Casper— A middle-aged carpenter in Wind City Books peppers Wyoming novelist Mark Spragg with questions about writing. How do you get started? How do you keep at it? How do you get published?
Spragg, who is in the small bookstore signing copies of his new novel, Bone Fire, tugs at his gray-streaked red beard and answers the man honestly: “I’m starting my fifth book now, and you’d think I have a whole box of tools to draw from, but I don’t. I write and rewrite and rewrite. I’ve found it never gets easy.”
The carpenter frowns.
But Spragg, who was put to work on his family’s dude ranch at age 11 and paid $1 a day, is not one to say there’s an easy route to publishing success.
The 58-year-old from Cody is the author of two other novels, The Fruit of Stone (2002) and An Unfinished Life (2004), as well as an award-winning memoir, Where Rivers Change Direction (1999), and a screenplay, An Unfinished Life (2005), starring Robert Redford. Spragg now works with, as do Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford, one of the country’s top editors.
Despite these obvious accomplishments, Spragg, who may be one of the finest prose writers the state has ever produced, sees the flaws and wants to do better.
“There’s not a sense of satisfaction,” says Spragg, whose ruddy complexion flushes redder when fans gush over his work. “I look over my work and see weakness.”
The near-perfectionist gave up a lucrative career as a screenwriter in the 1990s—after about 10 years of working with the likes of Tom Hanks, Sidney Pollack, and Dennis Quaid—to write fiction and gain more artistic control over his writing. When not traveling, Spragg writes seven days a week. For Bone Fire, a 244-page novel, he wrote 3,800 pages in drafts. He also manages to read 200 books a year.
“He is always struggling to make himself better,” says his wife Virginia Spragg. “I can’t imagine him ever letting anything out of the house that was passable.”
While hard on himself, Spragg is generous with others.
During the book-signing, about a dozen fans wander through the store to meet Spragg and fellow Cody author Laura Bell, who is signing copies of her first book, the memoir Claiming Ground. Each fan, from former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan and his wife Jane to a yoga instructor named Anne, receives Spragg’s full attention. Most get a big hug (even I do on our first meeting). And those who ask receive advice.
Laura Bell, who befriended Spragg 16 years ago at an art opening, knows this side of him well. Spragg read her early manuscript and recommended it to his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, which published it. He also wrote a glowing blurb for her book jacket, calling Claiming Ground “the finest memoir I’ve read,” and agreed to tour with the less experienced writer.
“Mark has just been unstinting in his generosity,” says Bell. “It’s so easy for an artist to be competitive: ‘This is my territory.’”
Later, during an interview at the C’Mon Inn, where Spragg is staying, he says, “I have very little ego about my work anymore. I really don’t much care about being identified as a writer or applauded as a writer. I care about trying to make honest sentences.”
“Arrogance is very suspect and ultimately profoundly damaging to an inquisitive life of a writer,” adds the man who studied meditation seriously for 12 years.
Spragg is dressed casually in faded black Wrangler jeans and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. From time to time, he turns his head aside to cough. The book tour—through 30 Western cities, from Denver to Seattle—has taken a toll. He’s been on three rounds of antibiotics since his trip began and has just decided to bow out early after a stop in Lander on May 8. Bell will continue on through New Mexico.
“I so deeply want to be quiet and get back to work,” he admits.
All around us, waterfalls in the hotel’s giant lobby cascade into pools that reek of chlorine. It’s a strange setting for a man who has spent so much of his life walking or horseback riding the arid mountains of Wyoming, examining rattlesnake skins, noticing the lope of pronghorn, and observing the wind erosion of the land.
No TV, no radio
Spragg grew up on Crossed Sabers Ranch, also called Holm Lodge, the state’s oldest dude ranch. It sits within the largest tract of unfenced wilderness in the Lower 48, some three million acres, eight miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance, 40 miles from Cody—and an immeasurable distance from a typical childhood.
His family bought the 1898 dude ranch when Spragg was seven, moving there from a Pennsylvania farm. (The guest ranch still operates today under new owners: http://www.crossedsabresranch.com/.)
The lodge had no TV or radio, wasn’t even on a newspaper route. What it did have were books. Lots of them. The main lodge had a library and his parents’ cabin had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. At age 12, Spragg began a lifelong habit of reading about 200 books a year. His father, who had attended Yale University at 16, was also “enormously well read,” says Spragg.
Spragg wrote about his unusual childhood in his memoir, Where Rivers Change Direction (University of Utah Press, 1999), which won the 2000 Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award for Nonfiction.
In it, Spragg describes coming of age around an odd mix of exotic lodge guests (Europeans, congressmen, Hollywood stars) and hired hands who drank as hard as they worked. The guests came for the rugged outdoor experience atop the Continental Divide. The cowboys came to work, and by age 11 Spragg and his younger brother Richard joined them. The boys were paid $1 a day and given beds in the hands’ bunkhouse.
“[My father] believed that horses were to use and boys were nothing if not used,” Spragg writes in his memoir. “It was his hope…that we would prove compensative, the horses and I, of our demands for feed and housing.”
Writer Kent Haruf, a National Book Award finalist and Spragg’s best friend, is astounded by Spragg’s childhood.
“It was a way of life that almost no one has lived– that’s still alive, anyway,” he says
“It’s one thing to have that childhood and grow up in the mountains of Wyoming,” says Haruf, who calls Spragg’s memoir a masterpiece, “and another to be able to grow up and write about it.”
Spragg’s childhood had grim moments.
When he was 15, his father ordered him to get his rifle and shoot his horse Socks, whose leg was gangrenous after snagging on a barbed-wire fence. His father used the dead horse as bear bait for his hunter guests.
“I fear that if I allow myself to empty I will be filled only with the regret of what I have just done,” he writes, after he’s killed his horse. “I look down at the rifle that lies across my knees and think of the bear hunters that pay us for this…. I do not think of them as men. I think of them as big, loud Scouts.”
Spragg also describes moments of sheer bliss.
Behind the lodge, he would stand beneath “the thick, emerald press of pine and fir” and “wait to watch a cone drop, to see if I could witness its fall to the ground.”
He recalls riding a randy buckskin into the mountains. Five miles out, the horse bucked him off and bolted, forcing him to walk home. After crossing a dry stream bed, he looked up to see, four feet away, a cow elk give birth to a calf.
“It drops to the trail at my feet. I know that I’ve witnessed something most boys have not.”
Spragg and his brother were driven 20 miles each day to the edge of the national forest to attend school in Wapiti. On one commute to the two-room schoolhouse, Spragg counted more than 400 elk.
On trips into Cody, with a population of about 4,000, the Wapiti students felt like “gypsies brought into the kitchen of a manor house for some rare supper.” The Wapiti students were the ones sprinting in jeans and cowboy boots at an annual track meet there.
Spragg often refers to his childhood as an “apprenticeship” to becoming an adult. He says he wouldn’t trade it.
“It surprises me when people look at that memoir and think that my childhood was rough, too rough. I’m fogeyish in some ways— I’m not sure we do our children an enormous service now that they are not apprentice adults. We keep them children. Madison Avenue has found a way to market to them until they’re 18, and then we push them out into the world and expect them to have the maturity and early wisdom of a young adult. That was not my experience.”
‘Appetite for quietude’
Spragg received his B.A in English from the University of Wyoming in Laramie in 1974. Four years in a “big city,” surrounded by talkative students, took its toll on the young man “raised around horse accidents, grizzly bear, high water, and blizzards.”
“Four years of college on concrete has nearly crippled me,” he writes in Where Rivers Change Direction. “Graduate school would have likely landed me in a hospital. I limped away from Laramie swollen from my lower back to Achilles tendons. I did not attend graduation. I packed the car and did not look back.”
A friend offered the graduate a job as caretaker for an East Coast millionaire’s enormous log home outside Cody. Paintings by Russell and Bierstadt hung on the walls. Wild horses wandered the property. The place would be snowed in from November to March. Spragg jumped at the opportunity.
