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An Interview With Scott Spencer, Author of Man In the Woods

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About a month ago I heard an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air program (probably my favorite interview program in any medium) with Scott Spencer. You can hear or read the interview here.

I immediately requested a copy of the book, Man In the Woods, and an email interview with the author was arranged. The book is amazing. Spencer’s writing is as eloquent as his speaking in the Fresh Air interview.

Man In the Woods reminds me of the novels by Kate Atkinson. In Spencer’s book, as with hers, the prose and writing style are so brilliant that the murder and its ramifications almost become less important than just enjoying the waves of beautiful language washing over the reader.

And I’m not alone in thinking that: The New York Times ran a review yesterday praising the book and a Washington Post reviewer I trust called it one of the three best books he has read this year, possibly the best of the three.

As Man In the Woods starts we are introduced to a man down on his luck who thinks he is being pursued for gambling debts. He owns a dog he took from his last girlfriend. We also meet Paul and Kate, who were in Spencer’s last book, A Ship Made of Paper.

Paul encounters the guy with the dog and reacts when he sees that guy beating the dog. They fight, that violence escalates, and the other man dies. Paul takes the guy’s dog, Shep.

All of this happens in about the first hundred pages of the book so none of that is a spoiler. What’s fascinating is what the book then does: instead of becoming just another book in which a man is on the run for a murder, however accidental, we instead see gradually the reality of what he has done and how it affects Paul and Kate (the only person he confesses his crime to) and Kate’s daughter.

Spencer may be best known for writing the book, Endless Love, which sparked a famous movie and song, though neither seemed to have anything to do with his original book.

And now the interview…

Why did you decide to place this book during the time leading up to Y2K?

During the run-up to Y2K I paid attention to the growing hysteria as many were convinced that a world-wide computer failure was going to plunge our world into chaos.  In writing Man in the Woods I got interested in how we are always struggling to find some narrative arc that will lend some order to our lives, that will turn our daily lives into stories that make some kind of sense, and have some meaning.  The incorrectness of the narrative surrounding Y2K and the essentially comic nature of all the preparation that were made were particularly resonant to me in retrospect since the river which winds its way through my novel was used by the 9/11 terrorists to navigate their way to downtown Manhattan less than two years later, which few people were prepared for.

Was it intentional to have a theme of being pursued or chased, as is the case with both Paul and the guy he killed?

Everything in a novel has to be intentional, even the things that aren’t.  There is a difference between pursuit from without and from within, but of course they intersect as well. 

So Shep the dog in the book is based on your own dog with the same name? How different are they?

Well, Shep in the book is a bit younger than the dog Shep who lives with me.  But I think they are essentially the same –their opacity, the neutrality, their lifetimes spent independent of notions of good and evil.  Their suchness, as the Buddhist might have it.

I’m interested in some comments you made in the Fresh Air interview. Do you really think man have a genetic impulse to defend others? Was that an idea you wanted to explore with this book?

I was interested in exploring the idea that is contained so succinctly and evocatively in the line from the Johnny Cash song that opens the book:  “The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars.”  I was propelled forward by the possibility that within all of us – regardless of gender – there exists the capacity for violence, and that civilization is frail and fragile.  That said, it seems to me that this is slightly truer for men than for women, though there are exceptions to this rule.

Can you speak to a few comments in the book? From page 68, for example: “Frank didn’t begrudge it; most men kept a tally sheet.” I dog-eared that page partly because I don’t think I have a tally sheet – you really think most guys do? Do you?

This is what Frank thinks.  What do I think?  I think people remember the wrongs that have been done to them – look at the history of what was once called Yugoslavia – and I think they also remember when they have been made to feel small.

From page 125: “But what he mainly wants to talk to Stephanie about is this thing he’s noticed, the way people have of changing the subject when you give them bad news, as if one part of the mind needs to occupy itself while another part comes to terms with the information.” I found that a fascinating observation and got to watch it in action because I read that the day of the shooting-suicide at U. of Texas (I live in Austin) and seeing how people reacted to that news. How did you come across this realization?

This came from self-analysis.

“Ignorance wasn’t bliss but rather a gauzy scarf thrown over the lamp of knowledge, coloring the light, making it less harsh.” – Is that how you see it or in comments like this were you just describing how some might experience ignorance?

I surely don’t think ignorance is bliss.  But like everything else that has survived thousands of years of human evolution, ignorance – like denial, self-delusion, and magical thinking — seems to have its uses.

What are you working on next? Do you envision having Paul or Kate in a future book?

I don’t like talking too much about what I’m going to do.  But I am working on a novel.

How tired are you of people asking you questions about writing the book sparking both the movie and the song “Endless Love”?

I don’t think of it as one of my big problems.  I accept the fact that people are curious about movies and pop music.  I, too, have wondered what the movie makers and song writer had in mind.

What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they don’t? Here’s your chance to ask it then answer it

Hmm…Tempting.  And the offer has taught me something – framing the questions is actually more revealing that coming up with the answers.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.