Mark Spragg -- author of the novel The Fruit of Stone (Riverhead Books), a Book Sense 76 Top Ten hardcover for September/October -- knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer.
But the 50-year-old Spragg was in his mid-40s before he found the place and the people he'd make his own as an author: "The great wide varied landscape" of his own Wyoming, where (in the words of writer-colleague Kent Haruf) "good men and deep women play out their love-burdened lives."
"I think I was a late bloomer as far as prose matters," Spragg said recently, in a telephone interview done in the midst of a 15-city tour for The Fruit of Stone.
Spragg -- whose first literary exploration of his native territory was the award-winning 1999 memoir, Where Rivers Change Direction -- grew up in Wyoming, "at the oldest outfitting guest ranch in the state, on a national forest: 25 miles to a one-room schoolhouse; 50 miles to the closest town; 12 million acres of wilderness area. It was really very anachronistic, almost a 19th-century upbringing. My father had a very fine library, and a hundred head of horses, with which we took people on pack trips in the wilderness area for up to three weeks at a time."
When Spragg left this isolated world for the University of Wyoming (where he earned a degree in literature), "the schism was shocking," he said. "It wasn't just a rural boy going to a larger city. It was like moving into another century." Spragg didn't see a television show until he was 18.
By then he felt called to write, partly, he said, through the influence of his high school English teacher Dorothy Banks: "An absolutely remarkable woman. Utterly pivotal in my life. I think more profoundly than anyone, she introduced me to very fine literature -- helped me develop an ear for why it was important, and was a very enthusiastic supporter of my aspirations of wanting to become a writer. I've stayed in touch with her, and admire and love her a great deal." The Fruit of Stone is co-dedicated to Dorothy Banks, "who gave a boy a gift of words."
That boy found Mark Twain of great appeal. "Shortly after that," Spragg recalled, "I fell in love with Henry James and Lawrence Durrell. I've read a lot of their work -- in fact, all of their work, I think -- several times." Then other countries' schools of authors drew his attention: "The French, the Germans, the English, with the Latin writers, in my early 20s, probably most influencing my work: Neruda, Fuentes, Lorca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- the musical quality of their work, the roundness of the way they viewed life, I did, and still think, is extraordinary."
As he read other countries' writers, Spragg traveled farther away from the place of his youth. "I was very anxious to see the world and experience it," he said. He moved to Greenwich Village in his 20s, and then to even more exotic sites. "I worked on oil rigs, and shod horses, managed a ranch," Spragg said. "I ended up traveling to South America and Mexico several times; Europe, half a dozen times." In the evenings, he'd write -- not, of course, about the place he'd grown up in ("You know: Why would that be interesting to anyone else?") but about the different environments his travels took him to. "I would go places and know them very little and try to write about them."
Spragg published some short stories "here and there" over the years; but, he said, "in fact, they weren't very good.... In my younger years, I might render a good paragraph or a good character, or even occasionally a good story, but I wasn't smart enough or thorough enough, or didn't have that editor built-in substantially enough, to know when I was writing poorly, and to get any sort of consistency in my work."
And then, in his 40s, Spragg returned to the state where he'd begun, and found the subject matter and the discipline that had been waiting for him.
The breakthrough was unexpected and at first unrecognized. "My wife and I moved back to Cody, Wyoming," Spragg said, "to help take care of my mother. She was dying, which took much longer than any of us had anticipated, about three and a half years. We were with her every day, for long periods of time. In fact, I wrote that first book, the nonfiction book (Where Rivers Change Direction), as sort of a map for her, of her life, and her life with her sons, on the wilderness area. And I probably wasn't smart enough to know this at the time, but later I saw: I was also writing a map for myself."
In writing of his family, Spragg came to see how much he loved the corner of the world he'd once thought too "parochial" to interest others.
His boyhood world shaped his mature prose and became "the real narrative" of his work.
"I think in the same way Chicago is a sort of emotional touchstone for a lot of Midwestern writers, the same way New York is for a lot of Eastern writers," Spragg said, "I think that big block of wilderness area -- the largest in the lower 48 states, the first national park, and the first national forest -- means the same to me that big urban areas do for writers in other parts of the country. It has its own personality, its own vibrancy. To me, I think it has its own voice."
And the same situation that inspired his well-received memoir -- the years Spragg spent with his mother at the end of her life -- led in time to his first novel, The Fruit of Stone.
"I heard a lot of her regrets, in her life; they were small. Small heroics, and small cowardices. Friends that she felt she hadn't appreciated enough. Aspirations that she hadn't followed. And I think what struck me so much was this good, kind woman, at the end of her life, what she still had that she'd longed for. And I thought a lot about the things I long for, that all of us long for. And when I went in to start The Fruit of Stone, the overriding thematic stamp that it had for me was that these (characters) would be men and women with very pronounced and unrealized longings in their life. It also developed from there into a book about the nature of family and friendship and love."
In returning to the place where he'd begun, Spragg created works with universal appeal. (Foreign rights to The Fruit of Stone have been sold in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.) And his books have found favor with discerning independent booksellers throughout the United States.
"They're the people that hugely, reverently care about good writing in this country," Spragg said of the independents. "They get behind writers whose work they care about.... They've meant everything [to me], in my short and so far relatively happy career! ... The independents are, I think, the absolute core of a writer's not only success but solace."
The night before, Spragg said he'd read at a "marvelous" independent store, The Capitola Book Cafe, a place he felt was instilled with an almost religious aura: "It was the experience of coming into a cloister or sacristy."
At the end of his book tour, Mark Spragg will return to his own sort of cloister, at his home in Northwestern Wyoming, and resume work on a new novel, placed in the same fictional town he created for The Fruit of Stone. And, like the people he writes of, he'll adhere to a simple and rigorous routine.
"I get up very early every morning," the author said. "I find I do my best work in the morning. I probably write like farmers farm: I start to work at 5:30 and work as long as the day will give me. And I probably pray like farmers pray: that some emotional or physical storm won't sweep through and ruin the harvest." --Tom Nolan