Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I first met Scott Spencer in January of 1987 in New York City After having admired his work for years—especially Endless Love (1979) and Waking the Dead (1986)—I was introduced to him by our mutual editor, Victoria Wilson at Knopf. We have been close friends ever since. In my life as a reader and writer, nothing luckier has ever happened to me.
The phone interview that follows is in many ways completely artificial: we would never talk like this in real life. Or would we? An interview skews, exaggerates, distorts, obscures. And that’s just what it does to the interviewer. Evident here are my own errors of emphasis, omission, and direction. Certainly there were, as well, time and space constraints. But the tape recorder gets some things down: the brilliance of Scott’s mind, his quick wit, solid values, literary seriousness, and confidence. Besides his literary gifts, he has a great and beautiful talent for friendship and conversation, which is not in the least deterred by the telephone.
Scott’s fiction has been described as “magnificent,” “mesmerizing, stunning, breathtaking,” “intelligent and expansive,” and “masterful.”
All this by people who have never even met him.
Lorrie Moore Whether it’s taking place within the world of Nester in Brain Thieves’ Ball; or the world of electoral politics in Waking the Dead; or the world of adolescence in Endless Love, your protagonists all suffer some initial and profound loss. Then, hobbled by that wound, they are drawn into and devoured by an environment against which they struggle to hang onto an idea of self. The struggle to retain a sense of self has been your subject from the beginning. But in all of these books, random fate or an indifferent universe strikes a blow after which the protagonists endure some dramatic test of character. One can’t help feeling that in your characters’ struggles, they are somehow being punished, almost biblically tormented or experimented with, because they desire the wrong things. Perhaps the author has decided that they have desired the wrong things. These characters have competing, often irreconcilable desires; it seems the author’s judgment is hovering over the narrative—not descending and controlling—but hovering and watching people desire the wrong things.
Scott Spencer I’m not sure if they are desiring the wrong things or the right things, or if that ultimately even matters. I’m interested in desire as the engine that animates characters, that brings them into some sort of confrontation with themselves. What is desired seems secondary. It could be the desire for power, or freedom, or even the desire for desire. Desire is the wind that fills their sails, though it doesn’t always take them in the direction they thought they were going.
LM This is the engine in all of your narratives?
SS Yes, I think it is. It’s how I see life. It’s all variations on Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.
LM So you don’t have some authorial judgment suspended over these characters as they proceed through their desires or their desires proceed through them. There is no criticism or opinion alongside what you’ve arranged?
SS I have my own reaction to their desire, but I think ultimately it should be unimportant.
LM It’s an instrument of narrative and fate—it’s not to be judged.
SS Right, it’s the thing that gets them going. What they make of it is what is interesting to me, not so much what they think that they want.
LM Writers are often asked which of their own books is their favorite. Do you have “a favorite,” or does one of your books contain a story that is a favorite for you?
SS A little sequence of events?
LM The plot, the narrative kernel. There are ways in which you can love a book, though the actual story it contains might be rather flat and uninteresting. Virginia Woolf has books like that. But as a storyteller, is the story of David in Endless Love, who sets fire to his girlfriend’s family’s house, more intriguing to you than the story of, say, Caitlin Van Fleet in Secret Anniversaries?
SS The story as anecdote that remains the most interesting to me is in Preservation Hall, the story of being snowed in with your father’s new stepson, hence your new stepbrother. It’s the story of somebody who feels weirdly and scarily exempt from the mess of the world suddenly being tethered to somebody who invites trouble wherever he goes.
LM That’s a story that seems to have what I was trying to describe earlier, some sense of the protagonist being punished for his good fortune, or for desiring and having so luckily accomplished the particular happiness and good life that he has.
SS It might be a bit of a punishment, but I was hoping that the result would be to lift the onus from him. Because he felt so eerily fortunate, he lived with this sense of walking on thin ice. There was tremendous grief and rage when that ice cracked. But by then, there was that sense of renewal when he realized he had survived and became—to put it in the most banal language—a larger person.
LM Preservation Hall is the first book where fathers and sons are a major, major subject for you. And that continues throughout all of your other books. Was that, as they say, a conscious thing?
SS I think that you’re legally conscious when you write. (laughter)
LM I go into a trance myself. I’m already in the third draft when I come to.
