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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Spragg:
"Before I was able to support myself through my writing, I taught high school, built fences, wrangled horses, guided in the Rocky Mountains, worked on oil rigs, and shod horses to make a living. I found that while I prefer writing, I see all work as pretty much the same, and approach it with the same ethic -- come early, stay late, and focus on the details. When I'm working on the first draft of a book I'm almost a complete recluse."
"I walk for hours every day with my dog, Angus, on the prairie or in the forest. I try to notice what he notices."
"I also try to maintain a daily hour of yoga and meditation. It seems that the stories I like to tell are very shy about being heard, and it helps if I'm quiet."
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In the summer of 2004, Mark Spragg took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Herman Hesse's, Narcissus and Goldmund. Perhaps it was the timing of having first read this fine novel in my early teens, but then it would be hard to mitigate it's impact for a reader of any age, in that I remember reading it a second time my first year of college and being equally moved by its complex elegance. However, the first time I read the book I was just a young boy, and -- as I assume many boys are -- torn between a sense of devotion to family, community, the religious ethic in which I was raised, and a life that seemed more intuitive, more directed by my own internal compass. Reading this particular novel moved me to become brave enough to make my own choices, and also expanded my notion of the breadth of emotion a first-rate novelist could achieve.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
As to my ten favorite books, it's a bit daunting in that so many books affect a reader at different times in one's life. However, I'll try to list ten that I would pick up immediately to read once again. I've limited the list to living writers. To try to pick only ten from the last four hundred years of fine writing made my head ache, and in truth would have been a different list. Including: Hesse, Rilke, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulker, García Márquez (who is still alive but is too great to even consider), Galeano, Gide, Durrell, Miller, Kazantzakis, Capote, and so on, I'm sure you understand the problem.
In no specific order, ten truly extraordinary novels by living writers:
The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter -- The absolute accuracy of voice (and there are several distinct voices represented in this novel) and how Baxter weaves them together to tell a broad and deeply moving story.
Joe, by Larry Brown -- This book is a masterpiece of place. Rarely have a read a novel that so transformed my idea of region, dialect, and mindset that is absolutely unique to this writer's voice.
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee -- Here is a novel of such sheer honesty of a struggling man thrown up against the political and social canvas of his culture, and how, like all of us must, he comes to paint his individual story.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf -- There is no writer that I've read that can stand with Kent Haruf when it comes to the making of perfectly precise prose, and characters of such generosity that it demands of me as his reader, that I strive more diligently to become a better writer, and perhaps someday a better man. All of his books swell the possibility of how we may imagine ourselves.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy -- McCarthy writes with the poetic complexity with which I imagine a god would speak. He tells stories that smack of having emerged from the very beginning of creation, and he tells them as richly and beautifully and purely as if constructed of some more ancient and meaningful language.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier -- It was Frazier's language that first drew me into this book, and then his faultlessly unsentimental storytelling that kept me there, and in the end elevated this novel to one of the best I've read.
Dalva by Jim Harrison -- I always feel ready to celebrate being human after a Harrison book. To celebrate every aspect of myself: on my knees in prayer, brought to my knees by my weaknesses, or standing with arms spread wide howling at the moon in joy or shame. Harrison writes with the worldview of the European masters, but with his exact and perfect American voice.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien -- O'Brien walks into the dark and confused heart of human brutality -- personal and social -- and gives it a face that any of us will recognize. It is our face; it is our eyes that look away in tears, and drift in the dreams of how our reflection could be improved. I know of no more honest book of war.
Being Dead by Jim Crace -- This book is as innovative as any I've read in quite a long while without ever being strained or self-aware or precious. Crace has created a narrative meditation on mortality and presented it in a very complex novel.
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday -- I read this book once, and then five more times right in a row, because I did not want it to ever end. I wanted so desperately to remain transformed by the language and the magical complexity of Momaday's world.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Behind the Sun -- It is the visual complexities in this fundamentally heart-breaking story that remain stamped in my mind.
Before the Rain -- The authority here, the voice; I imagine if I ever heard a statesman this convincing I would do everything to assure his election.
Days of Heaven -- This movie reminds me more than any film I've ever seen of the quiet power of a rural, open landscape under its broad witness of sky.
My Life as a Dog -- This film, like a Kent Haruf novel, makes us believe in the rightness of our own individual dignity.
The Triplets of Belleville -- I'm not sure I've ever seen any film so remarkably it's own; not simply derivative of the other films like it in its genre.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
My tastes in music are very eclectic. At different times, on different days, I listen to classical, country, blues, or more occasionally, classic rock and roll. I never listen to music when writing.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Kent Haruf's Eventide. Once again, Haruf has created a masterwork of story and language, and like no other novelist working today, he allows his readers to enter his work, and to remain there. One exits from a Kent Haruf novel changed, as though you have not merely visited another country; but lived there; learned the heart of its language.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Novels, short story collections, collections of poetry.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have a few talismans of the natural world: a buffalo horn sheath I found, a nautilus shell, a hawk feather. There are photographs of my family and a few close friends; those living and those dead. A couple of favorite paintings. It is an inviting room in which I feel at home, comforted. My only ritual is to concentrate so desperately on my work that I forget I'm sitting in any room at all.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I began writing seriously in my early twenties but did not begin to write with any consistency until I was in my forties. I would, now and then, write a likeable sentence, a paragraph, occasionally even a convincing short story, but it took me quite a while to recognize when I was writing at all well and to be able to throw out the rest. Now it is a matter of wanting to improve; wanting to experiment, and there is nothing that holds more meaning for me. I would write whether my work was published or not.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Pete Fromm. This novelist, short-story writer, and memoirist, has, for my money, quietly evolved into one of the best writers around, and yet he's mainly only known in the northwest. His two novels, How All This Started, and, As Cool as I Am, are as honest and emotionally pivotal as anything I've read in the last several years.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
There is no being discovered, there is only the process of discovering our own slant on narrative honesty, and a voice that reflects that attempt without affectation.
As far as finding a publisher or an agent, given the M.F.A. programs, the writing conferences, the strength of publishing in literary journals, I believe if and when a writer begins to write well it is impossible to go unnoticed, that is, unpublished.
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