By Ben Beagle
March 12, 2007
As you read this, author Mark Spragg is back in Cody, Wyo. He planned to be up and writing at 6 this morning, with a few more pages of his next novel done by lunch.
Spragg was in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties for the past several days for this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading program. The annual project, which featured his novel An Unfinished Life, wrapped Saturday afternoon with a talk and book signing in the Perry Elementary/Middle School auditorium.
“An experience like this, the last three days, for a man who makes his living sitting alone in a room, is deeply satisfying,” Spragg said, shortly after signing his last book. “It’s flattering to be able to speak with so many readers.”
About 60 people attended the Perry event, including an uncle from Pennsylvania that Spragg hadn’t seen in 20 years and a cousin and her family from Penfield. The four talks, which included two presentations in Batavia and one in Medina, attracted about 350 readers.
Everywhere Spragg went he captivated readers with animated and colorful storytelling.
“I felt as if I had met him before today,” Laurie Marcus of Perry said after Saturday’s program. “His writing is very genuine, and I had a feel for him from the story. It was a pleasure to meet him.”
An Unfinished Life, set in a fictional Wyoming town, is a story of forgiveness. Jean Gilkyson is running with her daughter from an abusive relationship and seeks refuge with her father-in-law, Einar Gilkyson, who still blames Jean for his only son’s death. An embittered Einar is living out is days on his run-down ranch caring for his long-time friend Mitch Bradley, who was mauled by a grizzly bear.
“There are so many areas in An Unfinished Life that intrigued me. I really loved Griff’s spirit, and how the author worked through a child to bring that spirit back to the other characters, especially Einar, who could feel again. I think we all can relate it to something in our own lives,” said Kay Nevinger of Warsaw.
Nevinger was surprised to discover she owned a rare hardcover edition of Spragg’s memoir Where Rivers Change Directions. Before signing it, the author turned immediately to a page that said “chapter title” instead of the chapter’s title. The publisher’s error appeared in about 1,000 copies before being corrected, Spragg said.
Jody Duggan-Lay of Pavilion came with two members of her book club, which includes the “Tale” title among its selections.
“I love the way he could say a lot with sparse writing. It reminded me of the West,” she said. “He got a lot of feeling across without overwriting.”
Eileen Cutcliffe of Pavilion, another member of the club, “loved the way you get to know the characters.”
“I always like a book where you feel like you know the characters. You don’t want to let them go. He makes it very personable,” she said.
Ernie Lawrence of Perry said he wanted “to hear more about (Spragg’s) own life and how his experiences shaped his view of the world.”
Spragg, 54, shared childhood stories about growing up among cowboys on a dude ranch and how they influenced the characters in the story, the books he read from his father’s library as a child and visits to Cody’s small library where he would disappear among the shelves to read.
“There’s nothing quite like literature,” said Spragg, who wrote screenplays in his 30s. “When reading, our minds light themselves. When you view a film Š you don’t have the same empathic sense, the same sense of the drama, as when you read.”
Spragg talked about how An Unfinished Life began – with daydreams of a man sitting on a porch, his arms across his chests and cats surrounding his chair. He also remembered what it was like making the film with Lasse Hallstrom, who would make middle-of-the-night phone calls asking that scenes be rewritten because of location issues, production changes or “because Bob Redford wanted a funny line.”
Spragg read the chapter where Griff, the strong 10-year-old girl of the novel, meets Mitch. In introducing the chapter, Spragg compared Mitch to Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor. Both men, Spragg said, “were stripped of his biology, but each came through the experience risen, brighter than he ever was before.”
Readers also wanted to know more about where Spragg found Jean Gilkyson, a woman with a history of abusive relationships. She was created from experiences Spragg and his wife, a former therapist, shared working with domestic violence victims, and research with leading psychiatrists, who said Jean’s behavior was common in such women.
“Myself, and a couple of other husbands, would show up with the cops and help these women move out, sometimes with these animals still circling. I wanted to write about it, to see if I could write that,” said Spragg, who with his wife continues to help victims of domestic violence.
One woman asked if Spragg had considered having Roy, Jean’s abusive boyfriend, meet his demise at the hands of the bear. He had, Spragg replied, “but I grew too fond of the bear.”
Spragg was actually born south of Pittsburgh and moved west with his family when he was a young child. Saturday, he had family members in the audience.
Spragg’s uncle, Walter S. “Sandy” Spragg, 75, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years, traveled from Mongahela, Pa. A cousin Betsy Geherin from Penfield, her husband, Matt, and their twin daughters Alice and Martha, also attended. They had last seen Mark in 2004 when during a family vacation to Cody they found themselves in town for the film’s premiere.
“I’m never nervous doing these, but I’m a little nervous today,” he said, acknowledging the family members in attendance. “It’s almost like when your mother sets you up on the card table and has you sing a show tune for an aunt.”
Spragg, who had never been to upstate New York before flying in Wednesday, visited Letchworth State Park Saturday morning and saw the Genesee River gorge. He told his audience at the school that the park shared “the same dramatic thrust of the Wyoming landscape.”
Later, he acknowledged being surprised by the region’s scenery.
“I assumed there would be terrific beauty,” he said, “but I did not anticipate seeing such vast open spaces of beauty.”
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation