Synopses & Reviews
A Conversation with Scott Spencer
1. You live in a small town in upstate New York. Are there any similarities between the Hudson Valley town you live in and the fictional Leyden?
"A Ship Made of Paper is the fourth time I have used Leyden, New York as a setting for a novel. (In fact, the main character from a previous novel makes a cameo appearance in this one.) There are, naturally, more than a few similarities between where I live and Leyden, though, at its core, Leyden is an imaginary place. But the presence of the Hudson River, the light, the mixture of luxurious domesticity and wilderness, the survival of the fading ruling class, and the fierce power of the weather are all things Leyden and my own town have in common.
2. How does the small-town setting enhance the story in ways that an urban setting could not have?
I think people are a little more open to each other in a small town, and secrets are, of course, much harder to keep. There is also an overlap of connections between people in a small town that worked well with the story I was telling.
3. Why did you choose to set the story during the O.J. Simpson trial rather than in the present?
Well, I think of the O.J. case as more or less "the present." But even if it had been further in the past, I think it was the occasion of a frighteningly candid snapshot of the racial divide in America-especially when the verdict came down.
4. Tell us about the process of writing "A Ship Made of Paper." What first inspired you to write this novel?
The novel took four years and seven drafts. I was continually amazed that such a simple story turned out to be so difficult to tell. The inspiration for beginning itis something that has receded into the past by now. Usually, what starts me is a mixture of my own experience and my dreams.
5. Do you see Daniel as a sympathetic character?
I certainly sympathized with him, even when his motives were mixed and his actions were less than exemplary.
6. Are you a fan of the singers that Daniel is enamored with -- Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Irma Thomas, Ivie Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith?
Yes, I am.
7. In one instance in the story, Kate says, "Blacks and whites don't get along
. Too much has happened. It's ruined. If something doesn't begin well, how can it end well?" The novel is racially charged and is certain to push buttons with some people. What would you say to those who might question or criticize this aspect of the story?
At a certain point, I realized that some of my characters were going to have opinions that conflicted with the opinions of some of the people who would be reading the novel. A white person writing about African-Americans is going to have to tolerate a certain amount of scrutiny. I ran a risk that some readers might wonder what my own attitudes are. With Kate, in particular, because she is the novel's most articulate character, and because little residues of her own prejudice are touched by the O.J. case and then by her husband falling in love with an African-American, there was always the danger that some of the attitudes she voices will be attributed to me. At a certain point in the writing, I realized that I had no choice but to allow that to happen.
8. Tell us about the significance of the title and the quotation by Bernard Roth used as the epitaph.
Thequotation is from a blues song. I have heard it sung by Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, and, finally, Junior Wells. All these artists have great significance to me. The quote itself captures the fragility of our endeavors, how our hearts and minds must navigate such treacherous waters. Finally, a ship made of paper always seemed like a nice description of what a novel is.
9. Who are some of your favorite writers?
Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alice Munro, Isaac Singer, Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, Bruce Jay Friedman...
10. Some of your previous novels have been made into movies. Would you like to see "A Ship Made of Paper adapted for the big screen?
The best thing about having a movie made of your novel is that more people read the book. You also get to go to at least one unforgettable party.
"Spencer's latest novel should cement his reputation as the contemporary American master of the love story....This book...could well be both the critical and commercial surprise of this spring season." Publishers Weekly
"[A] middle-class tragedy in a classical mode....Few writers are more proficient with a simile...or the perfect character-defining detail....[Spencer is] both a writer's writer and a poster child for sensitive men everywhere." Donna Rifkind, The Washington Post
"[T]he emotional ecology of A Ship Made of Paper feels cooked, less a complex, full-blooded work of art than an elaborate excuse, or even a symptom. It reeks of displaced anger....[Daniel and Iris] are simply too nice, too unrelievedly sweet to be convincing as reckless, ferocious lovers....Without acknowledging this darkness, the lovers of A Ship Made of Paper can't achieve true radiance." Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review
"This is an engaging novel of passion, romantic longing, race, class, family responsibilities, and the riveting anxieties of a couple embroiled in a relationship that cannot end well." Vanessa Bush, Booklist
"[Spencer's] writerly skills are perhaps less dazzling than Updike's, but his narrative voice is zestful and unpredictable. A Ship Made of Paper is a wild ride that lurches and swerves and floats." Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker
"[B]eautifully written....At last, here's a love story that you can recommend, without blushing, to other adults." Roger Gathman, The Chicago Sun-Times
"[A] complex, resonant variation on the theme of romantic obsession....Spencer has structured this novel ingeniously....Thanks to Spencer's sharp, steady eye and velvety prose, the tale of Daniel's folly makes for addictive, thoroughly engaging reading." Frank Wilson, The Philadelphia Inquirer
No novelist alive knows the human heart better than Scott Spencer does. No one tells stories about human passion with greater urgency, insight, or sympathy. In A Ship Made of Paper,
this artist of desire paints his most profound and compelling canvas yet.
After a shattering incidence of violence in New York City, Daniel Emerson has returned to the Hudson River town where he grew up. There, along with Kate Ellis and her daughter, Ruby, he settles into the kind of secure and comfortable family life he longed for during his emotionally barren childhood. But then he falls in love with Iris Davenport, the black woman whose son is Ruby's best friend. During a freak October blizzard, Daniel is stranded at Iris's house, and they spend the night together -- the beginning of a sexual liaison that eventually imperils all their relationships, Daniel's profession, their children's well-being, their own race-blindness, and their view of themselves as essentially good people. And the emotional stakes are raised even higher when Iris's husband, Hampton, suffers a devastating accidental injury at Daniel's hands.
A Ship Made of Paper captures all the drama, nuance, and helpless intensity of sexual and romantic yearning, and it bears witness to the age-old conflict between the order of the human community and the disorder of desire.
About the Author
Scott Spencer is the author of seven previous novels, including Endless Love, which has sold more than two million copies. His other novels include The Rich Man's Table, Men in Black, and Waking the Dead, a film version of which was produced by Jodie Foster in 2000.