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Intermittent Visitors: Kathleen Alcala interviews Scott Sparling

This is a guest post by Kathleen Alcalá—she interviewed Scott Sparling for Intermittent Visitors.

 

Scott Sparling‘s first novel, Wire to Wire, is about love, glue, drugs, and freight trains in Northern Michigan and New York. It was published by Tin House Books in 2011 and won a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2012. His writing has appeared on OccupyWriters.com and Powells.com. He lives near the tracks outside Portland, Oregon.

1) Your first book was published last year. Tell me what it is about.

I’m probably not the right person to ask. I spent a long time writing Wire to Wire, and it was about different things at different times. At heart, it’s a very messed up love story. Michael Slater, the main character, falls for a seductive, self-destructive woman and struggles to figure out where his loyalties should be—and also where her loyalties are, since she’s living with his closest friend. The woman, Lane, huffs glue to escape some terrible things in her past. Slater’s friend—Harp—feels most alive when he’s riding freights, but he gets sucked into a very dangerous scheme in Wolverine, the small Northern Michigan town where Wire to Wire is set. Dynamite is involved.

Over time, it occurred to me that the whole town should be a place where the forces of sex and money have jumped the tracks. I began thinking of them as natural forces, like electricity and water. When they stay in their wires and pipes, everything’s fine. But when they burst out, they burn down the house or flood the place. That’s happening everywhere in Wolverine.

And underneath all that, it’s about my love for Northern Michigan and trains.

 

2) I met you over thirty years ago, and you were already working on this novel. Did it need to take this long?

Maybe not. There are many parts of the book that haven’t changed much since the late 1980s. But I was not the kind of writer who had the craft of story-telling under control back then. I would readily sacrifice meaning and clarity in favor of cadence. I had a few things I could do well – I had an ear for loud, incantatory sentences, and I could write dialogue well. I could write scenes, but it took me a long time to shape those scenes into a story.

I also spent a fair amount of time in those decades not writing W2W. I started a website that grew into a huge writing and editing project and which has been online for 15 years now. On an average day, the Segerfile (http://www.segerfile.com/) gets ten times as much traffic as the website for my book. I also got married, and my wife and I raised our son. For three years, I put W2W totally aside and wrote a different book, which I’m trying to finish now.

Beyond that, part of getting published involves catching the wave when it’s there. You might not be able to hurry it. In the late 80s and early 90s, a lot of publishers seemed to be looking for the next “Bright Lights, Big City” or the next “Less Than Zero.” It might not have been the best time for a book about two guys hopping freights in Northern Michigan. Maybe that’s just me making excuses—I’d cop to that in a heartbeat. Conversely, I’ve wondered sometimes if the success of Mad Men helped sell W2W, in the sense that it proved the public was interested in the sixties and seventies again. Again, if that’s a ludicrous idea, I stand ready to disavow it.

Finally, I admit to being a lazy and inept submitter of my own material. A good friend told me to send my manuscript to Tin House Books in early 2009. I didn’t do it. Six months passed and finally she took my manuscript and submitted it for me. That’s how a guy like me gets published.

 

3) When I started reading Wire to Wire, I thought, ‘This is highly illegal. And dangerous. How much of this is autobiographical?’ Then I decided I didn’t want to know, and sat back to enjoy the ride. Instead, I would like you to describe the role of music in your writing process.

I often play music when I write. There’s a terrific band, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, who happen to be from Seattle. Their music puts me in the lonely, trancy kind of mood that seems to help my writing. Jesse had four albums out when I was writing W2W (five now) and I put them all on one playlist and listened to them hundreds of times.

When I was editing, I started playing Jon Dee Graham, whom I’ve heard live many times in Austin. His music is incredibly good—so full of heart and life and honesty, and his lyrics are stunning. But it’s also loud. He calls his band, The Fighting Cocks. It gave me exactly the kind of energy I needed to cross the finish line.

Beyond that, there are probably a hundred songs that inspired parts of the books. Jackson Browne’s line, “What I was seeing wasn’t what was happening at all,” informed the frame story. Joni Mitchell’s line about “Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes and the lips you can get, and still feel so alone,” told me something about Slater.

Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” is the story in a nutshell: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” And one night in the Tacoma Dome, Prince pointed at me during Purple Rain and sang, “It’s time we all reach out for something new, that means you too.“ I quit my job a few days later so I could write W2W. Basically, when Prince tells you to start something new, it’s not a discussion. That’s what you do.

The list goes on and we haven’t even talked about Seger. Let’s just say I’m under his spell and eternally grateful that I could use a few of Seger’s lyrics in the book.

 

4) You’ve garnered comments such as, “In the tradition of the great noir novels, Wire to Wire, is really something. Like being in a stolen car with no brakes in a world of train hopping, sex, violence, and drugs. It’s all edge from start to finish.” —Willy Vlautin, author of The Motel Life. And yet Open Letters Monthly says, “Wire to Wire ends up being what so many pulp writers think they’re making but end up missing: an exploration of the proper aims of existence.”

Is this a pulp novel?

No, I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s also not a crime novel. It’s literary fiction. It happens to have a plot and some people get killed. It’s got drugs, guns, and dynamite. But I never wanted it to be anything but literary fiction.

That said, I’d also assert that the literary world gets a little weird about what’s considered a genre novel and what’s considered mainstream. Whatever you think of as mainstream is just a genre that’s defined itself as being the norm, which seems artificial to me. Is Franzen writing mainstream literary fiction, or is he working in a genre called Domestic Fiction—books that are mainly set indoors in living rooms, bedrooms, offices, and dorms. How about Suburban Fiction, Sports Fiction? Everything’s a genre, in my view, or else nothing is.

 

5) Tin House is such a good fit for your work that it is hard to imagine it published elsewhere. Did you submit Wire to Wire anywhere else?

Over the years, I sent the manuscript to quite a few agents and publishers. Maybe two dozen in all. But a lot of those were submissions in the 1990s when the writing and the story weren’t as finished as they are now.

In 2008, I sent the manuscript to nine agents, but there wasn’t any interest. Part of the challenge with W2W is that it has multiple beginnings. It’s not until Slater gets to Michigan, which is 100 pages into the book, that the plot really kicks in. So it was hard to give people a sense of the book with just a chapter or two.

I was very lucky to land at Tin House. From my point of view, it was a perfect fit. They understood the book completely. During editing they helped me improve it immensely.

 

6) You also made a great trailer to go with the book. Tell me about that.

Tin House and Juliet Zulu, a creative company in Portland, came up with the video concept and did all the work. They were fabulous – they just told me when to show up and asked me some questions. The hardest part, logistically, was getting into an empty strip club in the afternoon, so I could read from the book while my editor, Tony Perez, pretended to watch the dancer.

For the last scene, we went out to the freight yard, and somehow my book got left on the tracks, so it actually got hit by a Union Pacific train. The binding is all messed up and it’s got huge creases in it. The crew was apologetic, but I loved it. I’m just happy we didn’t cause a derailment.

 

7) Is there another book in the works?

There is. A splinter group from the Occupy movement is trying to steal a kidney from a banker, but what they end up with is not a kidney. The underlying theme is related to the economic collapse of 2008, in which financial instruments with no real value were sold as if they had a lot of value. The book is set in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

I’m currently calling it Dogs Run Free. About halfway through, I realized there were a lot of elements of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers involved—no surprise, since Dog Soldiers is one of my favorite books. There’s the reference to Dogs in the title, and the accidental way in which the main characters acquire the MacGuffin—heroin in Stone’s book, the kidney in mine—and some character names. At first, I viewed that as a problem to be fixed. But now I see it as something worth exploring. Dog Soldiers is a masterpiece, a National Book Award winner, so why not be open about the way it’s influenced me? I hope to finish it next year.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.
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