By Ben Beagle
Mark Spragg has heard a lot of explanations for the bear in his novel, An Unfinished Life.
It’s nature gone wrong. It represents, through Mitch’s injuries, the scars we all carry. Or it’s a metaphor for the things people wrestle with as they try to find peace in their life. The bear is nothing so complex, Spragg insists.
“Sometimes,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in Cody, Wyo., “the bear is just a bear.”
Spragg’s novel – this year’s selection for the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project – is much more than a story of a bear, two old cowboys or a single mom struggling to raise a child, find self esteem and pull away from an abusive relationship.
It is an uncomplicated story that explores complex relationships. It is funny in places, heartbreaking in others. But ultimately, it is a tale of family, forgiveness and the relationships that bind long after death.
“He’s one of the most important writers of the Rocky Mountain West, but the issues he writes about are universal,” Kent Haruf, Spragg’s friend and the acclaimed author of Plainsong, says in a telephone interview. “Given the material in the book, it’s perfectly likely that readers in communities in upstate New York would select this book.”
Libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties have been encouraging people to pick up An Unfinished Life for weeks. Since mid-February libraries and other book clubs have been discussing the events of the novel. Readers get a chance to meet Spragg during a series of talks and booksignings scheduled Thursday through March 10 in Batavia, Medina and Perry.
Making life bearable
An Unfinished Life takes readers to fictional Ishawooa, Wyo., a community much like the rugged lands from which Spragg draws inspiration and where, the author says, bears are simply a part of life that you have to be wary of.
In Ishawooa, Einar Gilkyson is still bitter a decade after his only son’s death. He has let his ranch fall into ruin and spends his days in relative solitude – battling personal demons, milking a cow and caring for Mitch, a trusted friend who was mauled by a bear (an incident Einar blames himself for). Einar is as damaged emotionally as his friend is physically.
Then, the woman Einar blames for his son’s death arrives. His daughter-in-law, Jean Gilkyson, is on the run from the latest in a string of abusive boyfriends. With few places to go and even less money, Jean seeks refuge with Einar. She brings with her Griff, the granddaughter Einar never knew he had.
With Einar’s life disrupted, his anger and accusations toward Jean resurface. But slowly, Griff’s curiosity about Western life and the longing for a family chip away at the granite surrounding Einar’s heart.
“Mark tells the kind of stories that make it bearable to be part of the human race. He does not apologize for it but he makes it acceptable to have all of our warts and our flaws and still be magnificant,” Leslie Holleran, who produced a film adaptation of An Unfinished Life, says in a telephone interview from her New York City office.
Driving finds answers
The story came to Spragg as an image of a man approaching 70, sitting on a porch, surrounded by a mob of half-feral cats.
“He kept reappearing in my mind, occasionally in my dreams. Inevitably, I started the process of questioning myself about him,” Spragg, 55 this month, says. “Why is he embittered? Does he own a chance for personal redemption?”
The answers came during long car trips with his wife, Virginia Korus Spragg, in which they talked about this old man and his motivations. Korus Spragg would take notes. They’d jot down pieces of dialogue and scraps of scenes.
Griff, the young girl, appeared with similar spontaneity and Spragg soon realized that if there was any hope for Einar, Griff was the agent for that.
“She’s the character about whom I probably get more comments, or I find more readers have grown fond of than any of the other characters. And for a very good reason: She’s a wonderfully admirable little girl and like many children coming out of relationships in which she’s had to assume the responsibilities of an adult early on, she has many qualities that are more mature than kids her age.”
Griff was Spragg’s favorite character to write.
“I very intentionally set Griff at a pre-sexual age because I think for children, before their hormones kick in, little boys are a good deal like little girls. We haven’t reached that point where we become tragically self-conscious about ourselves and so desperately aware of gender,” Spragg says.
“I can think of nothing more hopeful than a 10-year-old child,” he says. “I think they still believe that things are going to turn out all right. It is her hope for her life that helps crack Einar open.”
One story, two mediums
Spragg, who had previously written an award-winning memoir and a novel, began writing An Unfinished Life after about a year of those conversations in the car. At the same time, Korus Spragg expressed an interest in working together on a screenplay. Spragg had first found success writing screenplays in the 1980s.
“It just became a sort of interesting endeavor to us to see how we would move the story forward through different means, to see if it would be similar or if it would have to be different because of the medium,” Spragg says. “Maybe we don’t get out enough.”
The experience, he says, made writing the novel easier.
“I was very keen on An Unfinished Life to write a very stripped down novel. I think the act of working on the screenplay at the same time kept me honest,” he says. “One never labors over a line of exposition, trying to put in a poignant metaphor (in a screenplay) because it’s absolutely useless.”
An original story
The screenplay and its many drafts made its way among a number of directors – at one time attached to Robert Altman with Paul Newman as Einar – before catching the attention of director Lasse Hallstrom and his long-time producing partner, Leslie Holleran.
They were struck by Spragg’s treatment of Einar and Mitch, two men whose deep, abiding friendship – and genuine love for one another – challenges the image of the macho cowboy.
“It was always clear that Mark lived and breathed these men. They were the heart and soul of that story,” Holleran says.
“That was what was original for me,” she says. “The relationship between these two men. It was something we – the film people world – hadn’t really looked at. To be friends for decades and decades, to know somebody, to make your life with them in a platonic way and share their dreams and share their pain and take on willingly and without complaint the kind of caretaking of one another is so loving and very real. It was beautiful for me. It was a love story that was unique.”
Wise old cowboys
Spragg, who lives in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains, grew up on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming, leading treks through the Yellowstone area. While he says nothing in An Unfinished Life is autobiographical, the old cowboys he grew up with shaped the characters of Mitch and Einar.
“They were some of the wisest, most catholic decent men I’ve ever met in my life. They were instructive for me in a number of ways,” he says. “I was desperate to grow up to be as useful as these men.
“They did not fit the archetype of redneck, bumbling, truncated outdoor laborers,” he says. “They almost all had a favorite book they kept in their duffel. But it wasn’t Louis L’Amour. It would more likely be the plays of Moliere or the essays of Milton. They were complicated, honest men. Unbelieveably open, and loyal emotionally. They did care that you came early and stayed late and kept your word and worked alongside them. What they fell back on all the time was what they carried with them, which was their character.”
At times, Spragg says, it was as if he was living in another century. It was 25 miles to his one-room schoolhouse in the valley, 50 miles to the nearest small town. There was no radio or television. They had an eight-party phone line. His father also kept a library of “a couple thousand books.” Spragg and his brother would read one each month and then deliver an oral book report to their father.
“I lived in a very anachronistic place,” he says. “So I lived a very practical life in the mountains with the horses, but I lived a very broad life through literature.”
Later, as a young man he became eager to experience a more urban life. He moved to New York City to become a writer. He lived in Greenwich Village, Florida and Iowa. He went to Mexico, South America and Europe. “I’m comfortable in a good many different places,” he says, “but it seems I only feel at home somewhere along this spine of the Rockies.”
It is also where he’s most comfortable as a writer.
“I know the speech patterns. I know when the constellations head off the horizon at what time of year. I know what grasses are by looking at the seed heads. It gives me a certain shorthand,” he says. “A good many of our writers have written their stories from the place they knew best. Š This is the place that I know the most about.”
That knowledge is Spragg’s strength, according to Haruf.
“He’s absolutely determined to tell the truth of his people and places,” Haruf says. “There’s a lot of romanticism about the West and his stories are a good corrective. His primary characters have a clear-eyed view of the world. They’re not defeated by harshness.”
It’s also what allows readers in other parts of the world (his work has been translated into 15 languages) to connect with Spragg’s stories. It may be an Oscar-nominated filmmaker from Sweden, or as in Holleran’s case, “a New Jersey gal who moved to Westchester.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the best part of making An Unfinished Life was meeting Mark and Virginia. They are people that I will know my whole life and they’re people that I feel so supremely comfortable with. And, you know, we live very different lives,” Holleran says.
“But we’re united in a lot of ways in the way we look at the world and that’s what a great novelist does. They make the connection of people who are different from them or have never seen the places they write about, but find a way to make people see and understand.”
A late bloomer
After Spragg’s mother’s death he was going through her things and found a baby book for him and his brother. At about 8 years old, his mother had noted that Spragg said he wanted to be a novelist when he grew up.
All through high school and college he aspired to be a writer. He kept journals and continued to read from his father’s library. He had some short stories published in his 20s, but not enough to make a living.
He taught for a time, but found that teaching used the same creative muscles he needed as a writer. He would often come home too tired to write. So, he looked for jobs that used different muscles. This led to working on oil rigs, wrangling and shoeing horses, building fences, guiding in mountains and working as a carpenter.
“I would often come home physically exhausted, but with an imagination teeming with stories,” Spragg says. “I was young enough that with dinner, a shower and a pot of coffee I could write to 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.”
In his 30s, he met Ron Bishop, a friend of John Steinbeck and a screenwriter, who encouraged Spragg to try his hand at a screenplay. “I did, and the damn thing sold,” Spragg recalls.
Other sales followed. Some scripts became movies; others languished in development. The income they generated was good.
At 40, after a decade of writing scripts, Spragg realized he had spent all that time crafting screenplays, not prose. So he stopped. He began to write short stories again, then moved back to Cody to take care of his dying mother.
“One of the things that shocked me the most was the number of things about her life that she regretted,” says Spragg, who wrote his memoir Where the Rivers Change Direction to show his mother how extraordinary she was. It was published and she saw it two months before her death.
The memoir won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award in 2000 for non-fiction the year that Haruf won the fiction award for Plainsong. They met at the awards ceremony.
“The stories he told about himself were so riveting and engaging and brought you into that kind of life,” Haruf says. “I was so enthralled by it. The lyricism of his writing was extraordinary.”
Spragg’s first novel, The Fruit of Stone, followed in 2002, and An Unfinished Life in 2005. He’s working on a third novel.
“I think I’m able to do some things with dialogue now that I wouldn’t have been able to do had I not spent so many years trying to convey stories simply through dialogue. But do I wish I would have spent that 10 years continuing to write prose? In many ways, I wish I had, but Š,” he says, his voice trailing off, the thought unfinished.
“I’m glad I’m able to write what I do now and hopefully, given a long enough life, will make up for that.”
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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation