Q and A with Scott Spencer about his most recent novel River Under the Road
One of my favorite writers in any genre, Scott Spencer, has a terrific new novel out, River Under the Road, the first of a planned trilogy. I met him recently when he came to Evanston, Illinois to talk about River Under the Road and peppered him with some of the questions he graciously agreed to answer again for the Q and A below. Spencer is probably best known for his two National Book Award-nominated novels Endless Love and A Ship Made Of Paper and some of his other novels that I also highly recommend are Willing, Men in Black, Waking the Dead, and The Rich Man's Table.
1. Several of your novels, including River Under the Road, take place in Leyden, a small town in the Hudson Valley, about 100 miles from New York City. What is it about this town and its inhabitants that most galvanizes you as a fiction writer? In the town I have named Leyden I have a setting that has everything that interests me as a novelist—animal life both wild and domestic, crazy weather, infidelity, class struggle, nativism, fundamentalism, and pleasure. Leyden is a town not unlike the one where I live, where I raised my children, and where the majority of my friends reside. There is something about living in a small town that appeals to me as a writer. Here I have rewarding social access to a wide variety of people, rich and poor, young and old, which was something I wasn't able to accomplish when I lived in Manhattan. People in smaller towns tend not to be as self-protective as urban dwellers. In cities, the big fear is encroachment; in my town, the danger is isolation and loneliness. Like many writers, I am a bit of a voyeur, and knowing what is going on in the lives of a wide variety of people is exciting to me. When a stranger in the diner is yakking away on their cell phone, I find eavesdropping on this supposedly private conversation illuminating, even if it’s primarily about defrosting the lasagna. I want to know everyone’s secrets.
2. Would you talk about the title and its significance? I believe we are all of us on earth connected and this unity is the river under the road, the unseen, generally unacknowledged life of the planet that involves us all, whether we want it to or not. In my own life and the lives I have observed, history—current events, environmental shifts, changes in demography—have played a significant but often unspoken role. Money, kids, romance, illness, aging—these are the things, and these are the things that make up our personal memories, but in the meanwhile the way we live is being influenced by everything from Chinese monetary policies to volcanic eruptions half a world away. My fantasy when I began writing River Under the Road was to have a kind of belly-band running beneath the text, giving reports of what was going on simultaneously all over the world while my characters lives were unfolding, just like you see on cable TV. But, alas, I was persuaded to abandon this idea. You'd think after 11 novels I'd be more stubborn, but I caved on this and I still feel drawn to my original idea, though I do accept the argument that it would have been difficult, especially for the book designer.
3. You write so well about marriage, its rages, its joys, its monotony—your 1995 novel Men in Black is one of my favorite novels that explores a faltering marriage, and here Thaddeus and his wife Grace struggle to keep things together. I heard someone explain her parents’ marriage’s longevity in this way: neither of them ever wanted a divorce at the same time. Thaddeus tries to be a good husband but is so often away; Grace is an artist who rightfully feels underappreciated and resents his success – I wasn’t sure what to make of her by the end of the novel. What would you say motivates her, as opposed to what motivates Thaddeus? Grace, the child of a depressed mother and an absent, somewhat immoral father, is motivated by a desire to be seen as not only valuable but special. She feels the most unique thing about her is her ability to draw with great verisimilitude. That the art world she encounters has virtually no interest in that kind of art makes her furious—though she is insecure enough to suspect that the art world’s low opinion of her might be valid. When she decides to follow Thaddeus to New York, she feels they are both outsiders, hoping to be recognized as artists, which, in her youthful and Midwestern naiveté, she thinks of as life’s A List. Thaddeus is probably not as talented as the two of them think he is, but he is lucky and finds success, which has the effect of making Grace feel not only jealous but diminished. Everything that Thaddeus's success brings them—a house, household help, cars, travel—is a reminder to Grace that no one is buying her work.
4. I love this quote on p. 141: “They pondered the difference between success and money. Money gave you time enough to explore the limitations of money. And money reminded you that life is full of luck, both good and bad.” As a fiction writer, I find the idea of luck extremely interesting, but as a living and breathing human, it’s not exactly reassuring. Would you say that most of your novels address this question in one way or another? I came of age during a relatively fluid time in America—unions were strong, incomes were rising for the working classes, and though social mobility was the exception rather than the rule, it still was not rare. This step toward egalitarianism was progress and most of us believe in progress, not only its desirability but its inevitability. However, as I settled into my life, my family, my career, I observed that all around me people were staying in the class into which they were born. I wanted to explore this idea and what better place to do it that Leyden, where it can be seen close-up. I think the spark to write this particular book was an incident that didn’t find its way into the book itself—being seated at a dinner party and the hostess calling in her cook who stood before the guests as they applauded her skills. I will not soon forget the look on her face.
5. You take on class differences so compellingly in RUtR; Thaddeus wants to be accepted by the Hudson Valley elite but because he and Grace are new money, they aren’t, not really. There are also several working class characters in Leyden who do the bidding, grudgingly or not, of the rich residents. This is a timely and quietly political book, and I’m curious about where you began, what was the initial spark for this novel. Was it something you observed personally, or a new story, or something else? When Thaddeus hits the jackpot in my novel, he is not only rescued from genteel poverty but also from having to confront the fact that he is not really a novelist. When success barged into my life, I had already written two novels and had already developed my methods of working. Nevertheless, it was destabilizing. I had been working in almost total privacy and with my third novel getting so much attention I was afraid I would never regain the sense of solitude and the willingness to take risks that had been mine. This uneasiness lengthened the time between books, but there were other factors, as well--mainly the birth of my two children, and moving out of the city and into a fragile, temperamental house 100 miles north. But what terrific problems, yes? Too much attention, too much love, too much life! Someone ought to have told me these things can be fleeting, though I probably would not have listened. Which is to say, that gap between books was a fine time, and I wish I had savored every minute.
6. What are a few of the books you’ve returned to again and again over the years? Films that you think about often? Books I return to: The Dog of the South , by Charles Portis, A Mother's Kisses , by Bruce Jay Friedman, Lolita, by VN. Movies: Vertigo, Vertigo, Vertigo.