Monday, October 10, 2011

Michigander Monday: Scott Sparling

I'm very pleased to welcome Scott Sparling to Michigander Monday!  Scott, now of Oregon, hails from and regularly returns to Michigan; and much of his absorbing and compellingly written novel Wire to Wire occurs here in the Mitten state.

Debbie:  Scott, tell us a little about yourself.

Scott:  I grew up outside Jackson, Michigan, on a dead-end road near the Penn Central tracks. Jackson was a conservative town, but my family was not. Along with a friend, I co-founded the Jackson Moratorium Coalition during the Vietnam War. Outside a church in downtown Jackson, we read the names of 35,000 American soldiers who – at that point in the war – had been killed in Vietnam. That was not popular with city leaders.

I also hung out near those railroad tracks. With a different friend, I began riding freights across southern Michigan, and then from Ann Arbor up to Frankfort and Elberta. Soon we were riding to the southwestern states, up the Pacific coast to Seattle, and across the northern states to Minneapolis. Then all across Canada. We rode off and on for six or seven years.

During that time, a good friend built a house up near Maple City. Over the years, I’ve spent weeks and months living in his cabin, gathering notes and working on sections of Wire to Wire. I moved to Portland in 1989, where I live with my wife and my son who just started college. But I’ve been back to Michigan almost every year.

Debbie:  Scott, please tell us all about your book.

Scott:  I started writing fiction when I was 30. I thought I knew about a couple things that not everyone knew – riding freights, certainly, and Northern Michigan, which is pretty much a secret once you leave the area. I knew from the start that I had to write about those two things.

I’ve been very influenced by Robert Stone. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read Dog Soldiers. Stone influenced me to write in third person at a time when first person narratives seemed to have much greater currency. I was also writing about white males in the Midwest at a time when the publishing world had just opened up – rightly and belatedly – to voices and characters from other cultures and other walks of life.

Those factors may have made it harder to sell Wire to Wire to a publisher, but the biggest obstacle was my own slow rate of learning. I understood sentences almost from day one. It took me years and years to understand story.

At one point, in 1993, I got my manuscript into Jim Harrison’s mailbox. I’d talked to Harrison briefly – I’d asked him to pass the mustard in the Sugarfoot Saloon up by Cedar, Michigan. He obliged, and so I thought he might be the kind of person who would enjoy getting an unsolicited manuscript in the mail. This turned out not to be true. Though he was actually fairly nice about it and even passed the manuscript on to his agent. They both said it was well written but didn’t have a sufficiently compelling story for an unknown author. It took me another decade or so to correct that. But I was also doing other stuff. My wife and I raised our son. I have a day job. I launched and still write

Now that it’s done, I think of Wire to Wire as literary fiction with elements of a crime novel plot. Michael Slater is a video editor with many problems: he has a metal plate in his head, he sees things that aren’t there, he’s hooked on speed. And he’s been wounded in love. All of this plays out on the screens in his edit suites.

Debbie:  Other books or projects on the horizon?

Scott:  I’ve finished the first draft of a book set in the Pacific Northwest, ostensibly about organ theft, but on a different level about moving on after loss, which to me is also what Wire to Wire is about. And I’ve written the first chapter of a novel set in Detroit. I’m not far enough along to know where that’s going yet.

Debbie:  Upcoming appearances?

Scott:  I hope to be at the final Bob Seger concert in Detroit, whenever that occurs – maybe this December. Last July, I put 2,700 miles on a rented Dodge Avenger reading at 10 bookstores across Michigan. Nothing else is scheduled right now, but I hope to be back.

Debbie:  Do you have favorite Michigan bookstore? And/or a favorite Michigan library?

Scott:  The last I heard, my hometown of Jackson no longer has a bookstore, which is sad. The Jackson District Library, Carnegie Branch, where I read in July, is certainly my favorite library. It’s a great place – I spent a lot of time there as a kid.

My tour of Michigan bookstores introduced me to a lot of great stores, and I feel like I’d have to name them all. A person could hit my web page and see where I was in July, because I love all those stores. I even like the store that cancelled my reading after one bad review.

One thing I learned during that tour is what a strong connection indy bookstores have with their readers. Wire to Wire is selling and being read in Michigan in large part because indy bookstore owners have talked to their regular customers about it. I feel extremely grateful for that.

Debbie:  Michigan does have some really amazing independent bookstores!  How about a favorite place in Michigan?

Scott:  There are a lot of places. I like standing at the end of Strathmoor Lane outside Jackson and trying to hallucinate the younger me carrying his lunchbox to the bus stop. There’s a place near the old dairy in Jackson where my father last spoke to me. The bar in Ann Arbor where I fell under Bob Seger’s spell. The Cabbage Shed bar in Elberta.

But if I had a Transport Button that would teleport me to any place in the world, it would be set to the Lake Michigan beach just north of Frankfort. I’d be waist deep in water. My friend T.L. would be there, maybe on the shore. He would have just thrown an orange ball in my direction and I’d see it arching across the blue sky. He’s thrown it a little too far. I’m going to have to jump to catch it, but I think I can reach it. That moment and that place is where I want to be. 

Debbie:  What an amazing image and memory, grounded so firmly in place.

Do you have a Michigan event or happening that you love to attend?

Scott:  Any place Bob Seger is playing. I’ve never been to the Kerrytown BookFest, but I hope I get to read there in the future.

Debbie:  A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?

Scott:  Here are some photographers I admire: D. C. Jesse Burkhardt -- the guy I rode freights with. He’s published non-fiction books about his freight trips, but also has some beautiful photo books of trains. Tom Weschler is a great guy with fascinating stories of Seger’s early days. He and writer Gary Graff put out the Seger book, Travelin’ Man. I love talking music with Ken Settle, another great Detroit area photographer – his memory, sense of detail and perspectives are amazing. Last summer in Jackson, I met a young photographer named Nick Dentamaro whose photo galleries of the old Jackson prison blew me away.

Debbie:  Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about Michigan?

Scott:  The amazing number of great Michigan writers. And the beauty of Northern Michigan. I’m torn on this last one. Part of me wants to keep it secret.

Debbie:  Totally understandable!  Last question:  some folks in Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders; others Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: what’s the better term, "Michigander" or "Michiganian"?

Scott:  I’m too old school to switch away from Michigander. But I think it sounds ridiculous. I never say it without making a joke about it. “From Michigan” is the only good alternative. I’m from Michigan. I like the sound of that.

Debbie:  We'll add you to the "From Michigan" column!  Scott, thank you very much for being here today!

To learn more about Scott Sparling and his novel, please visit his web site and blog.  And for more about his book, Wire to Wire, click here.

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