Meet the Jury: Scott Spencer
Scott Spencer is the author of twelve novels, including Endless Love, Waking the Dead, A Ship Made of Paper, and Man in the Woods. He has been nominated for the National Book Award three times and has taught at Columbia University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Williams College, the University of Virginia, and at Eastern Correctional Facility as part of the Bard Prison Initiative. He lives with the writer Jo Ann Beard in upstate New York.
When did you first know you wanted to be an author?
I was encouraged to revere books when I was a small child, and I did. Always struggling for autonomy, there was nothing I could control as fully as I could control a book — when to pick it up, when to turn the page, and I loved them for the independence they granted. As I grew older, things like sports, romance, music, left-wing politics, and the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day upended my relationship with books, and it wasn’t until I made it to college that I was fully reunited with my first love. It was then that I began to wonder if a life revolving around novels –reading them, discussing them, and even writing them –was the best thing I could do with my life. And from there I somehow made the leap into believing it was the only thing I could do with my life. I had no plan B, no other way of making a living, no other sustaining passion. Naturally, there are times when I think it’s all been a terrible, horrible, irretrievable mistake. But what sustains me is that I have a virtually religious belief in the value of fiction, and a great, ever-regenerating curiosity in how novels work. I have found ways to make the solitude, disappointments, and constant crises of confidence bearable.
What is your favourite writing routine?
My writing routine is…rather routine. Breakfast of four cups of coffee, which I make with one of those sturdy, stalwart, stovetop espresso pots, plus toast with almond butter or a butter/olive oil concoction Land of Lakes sells in little tubs. I work from 9-12, and 2:30-5, breaking for tennis, a visit to my mother, a haircut. I adhere to this schedule unless something–anything! — interrupts the day. I live on a dirt road in an old farmhouse so the “interruptions” often have to be sought out, hunted down, captured, and embraced. I don’t write on Sunday.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on a novel. I have been pounding on the surface of it for 30 months and in the past few weeks it is just starting to reveal itself to me.
If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?
If I could tell my younger writer self anything it would be this: take your time. No one is racing ahead of you, no one is close behind, it’s just you, your story and your characters, and eternity. In the end, no one will fully understand what you have done except you yourself.
Who is your favourite Canadian author?
Oh, Canadian writers! Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Miriam Toews, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Brian Moore. I am currently reading Wagamese’s powerful and compelling Indian Horse.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I don’t normally spend much time researching before I begin a book. I always start with voice, and then characters, and then a situation, and then a story, and along the way certain questions are posed which necessitate research. Research — aka reading — is nearly always fun, even when learning the facts interferes with what I have imagined. I don’t over-research. Sometimes when I read well-researched novels, I can hear the rustle of the index cards — I do everything I can to avoid that!
Is there a book you enjoy rereading?
I love re-reading, and this past year has been a feast of re-reading — from Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South, to Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. Other re-read favorites this year were Invisible Man, (the Ellison, though the Wells is tempting) Lolita, The Red Badge of Courage, and a non-fiction favorite, The Warmth of Other Suns. Next, I plan to re-read Miriam Toews’s Fight Night, even though I read it only a couple of months ago — I miss the narrator’s voice. There is such a great pleasure to be had in re-reading. Freed from worries over the plot, you can revel in the art –fewer discoveries but more revelations.
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