SS Actually, I do write in a trance. You have to go into that trance just to find all of those abstract connections between things. It’s not exactly like sitting around and talking, it’s not even like sitting around and thinking. There’s a ritual of writing that’s not like being unconscious, it’s something else. It’s some … writerly state of consciousness.
LM Is there something insistent or unfinishable for you about the subject of fathers and sons? It’s in Preservation Hall and it’s front and center stage in your most recent book, The Rich Man’s Table. What is your sense of what a father and son story means? Is it a biblical thing?
SS Fathers and sons, and really, fathers and daughters, is something I have experienced and know, so I am able to write about it. There are a lot of things that I would like to read about and hear other people talk about, but I don’t know enough to write about. I happen to know a lot about this because I was very involved and am very involved with being a son. And for the past 19 years I have been very involved with being a father. I need something for my characters to come from and to bump up against. I really do think it’s a variation on Civilization and Its Discontents. What we are is not the same thing the world requires us to be. We are full of appetites, unreasonable drives. This internal system of impulse and desire tests itself against the reality of social law—what the people with whom we live expect and require of us. This push and pull is part of the process that makes us human, and makes us interesting, too. You need some opposing force to measure yourself against and to define yourself either in accordance with or in opposition to. It could be the law, it could be the church or God, but you need something to be the Other and something to represent what is expected of you in contrast to what you sense you really are.
LM Okay. I’m thinking of Waking the Dead and the idea of the Other. With the exception of Secret Anniversaries, all of your protagonists are male. In Waking the Dead, Sarah is the conscience of the book. And in other books too, the Other—meaning the woman—is a useful myth, a moral touchstone. She contains all that is systematically good and the male character is circling that, wandering from that, coming back to that. To what extent is that gender paradigm—the idea of men and woman and the morality they can be made to contain in storytelling—also one of your subjects?
SS I don’t really know. I suspect that if I were a woman writer, the men would fulfill that function in the books.
LM That’s what I suspected. It’s a heterosexual dynamic, but it’s not something inherently male or female.
SS I don’t think of it that way. These characters are given a certain level of self-awareness that makes them attuned to all that’s compromised and a little beastly about their insides. They have this secret anarchic sense of themselves that makes them, in a way, almost unfit for human companionship. And this sense of themselves causes them to somewhat idealize the Other. Since these stories are for the most part about men, the Other is often, conveniently, a woman. I think I would go the opposite way if I were a woman.
LM I can’t think of a woman writer who does that vis-à-vis men and women.
SS Who sets the man up as an icon? No. I can’t either.
LM There’s an open minefield … Waking the Dead has one of my favorite endings in all of American literature. That very powerful, first-person narration, which is Fielding Pierce’s voice, is suddenly buried in the letters of his constituents—and the book ends there. You have these other voices, these letters, and that’s it. Fielding Pierce’s voice has vanished. It’s such a bold move, structurally, and accomplishes so much emotionally and thematically. I was wondering, were you experimenting structurally and discovered the impact of that, or did you set out for some way to communicate the enormity of where Fielding Pierce is at the end of the book?
SS I discovered that particular ending maybe a week before I got there. It was an act of pity on my part. Here was a character whose consciousness had been ratcheted up and up until he was literally driving himself mad, and the only relief possible to him was his immersion in the stories of other people. It’s an interesting challenge in fiction—having the thing end somewhat well. You really need to use your imagination for that.
LM It is a very peaceful ending and a kind of deliverance for him.
SS I do think of it as that exactly. He had lived for years as someone literally tormented by his inchoate desire to be good. To be able to let go of that, to be able to silence that part of himself and go into the story of someone else was a tremendous relief for him. Even if it’s only for the moments of reading those letters at the end of the book, it is something. Men in Black has essentially the same ending—when the protagonist is in bed with his wife and he has just been on book tour.
LM The ultimate novel about a book tour, Men in Black: the perfect expression of the book tour as punishment for writing a book.
SS He’s just yapping away about this and this and me and mine, he’s come to the very cusp of destroying his family and he and his wife are lying next to each other and not saying a word. He says, “You know, this silence was about as close as I was ever going to get to paradise.”
LM Hmm. I feel the peacefulness of the ending in Men in Black so extraordinarily. It’s very explicit. The ending of Waking the Dead I always felt as much more ambiguous and unresolved. Instead of silence, as at the end of Men in Black, at the end of Waking the Dead I feel this chorus of voices rising up to take over Fielding’s life to give it perspective and a mission. But the enormity and the difficulty of that, it seems to me, is what this reader is left with.
SS We can’t both be right. (laughter)
LM Literature is not that limber? Then you’ll have to relent. Here’s a little oddity: I wrote this about your work years ago, before I met you, and just came upon it because I piled your books up on my desk: “In it the private world one has made and the public world one has not chase a man back and forth until he collapses in a kind of vertigo.” A little Hitchcock reference there I think. “Is he letting go of reason and the mad passions rush in? Always the work is political, always it is romantic as well. But without losing the cynicism regarding the first or a perspective regarding the latter.” I thought I would share that with you.
SS That is very kind.
LM I didn’t even realize it was there. I wrote that in 1986 when Waking the Dead first came out, back when I took notes and defaced people’s books. But, I have subsequently learned that Vertigo, in actuality, is one of your favorite movies and it was somewhat at the edge of your mind as you were writing this book, no?
SS Umm, it must have been. I mean, it is always on the edge of my mind. It’s my favorite movie.
SS I love that mixture, that fusion of genre. Vertigo is like a scary, mesmerizing thriller, but it’s also the most passionate and sorrowful love story I’ve ever seen in a movie. I’m very interested in someone’s path to knowledge being a kind of madness. I’m interested in the route that people must take to arrive at a spot where they can be large and whole and responsive. And the kind of forbearance that we need to show each other because sometimes people can be doing things that seem really crazy and nonsensical, but when you look back at it, this was the path that they had to take, there was no other way to get there.
LM All of your characters are haunted by something. And to some extent all of your novels are ghost stories. Do you want to talk about how, since Secret Anniversaries, all of your books are set in, or partially set in, or refer to the community of Leyden in upstate New York? Can you talk about what this community is or was to you when you began to set all of these books there? Is it less than what I imagine? Is it just a kind of aesthetic ease? Or are you making a collection of portraits? I mean, by aesthetic ease, a kind of convenience: to have your imagination go to the same community all of the time and seek your story there?
SS That’s got to be a lot of it. There is so much work that has to be done in writing a novel that knowing what my setting is before I go in is really handy. It cuts down on some of the carpentry that needs to be done before you put on the show—you can use sets from the last show. But clearly you can’t force something to be someplace where it couldn’t happen. I’ve been lucky that the last three books—and the book I’m working on now, too—are set in Leyden.
LM Do people in Rhinebeck come up to you and say, I know Rhinebeck is really the Leyden of your fiction and I recognize this and that?
SS Sure. There are certain things that are unmistakable to the people who live here.
LM Do you find that it is exciting to them? Or are people wary of it? I mean, this is a problem with a writer in a small community.
SS I’m not sure what they feel. My experience of people finding themselves in fiction is different from yours. I find that people rather like to find themselves in the pages of some book.
LM Well, maybe you have a more generous fictional world than I do.
SS I was told that the family that was the prototype for the family in Endless Love sometimes played at reconfiguring themselves so they would fit the fictional family more closely.
LM And what is that about? All writers have stories like this where people actually start to conform to or over-identify with the fictional character. I mean, maybe some small part has been appropriated and suddenly the whole thing is their lives. Life not just imitating art, but counterfeiting it. They imagine themselves completely as such a character. Is that just about not knowing who they are to begin with and now they feel someone has told them?
SS We live in a media culture and things have a special meaning when they are in media, even the antique creaking media of a novel or a story. It’s amusing for people to see themselves suddenly plucked out of their daily life with all of its grinding familiarity and set loose in some imaginary world. And maybe it tickles their vanity in some strange way. It’s like looking at portraits in the Metropolitan Museum. You see these royal families and these long-dead plutocrats being portrayed with little rolls of fat and warts and a bit cock-eyed and it’s fun to remember the painter got paid.
LM But in portraiture the person has stepped forward to have this brutality performed upon them. Fiction writers are not sending invitations. They take from here, from there, and they put it all within the supposedly safe vessel of fiction. Still, people can pretend that they’ve been trespassed upon. I agree, I think people don’t feel as trespassed as they sometimes pretend to. But in a small community, especially when you return to it over and over again, I’m just wondering, what kind of punches you might be pulling. Or not pulling. Might residence in the place you’re writing about become an unconscious muzzle? Are you afraid of a kind of self-censorship, like a writer in a totalitarian state, forced to self-edit to survive.
SS I’ve been living here for 15 years.
LM But your writing about Leyden has only happened in the last ten and …
SS I went right to the worst of it. The first time I wrote about Leyden, which was in Secret Anniversaries, I described a town filled with German people and anti-Semitic American aristocracy all secretly rooting for Hitler. So everything after that has been pretty easy.
LM Now was that true to the community as you have understood it? True to Rhinebeck?
SS I think that it’s not necessarily, specifically true to Rhinebeck but this area did have a real reactionary culture to it. Franklin Roosevelt lived 12 miles from my house and never carried this county in any election.
LM Rhinebeck is now a fairly sophisticated community. I don’t know if the Leyden of your fiction corresponds directly to that sophistication and I’m not sure if Rhinebeck completely qualifies as a provincial community, but in general, provincial communities are quite hard on their local writers.
SS Yeah, but what’s the punishment? The punishment is people …
LM Putting toilet paper in your trees.
SS If that ever happened to me I’d be out of here like a shot. (laughter) I know you do this too: when you are writing, you never even think about how people are going to feel about it, or how people might misperceive it, or how someone might see themselves in it, and by the time you’re finished, it’s too late to do anything about it because you’ve already written it.
LM Well, maybe because we both moved—you’re a Midwesterner who’s living in upstate New York, I’m from upstate New York living in the Midwest. Even though we’re living in small communities, we do have a sense of having been uprooted and therefore we see where we are with both greater feeling and greater empiricism than we might otherwise. There’s always a sense that a writer is a little bit like a guest or a visitor, or like a person from another planet. So if you actually were living still at home, with all of your family ties and your roots about you, it could be quite silencing, I suppose. But as you say, when you’re writing you don’t think of anything but the book; then once the book is out you can get worried.
SS Oh sure, about a lot of things, though.
LM What was your biggest worry when The Rich Man’s Table came out?
SS My biggest worry turned out to be not very farfetched. I worried that people would say, “Hey, wait a second, this is Bob Dylan. Why did you do this?” And I would run into all kinds of people jumping up and down trying to defend the sanctity of the Bob Dylan legend.
LM And so how does that affect you? What is your response to that, or don’t you formulate any response at all?
SS Well, I think I am left in the worst of both worlds. I don’t ignore it and I don’t have a response. I just sit there mutely and let it rain down upon me.
LM But in your mind …
SS I did exactly what I wanted to do. And the book came out the way I thought it was going to come out. I wanted to write about a character who was doing what that character did. And to make the character as far away from Bob Dylan as I would have had to, just so people wouldn’t think it was him, was a waste of time. So I just accepted, and then, finally, embraced the fact that this character would be very reminiscent of Bob Dylan.
LM In the last two books, The Rich Man’s Table and Men in Black, you seem to be interested in the deformity that someone who becomes famous or in the public eye in a large way endures. Is the idea of fame or celebrity a particularly American subject? And to what extent would you return to it in another novel?
SS I know I’d return to it in another novel. I think it’s another variation of the father and son theme and the Civilization and Its Discontents theme—it’s another collision between who we are perceived to be and who we really are.
LM A couple of your novels center on a man who is famous in some way, or starts to become famous, and is set upon by a media culture. He’s perceived to be one thing, is actually something else, and has to find a way to bridge these two ideas. There is a wonderful moment at the beginning of Men in Black where the protagonist, Sam Holland, is looking at all these postcards of famous writers, and wistfully thinking about having that sort of recognition; then of course later in the book he finds himself in a nightmarish version of literary celebrity that he would never have wished upon himself. There’s a wonderful ironic play there that also reflects back on you. Your exposure to Hollywood and your work in the script-writing business must have opened you up to a whole new understanding of American popular culture. Your participation in it must be fun and edifying and ambivalent and frustrating.
