Scott Spencer: Turning Orderly Lives Into Chaos

Man in the Woods: Cover Detail
Man in the Woods
By Scott Spencer
Hardcover, 320 pages
Ecco
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt

Many of Scott Spencer's novels feature a turning point — a dreadful, often unplanned act committed by one of the characters — after which nothing will ever be the same.

In his classic 1979 novel Endless Love, a love-struck teenager accidentally burns down his girlfriend's house after he's told he cannot see her again, an incident that plays indelibly in his mind for the next 30 years and changes both his life and his girlfriend's life forever. In A Ship Made of Paper, a lawyer flees his career and New York City after a violent incident and then becomes obsessed with a married mother in his small hometown.

Spencer's newest novel, Man in the Woods, starts off ordinarily enough: A carpenter named Paul takes a detour to the woods to have a few quiet moments to himself.

But Paul is not alone. He's soon joined by another man in the woods, who has amassed a number of gambling debts and thinks he is being tracked down by his creditors. That second man has a dog with him — a dog he stole from his ex-girlfriend — and is hitting the dog and yanking him around by his chain. Paul intervenes, which leads to an altercation — and Paul accidentally kills the man.

Spencer tells Terry Gross that he chose a death as the turning point in this novel because he's interested in lives being changed very suddenly — and wanted, in the aftermath of that change, to both push his characters to the edge and test their conscience.

"I'm interested in how close our orderly lives are to chaos," he says. "Just the way we see how savagery can break out in societies that just a year before were orderly. ... This expression of some inner beastliness is compelling to me because I can identify with it. ... I think it's something we all wonder if we could be capable of — this kind of violence and under what circumstances ... and what would the aftermath be."

Scott Spencer is the author of 10 books. Both Endless Love and A Ship Made of Paper were nominated for the National Book Award. He is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harpers Magazine and GQ.


Scott Spencer i i

Scott Spencer lives in upstate New York. He has taught at Columbia University and the University of Iowa. Courtesy of Ecco hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Ecco
Scott Spencer

Scott Spencer lives in upstate New York. He has taught at Columbia University and the University of Iowa.

Courtesy of Ecco

Interview Highlights

On his belief in D-O-G vs. his belief in G-O-D

"I definitely believe in dog. You can't have as much dog hair in your house as I do and not believe in dog. And God [was] one of the things I was most interested in figuring out while writing this book — and at one point I thought, 'I'm really writing a religious book here.' And another point in writing it, I said, 'I'm really writing a very irreligious book here.' And then when I finally finished, I realized that this was something — and this is not a contradiction in terms — something that was passionately agnostic. Really, [this novel was] as passionate about agnosticism as much as Graham Greene is about his Catholicism because I could feel the otherworldly intentions of fate hovering over my characters yet I could not ever really ever quite come to a true narrative understanding that this fate was some sort of otherworldly intelligence that made sense enough that we could call it God."

On agnosticism

"Before [deciding I was an agnostic] I bounced between atheism and a desire to give some sort of religious meaning to my life. I was just talking to my mother last week and she talked to me about when I was a little kid, sometimes she'd have to bring me to a church — not that we went to church, because my parents were militantly atheistic — but she'd go to a church for some community meeting and she'd turn around and I'd be gone. And I'd be in one of the pews sort of praying fervently. I always had this feeling that I wished that religion, or a belief in God, and that ritual and that living metaphor [with] which I could explain my life was available to me.

"And there would just be times when I would just feel withering contempt for the whole thing and sort of glad that I hadn't entered into that system of thought. But novelists think a lot about God ... [because] we create whole worlds and we people them and then we tell the people what to do: We make them fall in love or fall out of windows. So there is that curiosity about God that I think all novelists have."

On physically defending others

"I always felt that that was the responsibility that I was born [into] because I'm male. When I was 10 years old, my father said, 'Men don't sleep as deeply as women because we need to be ready if somebody comes.' In my life as I've actually led it, I've always felt it was up to me to step in if somebody who is in my circle, who because of my relationship to them, I am duty-bound to protect. It is up to me to step in. I have not been in some situation like that Dustin Hoffman character in Straw Dogs with his little wire-rimmed glasses and his porn-starry-looking wife while all of these cretinish locals pound on the windows and try to get in — but there have been a couple of instances when I've had to 'man up,' as we say, and step between someone who was mine to protect somehow and someone who was going to do them some harm."

On the idea that men have a genetic impulse to defend others

"It's very hard to say what anyone is genetically because ... people don't exist outside of society. You can't find a person who isn't culturally determined to one extent or another. So I don't know — until we start making people in test tubes — and then we have to keep them in the lab and study them, but even then they'd be the victims of some sort of deprivation — so it's very hard to say what people are in essence. I think it's one of the jobs that novels have, really. I think it's one of the things that keeps people reading — that we are endlessly amazed and curious and perplexed about: What is our nature?"

Excerpt: 'Man In The Woods'

Man in the Woods: Cover Detail
Man in the Woods
By Scott Spencer
Hardcover, 320 pages
Ecco
List price: $24.99

It might be for pity's sake — for surely there must be pity for Will Claff somewhere along the cold curve of the universe — but now and again a woman finds him compelling, and offers him a meal, a caress, a few extra dollars, and a place to stay, and lately that is the main thing keeping him alive. He is thousands of miles away from his home. His income, his job, his professional reputation are all long gone, and now he has been on the run for so long, living out of one suitcase, changing his name once in Minnesota, once in Highland Park, Illinois, and once again in Philadelphia, that it is becoming difficult to remember that just six months ago he had his own office, a closet full of suits, and a nice rental off Ventura Boulevard, which he shared with Madeline Powers, who, like Will, worked as an accoun­tant at Bank of America.

