The Book Show #1671 - Scott Spencer
An Ocean Without a Shore" from the best-selling, critically acclaimed author Scott Spencer, known for "Endless Love" and "Man in the Woods", is an exploration of that timeless of human dilemmas the one in which your love is left unreturned. Since their college days, Kip Woods has been infatuated with Thaddeus Kaufman, who, years later, is a married father of two children and desperately trying to revive a failing career. Kip’s devotion to Thaddeus has been life-defining and destiny-altering, but it has been one that Thaddeus has either failed to notice or refused to acknowledge. Scott Spencer is the author of 12 novels, including "Endless Love", "Waking the Dead", "A Ship Made of Paper" and "Willing".
Joe Donahue: It's a great pleasure to welcome Scott Spencer to this week's Book Show. Scott, thank you very much for being with us.
Scott Spencer: What a great pleasure for me to be here and nice to hear your voice, Joe.
Well, thank you. I have to say I adored this novel and it wasn't until I was about halfway through it that I realized that it was a follow up to a previous novel. So give me a sense as to what your original project and idea was for this.
Well, the original idea started about seven years ago. And I wanted to write about this story and these characters and do something that I haven't done in my other books, which is to carry them through a great expanse of time, like 25 years. But as I worked on it, I realized that what I was in fact working off of, that would be like 1400 pages and that I didn't want to inflict that on readers and didn't want to inflict that on myself, because it just would be too long. So I wrote just part of it in the novel "River Under the Road", but the idea that I would pick it up and continue this story from a different perspective, which is what I did in "Ocean Without a Shore", but I wanted to also- It, it posed, uh, certain challenges I hadn't faced before as a writer, because I'd never written a book that was, that came out of another book. And I didn't want to assume that the reader would A, have read the first book or, B, if the reader had read it, would they remember everything about it. So I wanted to make sure that this book, that, that "An Ocean Without a Shore", could stand by itself, yet, flow from it, the first book, and not contradict it. The truth of the matter is that by the time I came to the end of this book, the idea of going forward has more or less faded from me, but maybe it will revive again. But I've been, I have spent so many years writing about these characters and about their lives and about where they live and the people they know and the trouble that they get into, that it's come, right now, as great relief to be writing about something else.
And is that simply because you feel that you, as, as of now have told the story you wanted to tell about these characters.
I feel like I've carried them forward quite a ways. I've lived with them quite a ways, I've revealed their lives in a way that seems compelling to me at least. And I don't feel that I've said the last words, there's always more to say about characters. But I think that I've given them a lot and they, they can stand on their own. And if I were to go forward with it, it would be a few years later- I mean, a few years later from, in my life, maybe like three or four years from now, if I were to do that. And I would write about what happened to the various children who are in this book. But as to the main characters, Thaddeus, and Kip, and Grace, I feel that their stories are pretty complete now.
So let us talk about the story of Kip and Thaddeus. And we'll begin with Kip, because he's the one telling us this story. And how do you see this this character? And did you always know it was going to be from his point of view?
When I began "An Ocean Without a Shore" with the idea of carrying the story forward, I wanted to write in the first person because I hadn't done that in a while, and I enjoy writing in the first person. And I wanted to tell more about Thaddeus. So I thought to myself, "Well, there are two people who really, really know Thaddeus, one is his wife Grace and having her narrate it would be very difficult for me because she's his wife, and it's like a court of law, she can't, she's not allowed to testify against her husband. And everything would be skewed if it was the wife telling the story. So that left me with kept his best friend for many, many years since, they've known each other since the University of Michigan when they were undergraduates. So he seemed like a great choice. My original idea was that Kip would be more or less a background character and as much as the narrator can be a background character. I saw him like, like Nick Carraway in the you know, the narrator of Great Gatsby-
Who's there, but, but when people think about Great Gatsby, they don't think of that, that, "Nick Carraway was really kind of an amazing character." He's, he's a background character, he's the one telling the story about somebody who the reader is, is interested in. And I thought, that's what Kip would be. But as the writing of it progress, and I got to live inside of Kip's mind and his voice became more and more interesting and appealing to me- He basically ran away with the book. And I think that this turned out to be his book.
And, and it's lovely. I mean, it- Because it tells us the story of a man who is is waiting for a great love of his life and, and really doesn't even consider anybody else at any time.
No, he doesn't. He's very, very focused. And I think because his love is a secret, it has to be protected in a way, almost protected really from, from reality. It has to be protected from time. And when, when you're away from the person who you love, time becomes really brutal. I mean, there's a lyric in a great Mark Knopfler song says "Time has no shame." And this is- That the time, just- Every day that goes by is just a wasted day that you don't get to have the life that you so dearly and deeply want. And being with somebody else would relieve some of the pain, but it will also almost accelerate that sense of that your life is moving further and further away, with every day from, from where you want it to be.
Scott Spencer is our guest in this week's Book Show. The name of the new novel is "An Ocean Without a Shore", it is published by Echo. In, in my reading of this, and, and I'm curious, if you agree. is, is that Thaddeus is someone that Kip loves dearly and is infatuated with but doesn't necessarily always like.
Yeah, I think that he probably likes him more than some people do. I mean, because he knows him so well, that Thaddeus' excesses and his failings are knowable. And when you know somebody when you know, deeply in- When you can see deeply into somebody and see why they do things and where their actions come from, it's, it becomes more and more difficult to dislike him. There's a great Abraham Lincoln quote when he said, "I don't like that man, I need to get to know him better."
When you, when you think about these, these characters and especially, especially Kip, because he is very accomplished and he is watching Thaddeus, and Thaddeus is giving so much to others and he is taking from Kip but Kip really wants what Thaddeus is giving to so many other people.
That's true. That's a, that's an interesting way of putting it. Didn't think that quite that way that's that's absolutely true. Of course that is giving is almost like the way he baits the hook because what Thaddeus craves is people to look at him, and admire him, and to like him. And in his view, that takes a certain amount of money, because he sees himself as somebody who just throws the door open and lays out a beautiful dinner and opens up great bottles of wine, and that takes a toll. And in the- At a certain point in his life, he's quite successful, he's a screenwriter, and he's got a huge hit. And the money is coming in, it doesn't occur to him that these things are cyclical, that these things can, can come and go. And he, he establishes a pace and tastes and, and a way of life that he can't sustain. And that's when he turns the Kip who is not like, super wealthy, but he works and makes a good salary. And he said, "Look it, I'm circling the drain here. Can you, can you help me out? I know my ships gonna come in. If not today, then tomorrow and if not tomorrow, then the week after. But in the meanwhile, I can't pay the taxes on my house, I can't get the most basic repairs done." And Kip for his part is glad, because it gives him a real connection to Thaddeus.
I am curious of because Kip is, is not only not telling Thaddeus how he feels about him, but he is not telling the world about his, his sexuality. He has many reasons for that, that he goes through over, over the course of the novel. And I'm, I'm interested in, in your take and in exploring that with, with these two particular characters. And the, the fact that Kip is, seems so devoted to Thaddeus and yet so unsure of, of wanting anyone else to know.
Yeah, he's really, as he says, at one point, "He's in a prison of his own making." You know, one of the things that I wanted this book to be about, and it was kind of hard, because you're writing about things that are not said. And, you know, it occurred to me in, in, in the writing of this, that our lives are, are shaped by what we do, and our lives are shaped by what we say. But just as powerfully, our lives are shaped by the things we don't say, by the things we don't do, you know, that- I think there's a line somewhere in the book that "Silence works on us like a lave and gives us our final shape." That, this is what- I mean, this is what's happened to Kip. And once, once that silence is established, he can never find the time, the moment when he can say, "You know what, everything I've said up to this point is in fact untrue." He's sort of locked into it and is waiting for something to happen, that will turn it around. On another level though, you can feel that he is in fact, using the farfetched-ness of this attachment, the almost in possibility of his really being with Thaddeus, who's married with a couple of kids and is not at least no one knows him to be gay. He holds on to that as a way of keeping himself unknown not only to Thaddeus but to the world, because he lives with a great deal of shame, which he thinks of is a need for privacy. And it is to an extent, I mean, some people are private. But it's also living with shame, he's living at a time when people all over the country are coming out of the closet, are marching under the rainbow banner. He's way, way past Stonewall, but he's not a part of it.
And he doesn't feel that he can be.
I think he thinks that maybe one day he will be, but that day just hasn't come. You know, it's, it's just what we do when we're when, when we're afraid. We'll say, we don't say, we don't really say never, we just say not now.
I think your writing early on in the, in the novel about Thaddeus and Grace and you say, "Oh, and what a little crock pot of frustrated ambitions they kept at a steady simmer." But that's almost like the two of them, of Thaddeus and Kip, but because it's it, they had an early sexual experience that we learn later on, that maybe even Thaddeus doesn't fully remember, at least as having such an impact on his life as it did on Kip.
Right. It was just collegiate horsing around to Thaddeus. But Kip, it was a, it was a completely significant, almost a golden moment.
Let's talk about geography if we can. Scott Spencer is our guest. The name of the book is "An Ocean Without a Shore". You have written a bit about this, about this area in the Hudson Valley. It should be noted that it is, it's a fictional place that you have, that you have created not only for this, but for past novels as well.
I have. Yeah. But, you know, I live around Rhinebeck, and people who live around Rhinebeck, assume that, that the town that I call Layton is in fact Rhinebeck. I, I don't see it that way. But I love I love this area. I love living here. I love writing about this place. And it seems to me almost like a perfect place for, for fiction because it's relatively near, what is arguably the most vital city in the world, at least it was before the pandemic. But it's also gorgeous and it's also rural. It's also a place where people are more available to each other and, and their stories they're more available to, to, to each other and to me. So it is, in so many ways, a perfect place to write about. And I think that though, I'm not alone in that, I mean, I'm noticing more and more novels being written about the Hudson Valley and I think it's going to become a genre.
And the idea to keep it, to keep it is you say "perfect", part of the perfection, it seems in what you have created, is that it has some resemblance, but not all the resemblance of a real place.
It's your place.
Yeah, it's my place. And if you don't- I can, I can make the roads go where I want them to go.
I can also write with the, with the safety and, and the relaxation of knowing that at the end of the day this is fiction and this is a fictional place and I don't have to be looking over my shoulder wondering if I've gotten the details of you know where Route 9 goes, where it intersects with Route 9G. I don't need to worry about this. And also it's good for a writer to create a world that only lives in the writers head, you, you become more devoted to it and more immersed in it.
There is also the place, the house where Thaddeus and his family lives, Orkney, which is an estate and it is, it is beautiful, it has probably seen better days. But it is, it is something that that overtakes Thaddeus and his family and yet it is an important part of the community in the world that you created.
Yes, it is the I want to be clear that I do not live in an estate overlooking the Hudson River, But it was nice to write about it. Yeah, the house, the house is sort of his crowning achievement. And it's also like a huge weight changes, wasted now and he's, it's slowly dragging him down.
When it drags him down as I mentioned before, he'll, he'll go to, he'll go to, Thaddeus will go to Kip for help and Kip is, is, is always there. There are geographical, again, there are back and forths from the Hudson Valley to New York City. Scott, I can't tell you how many times I've been on the train from Albany to Penn Station on Amtrak. And when I started reading the novel of the cars getting bouldered, I- This is something I've never experienced. Is that a thing?
Really? I've not experienced that either except fictionally.
No, it's, it's an objective querulant. It's, it's a way of saying that this train that we all love so much is, can be seen as an intruder by people whose lives are being up ended by the gentrification of this valley.
And this is a regular thing that happens in the in the novel, and regular in the sense of it is ,it's something that's ongoing a problem where, where rocks are and boulders are thrown at the speeding train down the track and it will break windows and cause real problems at various times.
That's true. Think of this novel is being about three things. It's about unrequited love. Obviously, it's about that, you know, that's the propelling part of the story. It's also about what I was talking about before about how, what we don't say and what we don't do gives our life a shape. And this is also I think, a novel about money.
You right toward the end of the, of the book, "I've learned one of the lessons of loneliness, one of its shocking side effects, when you are in a state of longing desire goes on and on and on, like an ocean without a shore." Did you know when you wrote that, that you had the title?
No, I didn't. I had a title that my editor begged me not to use. Because it was really, really long. And I think it was basically, "The Things That We Do to Keep the Truth From Coming Out." And he said we can even design a cover with that on there. So I said, "Oh no." I mean, because I very I'm very title centric. I use title I, I like to have a title very, very close to the beginning of working on something because the title becomes sort of like the, the book's true-north. It gives me a sense of, "Am I, am I drifting away from what I've come here to do? Am I going in any kind of direction that makes sense?" And I'm not used to titling a book, after I've already finished it. Having been dissuaded from using the title that I'd been living with for the two years that I was writing the book. I just started paging through my novel and trying to find something there that I thought would be, I could use for a title, or at least that would point me towards title, and I came across that phrase that you just read and I thought, "Oh, I like that I can use that."
Scott Spencer is our guest, "An Ocean Without a Shore" is the new novel. The the idea of course, you know, "Endless Love" comes out, it is, it is a tremendous success. It's nominated for the National Book Award. Is that where you learned about Hollywood of what it could do to your work and how you should approach it?
Yes, I've learned a lot of unfortunate things that way, because I really didn't like the movie that they made of "Endless Love". And then actually, they made another movie of it, which was somehow, I mean, it was kind of a amazing thing, but they made a movie that was even worse than the first one. But, but what that did- I mean, there's several different producers, the studios wanted to make "Endless Love" and only, only one got to ruin it. And so it actually created a situation for me in which they suddenly wanted me to do work to work on scripts. And I had just- My, my wife and I just had our first kid, I'd never made more than $1,000 from, from writing before in my life. So I did that for quite a while and it was a lot of fun. And I did learn quite a bit about the movie business and some of that it's in this novel.
Robert V. Parker once told me that "The best thing a novelist can do is just take the money and run."
Yeah, yeah. It was harder to do when you're the script writer.
Because then, then they have you in the room. I like James M. Cain was asked, though, you know, "What do you think about what Hollywood did to your novels?" And he pointed the interviewer to look at his bookshelf. He said, "My novels are right over there. It didn't do anything to them."`
Does it, does it make you gun shy of doing anything else with Hollywood in the future?
Well, I think that you're always gun shy. You know, I don't know, I think the temptations are so great. I mean, not only the temptation, of having a little financial security, but also the temptation to see your characters, you know, on a screen to see actors. I love actors. I really love actors, and to see actors embody your work. To see it and film and to see what the landscape that was in your head projected, it's all very tempting. But you have to be very careful because it often turns into a disaster.
The new novel is "An Ocean Without a Shore". It is a beautiful piece of work. Scott Spencer, I thank you so much for being with us and sharing with us.
Thank you, Joe. That's really been great talking with you. I really liked your questions, by the way.
Thank you very much. Again, Scott Spencer's new novel is "An Ocean Without a Shore". It is published by Echo. We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at book@WAMC.org and you can listen again to this or find past Book Shows via podcast or at wamc.org. Sarah LaDuke produces our program. Bookmark us for next week, and thanks for listening for the Book Show, I'm Joe Donahue.