SS Working in the movies has meant a lot of things. I can talk about this in the past tense because it seemed to be something that took up a lot of my life in the early- to mid-’80s, and it was really interesting for me to work in an industry. I was happy that from Endless Love on, I didn’t have to work at a day job anymore to pay my basic living expenses. But I felt isolated by that, too. When you and I talk, you have a lot of anecdotes about your life inside an institution because you teach, you’re part of the University of Wisconsin and all that entails. There’s something interesting about that, and nourishing in it own strange way. I liked being part of an enterprise that extended far beyond my own desk and my own imagination. I liked working with people, and the office politics and gossip. I liked all of that.
LM Did you have a sense of belonging or just of visiting?
SS Well, I didn’t have any sense of belonging because I didn’t. I’d be working at some studio on one little project for a couple of months and then I’d either be fired, or it would end and I’d go on. It was more like I had the ability to peek in, to cater a lunch or two and overhear the conversation. And because I was only passing through I’d be told things and I’d hear things. I had privileged bystander status.
LM Which is a very literary place to be. It makes me wonder if you will ever write a Hollywood novel the way Robert Stone, Norman Mailer, or others have. I do think, as you know, that some of your novels — maybe Waking the Dead, maybe Men in Black — are disguisedHollywood novels.
SS Yes, I think they may be. And I suspect that is the closest I will ever come to writing a Hollywood novel. Partially because we write as readers too, and we write a story because we’re interested in it and we’d like to read about it. But I don’t feel that way about Hollywood because a lot of good things have already been written about it. I haven’t seen or thought anything that wildly different from what others have written about it. I saw nothing all that different from what Lillian Ross wrote in the ‘50s in her book Picture. The very timelessness of it is interesting but it doesn’t seem worth spending three or four years of my life writing something that other people have already written.
LM What are we supposed to be doing as writers? How is fiction supposed to function and is that function changing? Or is it wrong to even talk about function at all? I mean, is Oscar Wilde spinning in his grave as I speak? Your sense of artistic responsibility must be very personal, but I’m just wondering if you might be able to articulate what that is … Hello?
SS Let’s start that one again. I think my heart started pounding. (laughter)
LM Okay. When you sit down to write—or maybe after you’ve written, or wherever it is, maybe in the shower—what is your sense of what a fiction writer must do in this world and in this culture? What is our task as fiction writers? Because increasingly, obviously, fiction writing is looked upon with great indifference by the rest of the world. But we must feel we’re doing something and our readers must feel we’re doing something. Is it something that you have articulated to yourself, or is it just instinctive and not to be looked at?
SS I feel two ways about it. On a fundamental level, I would write no matter what its importance, because it’s just what I like to do and it’s how I like to spend my time and I don’t know what else to do. Nothing else has ever made me as interested in getting up and getting through a day as writing has. So it’s not as if I surveyed the world and said, Well, we really need to get some novels written or else everything is going to fall apart. It starts off as a pretty instinctual, maybe even as a selfish, impulse.
LM But at some point, I’m sure you also have a more philosophical idea of the place of a writer.
SS I do have that. I think telling stories and hearing them and being able to step outside of our own lives for enough time to actually hear somebody else and feel the world as it is perceived by somebody else enlarges us. It has a humanizing influence on us. It extends our sympathy, it increases our ability to see others, and to accept each other and ourselves, and to step away from the world of hunting, gathering, and competition to enter a world that needs to be animated by our human sympathies.
LM Do you worry that in this particular culture we live in—obviously a literary culture and a literate world has really only existed for maybe 300 years at most—seems as if it’s coming to a close again? Are you worried that the people least in need of this kind of human connection and expansion of sympathy are the ones who will be your readers? I mean, the readers that literature needs to reach the most are not there anymore for the enterprise.
SS It is frustrating that 99 percent of the people who we live with have no interest in going into bookstores, or spending their leisure time reading a book. I’m not sure that the one percent who is more or less involved in what we are doing, don’t need it—that’s just as much as we’ve gotten. I also don’t think the people reading have already gotten all the benefits that reading can bring. I know I haven’t.