“I have a much greater appetite for quietude than most people,” he says.
With a stack of books, a crate of canned food, and pile of notebooks, Spragg immersed himself in writing.
He’d known from a young age that he wanted to be a novelist. In fact, after his mother died, he found a baby book in her effects with evidence.
“Apparently when I was eight she had asked me what I was going to be when I grew up,” he says. “I said, ‘an American novelist.’ It was very specific. Obviously very hopeful.”
Spragg spent two years as a caretaker and finished several short stories. Later, odd jobs—working on an oil rig, shoeing horses, leading pack trips—sustained his writing. In 1997, he edited a collection of short stories for Sierra Club Books, Thunder of the Mustangs, which included a story by himself as well as one by Bell.
Spragg took a stab at writing a novel and sent his manuscript to New York City’s New Directions Publishers, which put out work by Tennessee Williams and William Carlos Williams. Managing Director Fred Martin liked what he saw and encouraged Spragg to move to the city to work on it more.
“New York had always been spoken about as the hub of literary life,” says Spragg. He packed his bags and relocated to Greenwich Village.
He lasted less than a year.
“I’ve never functioned well in large metropolitan areas.”
But he did get valuable feedback on his writing.
“[Martin] told me: ‘God, there is a page here or there that is so extraordinary that someone your age is writing, then it will just fall to shit for 30 to 40 pages at a stretch,’” says Spragg.
“I was too young to tell the difference… I was very autobiographical, very verbose and purple in style.”
“That was the beginning of my 10,000 hours,” he adds, referring to author Malcolm Gladwell’s theory, described in Outliers, that mastery of any skill requires 10,000 hours of practice.
The Hollywood Years
Nearly penniless, Spragg moved to Florida to live with his brother Richard, who was studying law there, and to try writing a screenplay. He had met Ron Bishop in Cody, a trustee at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center there and a script writer who in 1973 wrote a TV screenplay for John Steinbecks’s The Red Pony. Bishop had encouraged Spragg to try.
Spragg wrote South of Picasso in six months and turned around and sold it to TriStar Pictures. While the film was never produced, the paycheck caught his attention.
“It was the first substantial check I’d ever received,” he recalls
Spragg, then 30, moved back to Cody to begin his career as a screenwriter. He sold about 10 scripts, including Gross Anatomy (Touchstone Pictures, 1989), which starred Matthew Modine, and Everything That Rises (TNT Network, 1998), which starred Dennis Quaid.
Spragg was making good money. But creatively, he felt dead.
“I had a very definite sense that it wasn’t my passion,” he says.
Hollywood scripts typically go through dozens of handlers, many of whom cared little about subtlety or lyricism, only about the box office. The rewrites, says Spragg, could be “abysmal.” He even pulled his name off some screenplays—like Turner and Hooch, which starred Tom Hanks and a large dog—despite a loss in royalties.
“I thought for years that I would write some screenplays, but also have the time to go back to prose,” he says. “After eight, nine, ten years of doing it, I found I didn’t have the energy to do both—or the imagination or the talent. And so I quit.”
‘Could live very happily in a trailer’
Initially, Spragg didn’t plan to publish the book, and had no expectations his memoir would become a bestseller in France and Israel. He wanted to write a keepsake for his mother, who was dying of emphysema and full of fear that she had raised her sons in isolated misery. (By then she had divorced Spragg’s father and moved to Cody, where she could “order pizza and have it delivered to her door.”)
“She had regrets,” says Spragg. “While I could sit with her and tell her how valuable I thought her life was, it didn’t have the impact that I thought stories would—if I wrote stories that demonstrated how valuable I thought her choices were for her boys.”
“[The book] has a certain innocence,” says Spragg. “It was completely unpremeditated in trying to be a book.”
Spragg decided to send the manuscript to a small publisher, The University of Utah Press, which released it two weeks before his mother died.
At the time, Spragg’s savings were nearly gone. He could barely afford a plane ticket to Utah to read from his book’s galleys at a conference.
“I stayed with the editor and made sandwiches,” he recalls. “They were kind enough to make me an evening meal.”
But the reading paid off. Literary agent Nancy Stauffer, who represents Sherman Alexi and Kent Haruf, among others, heard Spragg read and invited him to dinner. By the end of the week, she had negotiated a deal with Riverhead Books to issue the paperback version. There was a bidding war in England, and several foreign rights sold.
While he mourned the loss of his mother, Spragg was happy. He’d met Virginia, who became his third wife and the woman to whom all his books are dedicated: “For Virginia, because of Virginia, always.” (Spragg was briefly married after college, and then was married again for about 10 years, in his late 20s to 30s, to a dietician, who remains a friend.)
Virginia jokes that her husband was “a poor nobody” when she met him.
“He was poor, unpublished, and really trying to do it,” says Virginia.
Spragg was happy for another reason: He was writing exactly what he wanted to.
“I could live very happily in a trailer and write what I want,” he says. “The most important thing in our life is to have the freedom to make what we want to make. There is nothing in our physical lives—no travel or home or car—that we wouldn’t gladly give up. It’s that passion. I can’t recommend enough how important it is in a person’s life I think to follow their passions.”
Spragg next wrote the novel The Fruit of Stone, which Riverhead published. It follows a sad, passionate love triangle. In it, he introduces readers to Ishawooa, Wyo., a rugged fictional town of hardworking ranchers set in the mountains east of Yellowstone that Spragg knows so well. Ishawooa and rancher Barnum McEban show up again in his next two novels. Despite many positive reviews, however, the novel never took off and eventually went out of print.
Money became tight again. Compounding it, Virginia, a therapist, couldn’t find a job. The couple decided to co-write a screenplay, and at the same time Mark would write a novel based on the screenplay’s characters and plot. The work would become An Unfinished Life.
“We were poor as hell,” says Virginia, who had never aspired to writing but had grown curious about it living with Mark. “We thought, ‘Let’s try to do something.’”
Much of their productive work took place in the car on trips—to Billings for shopping, Spokane to see family, elsewhere to see friends.
“You’re trapped,” in the car, says Virginia. “The phone doesn’t ring. The dog doesn’t bark. There are long stretches in Wyoming and Montana where there are no turns.”
Mark says his wife’s background as a therapist was a great asset.
“She’s very even and very didactic in the way she thinks about things.” She also could plumb characters’ motivations and emotions.
“We would talk about this man who became Einar Gilkyson [An Unfinished Life’s protagonist],” Mark recalls. “We would populate his life. We would ask ourselves why did he appear so embittered? What had made him so disenfranchised in his life? Come up with some conclusions about his life. Gin took notes and filled a couple of spiral notebooks.
“The screenplay became an outline of what motivation, character, and narrative were going to be in the novel… I’d come back to the novel, and I’d be very clear about what I wanted to try to accomplish,” he adds.
It was a magical formula. The screenplay sold first, then the novel. Lasse Hallstrom, who was nominated for an Academy Award for best director for Cider House Rules and My Life as a Dog, directed the 2005 film, and Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Lopez starred.
The novel, meanwhile, was scooped up by Gary Fisketjon at Knopf. (Kent Haruf, who also works with Fisketjon, recommended Spragg’s book to him.)
It was a triumph for Spragg. Fisketjon’s stable of writers is elite. Besides McCarthy and Ford, Fisketjon also edits Richard Russo, T.C. Boyle, Annie Dillard, Jay McInerney, and Thomas McGuane, to name a few. He also worked with the late Raymond Carver.
“They all have one thing in common,” says Fisketjon, who won the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for editing in 2006. “They are awfully good.”
“[Spragg] struck me as a terrific writer with a very distinct voice—a vision that was not only interesting, but one he could convey well,” says Fisketjon. “He creates characters who are of abiding interest and then sets them in a place and in a story that is one that the reader wants to follow. He can flat do that.”
