By Ben Beagle
and Andrea Kimbriel
March 9, 2007
BATAVIA – A typical Thursday night finds Shanda Williams in a classroom at Genesee Community College.
Last night was anything but typical. Williams and the rest of her class gathered in the Reading Room at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., to hear author Mark Spragg talk about life along the Rocky Mountains, writing and his novel An Unfinished Life, this year’s selection in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.
“As he read I got a sense that he is the characters,” Williams, of Le Roy, said. “He read beautifully. It really made the connection between him and the book.”
Some 140 people filled the library’s Reading room and an adjacent alcove for Spragg’s talk, the second of four he will make for the “Tale” project.
The author, wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots and a black suede blazer befitting a writer from Cody, Wyo., spoke for about 90 minutes, taking questions from the audience for about half the evening.
At times, the program felt more like a very well attended book discussion than an author’s talk. Spragg’s colorful, conversational tone and self-deprecating style put audience members at ease as they asked follow up questions or countered comments from other audience members. Laughter was frequent.
“The audience was very engaged. They didn’t seem to want the questions and answers to end,” said Leslie DeLooze, the Richmond librarian who started the “Tale” project five years ago.
“A Tale for Three Counties” has people in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties reading An Unfinished Life, discussing it and then talking about it with the author during visits which continue through Saturday.
Today, Spragg will have lunch with six winners of a book review contest sponsored by The Daily News, and give another presentation at 7 tonight at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina. His final visit is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday in the Perry Elementary/Middle School auditorium, 50 Olin Ave., Perry.
DeLooze was pleased with the turnout at Thursday’s events – about 75 people attended an early afternoon program at GCC.
There was some concern as recent winter weather kept attendance low at some book discussions and caused others to be canceled.
Those concerns were gone by the end of Spragg’s Richmond talk when the line for the book signing stretched across the front room of the library and around the local history section to the back of the Reading Room.
“This was the first time I had participated, and I really enjoyed it,” said Dan Bowen of Batavia, another GCC student. “He was a lot of fun. He has a good wit, is very learned. He’s had an amazing life and that made him really interesting.”
At both programs, Spragg talked about the fondness he has for the characters in An Unfinished Life.
His favorites are Mitch, whose strength of character helps him survive a bear mauling, and Griff Gilkyson, the admirable little girl who “brings hope of redemption to all the characters in the book.”
Alternately, he acknowledges being repulsed by Roy, the abusive boyfriend who prompts Jean Gilkyson and Griff to flee to fictional Ishawooa, Wyo.
They go seeking refuge on the ranch owned by Einar Gilkyson, the father-in-law who blames Jean for his son’s death a decade earlier.
Spragg said getting into the mind of Roy was especially hard. To help, he’d take long walks on the prairie near his home and work himself into a manic state of who he thought Roy was.
“I’d mutter and kick at rocks and complain about the world and my situation in it,” he said. “Then I’d dash out the first draft from Roy’s vulgar view of life before collapsing and having my wife say for the rest of the evening ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, you’ve just been to a dark place.”
Spragg talked about his background growing up among “deeply wondering” cowboys on a dude ranch in Wyoming, his childhood desire to be a novelist, and the book reports he would be assigned from his father’s extensive library, that featured some heavy-duty philosophers.
“I especially liked when he talked about his background as a child and how much he read,” said Rosemary Surowka of Batavia. “I think that was big influence on his writing.”
On trips to the library in Cody, Spragg and his younger brother were allowed to take out as many books as they could carry. “And we were strong little buggers,” he said.
“When I open a book, I feel I’m sharing the soul of the person who wrote the book,” he said. And while his feelings may have changed in early adulthood, as a man “strongly in his mid-50s,” he now thinks he had it right as a child.
Spragg recalled how An Unfinished Life developed – from the vision of a man sitting on a porch, through hours long drives to visit friends in which he and his wife discussed who the man was. That man became Einar, named for a man Spragg knew from the ranch.
He noted that the title, An Unfinished Life, had been in mind from the beginning. Likely influenced by his own fascination with existential questions such as how people think about “the thin membrane between the lives of which we are aware and the lives that we are not aware.”
Many people at both programs were curious about how much of the book came from Spragg’s own life, and the film made by Lasse Hallstrom.
“Every writer puts some of their life’s experiences into characters, but most writers write what they dream,” he said.
Spragg praised Hallstrom’s collaborative nature and the work of Morgan Freeman, who played Mitch. “I think he’s the best actor of his generation,” Spragg said. “I could sit and listen to him b—- me out just to hear the cadence of his voice.”
GCC student Jacquie Evans asked several questions about the differences between the book and movie. “I love to read. I watched the DVD at home. I like how the movie visuals gave faces to the characters,” she said, “but the book was more vibrant.”
Mio Kajiwara came to hear Spragg’s talk at GCC on the recommendation of a teacher. Kajiwara, a student from Japan, said reading the book in class and hearing the author speak helped her develop her reading skills.
Spragg ended his evening talk by giving readers a hint of his next novel. While not revealing the story, he said readers could expect to see characters from both An Unfinished Life and his earlier novel The Fruit of Stone, completing a trilogy about Ishawooa.
Valerie Smith of Batavia has just started reading An Unfinished Life and now, “can’t wait to finish it and read the next one.”
Daily News Intern Andrea Kimbriel reported from Genesee Community College
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation