Tom Spanbauer: Truth Through Fiction
Author: Cathy Camper
April 7, 2014
Back in 2006, I interviewed Tom Spanbauer for The Lambda Literary Review when his book Now is the Hour was published. He is well known nationally as the author of that book and others, including Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon and The City of Shy Hunters. And in Portland, OR where he lives, as a teacher for his Dangerous Writers classes. His publisher, Hawthorne Press, notified me that his latest novel I Loved You More would be published this month, and I was very happy to be able to interview him about his new book, his writing process, and the current state of publishing.
Hawthorne Books reprinted your book Faraway Places, and they are publishing your latest book, I Loved You More. Could you talk a little about your choice to work with them and the differences of working with a small (and local) press compared to a larger publisher?
I took I Loved You More to the larger publishers in New York. At first my agent and I tried to sell it to my publisher of The Man who Fell in Love with the Moon, and Now is the Hour, he finally told me that he doesn’t take books that have writers [as characters] in them. So then, I sent it to Houghton Mifflin, they thought there was a lot of wonderful stuff in it, and “Spanbauer fans are going to love this,” but they thought it was outdated. “He’s sixty-eight years old, he’s still writing about the eighties and writing about AIDS. This is old stuff; we want the new happenin’ hip stuff.” I kind of felt as far as the market was concerned, I was out to pasture.
I thought, since Ronda [Tom’s editor at Hawthorne] published Faraway Places, let’s talk to her about I Loved You More and she wanted it immediately. Those large publishers did very little promotion. I went on a book tour for The Man who Fell in Love with the Moon, but that was it. Hawthorne Press, on the other hand, has three people just on my book, every day. The way that this is going out into the world is incredible; they’ve already connected the book to Huffington Post.
What’s happened is these larger New York publishers are looking for the bottom line, and really the future in publishing is in small presses, because it’s an assemblage of people who love to read and love to write. It’s their passion.
From reading your other books and your bios, I Loved You More is based on your life. Yet you’ve chosen to call it fiction. Could you explain why you chose to write this story as fiction instead of as a memoir, and how the two genres differ?
I start with something that’s troubling me, something inside me that really won’t let go of me. I start to investigate what that is. What happened was my friend died. I thought I knew all the reasons why we had fought, and why we hadn’t spoken for so many years. Then I started to explore it. I didn’t know anything about it; I thought I knew, but it’s not until you start writing that you know something about it. I just go out there in that unknowing. There’s so much of me that didn’t want to remember, so I just sat there for a long time.
Then I started lying. And you know my teacher said, “Fiction is a lie that tells the truth truer.” Or, as Oscar Wilde said, “You want to know the truth? Ask the man with the mask on.” So I put my fiction mask on, created these characters, and as soon as that fictive story started happening, it’s no longer what happened to me. It starts having a world all of its own.
Here you’re riding this wave, this big thing you’ve created, and it’s got this life of its own and you’re riding it like a surf board, and all of a sudden, all these things start getting exposed to you, like my relationship with my sister, my relationship to my father. I didn’t know what would happen until I started writing.
If I were to write a memoir, it would be 12,000 pages and it would be, “And then he walked in through the door, and he sat down.” It would be boring, totally boring. Through fiction, I got closer to what happened than if I’d written a memoir.
It’s like Francis Bacon, the painter. He draws from a photograph. Here’s a photograph of the pope, and here’s the screaming pope, a horrible self-flagellating, sexually repressed, corrupt screaming pope. Bacon says he takes the representational image and pours it over his nervous system. And then this truth comes out. It’s the same with me; the things that happened in my life, I took and poured them over my nervous system. They started out just a photograph, and they turned into a screaming pope.
Your book tells the story of a love triangle between Ben Grunewald, a gay man based on you; Hank Christian, a straight man; and Ruth Dearden, a straight woman. You wrote all three characters with equal empathy and insight (even when their actions were sometimes despicable). Could you explain how you approached these characters to make them equally sympathetic?
Another thing that happens when you start, there’s this “I,” that’s Tom, and then you create this other ”I,”–that’s Ben Grunewald; there’s now this distance between them. Instead of it all being my stuff, it starts being a story, that has characters, and that begins to have an arc. I was really concerned that all three characters had equal weight. It was just really really important, especially for the woman character, because she’s the one who’s Cinderella, she ends up with the prince and rides out of town. I don’t; my character doesn’t. It comes through a sense of fairness. And also these characters…I loved them all. This is the beauty of fiction.
A big part of this book explores how men, straight and gay, relate to each other. What intrigues you about that exploration, and what are some things this novel uncovered?
(Laughs) Maybe you should tell me that, because I don’t really know that yet. I was reading an editorial in the New York Times about a man talking about commercials during the Super Bowl and the comment was something like, “We eat pizza, we only think of football…” I’m just so tired of men not being considered complicated people. I’ve known several straight men and their relationships, and it is complicated, how they deal with each other.
The men I know now are all in their early thirties, and so they’ve learned a lot. They’re relaxing on this whole homophobe thing, and it’s so refreshing. When I grew up, there was no way that we could talk about any of that. Men were like women in the fifties. We were all in this fucked up place. Everybody was isolated, and personal. Seems like a lot of men are still in that place. They don’t say, I’m having this issue, I don’t know how to get to my feelings.
In my book, I tried to show a very complicated interaction between a straight man and a gay man. Not all straight and gay men, just these two particular men. The straight man is in love with the gay man, but doesn’t know what to do with that love. The gay man doesn’t either, so they have to find a way.
I Loved You More is also a book about aging. We see your characters at the height of their youth, but also how their lives played out, how they are affected by illness, and how some of their dreams are realized while others fall aside. Could you talk a little about how the writing process changes as we age, what we gain, and perhaps what we miss?
I get to talk about memory, awareness and that becomes more a part of the story then it did before. That just comes with age, that issue of what I know at 68 is so different than what I knew at 58. What’ll I know at 78? There’s just a way that when you’ve lived a long enough time, there’s just something that comes. Your body starts going down but something else starts coming up.
Plus our culture is so obsessed with youth…what now is, becomes antiquated the minute you write it.
That’s part of why New York [publishers] couldn’t take [this book]. Which now are you talking about? The way technology is changing, there’s a different now, now. Marshall McLuhan talked about this years ago, and here it is. What I remember him saying was that my grandmother’s furniture would be something I would have in my house, not my parents’ but my grandmother’s. He talked about that space of time where you replay it, you reprise it, how that is getting tighter and tighter. Now it’s day to day, minute to minute. There’s a way that I’ve been challenged by the small press, is that I have to actively be involved in the Internet, texting, Twitter…my mind is sometimes challenged.
One of the excitements of having first books published is that an author doesn’t know who their audience will be. Having published a bunch of books, do you know your audience? How does that influence your writing?
I have a sense of my audience. Gay men and women, but not just gay men and women…smart people? ( laughs) One thing Hawthorne’s trying to do is to re-configurate me, and present me to a younger generation. So I don’t look like this old guy that used to be in the queer section…Like on Facebook, it isn’t really me, it’s me presenting me. I’m being presented in a way that’ s more of a commodity for a younger generation. I’m getting a new audience because I’m being reconfigurated. As far as the marketplace, that’s always been the case, it’s how you’re presented. New York really didn’t give a shit how I was presented. Like one New York editor, he said, “Spanbauer is great, but what we really need to do is reposition him because everyone just thinks of him as this queer writer who writes about Indians, and there’s so much more going on.” And that’s what Ronda’s doing.
They care about me enough to address this. A lot of authors suffer from being categorized in a certain way, you can never get out of it, and no one pays any attention to you, as far as the market is concerned. It’s not the book itself, it’s how its presented.
Besides being a writer, you also teach writing classes. On your website it says around forty of your students have also been published, which is a huge shout-out for your abilities as a teacher. What about your teaching method works so well?
Let me tell you a story. My father always had Mexican laborers and in a room this size, there’d be maybe 12-14 people. They worked for us, they were Catholic, but they were over there, they were just so disregarded. One summer, when I was 10-11, my father says, get in the truck, drive up there and pick up those two Mexican boys and load the hay.
I get in the truck, I’m driving this big truck up to the Mexican house. I thought, what would Dad do? I knew these two boys, they weren’t boys they were beautiful men, they were 20 years old. I’d seen them around and was kind of blown apart by how beautiful they were. How am I gonna talk to them?
I thought, my father would honk the horn, so I’m not gonna do what he did. I walked up and knocked on the door. These two beautiful men came flying out the door. I introduced myself, touched them. When they got in the truck, they saw this 10-11 year old boy driving, and they were really interested in that. Then we came to the gate, which was closed. I didn’t know how to do this. My father would say, “Go open the gate!” But opening a farm gate is hard; these guys don’t know how to do that, they’d never seen it before. I stopped and said to one of them, “Come with me,” and I showed him how to open the gate, drive through and how to close it. Exactly the way my father wouldn’t do.
That summer, I let them drive. We had the best time. I fell in love with those guys and they fell in love with me. Like in Now is the Hour, they wanted to go swimming, and I wouldn’t do it, so they threw me in naked. I got to be naked with these boys and that’s how they paid me back.
So, that’s how I teach. I’m not the one who knows, and you don’t know, let’s both dwell in this unknowing together, and maybe we’ll find a way. Obviously there are some rules, there’s certain tastes that I have, but I try to hear what’s odd, what’s wrong, what’s new, what’s the music? Sometimes it takes me months.
Do you find your students had similar problems publishing with large publishing houses?
Everything has changed in publishing it’s a different world.
Really I think if I was starting out today, I don’t think I’d be published.
We’re in the technological age. They find a pattern of a house that works so they make a million of them. That’s what’s happening now. You get a form that works and then you use that form. If it doesn’t fit into a form, then we’re confused.
Man who Fell in Love with the Moon – a guy wanted to make a movie of it, the guy who produced Fight Club, and he told me it was the best book he ever read. They started making a screenplay, but it doesn’t fit into the form. A year later, he told me, “This book is flawed.”
Any other plans in the near future, or writing projects you want to mention or share?
I’ve started another book. I spent two years in the Peace Corps, in Kenya, and I’ve never talked about that. I think I know all about it, but it’s not until you go back and start writing about it, that you realize how much you don’t know. Fiction, again, can tell the lie “truer.” I’m excited about this.
Photo via Hawthorne Press