LM You’ve said that writers were objects of idolatry for you when you were growing up, and idolatry is a big subject in Endless Love. David Axelrod idolizes his girlfriend Jade, his girlfriend’s family, and he also loves literature, as does his girlfriend’s mother. It’s very literary: other writers are talked about through the course of the narrative. The one writer it declines to mention is Nabokov, who seems most to be the guiding spirit of the book. Who was Nabokov for you when you were young and reading and starting to write, or when you were writing this book even? I’m thinking of Lolita, obviously.
SS Yeah. I read Lolita when it first came out in the United States. I was pretty young and I understood about 20 percent of it. But clearly that book had a tremendous impact on me. I’d guess quite a few writers alive right now would say as much. It’s just one of those books that extends tremendous pull and influence. It’s one of the great examples of watching somebody become human while on a path of absolute madness and depravity. It’s one of those books that I think writers love because it’s such a statement of faith in the whole project of writing, of creation.
LM It’s very much a celebration of language; it’s such beautiful writing. If you took that same story and flattened out the prose, forget it.
SS Yeah, all you would have is the depravity.
LM You are a red-diaper baby. You are the son of communists.
SS That’s not true! (laughter) They were very liberal.
LM You’ve written about it explicitly in Endless Love, and your most recent book, A Rich Man’s Table, is a valentine to the old New York Left, the communists of yore. To what extent do you think your parents’ political life inspired you, affected you? How, in its own way, did it make you a writer?
SS I’m not sure how it made me a writer. My parents’ view of me was really that I was kind of a chatterbox and they told me nothing about their political life. They kept me entirely sheltered from it and it wasn’t until I was 16 years old that I heard about it. And then my father and I went through this strange, symbolic oedipal struggle in which I became a Trotskyist, began dragging all of this old Trotskyist literature from the ’30s and ’40s into the house. I had stacks of yellowing Trotskyist newspapers down in the cellar. We were at each other with hammer and tong.
LM Do you remember specifically a bit of dialogue back and forth between you?
SS The core of it was, of course, the nature of the Soviet Union. Was it a degenerated workers’ state as Trotsky had said, or was it a true workers’ state? Would you defend it if it were attacked by an outside power? And then I wasn’t even a Trotskyist, I was actually a faction that had broken away from Trotsky, which said the Soviet Union wasn’t even a degenerated workers’ state anymore, it was a whole new class society and no more worthy of being defended by the workers movement than France, Canada, or the United States. My dad and I would just go on and on and on about the nature of bureaucratic collectivism as opposed to the nature of actual worker control, and not only did we stay engaged in a time when I was in every other way breaking away from my family, but we managed to somehow make that stand for all of the inherent quarrels fathers and sons have. All kinds of fury and invective could be expressed without our getting too brutally personal. It was good training for a writer in that way. And good training for being an outsider since I was completely obsessed with things that virtually everyone I knew had no idea of.
LM Somebody told me about a response to the question, Where do you get your ideas? This writer would look at the questioner and say “Utica.”
SS Who was that? I told you that story.
LM No, someone else told me that story.
SS Really? Who was it?
LM I was told this by an editor.
SS I think it was Raymond Carver.
LM No, it wasn’t Raymond Carver, it was …
SS It was either Raymond Carver or George Washington Carver. (laughter)
LM Okay, now we’re getting to the real you. But when someone asks you, “Where do you get your ideas?” What do you say?
SS You know what? It was Stephen King who said the Utica thing. Anyhow, I’m not sure I getideas.
LM Sure you do.
SS You get little situations. The truth is that we get about as many of them as most people do, but we just pay more attention to them.
LM I always think that everybody is getting their ideas in the shower and the people who are writing them down, keeping the soggy notes, are the writers.
SS I get mine a lot when I am driving.
SS Yeah, and I have the insurance rate to …
LM To prove it.
SS If I have one more fender bender I’m going to have to go to Guam to get my insurance.
LM Do you actually write things down while you’re driving? Do you have a little notebook?
SS No, I’m always clawing through the glove compartment looking for a pen and a piece of paper.
LM Going 65 miles per hour.
SS Going 65 miles per hour. Once in a while I’ll pull off to the side of the road. That has a rather startling effect on drivers, many of whom are apparently unsympathetic to the sudden literary impulse. Hey, you know what? We just got back to Civilization and Its Discontents.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.