Scott Spencer: Turning Orderly Lives Into Chaos Many of Spencer's novels feature a turning point — a dreadful, unplanned act committed by one of the characters. In his latest book, Man in the Woods, a carpenter accidentally kills a man, which leads him to question himself and his relationship with God.
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Scott Spencer: Turning Orderly Lives Into Chaos

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Scott Spencer: Turning Orderly Lives Into Chaos

Scott Spencer: Turning Orderly Lives Into Chaos

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I always hope that I'll find something really special to read during my summer vacation, and I lucked out this year because I got an advance copy of the new novel by one of my favorite writers, Scott Spencer.

The novel was published yesterday, and Scott Spencer is my guest today. The book is called "Man in the Woods." The main character, Paul Phillips, accidentally kills someone in the woods and has to decide whether to confess to the police or just continue his life.

He finds himself wishing there was a god he can turn to, a god that would understand what went wrong, but he doesn't believe. The woman he lives with does. She's a recovering alcoholic who's written a bestseller about recently finding Jesus and realizing, quote, that most of my old friends think I'm ready for the funny farm, especially my liberal progressive friends who fear that I've gone all Pat Robertson on them.

Scott Spencer is the author of the bestselling books "Endless Love" and "A Ship Made of Paper." He's taught fiction writing at Columbia University and in prison.

Scott Spencer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I really love the book.

Mr. SCOTT SPENCER (Author, "Man in the Woods"): Oh, thank you, Terry, it's great to be here.

GROSS: So I want you to do a reading. So let's set it up a little bit. So Paul is a carpenter who is driving and takes a detour from the highway to go into the woods to be alone. But soon he's not alone. A man joins him, a man who owes a gambling debt he can't repay.

And this man is paranoid because he thinks the guys he owes the money to are trying to hunt him down and that when they find him, they'll break his legs or kill him.

This man also has a dog, a dog that he stole from his now-ex-girlfriend, and he's kind of abusive to this dog. So would you explain what happens in the woods when he meets the main character, Paul the carpenter?

Mr. SPENCER: Paul sees him, sees this man, and he sees him yanking his dog around and hitting the dog. And it just is so deeply offensive to him that he wants to intervene. And he says: Hey, stop doing that. And one thing leads to another.

And the man is so fearful that he feels that the only way to protect himself is to actually become even more violent toward the dog. And that enrages Paul, and they have an altercation, an altercation that really is kind of pushing and shoving and futile hitting that people who don't really know how to fight engage in. But it does become very violent, and the man is accidentally killed.

GROSS: So I want you to read what happens after Paul, who's really the main character of the novel, accidentally kills this man who's been abusing the dog, and Paul has no idea what he's supposed to do now.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, he says: I'm not even innocent. I won't even be able to say it was self-defense because I was never in danger. I did it. I'm going to be arrested.

But what difference does the possibility of arrest make next to the overriding fact that a man's life has just ended? A man is dead. A heart has stopped. A future has been cancelled. A wife, children, friends, all of the pleasures of love, the sky, music, touch, food, wine, have just been taken away forever. A man is dead, no more able to share in the glories of the earth than if he had never been born.

Paul clutches his head. It is so difficult to think. This much he knows: His life is a coin. It has been flipped, and now, against a darkening sky, it turns over and over. From the morass, there rises a question: How can this be happening?

And he wishes suddenly, fervently, that there was a god looking on with his eye on the sparrow and everything else, knowing what we did, what we meant, what we did not mean, what was deliberate, what was accidental, what was so perplexing and mixed, you couldn't with any confidence say what was what.

GROSS: That's Scott Spencer, reading from his new novel "Man in the Woods." Your novels often have a turning point, a dividing line in which some dreadful, often unplanned and unintended horrible act has been committed, after which nothing will be the same.

This time, it's this accidental, totally unintended murder. Why did you choose murder this time to be the turning point?

Mr. SPENCER: I think that you're right that I am very interested in lives being changed very, very suddenly. I'm interested in how close our orderly lives are to utter chaos, just the way we see, you know, how savagery can break out in societies that a year before were orderly.

I so, you know, I've had people change their life by setting a fire, and I've had people changing their lives by what, by failing to prevent someone from leaving.

