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Tom Spanbauer

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Tom Spanbauer

The Man Who Taught Chuck
Jeff Walsh
Tom Spanbauer

According to the jacket, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is an American epic of the old West for our own times - a novel huge in its imaginative scope and daring in its themes. The narrator is Shed, or Duivichi-un-Dua, a half-breed bisexual boy who makes his living at the Indian Head Hotel in the little turn-of-the-century town of Excellent, Idaho. The imperious Ida Richilieu is Shed's employer, the town's mayor and the mistress, and the mistress and owner of this outrageously pink whorehouse. Together with the beautiful prostitute Alma Hatch, and the philosophical, green-eyed, half-crazy cowboy Dellwood Barker, this collection of misfits and outcasts make up the core of Shed's eccentric family. And although laced with the ugliness and cruelty of the frontier West -- Shed is raped by the same man who then murders the woman he thinks is his mother, and the Mormon townspeople bring a fiery end to Ida's raucous way of life -- the love and acceptance that tie this family together provide the true heart of this novel. The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon_ is a beautifully told, mythic tale that is as well a profound meditation on sexuality, race and man's relationship to himself and the natural world."

Here is what JT Leroy (author of Sarah) had to say about Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon:

Jeff Walsh: Tom, thanks for doing this interview. I guess we should start with the "Chuck" questions, given the specific nature of the site. How long was he a student of yours?

Tom Spanbauer: If I recall correctly, Chuck was my student from 1991-1996.

Walsh: Can you describe the sort of classes you teach in Portland, and how long you've been doing that?

Spanbauer: The classes I teach in Portland are called Dangerous Writing classes. We spend a lot of time on the sentence, often coming at the sentence from a poetic stance. Mostly I guess, at first, what we do, is try and listen for the particular music of the student. Often times, a student will have a specific tick or tendency and we’ll investigate that tick. So much of our work is making the student aware of how he or she sounds. And once we have established that, then we experiment with scene making, or voice development, or image making, trying to take abstract nouns, adverbs, verbs out of the writing. Also, we try to make the work sound spoken rather than written. Above all, we try and create a safe place, and then encourage the writer to go ahead and investigate new and peculiar twists and turns of the writing process with the permission to do it wrong.

I taught regularly until 1996, when I got AIDS. I now have a limited writing schedule, but several of my students who have studied with me for years, Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose for example, are teaching classes. So we are becoming a whole network.

Walsh: And when Chuck showed up in the class, did you think he would end up being some best-selling writer? Was there some spark there? I know when I interviewed Chuck (the day before I met you), he recalled you once telling him: 'You could be one of the people who shapes our culture. You don't just have to wait for books to come out of New York, you can be one of the people doing that.'

Spanbauer: I never dreamed Chuck would be the best selling writer he is. Not because he didn’t have the talent. I always sensed that. It’s just that marketing is such a tough game these days and Chuck has always been out there. I remember encouraging Chuck to look at himself as a great writer. So many of us have such terrible opinions of ourselves—often that’s why we are writing. All I told Chuck was what Emerson said: Hitch your wagon to a star.

Walsh: Any interesting anecdotes about Chuck as a student?

Spanbauer: I was always impressed by Chuck’s presentation of himself. He spent so much time bodybuilding, so he has this GQ body, and all his shirts are laundered and neatly pressed. I remember our first meeting. He was sitting quite properly on my couch in a sports jacket and a starched white shirt. I commented that he was welcome to relax. At which, he took his jacket off and rolled up his starched sleeves and went back to sitting quite properly.

Also, there was a time here in Portland when fundamental Christians were trying to make homosexuals into second-class citizens. It was an initiative called Measure Nine. Well, so many people were trying to raise money against this initiative by sponsoring dinners. I sponsored a dinner and several of my students volunteered their help. Chuck was one of them. Chuck was one of the waiters. Who knows if he pissed in any of the drinks, but as far as all appearances go, Chuck was the picture perfect waiter.

Walsh: Are you two still close?

Spanbauer: Chuck and I have gone separate ways, and we maintain a respect for each other, and always wish one another well. Chuck is amazingly generous with regards to me and my influence on him as a teacher. And he never misses a chance to promote my books.

Walsh: What's your favorite Chuck book, and why?

Spanbauer: I’d have to say Chuck’s original Invisible Monsters remains my favorite. I loved the outlandish story, the strong voice, and the balls it took to write it. My next favorite is Fight Club. I guess I like it so much because so much of it was written in class, and I was there for the whole process. Then, of course, to watch the book hit the charts. It was great.

Walsh: One of the things I like about the style of writing you both teach and practice (utilizing a detached first-person that empowers the reader to more fully inhabit the narrative) is the amazing flexibility it provides. I mean, when you look at the books you have written, compared to Chuck, the styles and topics couldn't be more different, but the methodology under them is similar. Why do you think this minimalist approach works so well?

Spanbauer: Minimalism is a spoken language, not a written one, a methodology which promotes a strong narrative voice. The voice reaches out and grabs the reader by the throat and says, “Come along with me or else you’ll be sorry.”

Dangerous Writing is not minimalism, but an offshoot of it. I think what is so wonderful about Dangerous Writing is that we dissect language to such a point that we actually kill the butterfly. The bits and pieces that are left after we go through it look like body parts. Then there’s where the beauty comes in. Each writer will reassemble these parts in a way peculiar to the writer. That’s the reason why we don’t sound like each other.

Walsh: Why do you call it dangerous writing?

Spanbauer: The writing is dangerous because we ask the writer to forego what he or she has learned from their creative writing classes, and strike out on their own. In a stylistic sense as well as a personal sense. The writing is dangerous because we ask the writer to go to the sore place and investigate what makes it sore. We ask “What bewilders you?” What astonishes you” “What would you write to an audience that was about to die?” It is really a wonderful process that calls bullshit on a lot of writing you read nowadays. If you go to a place inside you where you have fear, and if you acknowledge that fear and continue to investigate the fear--that willingness to dwell in what Keats called “the negative capability”—(the chaos where you do not know)--by dwelling in uncharted personal territory, and continuing your investigation, you will make cosmos out of chaos. That journey—making cosmos out of chaos, will be palpable in your sentences. Almost as if by magic, the reader will actually experience the journey with you, because you have moved from a place of not knowing to a place of knowing.

Walsh: Is this the narrative style you learned from Gordon Lish, or have you adapted it since you studied with him?

Spanbauer: Yes, my first learning of this approach to writing was through Gordon Lish and from a wonderful writer named Peter Christopher. Since studying with Lish, minimalism as taught by Lish has morphed into Dangerous Writing. The main difference being in the style of teaching, plus there have been amazing developments in style and language that are peculiar and new to dangerous writers.

Walsh: Do you feel this is the best way to tell a story, or just the best way you have found to tell your stories?

Spanbauer: I don’t want to become another white guy holding a black book and saying this is the rule book on how to write. I don’t want to replace dogma with dogma. There are certain stylistic elements that I prefer, but I don’t expect my students to prefer them. If a student of mine comes up with something that’s not my cup of tea, what ensues is a discussion of why I don’t like it and here’s how I’d change it. The student can pick and choose whatever he or she wants to keep from our discussion, but the most important thing is now the student has an awareness about writing that she or he didn’t have before.

Walsh: Are there examples of books you absolutely adore that aren't minimalist at all?

Spanbauer: Some examples of books I love that are not minimalist at all. The Dubliners, Moby Dick, Winesburg, Ohio, A Death In The Family, Bless Me, and Ultima.

Walsh: The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon is a book that kept trying to find me, but I never let it in for some reason. But when I look back on old author interviews I did, it was just referenced so often and so lovingly... I know you also saw the glowing praise JT LeRoy has also given the novel. What is it like knowing you wrote something that so many people just took so deeply into their hearts?

Spanbauer: I feel proud and satisfied. The book and its reception, throughout the years, along with Faraway Places and In The City Of Shy Hunters, has really changed how I think of myself.

Walsh: Is anyone trying to make a movie of the book?

Spanbauer: Currently, yes, there is a movie option on the book, and the prospects of it actually being made into a movie look good.

Walsh: Does that reader reaction put any additional pressure on you? Or is every book the same process?

Spanbauer: If you mean, why not write The Man Who Fell In Love With Mars?—reader reaction is not important in that sense. I am writing for whatever my gut tells me to write. There is a pattern, however. Bringing authority figures down off their thrones is always fun. Flying in the face of convention is fun. Learning a new way to particularize language is fun. Plus my old favorites: racism, sexism, gender issues.

Walsh: Do you think writing groups are useful? MFA programs?

Spanbauer: I think writing groups are definitely useful. It’s hard to be a writer and to isolate yourself and go way off alone somewhere without the help of a group of people you value and trust. Of course, those are the key words, value and trust. Like anything, there are writing groups that aren’t worth their salt. You got to keep looking for a forum and at the same time staying true to yourself. Same goes for MFA programs. I think most of them are just in it for the business.

Walsh: I remember Carolyn (Tom's editor on his 2002 book, In The City of Shy Hunters) telling our class a story in Oregon about how you just gave her this immense pile of chapters and just saying 'I think I have something here,' and she helped you shape the book (please correct me if I'm wrong). I always remember that when I'm writing, because I often feel like I'm veering off-course, but I think that is sometimes me trying to project what I think the book is onto what is coming out of me. How many pages were there? How do you just let go like that and trust that it will find its own story?

Spanbauer: It’s tough. I believe that if you look into every situation and examine it, you won’t be fooling yourself on relying on belief alone. Instead you want to make a personal discovery of reality through your own intelligence and ability. The sense of trust is that, when you apply your inquisitiveness, when you look into a situation, you know that you will get a definite response.

It may not be the response you counted on, but you will get a response. Writing In The City Of Shy Hunters damned near killed me. It also saved my life.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just trust the person you ask help from—not just anybody, but another writer who will be gentle with you, or tell you the awful truth when you need to hear it.

A person whom you trust like that is hard to find.

Don’t give yourself away.

Walsh: What are you working on now? And, I'm not sure you can answer this given the last question, but how far along are you?

Spanbauer: My fourth novel. Its working title is Now Is the Hour. It is set in Idaho in the sixties. The narrator is similar to the narrator in my first book, Faraway Places, except now he is full on into puberty and he’s at war with his mother and the Catholic Church. I hope to have the first draft done by the first of the year—that year being 2004.

Walsh: I recall reading a quote from you where you said something to the effect of 'Who would go through the trouble of writing if you had a choice?' Do you feel writing is just something you are called to do?

Spanbauer: Yes. My definition of a writer is someone who has been bitten in the ass by writing. He or she can’t stop. For more information about Dangerous Writing, try our new site at We’re just setting it up, so have patience with us.

Walsh: Thanks for your time, Tom. We all look forward to taking a journey this month with The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon.


The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon is January's Book Club selection of the month. Find out more here at our Book Club site, and join in our discussions about the book here, with your host and moderator, Jeff Walsh