portrait Interview with Brent Spencer

interviewed by Wendy Dorsel Fisher

Published in Issue No. 25 ~ June, 1999

Brent Spencer, novelist and short-story writer, is the author of

The Lost Son
(Arcade Publishing) and teaches creative writing at Creighton University in Omaha. He received the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where he was also a Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing, and the James Michener Award at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned an MFA. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The American Literary Review, The Missouri Review, GQ, and elsewhere. His most recent book, a collection of stories chosen as one of the best books of 1996 by The Village Voice, is

Are We Not Men?
(Arcade, 1996).

Wendy Dorsel Fisher: You’re more than a film buff, I gather – more like
a bonafide connoisseur, Brent. Recall one of your early film-going moments for
us. Do you remember the theater? Were you alone? With someone? And, were you
a drive-in guy?

Brent Spencer: My father took my brother and me to our first movie – John Wayne’s The Alamo. It was 1960. I was eight. My brother was five. I’m embarrassed to say this, but we were so naive about movies that when we saw all those people being shot off their horses and off the walls of the Alamo, we had a quick, whispered conference and decided that they must have been dying anyway – of cancer or whatnot – and chose to give their lives for the movie. “But the horses!” my brother cried. “What about the horses!?” The movie was agony to sit through as we watched so many people and animals dying before our eyes, but we kept quiet about it. Our father sat there oblivious to our horror. The second movie we saw was Ben Hur, and we suffered the same torments, clinging to each other and weeping silent tears at the mayhem on the screen. I’m not sure when we wised up. Maybe never. A big part of me still believes that what I see on the screen is actually happening. How else can you appreciate a movie?

WDF: In Island of Lost Souls, the Charles Laughton classic that forms the metaphor for the title story in your collection Are We Not Men?, I’m wondering which generated which: did the movie spawn the story idea? Or was the story in utero when you realized its relationship to the film?

BS: The movie’s been a favorite of mine for many years. Charles Laughton plays H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau, a vivisectionist trying to combine animals and humans on his island. His mistakes wander the jungle at night, howling in pain. To keep some kind of order, the head of the beast-men leads them in a question-and-answer session each night. “What is the law?” he cries. “Not to eat meat! That is the law!” they answer morosely. They’re hanging on to the little shred of humanity the doctor has given them. But of course, before long all hell breaks loose, and that’s when things get interesting. The movie’s been remade several times, but the 1932 original remains the best. The lighting alone makes it worth watching, as subtle as the best German Expressionist film.

I guess I began thinking about the chanted refrain from the movie while I was puzzling out my own and other men’s bad fate and bad behavior in life. The line “Are we not men?” kept coming to me. I heard it as a comic refrain, something Robert Bly’s drum-banging wilderness men might chant to build their courage. What I found interesting is that this desperate and outmoded image of manhood – this chest-thumping bravado – is what has led us all into such murky depths when it comes to relationships. I wrote my story out of the energy of that hard truth.

WDF: In that story your character says, “Your whole life has never been more than a string of B movie moments.” Is that true for you, too? Does that have something to do with your sense of the comic in those films? And, hello! Never “A” films?

BS: You spend your life, it seems to me, hoping to have a few A-list movie moments, but that never happens, at least not for me. I look around at my life and feel like I’ve just walked off the set of Detour or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The corny break-up lines we give and take, the self-important posturing, the back of the hand thrown tragically against the forehead. “Has anyone ever suffered as much as I?” We’re all drama queens hoping things will get better in the next reel, hoping there will be a next reel.

I do love B movies. I love the fact that they know they’re bad and so they have so few pretensions. And then, because of that modesty, they often have more to say than a better movie. The stumble on truth – such a happy accident! – when so many earnest movies strain after it in such self-conscious ways. It seems to me these movies almost always have a fairly strong strain of comedy running through them, partly because they know better than to take themselves too seriously. I was in a small independent film once. I played a serial killer. It was all very earnest, even religious, and very, very dull. At one point I was lying on the ground while the camera took a long shot of me that would latter be combined with an image of flames (the serial killer destroyed in a holy fire). We were filming on the campus of Penn State, where I was a graduate student at the time. As I lay there trying to hold my pose, I spotted an elderly professor of mine slowly making his way toward him. As he passed me, he turned slightly in my direction and, without breaking stride, said, “The sorrows of drink?” The movie could have used a few moments like that. I think this is one of the attractions of a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino. In every frame of every film he makes, you get the strong impression that he’s having the time of his life, that he’s enjoying the hell out of making this film.

WDF: Your work often deals with the humor and pathos of relationships
that didn’t gel. There’s a “How Long Gone Are You Gonna Be?” feeling in it.
Is that reflected in the films you like?

BS: I’m a big fan of film noir, where all things – especially relationships – are going to hell. In a Lonely Place is a great example of that. Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame start out so much in love, and then their mutual suspicion tears them apart. And what about Brief Encounter, where nothing and everything happens between Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. The pathos of that movie has a half-life of five hundred years! And hell, I’m not too proud to say it – what about Bette Davis in Dark Victory? Remember the scene where she has gone blind but doesn’t want her husband to know because he’s leaving for an important conference? It’s a scene that’s at once absolutely hilarious and absolutely touching.

WDF: On another note, you’ve recently finished collaborating on a screenplay.
Is it a comedy? Tell me about the project. And how do two guys who live half
a country apart manage to pull something like this off? And give me the dirt.
What are the joys and pitfalls of working together on something like this?

BS: My long-time friend Brad Owens and I have written a screenplay together. We’re both big fans of movies, and we sometimes amuse ourselves by coming up with movie plots. One of them kept coming back to haunt us. Then one day we found ourselves moving furniture for a friend, sharing a truck cab for two days. I had a small tape recorder so we decided to work out the story of our screenplay. The fact that we were trapped in a truck cab made it easy. There was very little else to do. Once we were back in our separate homes, we kept working on the outline and sharing ideas by phone and email. Then it turned out that he and I were both going to be at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, so we decided to stay there for an extra week or two and write the damned thing. When we were all set up and ready to work, I turned on the tape recorder. All you could hear was the sound of the truck engine and our distant satisfied chortles over the brilliant plot points we were coming up with. There was absolutely nothing usable on the tape. We started over, and it was just like in the old movies, with one of us pacing and the other hunched over a laptop, pecking away at the dialogue.

It started out as a story about the only female cop on a midwestern city police force. Eventually it evolved into a thriller called “Seven Rivers” about high-tech crime in Silicon Valley. In some ways it’s fairly commercial. There’s a murder at the heart of it, some pretty original villains. But the main character is an Asian woman, and down deep the movie’s about responsibility and cultures in collision. I don’t think it ever gets too earnest, though. There’s plenty of eye-popping action and sly humor, though it’s hard to tell what you have after working on it so long and hard. I see now why Hollywood can spend so much money on such bad movies sometimes. You get so wrapped up in the process that you can no longer step back from it to measure the crap-quotient.

I’ve dug ditches and driven trucks and hauled parge for bricklayers, but collaboration between two writers is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It’s a constant headache. You’re both thinking at top speed, trying to shape your ideas and then express them to your partner. And at the same time you’re trying to understand your partner’s ideas. Add to this the fact that the story and characters are changing constantly as you talk out your ideas, and you get an idea of why it’s so hard. The great idea for a scene that you’re explaining to your partner is for a version of the story he discarded five minutes ago. And part of what you’re doing is suggesting directions for the plot, but part is reciting dialogue. It’s hard to keep things straight. It’s tough work. We’d get up and work for three or four hours and then have to take naps before going back at it for another few hours. On our breaks we’d rent videos from a backwoods video store. It was so backwoodsy that the videos were in no order at all. You just had to wander the aisles until you found something you wanted. Back at the house we were renting, we’d play a one-minute scene from a movie and then talk for thirty minutes about what the scene accomplished, what it suggested about the direction of the story, etc. Then we’d play the next scene, stop the tape, talk. Even our leisure activities were work. It was hard.

WDF: What happens now with the screenplay? Is your literary agent shopping
it around?

BS: Brad and I are still ironing out problems in the fifth act, working by email and phone. When we have these last few things nailed into place, my agent will shop it around, which will be a great change from my previous experiences with writing for the screen. Some years ago I was hired to write a treatment for a mini-series. I grew up in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, so that’s what I wrote about. The climax of the story was a collapsed mine. The midwestern producers were very excited about it. There were only two problems, they said. One was that the mini-series would be produced for distribution in the Midwest and therefore would have to be set in the Midwest. “But there are no coal mines in the Midwest,” I said. “That’s the other problem,” they said. “We want you to change the coal mine to a grain silo that catches fire.” At the end of all our talk, the story was so different – so far away from anything I could claim to know anything about – that I just walked away from the project.

And then, a couple years later, I was hired to write the novelization of a movie called Motor Home from Hell, a send-up of horror movies. I started turning in my pages and the producer liked them so much that he started incorporating them in the screenplay. I had the motor home wiping out whole Cub Scout troops, an old man on the first day he regained his ability to walk. That kind of thing. After a few weeks, I timidly asked about when I’d be paid. The producer got so angry at my impudence that he threatened to take the project to James Keach, who would surely hire his own writer. I suggested that he go ahead and do that. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve talked to people who have. I think it shows now and then on bed sheets in backyards in the Deep South.

WDF: Novels and stories are a solo show. Would you compare the process
of working on a screenplay with putting together a novel or short story. Of
the three forms, which is your fave?

BS: A short story is a project. A novel is an obsession. And I recently learned what a screenplay is from Diane Johnson. In addition to her wonderful novels (including The Shadow Knows, my favorite), she’s also a very accomplished screenwriter (The Shining, etc.). I asked her recently how she writes a screenplay based on a novel, and she said all she does is write out all the dialogue from the book and then start throwing bits of it away until what she has left looks like a poem. So a screenplay, I guess, is a poem. There’s something very true about what she’s saying. The art of the screenplay, I think, is the art of what’s left out, which is also – but to a lesser degree – the art of the short story. The art of the novel, though, is the art of what’s left in, added in, dumped in. Writing a novel is like building a house from the inside out, where you can never step outside to get a good look at it. You live and work inside it, and you just hope what you’re building has some kind of structural integrity. But a short story is something like a piece of sculpture. You can set it on the table, walk around it, step back from it. You can really work that thing to death. There’s something very appealing about the story, but it takes guts to write a novel, to risk that much uncertainty for so long a time. So I don’t know which form I prefer. They satisfy different appetites.

I don’t think the screenplay necessarily corresponds to either the novel or the short story. It’s such a third thing. The scenes in a screenplay, for instance, are so short compared to the scenes in either form of fiction. For the most part you have to drop your dependence on the narrative voice and go on the strength of your ear and eye. You have to think visually and aurally. A movie starts self-destructing when the screenwriter starts trying to explain things to the audience and pretending its dialogue. Screenplays seem easier to write, but then it’s harder to tell the good parts from the bad, I think. It’s a great kick, though, to hear words you’ve written spoken aloud by good actors. I wrote something for the stage recently and watched from the dark at the back of the theater. First it was great to hear the actors make my words real. And then it was overwhelmingly satisfying to hear the audience laugh at the right places, feel sad at the right places, etc. You don’t get that kind of pleasure from writing fiction. Even when someone comes forward to tell you they’ve enjoyed your book, it’s almost always a measured, intellectualized praise. There’s nothing like a belly laugh to let you know that you’ve really reached somebody. You stand at the back of the darkened theater pumping your arm and mouthing “Yes!”

I’ve been working on a screenplay based on my novel, The Lost Son, and it’s taught me something interesting, at least to me. Since you have to throw so much away when you write a screenplay, you discover vividly just how much or how little story you’ve got at the heart of the novel. You discover how much is there and how much is missing. When I wrote the novel, all those words got in the way. Now that I’ve tossed out so many, I can see the bare bones and the missing bones of the story. I’m not very good at developing plot, but writing a screenplay from my novel is teaching me a lot. I’m starting to think the best way to learn to write a novel is to write a screenplay of a novel you love. It teaches you so much, not just about plot but about time and movement and character and tension and structure. Now I sound as though screenplays are my favorite form. I’m just a kid in a candy store who can’t decide.

WDF: You’re working on a painful and hilarious memoir entitled The
Hard Line at the moment. There’s a highly cinematic scene in it set in a
place called Boys Town in Mexico. Tell the readers what’s in Boys Town and
how it compares to the famous home for boys in Nebraska where you live. Is
the memoir something you can envision in film?

BS: Nebraska’s Boys Town is one of the most successful charities ever mounted. It’s the famous home for boys and girls begun by Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy in the movie), and it’s a model for others like it around the world. In Mexico, “Boys Town” is the euphemism for the red light district in many border towns, which I guess in itself is a euphemism for the neighborhood where most of the prostitution takes place. I’ve been writing a nonfiction book about the border, and I figured I’d have to visit such a place, for the complete picture. And I couldn’t help but be impressed by the violent contrast between the two kinds of places. Before I went there, I asked a Mexican bartender if I would be hurt in Boys Town. “Oh yes,” he said. His answer was so quick that I figured my Spanish wasn’t clear, so I tried asking another way: “Is Boys Town dangerous?” “Oh yes,” he said, another quick reply. Finally, I tried one last time. “Will I be killed if I go to Boys Town?” “Oh yes,” he said slowly, emphatically, “you will most definitely be killed.”

Well, I wasn’t killed, though I think that was a matter of chance favoring the stupid. There are lots of scenes in the book that could be easily translated to film. And the basic idea of the book seems suited to the movies: after my father’s death, I retraced my father’s route along the border, trying to find answers for his death, answers for his life. But on the whole the book has a strong line of narration, which I think spells disaster in movies.

WDF: Most writers have more than entertained the idea of their work
being adapted for the screen. Some, sadly, have this altogether too much in
mind when they’re creating the prose beast. Have you thought about how your
prose would adapt to the screen? If asked, would you want to be the one to
do the adapting?

BS: I see my fiction in highly visual terms. I consciously build scenes that I hope will be interesting to watch in the mind’s eye. And I work hard to get dialogue that will sound realistic and be interesting to the ear. So I think my work is already leaning toward the screen. I would want to be the one doing the adapting, though I realize I’d probably only be one of several by the time the project was finished.

A story of mine (“Babyman”) was optioned for the movies a little while ago. It’s about a prison inmate who gets paroled when he becomes an expert on baby care. I was thrilled when the story was optioned. After talking with the producer, I became a little less thrilled. He was suggesting changes to make the story more cinematic. And though I agreed to the changes, I was a little sad at what was being lost. I consoled myself by remembering what Bernard Malamud said when people asked if he was upset at how much harm Hollywood had done to The Natural when they made it into a movie. Apparently he pointed to a copy of the book on the shelf and said something like “There it is. They haven’t harmed it at all.” By which I think he meant the printed word and the filmed word are two very different things. So I was prepared to accept the producer’s judgment. The option ran out recently, though, and the company didn’t renew it, but I’ve been playing with a screenplay version, so who knows.

WDF: Let’s end with the important questions… what’s your guilty pleasure
movie? Or more than one if you’ll admit to it. I know this is indefensible
but why do you like it? Or, if I’m lucky, them?

BS: First a guilty misery movie. I’m the only one of my friends who doesn’t like the new Star Wars movie. I love B-movies, so I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I guess the more money and pretension go into a movie, the harder it is to like. I admire the technical achievement, but in the end the movie’s too much like a shopping mall. All those flashing lights, all that scented air, all the background music from all those different stores. It’s all too much for me. I’m like a dog, I think. When I’m stimulated by that much spectacle, I just get sleepy and start looking for a place to lie down.

I’d count Island of Lost Souls as a guilty pleasure. I never get tired of that one. And I love a movie I mentioned earlier called Detour, a really terrible bit of film noir, but I’m seeing more and more people list it as a favorite movie, so there’s less guilt in this guilty pleasure than there once was for me. It has some awful acting and writing (“Fate sticks out a leg to trip you”), but I love it. There’s a scene in which Ann Savage, who plays the female lead, has pulled the phone into the bedroom and locked the door. She wants to call for help. Tom Neal, playing a hitchhiker whose luck has run to the bad, grabs the phone cord and starts pulling it, trying to yank it out of her hands from under the door. Cut to the bedroom and a shot of Savage with the cord wrapped around her neck, being yanked to death by the unknowing Neal. It’s terrible! It’s immoral and inhumane! But I love it.

And I love anything by Don Siegel, “King of the B’s.” There’s a camera shot in Invasion of the Body Snatchers that I love. Keven McCarthy is racing up the stairs of an old building. The camera follows him up halfway and then just turns to watch him run down the hallway. Only the spindles in the banister are too closely spaced to allow us to see well, so Siegel just had one of the spindles knocked out, letting the camera shoot through the space. I love it because it’s such a self-conscious manipulation of the setting to accommodate the filmmaker. For that moment, it’s as if the director’s yelling, “Remember, it’s only a movie!” When fate starts hammering away at you, I’d love to be able to say, “Remember, it’s only a movie.” Or maybe I’m still trying to find reassurance for all those deaths my brother and I thought we were witnessing in The Alamo.

I’m feeling guilty about all my references to old movies. But there are so few movies these days about real people with real lives, that take us away from and into ourselves at the same time, as any good movie should. So many recent movies are about ending lives instead of building lives. It’s easy to have one character kill another character off. The hard part – in writing and in life – is to show a relationship growing, changing, degrading, and then changing again. I guess I think that most relationships are always at some point on the pendulum sweep from humor to pathos. At bottom, relationships sum up who we were, who we are, and who we’d like to be. A relationship is always about regret and the desire for perfectibility. It’s the only subject that matters.

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Wendy Dorsel Fisher is a poet who lives in southern Vermont and cybercommutes for the television studios in Hollywood from a cabin high atop Turkey Mountain.