non-fictional-- did you quite the nonfiction book, "Where Rivers Change Direction" first?

Mark Spragg: That was first book. I guess I am getting more prophetically studious about the book. The first book, "The Memoir," my wife and I moved back to Cody to take care of my mother when she was dying, and she was a very tough old gal.
Took her several years, and I wrote that book, "Where Rivers Change Direction," as a sort of gift to her, to document her life, and it had a great deal of value for me. It didn't occur to me that, that it -- it's largely about having grown up -- I grew up in the national forest and, and I think our own lives don't seem unique to us, specifically, but halfway through the book I realized in talking to my editor at the time, that growing up on a national forest and going 30 miles to a one-room schoolhouse was, indeed, certainly, in the 20th century, unique.

Ron Carlson: You had a world -- you have a world in control of a world, an information on a world that, to me, is exotic, growing up on a ranch like that. All of the ranch thing from, from putting in a fence to backpacking, hunting – the hunting trips in the various hands and you did this from a very young age. Do you still live on a ranch?

Mark Spragg: I don't, no. I don't believe I could afford to ranch.

Ron Carlson: Do you miss ranching?

Mark Spragg: I miss -- no, I don't. I'm a writer, and I get asked a lot -- people make the assumption that I'm still out cowboying half the day.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: And I'm not bright enough to do different things. I can barely make my next book, it seems, so.

Ron Carlson: There's an American phenomenon -- maybe it's a world phenomenon. It's a world phenomenon about the romance of ranching, but in fact -- and I mean ranching in the broadest terms, for everything from hosting guests who come in the summers to running livestock or maybe crops. Sometimes it's just managing the land so that the oil company can come in, but we romanticize it, don't we, Americans?

Mark Spragg: We romanticize it terrifically, and it's a hard life. It's normally a very unforgiving life. What -- the benefits of it, and what I find regrettable, and that 80% of us live in an urban environment now, and largely, we aren't going to go to Jane's cabin or Uncle Henry's farm in the summer, is I think we are losing touch with the textural feel of the planet.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: The way things feel at 4:00 in the morning when it's 20 below, and that sort of thing, and while most of us don't want to recommend that we have to be up feeding horses at that time, I mean, I grew up on -- I had no sense of ownership.
My parents' place was on a national forest. There were 13 million acres of Yellowstone and the contingent forest, and I remember I would go to town, which was Cody, Wyoming, and my friends would have a little lot. Their parents owned that lot, and that seemed unimaginable to me because in my life, I could take a horse for 100 miles off my back door and not see another human being, so it was a very favored way to grow up.

Ron Carlson: No wonder you have become what we might call a "western writer." Your stories are set in the West, but it's this term, "The New West," that is to say where lots of cultures collide, and one of the cultures that collides in your book is Jeanne's partner, Roy.

Mark Spragg: Right.

Ron Carlson: And part of the reason that Jeanne flies to the only place that she can go, her father-in-law's place, is because Roy is abusive. Now, as a writer, when you create an antagonist, or one of the forces that's going to create other actions, what challenges do you confront in creating what we might call -- I'm using this, forgive me, but I'm going to say "bad guy."

Mark Spragg: Yes. He's, he's a, a very bad man. He's a profane -- he sees himself as victimized by life, and I think that to any extent to which any of us feel victimized by our occupation or our bodies or our relationships determines what behavior we think we're entitled to that other people aren't.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: And the particular problem with Roy is he was such an abysmal man, but to make him hopefully not just two dimensional, that he had some likable qualities, I remember I wrote some early chapters from Roy's point of view. This book is written in six close thirds.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: And they were horrible. My wife looked at them and told me, these are horrible.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: Because I wasn't -- I was too timid to allow myself to become Roy. So I'd take a bottle of water and go out and walk on the prairie for five or six hours, and I would -- I'd curse and say the things that I thought Roy might say and work myself up and, and sort of get into the Roy mindset and come in and try to get a likable first draft of a chapter down. It wasn't a process that I enjoyed very much, largely, I think, for the realization that there's parts of Roy down deep inside of me, and it's hard to find that out.

Ron Carlson: We talk a lot about occupying a character, which is what you just described, this whole notion of, of empathy, so that, for instance, I mean, one of the things that's hard to say is bad guy, that a person is bad, but where's something in him that might be good? We had a case the other day. Where there was an abusive husband, but the woman remembered that when her children were young, this guy was really good at changing diapers, and did it voluntarily without a word and never took the credit, and that helped us believe him.

Mark Spragg: It makes the character more believable, I think.

Ron Carlson: Would you say that empathy is one of the writer's greatest tools or one of the most valuable tools? Has it been for you?

Mark Spragg: I think empathy is one of those threads that we hold onto desperately as writers and try to follow back because it gets us to a place of honesty, and for me, that -- forget style and anything else, that's the hallmark of fine writing, is any time any writer -- when I have the experience when reading them –

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: No matter how foreign the subject matter is, I believe them, they are being honest, they are being honest what it means to be human, and all our variousness and our every day moments of cowardness and bravery. When characters are, are demonstrated in a book that are whole --

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: And believable.

Ron Carlson: Yep.

Mark Spragg -- Then they are honest.

Ron Carlson: Let's continue this about --you talked about Einar making all these notes in the car about him, then you talk about walking around with Roy. What about this girl who is so, so, um --you did a good job with the girl, Griffin.

Mark Spragg: Thanks.

Ron Carlson: And how, how did you occupy that? How did you come at this because children are often written younger or maybe sometimes --well, many times more precious than they might really be, but she seems like a very real person. Talk about creating her.

Mark Spragg: She was probably my favorite character in the book.

Ron Carlson: Don't answer this -- hey, read a little bit. Do you have a page you could read about her?

Mark Spragg: Sure, sure.

Ron Carlson: And then I want to talk about this.

Mark Spragg: She's very insular, a capable child, and she orchestrates her own world because of her mother's -- because of her mother's decisions in life.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: So, so she has a routine every morning, and she, and she has a diary in which she records what she likes and doesn't like about the world in general.

Ron Carlson: I liked her journal.

Mark Spragg: I'll read a little section here about her ritual in the morning. "She kneels beside her bed and slips her hand between the mattress and box spring. When she feels the coolness of her diary, she stops and listens. There is still just the sounds her mother is making in the kitchen, so she slides it out. The cover is lavender, patent leather, so shiny she can see her reflection in it. She sits at her desk and opens the diary to the last page. Things I hate about my mother. Number one, I hate that she is pretty. Two, I hate that she thinks that she is not pretty. Three, I hate that she works at the dry cleaners, but I like kitty, her boss. Four, I hate that she doesn't know karate. Five, I hate that she likes the same music that Roy likes. Six, I hate that she doesn't believe in God or angels.
Seven, I hate capital letters, that she makes us live in Iowa. And this morning she adds, eight, I hate it that she's not really, really hairy, so hairy that only kangaroos would fall in love with her. She's always especially liked the kangaroo's travel with their own little pouches, like luggage. She closes the diary and puts it in her suitcase and cracks her door open and steps into the hallway and holds her breath. She listens. Her mother shuts off the water in the kitchen. Her mother and Roy's bedroom is at the end of the hallway, and the door is closed. The bathroom is the next room toward the kitchen." She's a little girl that packs every morning, everything that she owns, and it predicates what she can own. She doesn't own a bulky sweater. She wants a poster, but she can't have that. She packs in the hope of leaving that day.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: And things take on, I mean, there's a pretty significant inventory. I like the moment later when they are finally with Einar, and he gives her the clothing that belongs to his son, and, and she says, was he a midget? And it was just that he was young. Yeah.

Ron Carlson: well, that's interesting. You have got these characters underway. Let me remind everybody that we're talking with the author, Mark Spragg, about his book, "An Unfinished Life," which is this year's "OneBookArizona” selection. We haven't talked about all the characters in this story because there's -- one of the notes you must have made when you were creating Einar was that he would have a friend, and this close friend, who he's living with, care taking, and it's the African-American veteran, Mitch. Where does that come from?

Mark Spragg: That's funny. Einar, certainly at the beginning of the novel, is a one-dimensional character, truncated, emotionally, by his bitterness, and so, so I -- I
had to create another character to show another side of Einar, almost.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: And when creating that character, I wanted to make him as unlike Einar as I possibly could. He's a man that's had everything stripped from him. He's never owned land. He doesn't own a home. His family is gone. He's a man of, to my way of thinking, great integrity and intelligence. He's chosen the people whom he will love in his life, and he's fierce about it, and then finally his biology is taken away from him. He's been badly, badly damaged in an accident, so he's dying. He has no vigor. He's also a black man. Einar is a white man, so there's that difference between the two, and yet they are like brothers. They met 40 years before that in Korea. They have lived and worked together. They deeply love one another. I know in writing their relationship, often I realized I was writing a sort of bickering you hear or overhear from a lot of aged couples. They have their differences, but they are fiercely in love with one another, and I think Mitch-- who this character is -- was, was -- I think Griff was the most fun to write. Mitch was the character I admired the most, whom I would most like to be.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: Well, their repertoire, their give and take, when those two flints hit each other, that's some of the best writing in the book, in my opinion, where they -- because very clearly the moment carries. It's very realistic, but – and underneath it, we can see this affection and respect that the two men have for each other.

Ron Carlson: Let's talk about the other side. You talked about making Roy rough enough. Did you worry about making Mitch or Einar too, too scrupulous? Too good?

Mark Spragg: Yeah. I thought -- I think the only worry was Mitch in that – I don't think that Einar is too good. Einar is obvious about his choices in life. For instance, this, this – the bad guy, Roy, the antagonist in the piece, without giving it Away, it was obvious in the research that I did about batterers, that they can't be warned away. Unfortunately, there has to be some consequence. You always hear some story about what made the guy quit because the woman's uncle got him in an alley one night and said, I spent two tours in Vietnam. I'm not going to put up with this any more. If you beat her again, there -- you are, you are in a huge amount of trouble.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: So it seemed realistic that something would have to be done to Roy. And Mitch is the one that does it, that shoots the young man. It won't be coy here --

Ron Carlson: Sure, sure.

Mark Spragg: I won't give the book away. And it damages Mitch. Mitch, because he's confined to a bed, lives a lot in his dreams and his imaginary world, and that's robbed from him. He stops dreaming after this act of violence, where Einar would have, obviously, killed the boy

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: And felt good about it.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: Felt as though he had helped his family, but I'm of the opinion that there is no act of violence, no matter how righteous it may seem at the time, it doesn't damage both parties.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: And certainly, it damages Mitch. So, to get back to your original question, I thought that if charges of sentimentality might be leveled against me, they would be largely pointed at Mitch's character.

Ron Carlson: Well, I'm not -- I'm not leveling those charges. I was just interested -- I think there's a real balance between the sweet and the sour in both of these men, and I think your description of them -- Einar as being harder is drawing a line, even when it's not in his favor and not being able to cross it. Um, one of the questions I ask writers is about their apprenticeship. I mean, we talked about you grew up in the wilderness, not – but in the forest and at the edge of things, and you -- you are writing these books. They have been published very well. Everybody in Arizona is going to read this book, or should, and where did you learn to write? How did you learn to write? How would you describe your apprenticeship?

Mark Spragg: It was funny. I grew up in a time before the real blossoming of the M.F.A. programs and all that. I remember as a kid -- I was very lucky in that my dad had a huge library. Got about 3,000 books.

Ron Carlson: Wow.

Mark Spragg: I grew up without radio or television. I remember the first TV show I saw was Zorro in black and white, and I saw it at a friend's house in town. I so desperately longed to own a whip.

Ron Carlson: Yeah.

Mark Spragg: So, I read, and I -- after my mom died, I remembered I went through her belongings, and in a baby book she kept for me, she apparently asked me what I wanted to be when I was 8 years old, and I said a novelist. Now having -- so I had no other aspirations. I read voraciously as a kid. I still -- I budget time to read like other people budget time to exercise or watch television. I read between 100 and 200 books
A year still, easily. Having said all of that, I failed at it for most of my adult life.
I wrote some -- you know, occasionally in my 20's, write a likable sentence or paragraph or short story, and I even sold some to magazines with national circulation, but I wasn't smart enough to know why those stories were better than the ones that kept coming back.

Ron Carlson: I see.

Mark Spragg: I taught school, high school for a year, and it used all the same creative muscles that I was using writing, and I found I didn't write much that year, so for years I worked on oil rigs, I shod horses, I guided in the mountains, I built fence. I was a carpenter, and I was young enough to come home at night and take a shower and write until 2:00 or 3:00. I didn't begin to write reliably well, and I mean by that, where that editorial part of me developed enough to edit the work enough so that it could be published until I was in my 40's. And I wrote "The Rivers" book and then "The Fruit of Stone," and this book. Hopefully, I won't backslide. I would like to think that I have some more books where I could possibly write.

Ron Carlson: Did you ever, um -- I want you to repeat how many books you read a year just so we hear that again.

Mark Spragg: I read minimally 100 and sometimes 200.

Ron Carlson: And you do it on purpose?

Mark Spragg: On purpose. Sometimes I read books that I don't especially like that have
a challenging theme or have a challenging style --

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg:-- That will allow me to learn more about writing.

Ron Carlson: In this reading, do you ever take a book apart? Do you ever read a book for
things?

Mark Spragg: You know, oddly, I didn't, and I wished I had when I was studying them. I do more now because in the process of writing, you start to begin to ask yourself more intricate questions in how to make a story plausible, how to grip a reader.

Ron Carlson: Right.


Mark Spragg: So when you are reading other writers that do that extremely well --

Ron Carlson: Yeah.

Mark Spragg -- You want to dissect it and find out how they did it. I just want to say that, that I work with a lot of writers, and one of the clearest distinctions that's immediately apparent is the amount of reading that they brought when they meet me the first time, and it's so valuable.

Ron Carlson: Why wouldn't we expect that? I mean, if a surgeon is going to cut me open Tuesday, I want to think that he's a man or woman that has dedicated the large bulk of their life to knowing how to cut me open successfully and not allow me to perish on the table.

Mark Spragg: Good.

Ron Carlson: So why wouldn't we expect that from other professionals, and I expect poets and novelists to be professional, so we do, too.

Mark Spragg: Yeah.

Ron Carlson: You already mentioned the fact that this book is -- has six points of view, that is to say it's limited third, close third, and we see novels like this, I mean, it's one of the choices we make. Why and how did you make that choice?

Mark Spragg: I think I made it unconsciously at first because Einar's voice was so real to me, and the characters were so different. Here you have a 70-year-old man and then a 10-year-old girl, so I would start to write – I didn't start the novel that way, but when I started to write the different characters, I wanted the voices to be more unique.

Ron Carlson: Mm-hmm.

Mark Spragg: And so a limited third, close third, you're sort of mildly in that person's head and telling the story from their perspective, and it allowed me to, hopefully, to reliably change the point of view that way.

Ron Carlson: Right. Did you, um --one of the experiences that some writers have, I have had, where you have done a lot of research. You did a lot of research on abusive people. You did – you had all these notebooks on Einar?

Mark Spragg: Right.

Ron Carlson: You had to let some material go. How did you make that decision?
First of all, how much did you let go and how did you make the decisions? The book feels, to me, I'll just say this, right and tight. It seems like a very well scheduled, well-measured story, and --

Mark Spragg: I think the final step that any writer takes is --and this is an intuitive thing
-- I think every writer holds the pulse of their manuscript in them, and you owe it to your
reader to keep that pace, to give them that sense, so anything that slows that down has to finally be cut away. This book is about, I don't know, 300 pages, so you hand in
a manuscript of 500 and some pages, and I probably wrote easily 30,000 pages up and down and all around, research, back stories. I compulsively rewrite. I do eight, nine drafts. It's the only way that I can get to the heart of the piece.

Ron Carlson: So the -- excellent. Go back. Did you have, then, at some point, an outline? Did you have a couple of sheets of paper or part of a notebook? And what did that look like and what's the map of this book? I'm asking -- this is a nuts and bolts question.

Mark Spragg: And that -- I think it is very valuable, especially for anyone that has aspirations to write. I think it's very valuable to have a general outline. You know what -- you might even know what the big events are going to be, and then you have smaller one lines to get to those bigger events. Now, that changes as you write all the way along.

Ron Carlson: Sure.

Mark Spragg: But to have that outline when you begin, I think, allows a lot of latitude in the subconscious to solve the problems. If you are just writing a novel and you don't know what happens, all the gifts that come through in your dreams, in your meditations during the day may not apply. They may not be germane to what you are writing, but if you have a general outline, then the gifts you get in your daydreams as you are driving or on a walk or in the middle of the night, then normally, I find for me, apply specifically to the book I'm working on.

Ron Carlson: You can find a place for it.

Mark Spragg: Then the outline is altered with that new revelation of the character of the story, but I think it was Tom McCain that said, "don't ever outline at all as long as you don't mind writing 200 or 300 pages you that aren't going to use in the book," and I think that's good advice.

Ron Carlson: What's -- what was the biggest surprise then? Let's go to the other side.
What was the biggest surprise you encountered in noting and writing this book?

Mark Spragg: How much I would hate the Roy character. How much I would hate the Roy character, how much I would loathe him. How desperately -- I know that, that, um, the last two steps I take in a book before I send it to my editor, Kanoff, is to read it out loud because then the false sentences, normally, I'll hear them. Up to that point, they have been repeated over and over again in my mind.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Mark Spragg: It became apparent I was going to have to write one more Roy chapter, and it took a monumental effort to try to because I thought I pushed him away and was done with him, to get back in his head, and that was probably the biggest surprise of this thing.

Ron Carlson: Well, mark, you have written a rich book, and we're very happy that it’s the “OneBookArizona” choice -- we've been talking to Mark Spragg about his novel, "An Unfinished Life." Thank you for being here.

Mark Spragg: It's my great pleasure.

Ron Carlson: I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I'll see you next time.

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