But this act of - and I don't really call it murder. I really call it manslaughter because there was no intention, but this act of violence, this expression of some inner rage and some inner beastliness is, you know, is compelling to me because I can identify with it.

I think that it's something that we all wonder about. I think it's something that we all wonder if we would be capable of an act of violence and under what circumstances would we be capable of it and what would the aftermath be.

I mean, I'm very interested in writing about conscience. And I wanted to test somebody's conscience. I wanted to really push somebody to the very edge of what they could accept about themselves.

GROSS: Do you think of this as your kind of cerebral version of a crime novel, a crime novel about someone who isn't a criminal type, someone who hasn't been in a fight since he was a teenager, someone who never intended to commit a crime?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I'm not sure that I think of it that way. You know, it might be that without my having intended it to be. You know, I was really moved by something I read, and I think it was one of Camus' notebooks or diaries when he says, you know, a guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.

And I thought, gee, that's, you know, first of all so beautiful, and it just reminded me of something that I would have wanted to deal with in my own writing.

I also wanted to deal with dogs because I live with so many dogs. So, all these things sort of converged and I found myself with a book on my hands.

GROSS: How many dogs do you have?

Mr. SPENCER: I have three dogs.

GROSS: Okay. So let's get to dogs. You know, we've seen the man the main character, Paul, commit manslaughter in the woods. He accidentally kills this man who has been abusing his dog, and watching that abuse so upsets Paul that he gets into a fight with the man.

So, you know, after the murder, Paul is thinking he wishes he could believe in a god. He wishes he could believe in a god that is watching us and that understands our intentions, understands what we are really thinking and the reasons behind our actions. But he doesn't believe in that god.

So let's get to the question of the dog. Paul has to decide what to do with the dog. Does he keep the dog? Does he get rid of the dog? Because the dog is, like, the witness and the dog is the evidence. So would you read that passage where Paul's wondering about the dog?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, he says: If I am going to have a chance at really walking away from this, I need to get rid of this dog. But he could not think it through. He couldn't figure it out, where he would bring the dog, where the dog would be safe. The dog had suffered enough. That much was clear.

That one fact was true north. Paul could not beat a man to death for kicking the dog in the ribs and then just open the door of his truck and let the dog fend for itself. The dog is his witness, his confessor. He has seen it all, and he can still sit next to Paul, breathing with him, trusting him.

The dog is the reason. The dog is what has been salvaged from the worst moment of Paul's life. The dog is the bridge which Paul walks upon as he inches his way over the abyss. The dog is God spelled backwards. Paul turns for another look at Shep(ph) but can't see him. The dog has drowned in the darkness of the truck's cabin.

GROSS: So yes, the dog is God spelled backwards. Do you believe in dog more than you believe in God?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I feel - I definitely believe in dog. There's no question -you can't have as much dog hair in your house as I do and not believe in dog.

And about God, it 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 then at another point in the writing of it, I said, I'm really writing a very irreligious book or anti-religious book.

And then when I finally finished the book, I realized what I had written was something that was, this is not a contradiction in terms, something that was passionately agnostic, really as passionate about agnosticism as much as Graham Greene is passionate about his Catholicism because I could feel, 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 really some sort of otherworldly intelligence that made sense enough that we could call it God.

GROSS: Is being passionate about agnosticism a position that you only recently arrived at?

Mr. SPENCER: Yes. I've really, before, have bounced between atheism and a desire to have some sort of - give some sort of religious meaning to my life.

You know, I was just talking to my mother last week and she talked to me about when I was, like, 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 then turn around and I'd be gone.

And she'd find me in one of the pews sort of praying fervently. And I always had this feeling that I wished that religion and a belief in God, and that ritual and that living metaphor in which I could explain my life was available to me.

And there would just be times when I would just feel such sort of withering contempt for the whole thing, and I was sort of glad that I hadn't entered into that sort of, that system of thought.

But, you know, novelists, I think, think a lot about God because, you know, they say doctors play God, and they do to an extent because, you know, they're always monkeying around or trying to fix things. But they're dealing with what's already there.

Novelists, you take that God thing one step further. We create whole worlds and then we people them. And, you know, then we tell the people what to do: We make them fall in love or jump out of windows. So there is that curiosity about God that I think all novelists have.

GROSS: So were you brought with a religion at all?

Mr. SPENCER: No, I was brought up militantly without a religion. My parents...

GROSS: And what was the religion you were not brought up with, if you know what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: Let me list off all the religions I wasn't brought up with. But my parents' parents were Jews.

GROSS: But you mentioned going to church.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, it was a church that - my mother was not there for religious reasons. She was there for a community meeting. You know, they were civic-minded. They were always going to meetings. And so this one happened to be in a church.

And I was raised on the south side of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood. My father worked in a steel mill. And our neighbors were, by and large, either Polish or Irish Catholics.

And from time to time, like, one of their older sisters would get married, or confirmation. I would go to church, and I would just be filled with not only awe but longing.

And really, it was only out of some sort of great love and respect for my parents that I kept it to myself because my feeling was that they would be just absolutely heartbroken and mortified if I ever confessed to them that I would like to give that churchgoing thing a crack.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SPENCER: So much so that I would lie on our little lawn and stare up at the sky and wait and wait and wait for some sort of definitive sign that would give me the courage to go in and tell my parents that I'd had it with being an atheist, that it was time for me to go to church.

GROSS: But it had to be church, not a synagogue? It wasn't going to be Judaism?

Mr. SPENCER: I didn't even know about synagogues yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay, this was really...

Mr. SPENCER: This was before synagogues came to America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: No, a few years later, some new houses were built in our area. The houses that we lived in were $11,000, and these new houses were kind of posh, $14,000 houses. And some Jewish families moved in, and suddenly, there was a temple in the area.

And so, that became another place where I would have liked to have gone, although maybe it's because my first taste of religion was in the Catholic Church, nothing really that I've ever seen since has had that kind of visceral impact on me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Scott Spencer, and his new novel is called "Man in the Woods." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about your new book. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Spencer, and we're talking about his new novel, "Man in the Woods."

Now, because there are so often some kind of crime that is usually unintentionally committed or is an act of passion gone wrong in your novels, I find it especially interesting that you've been teaching writing in prison as part of the Bard Prison Initiative, in which you can actually earn a degree in prison through these in-prison course.

So you are actually spending time teaching people, you know, working with people on their writing who have been convicted of a crime and who are living in that place in which you are, you know, put away to pay for your crime and theoretically to reflect on what you've done.

And I guess I'm really curious what that experience is like for you as somebody whos written about people who have transgressed, whove crossed the line.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, it's the most amazing teaching experience I've ever had. The prison population I was working with were all guys, all men in a maximum security prison. So they had all committed acts of, you know, grave I mean, they were just, they had done really severely wrong things.

I mean, I had one man in my class who was there for armed robbery, and he was the only nonviolent, I mean relatively nonviolent criminal who I was teaching.

It was inspiring in so many ways because you could never find 15 men who read more carefully and more passionately and with, you know, with more eagerness and hunger than the guys in that class. I mean, they would read, you know, everything from, you know, Robert Stone to Edgar Allan Poe to Alice Munro, and they would always have the most complex and interesting and engaged response to the work.

A lot of them were men whose formal schooling in the schools outside of the prison was patchy at best. And so, you know, one of the things that you sort of despair about when you're teaching, you know, in MFA programs is you have writers who actually have a lot of talent and have chops, that have a great deal of desire to write, but they just really haven't, they just haven't had that much happen to them yet in life. So their stories tend to either be, you know, notional or sort of too youthfully observed or just about things that are basically about their families.

And in the case of the people in the prison writing program, they had a lot to write about. They had a lot of stuff that you sort of eagerly go to writers to find out because they've seen something of the world that you haven't seen.

Just the way, you know, people would read, like, Melville's early novels to find out what life was like in the South Seas, you would want to read these guys' stories to find out what life was like in some of those communities.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're getting insights into the kind of life and the kind of mind and the kind of conscience or lack of conscience that you want to understand more about as a novelist?

Mr. SPENCER: One of the things that I learned from working with these guys is how alike we all are. There's, for the most part, most of these men, if I would have met them somehow under different circumstances, I would probably not have been able to guess that these guys had killed anybody or, you know, had been part of some, you know, vast criminal undertaking.

The commonality that we have just as human beings is, for me, the most moving and the most instructive part of working with them.