He used to think that women wouldn't pay you any attention unless you were dressed in decent clothes and had some money to spend, but it isn't true. He has been underestimating the kindness of women. Women are so nice, it could make you ashamed to be a man.

Here he was, running for his life, buying his shirts at the dollar store, his shoes at Payless, and getting his hair cut at the Quaker Corner Barber and Beauty College in Philadelphia. Will had a guardian angel there, too, in the form of Dinah Maloney, whom he met while she was jogging with her dog. Dinah, small and bony, with short russet hair, worried eyes, and nervous little hands, was thirty years old, ten years younger than Will, and she happened to take a breather on the same bench he was sitting on, and somewhere in the conversation, when she told him that she owned a catering service called Elkins Park Gourmet, he said, "You should call it Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah," and saw in her eyes something that gave him a little bump of courage. He invited her to coffee at a place with outdoor seating, and they sat there for an hour with her dog lashed to the leg of a chair. He told her the same story he had already worked a couple of times — it might have been on Doris in Bakersfield, or Soo-Li in Colorado Springs, or Kirsten in Highland Park — about how he had come to town for a job, only to find that the guy who had hired him had hung himself with his own belt the day before. A lot of women didn't believe this story, and some who did couldn't figure out how that would mean he had almost no money and needed a place to stay, but a small, saving percentage took the story at face value, or decided to trust the good feeling they had about him. Dinah has turned out to be one of those.

She was a spiky, truculent sort, wary of customers, suppliers, and competitors, but ready to make Will (she knew him as Robert) the first man ever to spend the night in her house, partly because he seemed to find her attractive and partly on the weight of her dog's apparent trust of him. ("Woody is my emotional barometer," she said.) She was a shy, basically solitary woman, an expert in the culinary arts, a baker, a woman who gave off the scent of butter and vanilla, an arranger of flowers, all of which led Will to assume in her an old-fashioned faithfulness. He saw only her plainness, her lack of makeup, her loose-fitting checkered pants, her perforated tan clogs, the dark circles under her eyes from the late hours working corporate dinners and Main Line birthday parties, and he assumed that she had a lonely woman's lack of resistance to anyone who would choose her. He had no idea that Dinah had another boyfriend, whom she had been seeing for six years, one of the mayor's assistants, a married man whose wife worked in Baltimore on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Will is grateful to be an American; he doubts there is anywhere else on earth where you can lose yourself like he needs to get lost, where you can just go from state to state, city to city, not like in cowboy times, but, still, no one has to know where you are. You can drive across a state line but it's only a line on the map and the tires of your car don't register the slightest bump. There's no guard, no gate, no border, no one asks you for an ID, because no one cares. First you are here, then you are there, until you're in Tarrytown, New York, and it's time for your afternoon jog. He's still trying to lose the belly fat acquired in the kitchen with Dinah.

The new apartment smells of emptiness, fresh paint, take-out coffee, and the dog, Woody, stolen from Dinah the day she finally came clean with him.

Will parts the blinds with two fingers and peeks out the window. The cars parked on his street are all familiar and he knows by now who owns each one. There's no one unusual walking the street, either. All very routine, all very familiar. He often reminds himself that the great danger is complacency, the way you can get so used to checking things over that the world becomes like wallpaper and you get too used to everything being nothing until one day when there actually is something unusual you don't even notice it. He goes over the compass points, north south east west. "The lion sleeps tonight," he sings, surprising himself. The sudden merriment excites the dog, a brown shepherd mutt, whose thick, graying tail thumps against the bare wooden floor. Will imagines the people in Mi Delicioso, the luncheonette downstairs, looking up from their yellow rice and chicken.

"Easy, Woody Woodpecker," he says. Will feels a rush of affection for the dog, and crouches in front of him, tugs the dog's ears roughly. Woody is large, but his ears look like they belong on a dog half his size. Considering the circumstances of Will's acquiring him, the dog has been a good sport about the whole thing. "You and me, Woody," Will says, taking the leash down from the nail next to the front door. The dog scrambles up, tail wagging, but with a cringing, uncertain quality to his excitement, squirming and bowing.

When the dog lived with Dinah Maloney in that dimly recalled paradise called Philadelphia, his life was markedly different. He had his own feather-filled bed on the floor and spent the coldest nights sleeping in his mistress's bed. Food was plentiful and there were frequent surprises — especially when she came home from work with shopping bags full of leftovers from whatever party she had catered. The inchoate memories the dog holds of the food, and the woman and the smells of the old house, live within him as bewilderment, but his heart and mind have now reformed around the loss, just as he would compensate for an injured paw by changing his gait.

Will goes back to the window. It sometimes seems that he has been peeking out of windows his whole life, always afraid that someone or something was going to do a lot of harm to him, but everything that has led up to these past few months has been like a puppet show. The old fear was like an afternoon nap compared to what he feels now.

He yanks the cord to raise the blinds and they crookedly cooperate. He puts his hand to the glass. Cool November afternoon, gray as old bathwater. He misses the California sun and wishes he had soaked up more of it. Oh well. Best not to think of it. Self-pity dulls the senses.

Excerpted from Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer. Copyright 2010 by Scott Spencer. Excerpted by permission of Ecco.

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