Scott Spencer once defined a novelist as "someone who sits around in his underwear all day, trying not to smoke." For Spencer, not smoking has been a productive occupation. His best-known novel, Endless Love, sold more than 2 million copies and has been translated into 20 languages. The story of teenage love and obsession has drawn high praise from other novelists, including Anne Tyler and Michael Ondaatje. Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "No description of Endless Love can do justice to the rich, startling and always intelligent tenor of [Spencer's] prose."
Less fortunately for Spencer, Endless Love also attracted the attention of Franco Zeffirelli, who directed a disastrous Brooke Shields vehicle based on the book (the 1981 movie periodically turns up on critics' lists of the worst movies of all time). But while Endless Love was, as Jonathan Lethem opined in Salon, a good book overshadowed by a bad movie, Spencer's next novel, about a political candidate haunted by the memory of his late fiancée, got an actual boost from Hollywood. After Keith Gordon filmed Waking the Dead in 1999 with Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly in the lead roles, the book was reissued, gaining thousands of new readers. As Spencer notes in an interview on his publisher's web site, "The best thing about having a movie made of your novel is that more people read the book."
Spencer published several books between the first edition of Waking the Dead and its reissue, including Men in Black, the tale of a literary novelist whose pseudonymous hackwork earns him sudden fame and fortune, and The Rich Man's Table, the fictional memoir of a Dylan-like folk singer's illegitimate son. The Los Angeles Times Book Review called Men in Black "the Cadillac of novels -- every word vibrating with a kind of shameless big-boned American grace."
With his recent novel A Ship Made of Paper, Spencer returns to his earlier themes: romantic obsession and overpowering desire. "What makes this brave, dazzling novel so impossible to put down is the urgency with which it makes you care about what happens to its characters: male and female, black and white, young and old," wrote Francine Prose. "Scott Spencer has a genius for observing dramatic everyday moments when the self crashes into the barriers of class and race and culture, together with infinite compassion for the wayward impulse that turns human beings into fanatics willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of romantic love."
Critics have credited Spencer with an ambitious prose style and a keen grasp of contemporary culture, but what distinguishes his work most is his ability to tap into the intense currents of emotion beneath the surface of domestic life. As New York magazine noted, "In a literary age marked by cool, cerebral fiction, Spencer writes from the heart."
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In our interview, Spencer revealed his love for all types of music. "My daughter, son, and I are always making mix tapes for each other, sharing the music we love," Spencer shares. "I have no musical talent, but music is a part of nearly every day. I still love the music I grew up with -- from Elvis to Motown to Otis Redding -- but as I grow older I find more and more music to love. I have major CD storage issues."
Spencer has taught fiction writing at Columbia University and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has written for The New York Times, Esquire, The Nation, GQ, and Rolling Stone, among other publications.
The film version of Endless Love, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was (as TV Guide put it) "a notorious disaster," but it marked the film debut of three future stars: Tom Cruise, James Spader, and Jami Gertz. The movie's theme song won Lionel Ritchie an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
A Ship Made of Paper is the fourth novel of Spencer's that uses Leyden, New York as a backdrop.
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In the spring of 2003, Scott Spencer answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life ?
Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg. I don't know how to write poetry, but Howl galvanized me with its passion, its honesty, its profound cultural richness. It made me want to write, to be a part of it.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Right now, in no particular order:
- Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, for its sleek, transgressive beauty, its ghoulish seductiveness
- The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard's wonderful, subtle, modestly brilliant book of essays
- Great Expectations by Dickens, for its largeness of spirit, its romance of the reader
- Light Years by James Salter, for its reverence for beauty
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
- Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, for its mixture of the global and the minutely personal, all done with fury and hilarity
- The two brand new books I like the most: Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Richard Price's Samaritan
- Rosemary's Baby
- Shoot the Piano Player
- The Last Temptation of Christ
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
- Albert King
- Tracy Nelson
- Gillian Welch
- George Jones
- Muddy Waters
Random Family -- it lends itself to conversation.
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Photo books -- Lynn Davis, Wendy Ewald, Bill Jacobson.
What are you working on now?
A family story that goes from 1950 to the end of the century, called The Second Father.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Scott Spencer had to say:
I don't make much of a distinction between what I read in January or July -- except I often will use the longer days and somewhat slower pace of daylight savings time to read longer books. Here are some I read (or re-read) the last two summers. They are almost all by male writers, which is not usually the case with the books I choose -- are women writers more concise? Anyhow, here they are, in no particular order:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
The World of Our Fathers by John Howe
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Ada by Vladimir Nabokov
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Constantine's Sword by James Carroll
The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky
The War, The West, and the Wilderness by Brownlow
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
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