The novel came out in 2004, one year before the film, which wound around Hollywood from various directors (including Robert Altman) and actors (Paul Newman) before its release in 2005.
The novel did well, selling over 100,000 copies. The San Francisco Chronicle called it a “masterpiece.” It was named a “One Book” choice (for which communities read the same sponsored book) in dozens of places, from Alaska to New Mexico.
The film performed so-so, never topping the top-10 in box office sales, but some critics embraced it and the stars attached to it assure its continuing popularity on DVD.
The Spraggs, who bounced from book signings to movie premiers, were thrilled.
“We didn’t know if we would sell either one,” says Virginia. “We could have had a film, or a novel, or nothing.”
‘Obscene how much we talk about writing’
“I deeply enjoy working with Virginia,” says Spragg. But, “I don’t think I will ever write a screenplay again.”
The two have offices at opposite ends of their home. His is a basement room with windows. Hers is a first-floor study. Virginia continues to write screenplays, and recently had one optioned by a studio.
They closely read each other’s work.
“We don’t soften our feedback,” says Virginia. “When I look at his stuff, I tell him everything I think and everything I see. We both work to suspend any emotional vulnerability.”
“It’s axiomatic,” says Mark. “Someone that has that much emotional involvement with you should be the last person you choose, because they don’t want to be totally honest and blunt, or they have some disagreement with you on some days and might want to be overly punishing or critical… Virginia is startlingly honest. She only cares that I try to make the very best sentences and scenes I can. I’m really appreciative of that.”
The Spragg’s homes—they have one in Cody and one in Red Lodge, Mont.—are filled with books. Stacks sit on tables, on chairs, by beds.
The man who grew up without TV allows himself to watch a little now, like Showtime’s Dexter. Television, he says, “It’s like a bag of potatoes chips where you have to watch yourself and not eat too much, or you’ll have the intellectual equivalent of a fat ass.”
The couple has no children, though Spragg is a godfather to nine.
“I’ve been that uncle that had the spare station wagon,” he says.
Writing is at the core of the Spraggs’ lives.
“It’s kind of obscene how much we talk about writing,” says Virginia.
A typical day starts early with coffee and writing. Mark first looks over what he wrote the day before. “I’m less precious in the morning.” He then writes “until I numb out.” The two take breaks for lunch and to separately walk their dog Angus—and think about writing. “Sometimes I’ve taken a tape recorder with me,” says Mark. Notepads are scattered about—“by the bed, in the car, in different places”—to absorb moments of inspiration. Most evenings, they read.
“I’m not a good recreationalist,” Spragg confesses. “Virginia and I have sometimes gone on a vacation and realized that after three or four days we’re ready to get back to work.”
Spragg is driven by a deep desire to be “useful” and do work that is worthwhile—themes that runs through his memoir and shows up in the motivations of his fictional characters. In Bone Fire, 10-year-old Kenneth, who works long days on Barnum McEban’s ranch, is sent to Laramie for a summer with his biological father’s suburban family. He shoots hoops in the driveway and listens to an iPod. After a listless month, he runs away, yearning for the ranch life.
“Why this overriding sense of being useful to my self, my family, my community?” says Spragg. “I don’t know. On some level, it’s a product of my generation, a product of my parents and how I was raised.”
As a boy, he wanted to be useful to his family—getting up early and getting to work.
“Those old cowboys with whom I grew up, they took such pride in being so diligent in their lives that they could not only carry their load but carry other peoples’ loads. I remember admiring that so much. I did not want to be a boy. I could hardly wait to be a man, and shoulder more.”
Spragg turned 58 this spring; “Sixty,” he says, “is looming large.”
Many of his relatives lived well into their 90s.
“I’m very thankful for that,” he says. “I still have maybe a third of my adult life to try to make something worthwhile.”
Previously in the WyoFile Writer’s Series: Wyoming’s Mystery Man C.J. Box on Top
Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband Ben and two children, Lily and Gage. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a reporter for The News & Observer (N.C.) She also writes fiction.