By Ben Beagle and Andrea Kimbriel
March 17, 2007
If we were writing a Hollywood movie, our cowboy would have ridden
into the brilliant red sunset atop his trusty steed. Maybe some
streaks of orange would have been digitally added for dramatic effect.
But in this story, our cowboy was just another traveler boarding an
airplane at sunrise to return to his home in Cody, Wyo.
And instead of gathering around a pot-belly stove or campfire to tell
his stories, author Mark Spragg drew crowds to library reading rooms
and auditoriums in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties for this
year’s just completed “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading
project. This year’s programs featured Spragg’s novel An Unfinished
Life, the story of a family finding forgiveness.
Readers were captivated by Spragg’s animated talks and
self-deprecating humor. He shared personal stories about growing up
on an isolated dude ranch, leading world travelers on treks into
Yellowstone National Park, living and working alongside dedicated and
curious cowboys that inspired characters in his novel, and making a
movie with director Lasse Hallstrom.
“I thought it was very enlightening when he spoke,” said Kay Nevinger
of Warsaw, who attended the author talk and book signing in Perry. “I
wish he could go on and on.”
Here are five more stories from the author:
1.) How to write
Spragg has a definite opinion about the quality of writing being
“There’s always been popular pulp. Now we’re publishing more books in
this country – an enormous amount of average books. More fantastic
work is being published now than ever before, but it’s overshadowed
by worthless stuff,” Spragg said at Genesee Community College.
When discussing the writing process, he was not afraid to get a
“Writing is a surrender into a place that knows a hell of a lot more
than you do,” he said.
Spragg said he tries to counteract mediocrity in his own writing by
investing himself in the characters he creates.
He said he was most worried about writing about 10-year-old Griff
Gilkyson. He wondered, having no children of his own, if he
accurately captured the young girl. Hundreds of letters and e-mails
from parents in praise of the character have convinced him that he
2.) Finding Griff’s voice
Spragg said Griff, who helps each of the other characters find
forgiveness, was his favorite character to write. So how did a man
who turns 55 next week find the voice of a 10-year-old girl?
“That’s part of the magic of being a writer, I guess,” Spragg said.
“Like most writers I watch more than I talk and I listen. I’ve never
had kids. I’ve been godparents to nine. I have a lot of nieces and
And as the uncle with the station wagon, Spragg said he was often
recruited to drive the children on trips to Yellowstone. During the
ride, the young passengers would often share their view of the world
“I felt very fortunate that they love and trust me enough to share
their fears, share time with me,” he said.
Spragg also noted the writers often write outside their own
experiences: “That’s one of the odd aspects of writing. But good
writers will be genuine in the experience.”
3.) Books vs. movies
Spragg wrote and sold a few screenplays – several that were even made
into movies – before committing himself exclusively to prose writing.
“It’s wonderfully exciting to write film scripts,” he said. “It’s
very improvisational, a good deal probably like jazz.”
But Spragg said he prefers books – “a more symphonic undertaking,” he said.
He asked readers at GCC to close their eyes as he described his grandparents.
“If I held up a picture, everyone would have the same image in their
mind,” he said, “but when I describe it, we have different ideas.
Books are more imaginative. Movies are always a reduction of a book.”
4.) Working with Lasse
While Spragg wrote his novel, his wife Virginia Korus Spragg wrote
the story as a screenplay.
They always intended the story to be told as a film and a novel.
Eventually, the screenplay for An Unfinished Life landed with Swedish
filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom.
“I think he has a wonderful sensibility. He makes beautiful films. He
was very deferential with the script,” Spragg said.
Hallstrom did make some changes, notably the name of the abusive
boyfriend and the fate of Einar’s wife. The boyfriend’s name changed
from Roy to Gary in the film because Hallstrom wanted a more benign
“He thought the Roy character has an evil name. He didn’t want it to
be so obvious,” Spragg said.
“I think a lot of it was with his own sensibilities of being
European. He wanted a name he thought was kinder,” Spragg said.
“Apparently, he hadn’t heard of Roy Rogers. Who could be afraid of
Hallstrom, Spragg said, also thought it would be more tragic if
Einar’s wife left him. In the novel, his wife has died.
And how did Spragg like the final film?
“I think it was good, not great. I’m not ashamed of it, but I think
it would have worked better if the polemic between the protagonist
and antagonist was more evenly balanced,” said Spragg, who suggested
the harshness of Jean’s character in the novel was toned down to make
a more sympathetic character in the film.
5.) Once more, about the bear
The bear that attacked Mitch in An Unfinished Life was a popular
topic at “Tale” book discussions and film screenings in the weeks
before Spragg’s visit. It continued to be a source of questions while
the author was here.
Spragg explained that he decided that the bear caused Mitch’s
injuries after a pair of attacks near his home. And while he
repeatedly said the bear is not a metaphor – “it’s just a bear”- at
GCC he may have wavered ever so slightly.
“It could be symbolic of any number of things, but it’s actually a
natural way to be injured in Montana,” he said. “We had bear drills
at my one room school. I wasn’t thinking of the bear as a symbol at
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation