by Scott Sparling, June 17, 2011 10:57 AM
With my previous four posts, I hope I've cemented your impression of me as a serious literary heavyweight. If so, please hold tight to that image. Because now it is time to speak of Seger. And yes, I mean Bob.
Those of you with quick Google reflexes already know that in addition to writing Wire to Wire, I also write The Seger File — the web's largest, oldest, and most complete Bob Seger site.
That explains why Kirkus reviews calls Wire to Wire "a worthy combination of Bob Seger nostalgia and dope-fueled noir," although that's a bit of an overstatement — there are some Seger references in the book, true, but the characters also listen to Iggy, Alice Cooper, and the MC5. It's set in Michigan, after all.
Indeed, I listened to all those bands in the early '70s when I lived in Ann Arbor. In those days, Seger frequently played the bars and clubs down the street, and whenever we had the $3 cover, my roommates and I would go hear him. One night, I stood in a place called the Primo Showbar with about a hundred other fans, certain that the whole world would someday know Seger's voice. I fell under his spell during those shows, and there I remain.
At one show, I took a lucky shot of Seger at the keyboard with my old Nikon. When he did a gig a few weeks later, I stopped him between sets and gave him the photo. A few months later, it appeared on the back of his album, Seven. My brain still hasn't fully recovered from that.
Hitting a high note in 1973: My Seger photo ended up on an album.
By 1997, I was tangled up in Wire to Wire and needed a break. The Internet was something new, so I decided to launch a site on Seger. I'd go to the library, look him up on microfiche, make a copy of what I found, retype the article, and add it to my site. That's how the information superhighway worked back then. We're talking pre-Google, pre-MySpace and Facebook, pre-Wikipedia.
I know there are people who don't get Seger, who know him only from his radio hits. (Which, to my mind, is a little like knowing Louis Armstrong only for "What a Wonderful World." C'mon — the man invented jazz.) If "Old Time Rock & Roll" is the first or only thing that comes to mind when you hear Seger's name, dig deeper.
You might be surprised to learn, for example, that Seger wrote the first anti-war rock song of the Vietnam era, a defiant rocker called "2 + 2 = ?" And he toured relentlessly, surviving seven years without a hit on the strength of his live show and his work ethic. In print, the best guide to his career is Travelin Man: On the Road and behind the Scenes with Bob Seger by Tom Weschler and Gary Graff.
Last month, in the Palace of Auburn Hills outside Detroit, I heard Seger play for more than two hours, as a hometown crowd of 20,000 sang along. In the moments when I had time to think, I asked myself what it is that's kept me captivated for so long.
The answer came in a song he didn't play that night: "Like a Rock." If that's a truck commercial to you, step away from your TV and spend more time with your speakers (or your earbuds). "Like a Rock" is six minutes of testimony to the power of dreams and commitment.
Near the end, a line more spoken than sung asks, "Twenty years, now — where'd they go?" As someone who's spent that amount of time writing a novel, I find the mix of sadness and wonder in the question irresistible. But my connection to Seger is captured most in the last four words of the final verse: "I see myself again."
Maybe because I grew up with Seger's music, maybe because it's so honest, or maybe because of magical reasons that can never be explained, his music has the power to show me things about myself, like good writing sometimes can. I listen to his songs and I see myself again.
That's it for my week of guest-blogging. Thanks, Powell's, for the forum. And thanks to all the friends and readers who have stopped by. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I
by Scott Sparling, June 16, 2011 11:56 AM
They say I've spent 20 years writing Wire to Wire
. Really? That long? I guess it's possible — I lose track of time and get distracted easily. What I do know is that there's little, maybe nothing, that I've worked at harder in my life. Along the way, many people helped. Here are four you should meet.
Beginnings. When I walked into Jack Cady's classroom in Seattle on the evening of my 30th birthday, I had no idea that the next two decades of my life would be defined by what he was about to say. Jack was a writer and teacher, known now for The Night We Buried Road Dog and, most recently, The Rules of '48. He was also a force of nature.
That night, he paced at the head of the class, holding us in his sway like the auctioneer he once was, giving us the gospel of fiction. Some things he said: That the chief characteristic of a successful writer is tenacity. That the world runs on lies, but that as writers, we have to find the truth of every scene. That we should listen more to our sense of magic than our good sense.
Jack died in 2004. In Wire to Wire, there's a walk-on character, a deckhand, that I named Jack Brady. His last words to the main character are this: "Safe crossing." It's what I imagine Jack saying to me as I headed out into the wild with a half-finished first draft in my hand.
Endings. That crossing was completed years later when I stepped into the Portland living room where Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose teach at The Pinewood Table. I'd been in a lot of writing groups by then. I wasn't planning to hang around long. I stayed five years.
I needed to be there, it turned out, because Joanna and Stevan could see something that was invisible to me. It worked like this: All of us around the table brought in our imperfect pages, filled with imperfect sentences. Talking about what was already on the page helped, sure. But hovering above the page was something more important: a half-formed story — also imperfect, with multiple possibilities and shapes. Talking about that was invaluable. Many nights, I couldn't see it at all until Stevan and Joanna made it visible. It's a rare gift, and one I benefited from immensely.
Joanna is the author of the novel Little Miss Strange and stories in numerous literary magazines. Stevan is a Pushcart Prize nominee with stories and essays in many literary journals as well as I Wanna Be Sedated: 30 Writers on Parenting Teenagers. If you're trying to learn to write, look for teachers like them.
New Beginnings. In my neighborhood, people don't know me as a writer. They know me as the father of a writer. My son, Zane Sparling, is 18 years old and a columnist for the local paper.
A few weeks ago, some parents here wanted to remove a Sherman Alexie book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, from the high school curriculum. The familiar acrimony ensued. Zane's column, "The absolutely true story of a part-time book burner," helped put an end to the fuss. It's a witty and pointed defense of the book and free speech, with a couple of good masturbation jokes thrown in.
Zane was also one of the final readers of Wire to Wire before I turned in the manuscript. His comments came with the refreshing swiftness of youth. No sugar coating. That sentence you added is too Garrison Keillor — you really want to sound like that? In the final read-through, when I specialized in overthinking, I needed that clarity.
He's off to college soon. On campus and in life, I hope he'll find teachers as excellent as Jack, Stevan, and Joanna — and the teacher who raised Zane with me, my wife Harriet Miller.
There are many more friends I need to thank, including all the amazing people at Tin House. But those and other debts will have to wait for now. Because time is short, and tomorrow we
by Scott Sparling, June 15, 2011 11:13 AM
While working on Wire to Wire
, I noticed a problem. Not with the manuscript — though there were plenty of those also — but with water. Through the miracle of plumbing, water is normally routed very carefully through our house, just like yours. Properly channeled, it provides valuable services in the kitchen and bath. But suddenly, whenever anyone took a shower, water was leaping the channel. It was running around loose.
The water in question was supposed to come out of a pipe, make itself useful for showering purposes, and go back down another pipe. Instead it found an unknown passage out of the shower area, under the flooring, through the floorboards, and into the basement, where it celebrated its freedom like the rabid fans of a newly crowned championship team. By destroying things.
This required action. Untreated, the problem would eventually cause the entire bathroom to collapse, or so I imagined, perhaps taking part of the bedroom with it. Facing this situation, I did what any writer would do: I put a bucket under the leak and went back to work. I had deadlines to meet and priorities to keep straight.
Now, months have passed and the bucket's still there. The truth is, I don't know how to get the water back in its channel. I'm grateful, however, that it is water and not electricity that has gotten loose. Water may be destroying my house gradually, but fire would burn it down fast.
In Wire to Wire, people face similar problems. Slater, the main character, meets a power line in the opening scene; the electricity leaps out and lights him up like a torch. A leaky pole barn sets off his friend Harp. Trouble follows.
However, the two main forces that leap their channels in W2W aren't fire and water, but money and sex. Like other powerful forces, they have the potential to add a lot of comfort and pleasure to our lives — if we keep them under control. And the potential to destroy things when we don't.
In W2W, Harp most sharply feels the damage money can do when everything's for sale. "What used to be the world," he observes, "was becoming the marketplace. Anyone could see it wasn't square." A patch of vacant land that means something to him is doomed, he knows, because it "wasn't earning any income, and that attracted bulldozers."
But it's Charlie — equal parts drug-dealer and small-town puppet-master — who's really got the chops when it comes to the power of the buck. "These money guys from Chicago," he says to Harp, "do they have the right to flush away our future? Hell, no. But they have the power, see, and that's all that matters." Of course, Charlie has no real quarrel with that. He tells us later that the only feeling he really trusts is greed.
As for sex in the wilds of a small Northern Michigan town, well, there's a character named Rose who might have it under control. "If you can't hear the angels sing when you make love," she says at one point, "you're not doing it right." For others, it's possible the angels have fled.
If that seems a bit harsh, I'd say the real world's not faring a whole lot better. Look at the Wall Street Meltdown or the Sex Scandal of the Week. Remember when wide stance, walking the Appalachian Trail and client number nine were all the buzz? How long before Enron and Bernie Madoff fade and are replaced by the next generation of snake-oil sellers? The fictional town of Wolverine comes off pretty good compared to what we've got going out here.
The fact is, in fiction or real life, keeping forces like fire and water — or sex and money — under control is an unending struggle — one we're only sometimes good at. So yeah, I should really go fix that leak. At the same time, if the worst you end up with is a bucket in your basement, you should probably count yourself lucky.
by Scott Sparling, June 14, 2011 11:31 AM
A friend regrets to inform me that she won't be reading Wire to Wire
. Crime novels aren't her thing, it seems. And she's not too keen on reading about lowlifes, either.
I was a little thrown by this. Wait a minute, I wanted to reply. There's been a misunderstanding here. I never expected you to read my novel. I merely expected you to buy it.
After all, W2W is handsomely designed. It would look great on your bookshelf — and having it there would be good insurance against being included in my next novel. (Or being ridiculed on a blog. Too late for that, I guess.)
I didn't actually say any of those things, of course. Still, there has been a misunderstanding. First of all, Wire to Wire isn't really a crime novel. If anything, it's an homage to the crime novel. Basically, it takes pieces of the genre and puts them together in what I hope are unexpected ways. (Which is the same way I built the tree house where I wrote much of W2W, by the way. It's not really a tree house. It's an homage to a tree house.) Besides, the real issue is love, not crime. At least for me.
As for lowlifes... well, true, the characters of Wire to Wire ride freights, break laws, sleep around, hallucinate, listen to rowdy music, and commit various acts of violence. Beyond that, they're just like you and me.
Wait, that's wrong — it's all those bad things they do that make them just like us. Roll with this for a second: In some novels, we meet characters who initially appear perfectly normal. They have good marriages, professional jobs, and nice homes, perhaps in the suburbs of St. Paul. You could invite them into your living room and fear no evil.
But then the author gradually peels back the layers, and the fun begins. Beneath the veneer, all sorts of unholy crap is revealed. It turns out these normal-looking people are desperately flawed in fascinating ways. In what's broken or bent, maybe we see some version of ourselves. In any case, the story is engaged, and we're off and running.
Other novels turn that around. In Wire to Wire, we meet the two main characters on top of a moving boxcar, challenged by the complicated task of lighting a joint. Clearly, neither of these guys is gonna be parking in the "Employee of the Month" slot anytime soon or making speeches to the Rotary. For everyone in Wire to Wire, it's raining from the first and they're out there dying from the thirst: No layer-peeling is required to see how messed up they are.
But some layer-peeling still occurs. Underneath the unwashed exteriors, their lives aren't low at all. They're dealing with the highest sorts of issues, the same ones that affect you and me. Love, loyalty, the need to connect. They're out there on the wire, and vulnerable, or so I claim; as the reader, you'd be a better judge.
Yes, they're crunchy on the outside. So in that sense maybe my friend is right. Maybe you wouldn't want these guys in your living room. They'd be okay in mine, but my carpeting's already ruined, and I have a high tolerance for extremes. The fact that these characters are messed up, can't hide it, and live in some fairly dark places doesn't turn me off; it's what appeals to me. Because in the darkness, as the Springsteen line goes, are hidden worlds that shine.
If that kind of darkness — in the freight yards or at the edge of town — holds some fascination for you as well, you might like Wire to Wire. If not, maybe, like my friend, you shouldn't read it.
But it would still look great on your bookshelf.
by Scott Sparling, June 13, 2011 11:40 AM
Is it dangerous?
That's the question people ask when they find out I spent a large part of my youth hopping freight trains and traveling in boxcars across the Midwest, through the western U.S., and across Canada.
The answer, for the record, is yes. Dangerous and illegal. You shouldn't do it. You should also abstain from the other bad behavior described in Wire to Wire. Throwing knives. Sniffing glue. Selling drugs. Falling in love. All can be fatal.
Now that we've got that out of the way, the real answer is that it rarely felt dangerous. Mainly because we were good at it — we being Jesse and me. We had rules, and unlike the characters of Wire to Wire, we followed them. We took no chances.
I had another advantage. It was Jesse who knew freights, who intuitively understood their world. He was better at it, mostly, but I had the edge in balance and I could climb anything. (Hence my road name, Spider Rider. What can I say — it looked good on the side of a boxcar.) So if a hop seemed safe to Jesse — and we were always conservative risk-assessors — it was extra safe for me.
A little bragging: In Minneapolis, I jumped from the Humboldt St. overpass onto a moving Milwaukee Road freight and rode it across the Mississippi River. I got a sunburn that day, which, in retrospect, was probably more dangerous than the hop. (Don't try that jump today — the trains are gone. It's a bike trail now. You'd kill yourself.)
Somewhere in Canada, with two freights running side-by-side, I jumped from one moving train to another. Not because I liked taking chances. Because I was sure it was safe.
The truth is, I was ill suited for freight-riding in several ways, but the athletic part I could handle.
So I was baffled, briefly, when we filmed the video trailer for Wire to Wire. A crew of very smart, very creative folks from the film company Juliet Zulu were in charge, working with my editor from Tin House, Tony Perez. Late in the day, after a little trespassing in the name of literary fiction, we found ourselves looking down a railroad track at an oncoming freight. Zak Davis, the director, explained the shot to me. Tony would hop the freight, and I would wave at him as he passed by.
"Wait," I said. "Why don't you want me to hop the freight, too?"
There was a pause while everyone passed a look around. A look that said, we're trying to promote this guy's book, not get him killed. Then, very tactfully, Zak said, "Well, we didn't want to presume, but... if you think you can... "
For the record, we did seven takes on the freight-hopping scene, every one a winner. Sure, the years have flown, it's not the '70s anymore. I'm aware of all that. But yeah — I still got it.
There was only one casualty. More of a scrape, really. Somehow in all the excitement, a copy of Wire to Wire — my copy, the first one, the book I'd spent 20 years writing — got left on the track. The train hit it and sent it 10 feet in the air.
I found it in the dirt, scraped up by steel wheels. Damaged by violence, twisted for sure, and a little bit blessed. Which is what I was trying to write about all along.
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