Tom Spanbauer Interviewed by Judy Reeves
Tom Spanbauer is a critically acclaimed and award-winning author and the founder of Dangerous Writing. As a writer he has explored issues of race, of sexual identity, of how we make a family for ourselves in order to surmount the limitations of the families into which we are born.
His four published novels Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon, and In The City Of Shy Hunters, Now is the Hour, are notable for their combination of a fresh and lyrical prose style with solid storytelling.
As a teacher his innovative approach combines close attention to language with a large-hearted openness to what he calls ‘the sore place’—that place within each of us that is the source for stories that no one else can tell.
Tom lives, writes, and teaches in Portland, Oregon. He has brought his Dangerous Writing Workshop to The Ink Spot several times and will return October 14-16, for another intensive weekend workshop, Saturday evening reading and a to-be-announced special event.
JR All your books have a first person narrator. Why do you prefer first person? Or is this just the way the voice of the story comes to you?
TS First person to me is like riding a surfboard. The wave is right under me and when I get it right there’s no feeling like it. Third person feels like I’ve stepped aside from the “sweet spot” and I’m writing about someone else on the surfboard riding the wave. Third person omniscience is particularly cumbersome. The only thing interesting about third person omniscience is when it drops its formality and kicks some ass with stream of conscious. I’ve tried writing in the third person personal; that is, with a third person narrator who has a personality, but it always happens that just when I’m just getting into the piece, I realize that what I’m really trying to do is manipulate third person so it sounds more like first person, so why not just write in first person.
JR You’ve admitted that I Loved You More your new book, is mostly autobiographical? Are the others, too? What about taking stories from your own life? To what extent do you fictionalize, and when do you decide to go to fiction rather than write memoir?
TS Why did you use the word admit?
The story is autobiographical in that similar events happened to me. This autobiographical element is the samecase with all my books. Even The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon. Through Shed, the “I” of Shed, I got to investigate and scrutinize my own issues of racism and homophobia, my issues with powerful women, my issues with Mormonism. Plus I got to deconstruct my father’s idea of John Wayne and the old west.
With each book, I began to fictionalize as soon as I sat down to write. The deal I make is that I’m going to tell the truth and nothing but the truth about something important to me. But then the “I” of the narrator immediately breaks our deal, as all deals have to be broken, flips me the bird and takes off on his own path. But my “unconscious” narrator can’t stray too far or he’ll modify character in a way that doesn’t ring true for me. The narrator must stay within the confines of my verticality. If I’ve done my work well, my biggest challenge is to just keep up with this invented “I.” And it’s the most fun I can possibly have.
Taking stories from my own life probably comes from my old days in the confessional. There’s something so important to me to take the pain I’ve known and explore that pain so that I can transcend it. It gives me eternity to once again become that fourteen-year-old boy masturbating behind the barn. I suddenly can live forever and I am immortal. I don’t know why anyone would want to write about anything else.
With Memoir, I’m stuck with the New York Times crossword puzzle. The format dictates the content. Is it real and is it true don’t make for any opportunities for “happy accidents.” I feel stuck. Like I am forced to take a photograph of the events instead of making a painting of them.
JR Your second book, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon feels more mythical than “real life,” where did the inspiration or idea for this story come from?
TS There is a ghost town in Idaho called Atlanta. In the late eighteen hundreds, Atlanta was a gold mining town and the largest town in Idaho. I have a good friend whose family homesteaded Atlanta, and my friend still lives there eight months out of the year. In 1986 I visited Atlanta. My friend has made himself honorary mayor of the town (population 29) and has saved many old buildings, the cemetery, and even the hot springs by putting these places on the historical record. The first time I visited, my friend took me for a ride on Devil’s Pass and told me the story of two prostitutes who tried crossing Devil’s Pass and were caught in an early blizzard. One died and the other lost her leg.
Another part of this story of where did MOON come from dates back to the 1970’s when I was teaching High School in Boise Idaho. I rented a film, a documentary about a Native man they found in the wilds of contemporary California. I forget the name of the film, in fact all I can remember about the film, was that the Native man would not tell the film makers his real name because they might be a powerful dark force and he believed the only way to protect himself from a possible powerful dark force was to never speak your name.
Then there’s the Hollywood western. I wanted to blow big holes in the Hollywood western. And I wanted to tell the story from a non-white perspective. I wanted to take the risk and be a white guy who dares to talk about race.
One fall, I took my Spanish publisher to Atlanta. He told me what I did for Atlanta was what Cezanne did to a bowl of fruit.
JR How do you find the heartbreak in your characters? Characters like Shed, and Dellwood Barker in The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, Jake Weber in Faraway Places, William of Heaven and all the beautiful characters in In The City of Shy Hunters, Rigby John and George Serano in Now is the Hour.
TS As I’ve said before, all these characters are my investigation of my own broken heart. I don’t consider myself special in my pain or my acknowledgement of pain. If your heart isn’t broken too then you’re not paying attention. Again, this has so much to do with first person. I may not be able to get to my character’s pain, but if I work at it long enough, I can get to mine. And since the “I” on the page is different from me, my unconscious is tricked, and consequently sets free all my imagined violences.
JR Do your characters break your writer’s heart, too?
TS I think Judy, that I’ve already answered this question.
JR One of the elements I so appreciate in your writing is your patience, the way you slow down and allow the moment-by-moment details to gather and build. The repetition of descriptions or phrases adds to that, too. How do you keep yourself slowed down? Does it come this way or do you do draft upon draft upon draft, adding these details as it builds?
TS So many writers are busy trying to get where the story is—down the line somewhere and the big denouement. But the truth is the story is always where you are. I think my patience has been something I’ve developed over the years. Faraway Places tells a big story in only one hundred and twenty five pages. MOON too, is very told. My attention to detail, I think, started with Shy Hunters. Maybe it’s age, but more and more, really what I’m talking about is what is feels like to be alive. And to be alive is to be in the moment. I don’t think I’m in the moment very well in real life, so I compensate in my writing. In the film, The Tree Of Life, the narrator says something like: if you don’t love, your life will go by in a flash. And in a way it’s like Proust’s madeleine. Proust said: We acquire a true knowledge only of things we are obliged to recreate by thought, things that are hidden from us in everyday life.
At this point in my life, I am addicted to what those hidden things are and their recreation on the page.
This process of slowing down comes so much from me telling my students to slow down. I say it so much I start doing it myself. More and more, these details are 85% to 95% there at the end of the first draft. But I’ve been writing for so long, I bring so much more to the page than I did when I first started writing.
JR When you’re writing, deep in the process of it, are you conscious of such Dangerous Writing elements as “burnt tongue,” or “recording angel”? Do you have to tell yourself to “unpack” a word or phrase, or “go to the body”?
TS No this is all second nature to me now.
JR You’ve said “character lies in the destruction of the sentence”? Can you explain that?
TS And once again we’re back to first person. The narrator speaks like how she thinks. She thinks in fragments and run-ons. She thinks in litanies. She thinks in weird dialects. In other words, the way the voice is on the page is how the characters sounds when she’s talking. We get character from how she talks to us. As opposed to a sound that sounds like the author just wrote something that sounds a lot like writing.
JR You’re legendary for your teaching, especially the “Dangerous Writing” method (is it a method or a technique?) What shall we call it?
TS Dangerous Writing is a way of getting to the heart of things as we deconstruct given or received language. I’d say it is a method.
JR Who were your teachers?
TS Peter Christopher, Stephen Koch, Stephen Spender, Gordon Lish—those are the official teachers. I know it sounds corny but each new student teaches me something. Most of the time it’s something I already know, but every once in a while I get a whole new insight. That’s why I’ve been able to teach for so long without burning out.
JR Teaching or writing?
JR Every aspiring writer always wants to know the process of successful writers, so can you tell us your process for “getting it down”?
TS My process. There’s something very troubling inside me, something that won’t let me go. It’s tossing me about and I am in fear and I am helpless. When I finally sit down to look at this thing that scares me, I make myself a deal to tell the truth no matter what. I write one paragraph and my narrator breaks the deal and begins to lie. There are no rules except that I can’t forsake my original intention. To find that hidden thing that driving me nuts. For example, my next book I think will be about Africa. I have most of the characters, I know thematically what I’d like the book to say. But then there’s an aspect that keeps coming up that I’m not quite sure of: and that’s social class and entitlement. Class and entitlement beyond race, or in spite of race, or because of race. For some damn reason, I suddenly want to talk about class. And what better a place to talk about class than being a white man in Africa? I know, go figure. I don’t have any idea how this is going to work out. Right now it sounds like a big old essay. But it’s already a fire inside me and pretty soon the fire will get big enough I’m going to have to sit down and look at it. At its hidden meaning. How it formed me. How it has wounded me. How it’s made me, me.
JR What do you love about being a writer?
TS How it’s made me, me.
Tom Spanbauer is the author of four novels including In the City of Shy Hunters, and the beloved classic, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. Tom’s most recent novel, Now is the Hour, was a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist and Publishers Weekly chose it as one of the best 100 books of 2006. About Now is the Hour, Natalie Goldberg said, “There is no one like Tom Spanbauer writing in America. I dare you to read this and still hold onto the old way you see the world.” A new edition of Tom’s first novel, Faraway Places, has recently been released by Hawthorne Books.
As a teacher Tom’s innovative approach combines close attention to language with a large-hearted openness to what he calls ‘the sore place’–that place within each of us that is the source for stories that no one else can tell. His introductory workshop is an underground legend among emerging writers in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The community of writers that has formed around him is dedicated to the proposition that “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer.” Trying to define Dangerous Writing, he says, is tricky because “…the first rule about dangerous writing is you don’t talk about dangerous writing. Writing dangerously is the inarticulate speech of the heart.”
Tom lives, writes, and teaches in Portland Oregon. www.tomspanbauer.com
Judy Reeves is a writer, teacher and writing practice provocateur whose books include A Writer’s Book of Days; Writing Alone, Writing Together; A Creative Writer’s Kit and The Writer’s Retreat Kit. In addition to leading private writing and creativity workshops, Judy teaches writing at UCSD Extension, and in private workshops, and speaks at writing conferences internationally. She is a cofounder of San Diego Writers, Ink and serves on the Board of Directors. The Revised Edition of A Writer’s Book of Days won Best Nonfiction Book at the 2011 San Diego Book Awards.