Interview Part 2: Novelist Tom Spanbauer

Editor Colin Farstad, Interview, March 31st, 2014

...I’m more in the world than I’ve ever been...

tom spanbauer interview
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Part Two: On Writing, Teaching, and Legacy: An Interview With Novelist Tom Spanbauer

This interview was conducted in person by contributing editor Colin Farstand, for NAILED. Part One lives here.

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NAILED: How did you get into writing, Tom?

SPANBAUER: Well, I got a Bachelor’s in English at Idaho State University because I always wanted to write. I was always writing short stories and poems. They were all pretty bad, but my professors were nice to me. When I went to the Peace Corps, I spent a lot of time writing love letters to my girlfriend back home. I loved the idea that I could capture something very fleeting in a moment. When you can stop time and just watch the verticality of this thing open up and up. I loved that about poetry.

I came back [from the Peace Corps] and got married. Thought I’d teach high school. I couldn’t teach high school. I got dumb jobs and became a waiter. Finally, I left my wife and spent a lot of time drinking and drugging, you know, being a waiter. Living that glamorous life of a waiter. Key West and all that. Then finally I got to New York City and Columbia.

NAILED: How did you get involved in Columbia’s MFA creative writing program?

SPANBAUER: It was another serendipitous moment where literally I was living on Spring street. I got the Sunday Times and there was a section in there about education and courses available that Fall. I know this sounds really corny, but the wind blew open the paper and there was Columbia writing, come get your MFA. I said to my boyfriend at the time, “Oh look, I should go up to Columbia and go get my MFA,” and he said, “You ought to.” There would never have been a way I would have done that but he said, “No, call them up, call them up right now.”

So I left a message, and this woman named Janet called me back the next day and she said, “Classes are filled, and really the deadline is over but why don’t you send me over some of your stuff just in case.” So I got on the subway the next day, that was when it was still a scary thing to do, be on the subway, and I dropped off some of my stories I had about Africa. She liked them a lot and she called me up and said, “We want you in the program, you start tomorrow,” but I had no money. She said, “We’ll get you some loans.” Then I had to stop and think if I really wanted to spend twenty five thousand dollars on loans.

NAILED: What do you think about the program looking back on it?

SPANBAUER: The longer I’m away from Columbia the more I realize what an important thing that was for me. Because I was thirty seven years old at the time and it really made me focus on my work. It put me back into an academic situation. I couldn’t go out and stay out all night, go to after hours clubs. I had to start reading and doing my homework and writing.

Then I met some really incredibly smart people that took me under their wing. Stephen Koch, Steven Spender and then of course [Gordon] Lish later on. It was exactly what I needed at the time. I was no longer a waiter who wrote poetry. I was now a writer who worked at a restaurant. I don’t think necessarily that creative writing programs are for everybody. There was a lot that I would criticize about the program, but for me, at that point in time, it was a really important step. I’m really glad I did it.

NAILED: There’s definitely been a change in the landscape over the years in publishing and the years that you’ve been a novelist in the field. How does that relate to you and in your writing and your new book?

SPANBAUER: Every book of mine, when it was accepted for publication, each time it has been some kind of miracle. Faraway Places, Lish promised to publish, then backed out. A student of Lish’s, Stacey Creamer, worked at Putnam’s and gave me a sympathy read. She went on to publish it. I got the news on my fortieth birthday. The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon, when I asked Putnam’s for an advance to write it, they decided against that and dropped me as one of their authors. I was without a publishing house for nearly three years. In The City Of Shy Hunters was its own miracle, just the fact that I lived through writing it. And Now Is the Hour, Morgan Entrekin at Atlantic Monthly Press, at lunch one day asked me about my next book and I made up some shit about a guy I used to bale hay with and right there he told me he’d publish it. That meant I had to write it. Then when it was finished I had the balls to ask for too much money and he quit talking to me (and my agent). Thank God Anton Mueller likes novels written in the west. He was at Houghton-Mifflin and he called up one day and said he wanted to read it.

I guess my point is, with every novel, every time, the possibilities of getting published were almost nil. But each time, some damn thing happened. And the reason my books have always been a hard sell has not been because the editorial staff didn’t like them. It’s always been that the business people didn’t know how to market them.

Every time, with each book, as the years passed, the business people got stronger and stronger.

Well now they’re running the show.

On Teaching and Legacy

NAILED: Your first novel Faraway Places was published in 1989 and you moved to Portland in 1990, when did you start teaching Dangerous Writing?

SPANBAUER: It really took me a really long time to set it up. They had a thing called Literruption at the time, and so I got a gig reading at Literruption. They had me there at ten o’clock in the morning, downtown Portland on a band stage with traffic going by everywhere and a microphone. You could barely hear me. My boyfriend was in the audience and that was it.

So I did some circulars for Dangerous Writing: New York author, published author wants to start a class. Two people showed up. One person paid for it and the other I paid him to come.         

NAILED: What is Dangerous Writing to you?

SPANBAUER: My job as a teacher is to tell students, look at your own heart. Look at your own father, look at your own mother. Where are you so hurt that you can’t go there? What infuriates you?

Take my own life. There’s still a way now that if something gets underfoot from me I’ll kick the fucker across the room. I just can’t stand that. I guess it’s because as a child I was really clumsy and I was criticized. Now I’m wondering, I’ve just kicked my new something or other across the room and broke it, why did I do that? Because I am my father criticizing myself. Now is there a way that I can stop doing that. Bring awareness to it?

This is all to say that Dangerous Writing is just a way of becoming aware. I don’t know what good the awareness is really. I don’t think that because I’m aware I’m going to go to heaven now. There’s really no reward except for the awareness itself.

NAILED: There’s the infamous writing group going on here in Portland featuring your former students Monica Drake, Suzy Vitello and Chuck Palahniuk, among other amazing writers such as Chelsea Cain, Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed, what does it feel like having been a teacher to Chuck, Suzy and Monica, seeing your teaching go on in a way?

SPANBAUER: Monica Drake, Chuck Palahniuk, Suzy Vitello, Kass Alonzo, Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred. And many others. Their success is my success and I’m blessed for it. How this codifies Dangerous Writing into a literary art is difficult for me to judge. I mean I’m just so close to it. On normal days, I think Dangerous Writing is just Lish with Heart. On bad days, Dangerous Writing is just another class I have to sit five hours long for. On good days, though, it’s the fulfillment of a dream that Peter Christopher and I had, and we’re fucking flying man. We’re better than Paris.

NAILED: How do you feel about your legacy as an author in the literary world?

SPANBAUER: Boy, I don’t have a clue. I’d like to be a fly on the wall somewhere because I really don’t know. I asked my agent once, “What do people think of me out there?” And he hedged. He wouldn’t say. I don’t know though. I’ve always had a very poor opinion of myself, so what I think of myself and how other people think of me, there’s a big disparity. But then I’ll get emails from Chile and Spain from readers. There’s a guy in France who loved Now is the Hour so much (France wouldn’t buy it) that he translated it himself. Now he’s taking it around to all the different publishers in France trying to sell it.

But then I look at Shy Hunters. I think that in a way, my editor Anton Mueller, tries to forget that book ever existed because maybe in a way it ruined my rep on the block. It took ten years to finish In the City of Shy Hunters and the marketing world hasn’t ever forgiven me for that.  I think of all my books, that is the book that will take the longest for people to read seriously. But it took ten years to finish Shy Hunters and the marketing world hasn’t ever forgiven me for that.

NAILED: What was your experience like bringing a book out after that ten year gap? What changed while you were gone?

SPANBAUER: Just about everything in the world changed. All those years writing about New York, all the while the world I was writing about was disappearing. So much went into the change. The AIDS cocktail changed things. Plus, the gay neighborhood of Greenwich Village just up and moved to Chelsea. I think there was just too much heartache on those streets and people had to get away.

Giuilani was making New York a safe place for New Yorkers and turning Times Square into Disneyland. Wall Street was going wild making obscene profits. So much money and no room for disparity pushed so many artists out of the city and into Brooklyn. Then Brooklyn became a Manhattan. Brooklyn became a suburb with housewives and baby carriages. Artists were pushed farther and farther away. Queens, Hoboken.

And with the new money and all those artists who’d died from AIDS, things got real conservative.

Sage [Spanbauer’s Partner] told me a great story of an interview he read. The person interviewed was a Broadway actress and the interviewer asked her why the arts had become so vapid. She said something about the first rows in a theater. The first rows were always filled with people who loved the arts and who were artists themselves. She said after AIDS, there was no first rows anymore. After AIDS, the fifth and sixth row were the first row now because the first five rows had all died.

NAILED: And what about your most critically acclaimed novel, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon? Do you think the success of that was because it’s your most traditional novel?

SPANBAUER: It was mythic. It was magical realism and it took on Mormonism in a way that liberals really found appealing. They could get through the butt-fucking because someone was saying something true about Mormonism. There’s a way that it’s in the past and it’s a sprawling epic novel and it’s got ridiculous things like pink whore houses and all that. It touches the collective unconscious in a way. Shy Hunters does too, but it’s still too early to talk about it.

But then when I went on my book tour for Now is the Hour this group of New Yorkers threw this party for me out on the pier, and four hundred people showed up on a pier in New York City and most of them had Shy Hunters with them, asking, will you please sign this. There are gay men or people in New York City who are making Shy Hunters into a cult novel. The same way they made Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon a cult novel.

NAILED: Is your legacy as an author just this guy who wrote these cult novels dealing with homosexuality or do you ever think you’ll be more widely read?

SPANBAUER: I don’t know. There was a young man who came and interviewed me two years ago and he said, “Tom, just tell me why aren’t more people reading you and why are you always classified as Gay and Lesbian Literature.” And really it’s just our fragmented society. The marketing world has to put it somewhere. So the first place they put it is gay, and then it’s gay. Then there’s all these other people that won’t read it because it’s gay. I just hope with time that will all pass, but it probably won’t be when I’m alive.

But I’ve been in hiding in a lot of ways because I was too sick to have too much attention. When I was on Social Security I had to watch out. I couldn’t make so much money. Now though, I’m not on Social Security anymore and I can step up and make as much money as I want to. It’s a new ball game now. When you’re so sick that you don’t really know if you’re going to be able to teach a class tonight you have to protect yourself. Now though, I’m more in the world than I’ve ever been.

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Part 1 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.