GROSS: My guest, Scott Spencer, will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "Man in the Woods." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with Scott Spencer, the author of the novels "Endless Love," "A Ship Made of Paper" and "Willing." His new novel is called "Man in the Woods." He's taught fiction writing at Columbia University, the University of Iowa and Williams College. But he says the most amazing teaching experience he's ever had is teaching writing in a maximum security prison in New York. We were talking about that when we left off.

What's it like for you the moment you walk into the prison and what's the moment like when you leave the prison? It must feel pretty overwhelming.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. It is overwhelming. That's a great question, because between my car, which I pulled into the prison parking lot, and the classroom where I meet with the students, I go through I would say at least 12 locked gates, you know, all of them just, you know, big, thick cast iron gates with these gigantic jailhouse keys. And it's - you go through a maze. The first, youre always escorted. You can never go anywhere alone, of course. Although, in the classroom I am alone, there's not a guard there. It's just me and the students. And so you are going deeper and deeper and deeper into the kind of cavern of this prison and youre passing guys, some of them being marched by guards with their hands handcuffed behind their back and some of them are pushing mops and some of them, you know, getting ready to work in the cafeteria, some of them looking at you, most of them not looking at you, everyone's sort of locked in their own personal space, and you do feel this tremendous despair.

I think you would have to be anesthetized. Whatever you think about criminal justice, whether you think these guys have gotten the right deal, whether you think their life could've been different if they'd been given different breaks in life, whether you think their sentences could've been different if they'd had better representation, whatever your feeling is about crime and punishment, you'd have to be deeply anesthetized not to feel this great sinking sense of sadness to be in an environment where there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men locked up in cages. It's really - its nightmarish and overwhelming. And, you know, it's a terrible thing to see but it does make you very, very appreciative of your own life.

You know, you asked me what it was like going in and just going deeper and deeper into this environment where everybody is in a cage. The opposite is when you walk out and suddenly there's the sky and there's your car and youre going to get in your car and youre going to drive home and in 45 minutes youre going to be in your own house and your girlfriend's going to be there and youre going to - you can eat whatever you want and drink whatever you want and do whatever you want. It's stuff that we take for granted but it feels just absolutely almost like youve won the lottery every time you leave that place.

GROSS: So your novel is called "Man in the Woods" and one the character says, guys get into the woods. We go back to our elemental selves and stuff happens. And then he says, men do what men do. We're just part of the scheme of things. We're just nature. And after reading that, I read a piece that you wrote for O Magazine - Oprah's magazine in May of 2008, and you wrote in that, the simple truth is that men are somewhat violent, even those of us who abhor violence. Even if we are cerebral, out of shape, blind in one eye, many of us expect of ourselves levels of daring and aggression that would quite frankly horrify most women, if it didn't reduce them to helpless laughter.

So do you believe that, that somewhere deep inside most men there's this level of violence and that thats the kind of thing that can be unleashed in the woods?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: I do believe that. I do also want to say that I'm not terribly out of shape or blind in one eye, so I just want to make that clear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. SPENCER: But I think that men have an acceptance of violence - acceptance of the validity of violence. I think that, I mean I believe that if a man is walking down the street and some stranger comes up and smacks him in the back of the head, and if the man who is smacked in the back of the head just, you know, says ow, and, you know, continues to walk on and doesnt do something about it, his greatest grudge will be against himself at that point. He won't say what was wrong with that crazy guy who just came up to me for no reason and smacked me in the back of the head. He'll ask, what was wrong with me that I didnt respond in kind? And I do think that that is gender specific.

GROSS: And in this article you wrote: From the beginning of organized society, boys have been raised to accept the idea that one day they might be called upon to either kill or be killed, to be ready to defend their home, their villages, their tribes against harm.

Have you ever felt that pressure to physically defend somebody or a home against harm?

Mr. SPENCER: I've always felt that that is a responsibility that I was born to because I'm male. I mean when I was 10 years old, my father said, you know, men dont 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 that it's up to me to step in if somebody who is sort of in my circle who I, just because of my relationship to them, I am sort of duty-bound to protect it, it is up to me to step in. You know, I have not been in some situation like that Dustin Hoffman character in "Straw Dogs" who...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I hope not.

Mr. SPENCER: ...who's there with his little wire-rimmed glasses and his sort of porn-starry-looking wife while all these kind of cretin-ish locals pound on the windows and try to get in, but there have been a couple of instances when I've had to sort of man up, as we say, and step between someone who I feel was mine to protect somehow and someone who was going to do them some harm.

GROSS: Would you share one of those instances?

Mr. SPENCER: I'll share a funny and somewhat banal one that - my mother got out of a taxicab and she was having this huge argument with the cab driver because in her view, he had taken her way out of her way as a way of running up the fare. And I'm not sure that that was really true, but she was very, very irritated at the idea that this guy was cheating her. And they - when she got out of the cab, she said this guy cheated me on my fare. And the cab driver, who was a guy about my size, maybe a few years younger than me at the time, you know, got out and just, you know, wagged his finger in my mother's face and called her a name and, you know, a pretty bad name. And I thought to myself, oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: Now I have to do something. This guy is probably, in the full scheme of things, he's probably in the right, because I was looking at the fare on the meter. It didnt seem unreasonable. She had come in from La Guardia, it was all the way to the Village. It seemed like a normal fare. But on the other hand, he had crossed the line. He had called my mother a name. So I hit him.


Mr. SPENCER: I hit him. Not that hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: On the face?

Mr. SPENCER: No. I hit him in the stomach.

GROSS: Oh, you punched him.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. I punched him.

GROSS: Ah, and he did what?

Mr. SPENCER: He called me a name and he just looked at us like we were just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: You two deserve each other. I'm getting out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now this whole idea that deep inside men is this kind of like almost genetic impulse to be prepared to defend friends, family, home, cities, villages against harm. And I'm wondering...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...if you think that that's a philosophy you maybe created to explain this - these occasional impulses that you have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: You know, it's very hard to say what anyone is genetically because you can never see anybody outside of society, because people dont exist outside of society. You cannot - you can't find a person who isn't culturally determined to one extent or another.

GROSS: True.

Mr. SPENCER: We all are.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: So I dont know. I mean until we start making people in test tubes and keeping...

GROSS: I thought we were doing that. Okay, go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: But then we send them off some place and then we have to keep them in the lab and study them. But even then, they'll be victims of some sort of depravation. So it's very hard to say what people are in essence. I think its one of the jobs that novels have, really. I mean it's one of the things that keeps people reading, I believe, is that we are endlessly sort of amazed and curious and perplexed about what is our nature.

GROSS: The first real - I mean your biggest hit in terms of your books, is "Endless Love," which was a bestseller and was adapted into a film that, as weve talked about before on FRESH AIR, had so little to do with the book that it's based on. It's a wonderful, wonderful book.

Mr. SPENCER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: But then it was that hit with Diana Ross. Who did she do it with on that? Lionel Richie. Lionel Richie.

Mr. SPENCER: Lionel Richie.

GROSS: Okay. And...

Mr. SPENCER: Who I think wrote it.

GROSS: Okay. So, I've just been thinking about - now, I've been thinking about how the title of your new book is "Man in the Woods." And its not a man in the woods. Its not the man in the woods. Its about man in the woods. And so the lack of like an a or a the in the title is significant. So I was thinking of like the song, the title song from the movie adaptation of your book "Endless Love." It's like my endless love. And like you can't, like the lyric is, and your eyes, your eyes, your eyes, they tell me how much you care. Oh yes, you will always be my endless love. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, a person isn't your endless - and the endless love in your title is about this kind of like this love that won't stop. This kind of obsessive, dangerous love that force - that gets this person to transgress all ethical boundaries and become this like horrible stalker and commit horrible acts. I mean, how did you feel about the word my in there - my endless love?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, it was actually the least of my worries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: And who knows what's going to happen next because I just - I learned a couple of months ago that Universal Pictures, which owns the rights to that book, is planning now to do a remake.

GROSS: No. Really?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. It makes you want to quote William Burroughs.

GROSS: Who said?

Mr. SPENCER: Pack your ermines, Mary. We're getting out of here right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Scott Spencer, it's always great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. SPENCER: Thank you, Terry. It was wonderful to talk to you.

GROSS: Scott Spencer's new novel is called "Man in the Woods." You can read an excerpt on our website,

Coming up, the trillions of microbes that live on or in your body and why some of them might actually hold the keys to preventing or treating certain diseases.

This is FRESH AIR.

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