Author Interview: Scott Sparling Discusses His Debut Novel’s ‘Dream-Come-True’ Success and How the Book Evolved

Wire to Wire, Scott Sparling’s debut novel, was published by Tin House Books in June.

It’s no wonder that Scott Sparling’s debut, WIRE TO WIRE, has been well-received by critics and readers. It’s intense. It’s provocative. It’s also amazingly beautiful.

The heady pace of WIRE TO WIRE, an adrenaline rush of a crime novel, matches the travel on its pages—by train, by Ford Ranchero and by tunneling us into the memories of protagonist Michael Slater. Scott spent more than 20 years crafting this book, and it seems as if the language itself is in motion, pulling readers forward into the next scene. Literary? Definitely. A page turner? Absolutely.

Tin House Books published WIRE TO WIRE in June. The novel received a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly and was named a Pick of the Week. WIRE TO WIRE has earned high praise from Kirkus, Booklist, The Oregonian and Playboy, among others.

I’m so pleased to feature Scott, now that he’s home from his Michigan book tour. We met through our mutual mentors, Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose, who teach writing at the Pinewood Table in Portland, Oregon. Although Scott and I never sat at the table together, we have many writer friends in common, including Jackie Shannon Hollis, who kindly shared her thoughts with me as I was putting together this interview.

Welcome to the Seven Questions series, Scott!

1. Tell us about WIRE TO WIRE. What’s it about?

It’s being called a crime novel, or an homage to a crime novel, which is fine. I never consciously thought of it in those terms when I was writing. To me, it’s about loneliness and the need to connect with people. About how close we get to people and still feel alone at some level. In more concrete terms, Michael Slater, the main character, falls in love with someone he shouldn’t be with, a woman who obviously can’t love him back. There’s a cost to all that, and it messes him up.

The book starts with Slater working as a video editor, but seeing pieces of his past play out on his editing screens. And he has troubles right from the start. His car is stuffed with drug money, and he’s being chased by a killer. We know that, but he doesn’t. When he gets to Michigan, he falls in love with a damaged, seductive woman who is also his best friend’s lover. Together, they get drawn into another dangerous scheme, masterminded by an amoral and crazily-charming drug dealer. Charming in an evil way–at least that’s how it reads to me.

That’s the crime story element, which hopefully makes the part about loneliness less heavy. Though reading it now, I’m struck by how many chapters end with the character alone with his thoughts.

2. Rave reviews. A book tour. A reading at the downtown Powell’s. Since your debut novel was published by TIN HOUSE in June, you’ve earned a literary reputation that many of us have only dreamed of attaining. What’s all the attention like? (Please feel free to gush so the rest of us can live vicariously through your experiences.)

There’s been a dream-come-true quality to it, without a doubt. And how often in your life do you get to say that and really mean it?

This is a 1976 photograph of Scott Sparling, taken in Winona, Minnesota, “where the railroad bridge crosses the Mississippi.”

I remember getting a very short email from Tin House when they bought the book that said, “We all like WIRE TO WIRE.” The word “we” blew me away. More than one person had read it! Then I met them and was even more stunned–all these incredibly smart people asking me about my book. I am constantly reminding myself how lucky I am. There are a lot of great manuscripts out there that don’t get the attention they deserve.

Outside of my family, nothing’s been more important to me than this book, and when something gets that deep inside you, it pulls all kinds of levers. At least it did for me. We worked on the manuscript for 11 months, which gave me plenty of time to create imaginary disasters. At one point, I walked around for a week convinced I was going to die before the book came out. When I didn’t hear from Tin House for a while, I was sure they’d changed their minds. I don’t know if that’s just my craziness, or if everyone goes through that.

Reading at Powell’s was an amazing event. I’d worked most of my adult life to get up there, and when it finally happened, it was exactly what I’d hoped. I was just as stunned, in a different way, at a store in Petoskey, Michigan–McLean & Eakin. Only five or six people came to hear me, but they kept asking me about Harp and Slater and Lane. It became clear that the story had gone from my imagination into theirs. That floored me. My 91-year-old uncle came to my reading at the Michigan News Agency in Kalamazoo. He told Jaimy Gordon, who was also there, that WIRE TO WIRE isn’t really his kind of book, and they had a brief conversation about it. Stuff like that is just unforgettable.

It seems horribly ungrateful, but there’s also part of the experience that feels really frustrating–mainly the marketing part. It’s very, very hard to get the world to pay attention to anything for very long, especially a debut novel.

In Michigan, I imagined myself walking down a crowded beach. I find a pretty shell, pick it up, and start yelling to everyone: “Look at this shell!” Some people do, but other people look at me like I’m crazy. Most people just go on having fun on the beach. They can’t hear me, and they’re busy playing Frisbee or whatever, and anyway, the beach is full of shells that are just as pretty or prettier. Yet somehow my whole life depends on getting them to look at my particular shell.

It’s at that point that I remind myself why we do this–we write for ourselves and out of loyalty to the stories we need to tell. Everything else is extra. I’ve already had way more attention than I ever thought I’d get, and I’m grateful for that.

3. WIRE TO WIRE has two parallel tracks—Mike Slater’s present-tense reality and what happened in his life three years ago. Those storylines are told from several characters’ viewpoints. What were some of the challenges you solved to make that unusual structure work so well? And how did you develop the concept of Slater watching his past onscreen while working in his editing booth? Did you plan that device or did it evolve as you wrote and revised?

I always imagined that Slater would be watching his past on the screens. I was inspired, as I remember it, by that line from Jackson Browne’s song “Fountain of Sorrow,” where the narrator finds a picture of a former lover and sees the romance differently: “What I was seeing wasn’t what was happening at all.” Some of that distancing happens for Slater, but I think for most of the book he remains pretty haunted by the past.

Having these visions play on his editing screens caused two big problems that took me years to solve. One concerned chronological time. I originally thought Slater’s memories and visions should occur out of sequence, so that the reader would have to reassemble them in the correct order. He has multiple screens in his edit suite, and sometimes I’d have one vision on screen two and another vision from a totally different time period on screen three. It all made sense to me, but it was unfathomable to everyone else.

I’ve seen books where that sort of thing works–The English Patient does it to an extent, and The Book of Daniel has some elements of that. But Ondaatje and Doctorow are geniuses. I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to pull that off. So through eight or ten rewrites, I kept putting things back in chronological order. Each rewrite cost me six months, minimum, which is one reason the book took so long. It also means that early drafts are very different. A friend of mine showed me a manuscript I sent him in the early 1990s. There were story elements that now occur on page 300 or so in the very first chapter.

The other big problem was the nature of the visions themselves. Are they real? Can other people see them on the screens? How is it that some of the memories or visions seem to show events where Slater wasn’t present?

Tony Perez, my editor at Tin House, was immensely helpful on this issue–and a lot of other issues. In the end, we restructured things a bit so you can read those scenes as playing on the screens, or simply as a third-person point of view shifts.

Overall, Tony’s comments and his ability to see the shape of the story greatly improved the book. I feel extremely lucky and grateful to have been able to work with him and everyone at Tin House. The entire experience–editing, book design, promotion–couldn’t have been better.

4. Many of your scenes are bursting with physicality, especially your characters’ in-the-moment experiences with drugs and sex. Do you have any advice on putting such intense physicality on the page?

I’m not sure I have any advice, other than reading a lot. It’s hard to get that stuff right. I remember Robert Stone saying that the description of a fight is always more of a poem than prose, and that was useful to me. I think the same applies to sex. I also learned some things by watching how fight scenes are cut in movies–there’s some purposeful confusion to a lot of fight scenes on the screen.

The early drafts focused mostly on trains. I wrote about freights in what I hoped was a powerful way. That was Harp’s world. I wanted Harp and Lane to be equal forces, so for that to work, Lane’s world had to be equally vivid. That meant writing about glue and sex with equal intensity. I’m not sure exactly how it’s done, which kind of scares me. A lot of it fell on the page when I was writing in my treehouse after dark.

5. Scott, I read in the Oregonian that you’ve been working on WIRE TO WIRE for 20 years. Was there ever a time when you quit working on the book? Please mention some of the folks who encouraged you during that creative journey.

Scott Sparling

There were several periods when I put it aside and didn’t work on it. I never thought of that as quitting, though–it was more just part of the process. Whatever else happened, I knew I was going to finish.

I completed the first draft in 1991. Two teachers–Jack Cady, and later, Joyce Thompson–were immensely important during that time.

My wife and I had a son in 1993, so my writing output dropped considerably then. By 1996, I knew I needed to put it aside, and I started the Segerfile website, which I still run. From 1996 through 2000, I didn’t work on the book much at all. I also took two years off, starting in 2006, to write a second book, which is half finished.

In 2002, I met Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose and started going to their weekly writing group, the Pinewood Table. I went once a week for five years and read every word of WIRE TO WIRE aloud.

I’d never met anyone like Stevan or Joanna–their commitment to and belief in fiction is incredible. They know how to talk about it in a way that expands your power instead of limiting it.

That table became like home for me. It was a powerful, almost spiritual thing because of the way they run the group. I also learned a tremendous amount from the other writers at the table. One of them, Sheila Hamilton, told me about Tin House and gave them the finished manuscript–that alone was hugely important, obviously.

The other factor that kept me going was self-deception. Through most of the process, I thought I was just a year or two away from finishing. It was like a mirage that recedes as you drive toward it, except somehow I never realized that. I’m good at denial, I guess. My family got tired of hearing me say I was almost done.

I remember one year I said I’d be done by Christmas, and my son, Zane, said, “Dad, just don’t say that. It’s not true, so don’t even say that.” I didn’t believe him, but he was right.

Finally Stevan and Joanna just made me stop. It was a few steps shy of an intervention, I guess, but they made it clear I had to stop. I might still be rewriting otherwise.

6. Let’s talk about music. You reference many songs and artists in WIRE TO WIRE, and you have a wonderful playlist on your website. Do you listen to music when you write?

I used to have some Elvin Jones drum solos on a loop–not tribal drumming, but jazz drumming. I played drums when I was younger, and the rhythm of sentences is very important to me. The drum loop was energizing and it didn’t distract me because it doesn’t have a traditional melody.

Because I have a day job, I’d often write during lunch. If it was noisy, I’d put a song on repeat to create my own space–usually a sad song, like Lucinda William’s “Big Red Sun Blues” or 3 Doors Down’s “Landing in London” (which features a guest vocal by Bob Seger). Anything kind of sad or lonely, played over and over, would work.

At home or in the treehouse, I wrote first drafts without music. When I was rewriting, I played Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter–every song she’s ever recorded–over and over. It’s trance-y and psychedelic and sad and seemed perfect for WIRE TO WIRE. Toward the very end, I started playing Jon Dee Graham’s album, “It’s Not As Bad As It Looks,” which shouldn’t have worked because the songs are loud and so engaging. But it turned out to be great. Zane was a teenager by then, so maybe I was used to more noise.

7. What are you working on now?

I’m continuing to work on the book I started in 2006. Coming back to it, now that WIRE TO WIRE is finished, has deepened my view of it. It’s a book about brothers, and I don’t have a brother, so I’m still finding out what that means to me. It’s more tightly plotted than WIRE TO WIRE, but that could change.

I haven’t put much on paper yet, but I’m also beginning to work on a book set in Detroit. I haven’t totally figured out if it’s fiction or not–it’s still in that exciting beginning stage.

Of course, what I’ve really been working on during the past four months is blogging. I’ve started a piece called “Adored, Ignored, and Deplored,” which is an essay about the book tour. And I’m rewriting a few short stories.

And this piece, of course. Writing about WIRE TO WIRE is always revealing to me–so thanks for the opportunity to think about these things and for having me on your site.

Thank you so much for participating, Scott! It’s been an absolute joy to interview you and to get a behind-the-scenes look at how much work went into making WIRE TO WIRE such an incredible novel. Check out scottsparling.net for details on Scott’s upcoming readings and other book-related news. He blogs here. He compiled a fascinating list of songs that influenced WIRE TO WIRE, or you can listen to the music on his blip.fm page. Scott also runs The Seger File

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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11 Responses to Author Interview: Scott Sparling Discusses His Debut Novel’s ‘Dream-Come-True’ Success and How the Book Evolved

  1. Julia Stoops says:

    Great interview! Thank you, Laura and Scott. Scott, I agree with what you say about what happens at Stevan and Joanna’s table. There’s a power to it that’s more than just reading out lod and getting feedback. And I love the line, “The other factor that kept me going was self-deception. Through most of the process, I thought I was just a year or two away from finishing.” I can totally relate! And congrats on your success with Wire to Wire.

  2. Lise Saffran says:

    Really interesting interview–and oh my God, that is such an awesome picture from 1976! If I wasn’t already planning on reading the novel that would make me want to pick it up. I can totally relate to the marketing challenge–and though it’s been said many times before, I think the key is to be totally immersed in something new while you’re doing it. That way you don’t forget why you are doing it!

  3. 20 years. There’s hope in that. Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Pingback: OK, Writers: What’s Your Good News? | Laura Stanfill

  5. Pingback: Scott Sparling’s Treehouse Hideaway | Laura Stanfill

  6. Paul Greci says:

    Great interview!! Thanks for introducing me to a new book and a new author. Twenty years working on one book with a few breaks and some other projects taken on…it just reinforces the fact that writing is journey with many evolutions. Congrats, Scott!!!
    I’ve added Wire to Wire to my “To be Read” list. 🙂 🙂 It sounds like an intense story.

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