Experience and the Writer: Q&A with ‘River Under the Road’ Author Scott Spencer

(photo by Plain Picture)
(photo by Plain Picture)

Over the course of eleven novels, Scott Spencer has earned an incontestable place as one of the major novelists of our time. Best known as the author of Endless Love, an incandescent narrative of youthful passion and obsession that became the subject of two unfortunate film adaptations, Spencer has chosen to stay out of the limelight since its publication in 1979.

In works such as Waking The Dead (1986), also adapted into a (more credible) film, A Ship Made of Paper (2003), The Rich Man’s Table (1998), and Willing (2008), he has covered fictional territory ranging from an American activist gone missing in Chile, to the illegitimate son of a cult music icon’s search for his absent parent—even the seriocomic adventures of a freelance writer who takes an all-expenses paid trip to a sex tour to get over a bad break-up.

Love, and its complicated consequences, is at the heart of his fictional explorations, but he has an uncanny ability to switch gears, from hopelessly romantic to high (and sometimes low) comedy, without seeming to break a sweat or lose the reader in the process.

His new novel, River Under the Road (384 pages; Ecco), is Spencer’s strongest achievement yet, the work of a mature artist who understands his craft and how to control his narrative. With an epigraph from Lincoln—“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…’’—he turns his lens on a wide cast of characters as seen through thirteen scene-setting parties, from 1976 to 1990, and from Chicago, where his protagonist, Thaddeus Kaufman, was raised in the fulcrum of leftie parenting, to New York and then the Hudson Valley, (where Thaddeus repairs to after surprise success as a screenwriter), with pit stops in Hollywood and even Plato’s Retreat (or “Nero’s Fiddle,’’ as it is called here).

The demands of keeping his marriage together with Grace Cornell, the struggling artist who has accompanied him on the ride from the Midwest to what is laughingly called “success,’’ are chronicled here, along with the class struggle between the townies of Leyden (the fictional town he has moved to) and the couple’s nouveau riche friends. The temptations of La-La Land—the real thing, not the movie—are shown in living color, as Kaufman tries to fend off the blandishments, and the bullshit, that goes with the territory.

It’s a rich emotional landscape that is about as far from modish post-modernism as you can travel. These are real people, not poster children for a post-irony age. Literary comparisons are probably a mug’s game, but, for my part, the author’s seriousness about the wayward ways of the human heart puts him far beyond perennial Nobel Prize-bridesmaid Philip Roth’s often cartoonish depictions of sexual politics (or politics, period).

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We talked to Spencer about River Under the Road. Our electronic conversation follows:

ZYZZYVA: River Under the Road feels like a “big’’ novel—large in scope, ambition and range—a portrait of class conflict and the never-ending war between the sexes over time and geography. Although very different in some ways, in others it seems like a return to the emotional roller coaster of Endless Love, with the distance of life experience and artistic maturity. Do you see any parallels—or significant differences—between the two books?

SCOTT SPENCER: Like everyone else, writers grow older and we have more opportunities to measure what we somehow believe to be true and important against what our experience has taught us. Don’t we sometimes feel that life is continually trying to grab us by the shoulders and give us a vigorous shake, imploring us to revise or abandon altogether half of our assumptions? I don’t write novels as a means to self-improvement or self-analysis, but if you work as I do, and create narratives in which characters deal with the consequences of their actions, you cannot escape continual confrontation with your own thoughts and feelings. Endless Love was the third novel I had published, and it is not a book that I would or could write now. Because it was more successful than my other novels, it is used often as a benchmark in discussing a new book I have written. This is probably useful to someone attempting to evaluate a writer’s oeuvre, but I don’t believe many writers think too much about previous work when they are engaged in the labor of creating a new fictional universe. Aside from never using the word “endless” again, I don’t write into or away from what I have already written.

When, between books, I do go back and look at older work, I see a kind of consistency of voice, even between those written in the first person and those written in the third. I see tics and favored rhythms. And I also see that while there has been a cooling of the fever pitch at which the early stuff was composed, there has been a steady increase in what I would call understanding and compassion, as well as humor. As the fervency subsides, understanding increases—I think that happens in life and it happens to writers who work, as I have, over the course of multiple decades.

My first novel was written in the very early 1970s, and now here we are bearing down on 2020! As you live, you see things much more kaleidoscopically. The idea that life itself or even your own life is mainly about you morphs into something more subtle and inclusive… You see the connections between people more clearly.

Endless Love, for example, was driven by the unyielding passion of one character who wants to make time stand still. In River Under the Road, to the extent it wants to explore passion, it explores it through four characters as they build their lives, struggle for money, have children, figure out their places in the world. Finding love and keeping love remains important, but it shares the stage with other equally important factors in determining a life. Maybe that sounds self-evident, but it has somehow taken me nearly a lifetime to learn it.

Z: I’ve read that this is the first part of a fictional trilogy you are staking out on these characters and their lives in upper Hudson Valley. Can you talk at all about how you see the saga developing?

SS: Yes, I am continuing with these characters and the story of their lives. I think it was Norman Mailer who once said, “The road to hell is paved with works in progress” … which I take to mean that it’s not a good idea to talk about what you’re working on.

Z: The thirteen parties spread across the decades, from ’76 to ’90, have a Gatsby-like feel. Thaddeus seems almost as bemused, nonplussed by his screen success as Jay Gatsby by his mansion (and his shirts). Were you thinking about Fitzgerald, in any way? John O’Hara comes to mind, too, in the scene where Thaddeus throws a mimosa in the face of the bratty son of a mogul at a Hollywood party…

SS: Thank you for mentioning Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby was in my mind when the structure for River Under the Road began to take shape. I don’t love writing party scenes, but when I stumbled onto the idea of structuring this novel as a series of parties, I had found a way of moving the story through time and historical changes without resorting to what I find tiresome and unconvincing in other books—a reliance on pop cultural landmarks, which are often trivial and misleading, and making things like political scandals register more on your characters than they usually do on actual people in actual life. I didn’t want to have any version of someone running into a room waving a newspaper and crying out that war has been declared. Writing the novel as a series of parties allowed me to move through time without relying on grand historical moments, and I liked the idea of the reader bumping into these characters at parties and catching up with what had happened in their lives since the last meeting.

In the second volume, which is not organized around parties, I am thinking more about Fitzgerald than I did in River Under the Road, because I am using a first person narrator, a secondary character from River Under the Road, who circles Thaddeus and Grace at a close remove. As to wondering about John O’Hara’s influence, i.e. the thrown drink in Appointment in Samarra, well, I was thinking about it, too. I read that scene when I was quite young—a sophomore in college—and it taught me how in fiction a single act, not necessarily monumental, can shape an entire life.

In fact, when I moved to New York after college and made literary friends for the first time in my life, a buddy and I would re-create that scene in O’Hara. Over the course of a couple of years I threw a drink in his face several times, and I got one in mine an equal number of times. Actually I think I got tired of it before he did. So I owe him one.

River Under the Road Z: How much of the West Coast material—like the scene where the director of  Thaddeus’ script “Hostages’’ casually informs him he is being replaced by a bigger screenwriting name, or a Mondale/Ferraro fundraiser in the Village emceed by a radical chic celebrity—is based on your own experiences in the Industry? Neither film version of Endless Love was faithful to the spirit, or the letter, of the book.

SS: The Hollywood component of the novel is informed by my own collision with the movie business, not so much by having film adaptations of my own work but by signing on to write screenplays. That work, in the movie business, was as close to a real job as I’d had since publishing my third novel and being given the freedom to make writing my full-time work. In a perverse way, I enjoyed the irritation of working on scripts and having a boss, the pressures of deadlines, and the interference (as well as the good company) of the producers, directors, actors, and executives working on the projects with me. We all know the movie business can be quite cruel—you’re in, you’re out, you’re up, you’re down, and no one entirely trusts anyone—but I was armored against the worst of it because self-expression and making art was never my primary aim in Hollywood. I was mainly writing scripts for money. My attitude from the beginning was, “Just pay me and I’ll do the best job I can.” I feel agony every step of the way writing a novel, but I felt none of that working in the movie business.

Yet for all that, at a certain point I felt I am never doing this again. It was over. I had no more interest in pitching ideas to producers or listening to the ideas they pitched me. And of course you get older, and you figure it’s somebody else’s turn to pick up the phone and be told to please wait because the person supposedly calling you isn’t yet on the line. I got tired of rudeness. I got tired of somebody thinking their time was more valuable than mine.

Z: The way the tales are weaved together in River Under the Road is a departure from the more unitary, though no less compelling, tales of your previous books. How daunting was the task of putting together the various threads—and those to come in the rest of the trilogy? What do you think in your previous work, and life experience, prepared you to meet this moment?

SS: I agree that there is a lot more weaving in of competing story lines in this new novel than I have attempted before. Writing as you age has its pitfalls. Google helps with some of them, like the forgotten date, or name. Yet the advantages of age are there, too, primarily the vast first-hand experience you have of life’s ebb and flow, using yourself and the people around you as cases in point. Words like divorce, death, sorrow, recovery, reunion, triumph, and forgiveness take on new and deeper meanings in the second half of life. And professional pride enters into it, too. You want your novels to be fresh. You want to be learning and discovering and bringing intensity and energy to the writing.

In River Under the Road, I was interested in exploring class and privilege, and the frustrations of trying to make art, but I was also interested in figuring out a new way to move the novel through time. I wanted to write about history without history being mentioned more than a few times. I wanted to do something fresh that the novel would benefit from—not just my novel, but the form itself. I believe and believe fervently in the novel as a superior form of discourse. The novel is to me like planting trees or adopting stray animals or sending checks to Doctors Without Borders. It’s the thing I believe in. I may be doing little or nothing to keep the novel alive, but if it were to disappear its absence would be like a hole in the ozone layer, a threat to our collective humanity.

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