Brent Spencer is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Stanford Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the novel The Lost Son, the short story collection Are We Not Men?, and a memoir called Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son’s Search for His Father. He directs the Creighton University MFA program in creative writing.His short stories have been published in Best American Mystery Stories, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Missouri Review, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, and other places. He is also the co-writer, with my wife, Jonis Agee, of the screenplay for Full Throttle, a film produced for Roger Corman’s New Horizons Pictures Corporation. Their screenplay Baghdad Rules was a Gold Level Award Winner in the 2010 California Film Awards, and it won Best Action Screenplay in the 2010 Chicago Screenwriters Network Contest. Their screenplay Everlasting was the third-place winner in the 2009 Silver Screenwriting Awards.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write “The Lost Son”?
Brent Spencer: Counting all the times I stopped to bang my head against the wall, it took about ten years. It was my first novel, so I was doing a lot of on-the-job-training. I was learning how to write a novel while I wrote the novel. This meant a lot of false starts, re-envisioning, and repair work.
Geosi Gyasi: What was the greatest challenge in writing “The Lost Son”?
Brent Spencer: The decision to go with several points of view and to honor the individuality of each point of view. The deeper I got into the novel, the easier this became. But it was quite a challenge at first to establish the voices and remain true to them. Then, when my agent said a couple of publishers didn’t care for the idea of multiple points-of-view, I sat down to re-tell the story from one point-of-view. I had barely begun when my agent called to say she had sold the novel. Later, a couple of reviewers singled out the multiple points-of-view for praise. I’m still processing what that sequence of events might or might not mean.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you choose to write a memoir about your father?
Brent Spencer: I based the father character in my novel on my father. Then, a few years later, my father died in a sailing accident on the boat where he lived. I inherited all of his papers, which had been scooped up from the sea. He was the kind of person who kept everything—every letter he received, copies of letters he sent, and every receipt for every cup of coffee he ever drank. Because he had been out of my life for over thirty years, these papers proved to be a treasure trove of information, answers to questions, and solutions to mysteries about him. All this made me want to tell the actual story of his life and death and of our troubled relationship, so I wrote “Rattlesnake Daddy.”
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to write a memoir as compared to a novel?
Brent Spencer: It was monstrously difficult. There were days when I wanted to chuck it all and just write another novel, but that wouldn’t have helped me come to terms with my father the way a memoir would. So I stuck with it for another ten years. In the end, I wasn’t able to answer every question and solve every mystery of my father’s life, but who does? A father is a mystery you never fully solve.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you start writing?
Brent Spencer: I was a typical teenager who was by turns angry and depressed, so I invented poetry. Or at least I thought I did. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the world’s great poetry and that it was so much greater than my own! It turned out to be a happy discovery, though, pushing me to improve my writing. I never thought I’d be good enough to sit at the same table as any of my favorite writers, but I thought maybe I could get good enough to hide in the garage behind their house. From poetry I moved on to short stories, then to novels, and then much later to creative non-fiction, screenplays, and, most recently, plays.
Geosi Gyasi: You hold an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Could you tell us why you chose to study at Iowa?
Brent Spencer: I had been working at one or more jobs for years, writing on the side like a secret addiction. I wanted to go to a place where the balance would be reversed, where the most important thing—writing—could be done proudly in full daylight. I also knew I had a lot to learn as a writer and thought a program like Iowa’s might help me develop more quickly than I could on my own. To tell the whole truth, I had sent away for the application every year for several years and chickened out when the deadline came. Finally, a writing teacher of mine at Penn State, Robert C.S. Downs, dared me to go through with it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
Brent Spencer: Are you kidding? I can recite it from memory, a poem that went “See the one-eyed doll. / You say she is blind, / but I say she winks.” So you see why Shakespeare and company had no fear of competition from me!
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about what you do as the Director of Creative Writing and Coordinator of Film Studies at Creighton University?
Brent Spencer: I sometimes fool myself into thinking I’d prefer a life in which all I did was write all day, but I know that life would drive me crazy very quickly. Luckily, my day job allows me to work with talented writers, watching them develop and then, of course, taking all the credit! Seriously, it’s great fun to work with undergraduate and graduate writers of fiction and screenplays. I just finished writing a note to an undergraduate who has written a story as good as anything I’ve read in print in many years. To be honest, she arrived in my workshop fully formed. I had nothing to do with her development as a writer. But I’m enjoying the heck out of watching her grow and spreading the good word about her talent. Coordinating the film studies minor allows me to teach screenwriting occasionally, and that brings me in front of an entirely different collection of who just impress the heck out of me.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us anything about “Are We Not Men?”
Brent Spencer: My second book is a collection of short stories in part inspired by the movie Island of Lost Souls. And at one point, the man-beasts, trying desperately to cling to their human side, chant “What is the law?” And they answer, “Not to eat meat! That is the law! Are we not men?” And it seemed to me that men in general are like those man-beasts, always having to remind themselves of their civilized sides, which are always in danger of being overwhelmed by their inner beasts. Most of the stories in that collection confront that theme in one way or another. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard the Devo song when I wrote the book. It’s a great movie, by the way—a classic horror movie with lots of elements of German Expressionism. Very haunting. I’m talking about the original 1932 version directed by Erle C. Kenton. Great stuff.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest challenge as a writer?
Brent Spencer: For me it’s the balance of craft and vision—knowing how much craft to exert on the material and to what degree I should allow the material to go where it wants to go. Every story has a balance of those two elements , and part of my job is to find it and maintain that balance. “Balance” is the wrong word, I suppose, since the balance might be 30/70 or 10/90 or 3/97, depending on the story. But for me that balance is critical. A lot of my training is through literature, so I have to let go of that in order not to be constricted by old models and ways of telling a story. I keep photographer Robert Frank’s words always in mind: “More energy! Less taste! Remember—keep moving!”
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics when you write?
Brent Spencer: I want to be sure I satisfy smart readers, and some of them are critics, so in that sense, yes. But I’ve had my share of negative reviews, and though they can sting a little, I’m grateful if it’s a smart review that engages the work fairly. And that’s almost always been the case. But no, I don’t set out to please a critic. I just try to tell the best story I can tell and hope others will like it.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you often write for?
Brent Spencer: I like to think of my ideal reader as smart and a bit of a smart-ass. I imagine that reader on my shoulder like a good-angel-bad-angel combo. If they laugh, cry, and sigh at the right places, I’m happy. But if they blister me with snide laughter in the wrong places, I appreciate that, too. It keeps me honest. It sends me back to the desk for another revision.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you gain from writing?
Brent Spencer: Weight. Lots of weight. OK, seriously, I think I gain insight into how my mind and heart work and into how the world works. Writing fiction requires you to look long and hard at how people behave, and it requires you to dramatize and analyze how and why you see the world the way you do. The more you write, the smarter you get about yourself and the world. But I also like surprising myself with a good line or a sharp insight.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific theme(s) you often write on?
Brent Spencer: I find myself writing often about working class people, probably because those are the people I grew up with. I wouldn’t know how to write about people who don’t have to work for a living. And often I find myself writing about fathers and sons, though I may have that out of my system now that the memoir is published.
Geosi Gyasi: Which books have greatly inspired you as a writer?
Brent Spencer: So many! When I was a teenager I read 1984 every year. I liked the science fiction element but I mostly read it because I loved the descriptions of the creamy blank pages of Winston’s journal. I wanted to fill those pages. And Vonnegut’s rollicking pages. And The Great Gatsby blew me away. And Hemingway’s stories. And the nuanced, novel-like stories of Alice Munro. And the quirky smarts of Grace Paley’s stories. And the wry humor of Raymond Carver. And the way Lorrie Moore can make you bust a gut laughing one minute and break your heart the next. And Shakespeare! I forgot Shakespeare, the hardest working man in the word business! Far too many to identify here.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself writing more books?
Brent Spencer: I always have a number of ideas and a few projects that are in some state of completeness. So yes, I see myself continuing to write. At this stage in my life, I don’t know how to do anything else. Even if publishing were not an option, I’d still write. The pleasure I get from writing is greater than the pleasure I can imagine from anything else. Even the pain of writing is greater than most pleasures.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you enjoy reading your own books?
Brent Spencer: No, not at all. When I give a reading from my work, I revise as I’m reading, even though the work has been published. Once a piece is published, I can see too easily all its problems, and sometimes I see how they can be fixed, insights I didn’t have access to until the thing was published. It’s maddening. If I could avoid reading them altogether, I would, but the ham in me craves an audience.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?
Brent Spencer: Only every morning. Often in the afternoon. And always, always at night.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you a great reader?
Brent Spencer: I don’t know about “great,” but I read a lot—literary work, crime novels, poetry, essays, non-fiction, whatever grabs my attention. I was the kid who read every word on the cereal box. They know me too well at the public library. I’ve single-handedly kept at least two online book retailers afloat. I love everything about books, not just the contents but the feel of them, the texture, the heft, the smell. I even love the feel of my fingertip swiping across the face of an e-reader. I don’t understand the debate over books vs. e-readers. It seems to me any technology—old or new—that gets more books into more hands is a blessing. My wife, the writer Jonis Agee, is a great reader. She reads easily four times more books than I read. Sometimes it seems as though she has a book in each hand. She’s a two-fisted reader!
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about your work as a screenwriter?
Brent Spencer: My wife and I have always been die-hard movie fans. One day the phone rang and a voice said Roger Corman was calling for my wife. I handed the phone to her and said to her what no man has ever said to his wife: “Whatever this man asks you to do, say yes.” She took the phone, listened, and said yes. Corman, the legendary Hollywood producer/director, had asked her to work on a screenplay about car racing. He was a fan of her book Taking the Wall and thought she might do a good job. So she and I worked on the script together, and when we delivered it, Corman said it was the best screenwriting he’d seen in a while. They made the movie but haven’t yet released it. We’ve written a few since then, a couple of which have won awards, but no others have been produced yet. It’s the one kind of writing we can do together, so that makes it more fun.
Geosi Gyasi: What advice do you often give to your creative writing students in their first class?
Brent Spencer: I tell them that everyone has at least one story to tell, that everyone can be a writer, that the notion that writers are born with their talent or blessed by the gods is a myth, that all a writer needs is some small skill at typing, the ability to sit still for a few hours at a time, and the willingness to tell the truth no matter what.