Interview: Novelist and Teacher Tom Spanbauer

Editor Colin Farstad, Interview, March 20th, 2014

...I’m just a part of human suffering...

tom spanbauer
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Part One: I Loved Your More, An Interview With Novelist Tom Spanbauer

This interview was conducted in person by contributing editor Colin Farstand, for NAILED.

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At sixty-seven years old and living with AIDS, novelist Tom Spanbauer still teaches a weekly writer’s workshop called Dangerous Writing in the basement of his home in Portland, Oregon. On April 1st, 2014 Tom Spanbauer’s latest novel I Loved You More will be published by Hawthorne Books.

When I first sat down with Spanbauer, he had recently finished I Loved You More. The novel’s focus is Ben, an Idaho-raised writer living in New York City, and his friend Hank, a fellow Columbia student. Although Ben is gay and Hank is straight, they’re in love all the same. That is, until a woman comes between them. I Loved You More takes the reader through 23 years, four cities, and a tale of love, loss, illness, and friendship.

In the dining room of his home in southeast Portland, Spanbauer was dressed in a Columbia University zip-up sweater and wearing his classic black square-framed glasses. The dining room table was littered with students’ pages from his weekly workshop class, his small marks in the margin, and the signature heart on the back, but in the middle of the table was a stack of paper: the manuscript for I Loved You More, higher than all the rest.

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NAILED MAGAZINE: Tell me about your new book, I Loved You More.

TOM SPANBAUER: The thing that makes it really different from the other books is the narrator is not telling the story right after it’s over with. The last part of the story is being told in 2008 and the first part is 1985, so 23 years, and really there’s all that kind of comments that [the narrator Ben] can make about the 23 years. He can talk about time. He can talk about what he doesn’t remember. What he remembers now and how he doesn’t know if that’s really the case.

But more than anything I can be in-scene with two characters talking, and I can stop and say look at us with our eighties hair. We didn’t know this, we didn’t know that, we didn’t know all this stuff. So it’s a whole other dimension.

NAILED: That makes it pretty different from your other books that are more coming of age stories.

SPANBAUER: That very particular element, that fact that it’s told with all those years in-between, does make it sound very different. I really like that it gives me more. It doesn’t keep me so bound up in a voice. I can stop and go somewhere else and start commenting on shit. I like the way I feel released and opened up in a way. It’s not so confined. It’s scary because it’s new.

I started writing [I Loved You More] in June of 2008. Three and a half years to write this size of a book is really great. There’s a beginning, middle and end. More than ever it’s a marketable piece.

And you know, I have AIDS and had a stroke and I’m old. I’m sure they’re thinking the old fucker is going to die. So there it is. A finished product. It’s a powerful, I think a really powerful, new voice.

NAILED: The last time you wrote about AIDS was in In the City of Shy Hunters and you’ve broached that topic again in I Loved You More. You’ve said before that writing In the City of Shy Hunters almost killed you. How was writing about AIDS again?

SPANBAUER: I’ve come to a much more transformative sort of attitude towards it. I’ve never really thought I’d say thank god I got AIDS or that it was a blessing I got AIDS. I actually end up saying it in this book. It was. It’s helped me have a new awareness about all this shit that I went through. It’s really profound. For the longest time I felt selected out and put upon and why me. Now I just understand that I’m just a part of human suffering. It’s made me more of a human being than somebody who was just being punished for some reason or another. As you grow older you see how people suffer. Just the natural aging process. All my friends are going through it. It’s hard growing old. All of it’s suffering, and I just feel blessed because I’m a part of this humanity thing.

NAILED: We’ve talked before about how you only can truly feel a book is done and in the past once you have the physical thing in your hand. How does it feel to be so close to being able to put this book to rest in your mind?

SPANBAUER: Putting this book to rest in my mind. What a lovely idea that is. With I Loved You More I’ve had to remind myself that each book is its own particular child and each child will have its own particular birth. I haven’t held the book in my hands yet. Maybe that will be when rest will come. But probably like always, the book won’t really be in the world until the world starts talking about it. When other people have taken my story and made it something personal, when they start telling other people about it, start reviewing it and writing about it, that’s when the book will stop being something that is only within me and become something out there in the world.

NAILED: Can you tell me about the process you went through in publishing I Loved You More through Hawthorne Books?

SPANBAUER: I first sent I Loved You More to Houghton-Mifflin because they had the right of first refusal. My editor, Anton Muller, had been fired from Houghton-Mifflin, and so the book went to Laura Wein.  She had some great things to say about it but passed. When I spoke to my agent, Neil Olson, he said, “Nothing surprises me these days.” We then sent it around to a bunch of New York publishing houses. Michael Signorelli at Random House praised it highly but just didn’t know how to place it. Three or four more publishing houses passed. Anton was at Bloomsbury and he ended up passing on it too. He doesn’t like stories that have writers in them.

It felt rotten, the way New York publishing houses were treating me. Christ I’ve published four novels, won prizes, had good sales. But for some reason my history in publishing suddenly didn’t amount to anything. It was as if I was out to pasture and only old homosexuals were going to read the book.

I decided quite early on that I wanted to be in a house where the publishers respected me and appreciated my body of work. My agent and I talked about it, and we decided Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Books was exactly the right place for this book to be. I liked the idea of publishing in my hometown and Rhonda has a great track record for selling books. So far it has been a match made in heaven. It feels like I’m a part of a family rather than some old guy in a long line in an overcrowded waiting room trying to get corporate attention.

NAILED: Creating a book is such a long-term project, it’s draining at times, with a chronic illness like AIDS you have to come into it with a certain mindset and preparations. What did that involve for you with I Loved You More?

SPANBAUER: I didn’t prepare myself. That big dumb German part of me who thinks I’m superman was oblivious. Even after how fucked up I got writing Shy Hunters. But after all, I had written a whole book, Now Is The Hour, and I had no trouble. So it was quite a surprise during I Loved You More, when I started writing about my depression and sleeplessness of ten years before and I started not sleeping again. Really all of it, the sleeplessness, the fear of not being able to fall asleep. Afraid of my actual bed. It all came back. My doctor wasn’t going to give me any more Klonopin and I was up Shit Creek. Thank God for acupuncture and Qi Gong.

I think really your larger question though is how do you prepare for a long journey into darkness. Believe me, I won’t make the mistake again. What happens is the world you are creating becomes more real than the one you’re living and your poor body gets confused. I just watched Black Swan and totally related.

My suggestions for anybody going on a journey like this is to always be mindful of your body. Don’t lose attention to it. Your body needs friends and good dinners and good sex and time away from the writing—a respite—whatever that means to you. Wilderness hiking, shopping for shoes, wandering through Hippo Hardware, or walking over Portland’s bridges. Anything that feeds you. There’s an acupuncture spot in the center of both your palms. Those spots are called The Palace Of Weariness. And it’s where the Prince went to get away from it all. For each person I guess that palace is different.

NAILED: Can you talk more about the sleeplessness while you were writing I Loved You More?

SPANBAUER: I’m not exactly sure what happened. There were a couple real world things that could have caused the sleeplessness. But it’s weird, as soon as I started writing Book Two(the second book in I Loved You More), the book that starts with Ben being diagnosed HIV+, all my sleep issues began. It was in those very days at the beginning of June that I just stopped sleeping. Poor sleep at first and then no sleep at all. Deep into Book Two I started writing about the year I suffered most with the depression, then the eleven days I didn’t sleep at all.

That sent me running to an acupuncturist and the sessions with the acupuncturist and the ensuing Qi Gong exercises are making me into a new person. Now that I think of it, I never would have come up with the ending of the novel as it is now, without that journey of sleeplessness then the ensuing recovery.

This book made me a part of something that I felt apart of for a long time. At one point the police came to my back yard and they hand cuffed me because I was yelling in here. I was so pissed off that I was so sick and I was so depressed and I was so tired and I was so weak. I just hated it. I hated it. I guess if I was still feeling that way now I don’t know what I’d be doing but I’m feeling better. I can just have a larger view of it now and it’s all because I wrote this book.

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Part 2 of the Interview can be read here.

Read some of Tom Spanbauer’s writing in an essay entitled, “Being Queer in Idaho,” here; or read through the controversial teacher-student correspondence between Tom Spanbauer and Gordon Lish, here.

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author tom spanbauerTom Spanbauer grew up on a farm twelve miles outside Pocatello, Idaho. He attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School and Highland High School. In 1969, he received his BA in English Literature from Idaho State University. Tom served two years in the Peace Corps in Kenya, East Africa. He returned to Idaho until 1978, when he decided he needed to get out of that state. He moved to New Hampshire, then Vermont, then Key West, Florida. In 1988, Tom studied at Columbia University while waiting tables at Café Un Deux Trois and Odeon, and being a super of five buildings on East Fifth Street. In 1988, he received his MFA from Columbia in Fiction. In 1991, Tom settled in Portland, Oregon where he teaches Dangerous Writing in the basement of his house. Forty (more or less forty—-he’s lost count) of his students have published novels and/or memoirs. His novels include Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, In The City of Shy Hunters, and Now Is the Hour.

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Colin Farstad

Colin Farstad's work has most recently appeared in Spilt Infinitive, Analekta Anthology, and Coal City Review. He is the editor of the short story anthology The Frozen Moment : Contemporary Writers on the Choices that Change Our Lives (Publication Studios, 2011). Colin has been a teacher, editor, writer, event coordinator and connoisseur of classic cocktails for years. Currently he's living in Brooklyn, hard at work writing a novel tentatively titled It's Never Over and working at the literary agency DeFiore and Company.