Tom Spanbauer Talks with Bo Young
On the Ambivalence of Virtues & Vice
In November, 2004, Tom Spanbauer gave a reading at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This introduction was made, at that time, by Chris Haigy, who wrote it. Haigy is a sophomore at Pratt, majoring in Journalism and Humor.
Tom Spanbauer is the writer of three novels: Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, and In the City of Shy Hunters, his critically acclaimed novel about sexuality and gender identity in 1980’s New York City. His latest novel is expected to come out later in 2005 and is tentatively titled Now Is The Hour (excerpted in this issue). He is the founder of the Dangerous Writing Workshops in Portland Oregon, where he lives.
Dangerous writing means putting a piece of yourself in a work, going to the “sore spot,” and discussing taboo topics, particularly sex and violence. It means writing for yourself, a concept that in the literary world was thought to make you go broke. It means exposing yourself to the tiger, not physically, but mentally.
Tom Spanbauer took the risk and has become wildly influential in doing so, his workshops inspiring such books as Fight Club, and his own writing achieving a kind of cult status.
Fiction, as he describes it, is the lie that tells the truth, and, as one of his characters explains, “the best stories are the true stories.” This nature of truth is at the heart of Spanbauer’s writing, his fictional characters reflecting the grittier issues that are dealt with every day.
His language is at times minimalist, at times experimental, and at times highly philosophical, which reflects the content of the books themselves. He addresses several controversial issues including gender identity, sexism, racism, sexuality and homophobia, dispelling their myths and, indeed, the myth of myths themselves.
Characters in his novels must reinvent themselves constantly as they learn more about the world they inhabit, and their niche in that world. This description, however, is too simplistic. As the reinvention progresses they retain bits of their former selves, becoming, in the end, the same amalgamation of ideas that we, as readers, have become. They are, at the same time, storyteller and anxious listener, allowing us to see the philosophical journey they undertake and to participate in it. In short, his books are a kind of overheard code of conduct for those outside the realms of society, and invitations for those not already there to get a move on.
Tom Spanbauer: I just finished Aharon Appelfeld’s Beyond Despair. Appelfeld spent his childhood in a forest hiding during the Nazi regime. It is such a powerful book. Basically, he talks about how Nazism stripped the Jew of everything, including his individuality. “Who can restore the violated honor of the self?” he asks. He also talks about the feeling of the Jew after the war. “That feeling that your experience cannot be told, that no one can understand it, is perhaps one of the worst that was felt by the survivors after the war.” Appelfeld also says that the only way to combat this dreadful anonymity is to make art.
When I say “to bring it down (the Holocaust),” Appelfeld says, “I do not mean to simplify, to attenuate, or to sweeten the horror, but to attempt to make the events speak through the individual and in his language, to rescue the suffering from the huge numbers, from dreadful anonymity, and to restore the person’s given and family name, to give the tortured person back his human form, which was snapped away from him.”
Also, Appelfeld, in a glorious passage, despite the horror he has been through, describes spirit in a way that really speaks to me.
“I call those feelings religious,” he says, “the fundamental religious sentiments, if you will, since they do not raise questions and they are not angry rebukes, nor are they far-reaching searchings of the soul, but rather wonder for its own sake, without any ulterior intention: you and the world, with no separation.”
I’ve also read Sebald’s The Natural History of Destruction. It is an account of the allied destruction of Germany at the end of the war. The book is amazing. W.G. Sebald tells us of the 131 German cities that were targeted by Allied bombs, and nearly all of them were flattened. Six hundred thousand German civilians died. That’s twice the number of American war casualties. Seven and a half million Germans were homeless. The thing though that is so mind blowing about the book is that Sebald takes us through history to show us that no one has ever really talked about it. In fact, no one seems to even remember it.
It’s been quite a journey reading Beyond Despair and The Natural History of Destruction together. Each tells us of the extremes of war, and the Zeitgeist of the time that has caused these extremes. One is from the viewpoint of a scared Jewish boy who hid himself in a forest, the other tells us of the Allied reaction to Nazism. What’s really cool though is this: Both the Jewish boy and the German people forgot. Coupled with shame and guilt, their memories were too overpowering to remember. And in both books, healing and awareness has come through reclaiming the story from out of the ashes.
Young: A lot of people have a similar sense of fear and loathing now, with the war we’re in and with the recent elections. What do you think the lessons of current history will be?
Spanbauer: I wish I were a better historian. It’s only been recently that I have placed myself and the current zeitgeist into a history. I think AIDS is probably the biggest cause for our nation’s swing to the right. A horrible debilitating disease caught by having sex; and particularly in America, by having homosexual sex, brings out all the Gloom and Doomers, all the Bible Thumpers. Our Puritan roots are really showing. The panic that goes along with the epidemic (pandemic) is as real as the virus itself. And that’s where we find ourselves, isn’t it? In a lot of fear. Fear of AIDS, and now the fear of terrorism.
I guess I do believe in karma, just in the sense that you reap what you sow. We overthrew a man who was trying to democratize the Middle eastern oil fields and put in the Shah of Iran, who basically secured the oil for Britain and the U.S.. Really, there are so many skeletons in our closet, we don’t dare open them doors. And now the disparity between the rich of the north and the poor of the south. The whole world is in such an imbalance, it just has to right itself.
In times like these—I think the only other comparable time for Europe and the U.S is the time of the German fascists—instead of digging in and trying to solve the problem, instead of finding a cure for AIDS, instead of looking at ourselves and asking “Why do these people hate us so much?” We become even more closed down, more defensive, more nationalistic. The gap between Us and Them grows and grows. I think unfortunately the only solution is some kind of storm that will clear the air. So, I think, we are at a point, where only violence will get our attention. Or get the attention of those in power, because those in power are so strong and so removed, and so defended, that they are actually defining what “real” is. Our news is no longer information but propaganda. Now that’s hubris.
There’s some Greek saying that goes: You can fix the mess that mankind has made, but you can’t fix the mess mankind is.
Power and wealth corrupt.
I guess we just need to keep learning that over and over.
At the same time, I see something new that’s going on. Before George Bush declared war on Iraq, a billion and a half people all over the world united together and protested. If the Age of Aquarius means anything, it means that we are creating new ways, we are usurping old rules, we are transgressing old boundaries because of an expanded awareness.
In so many ways, I think the hope of the world is in the Internet and in homosexuality. The Internet because we have available to us a way of communicating we have never had before. And homosexuality. Gay Arabs, Gay Jews — even some Hassids, Gay Native Americans, Gay African Americans, Gay Catholics — what binds us all is not our heritage or the color of our skin, or the god we pray to. What binds us is love, compassion, and understanding. The established forms of relationship and worship don’t apply to us. We are all the outcasts of our societies. So the Gay Catholic looks to the Gay Arab, and what she sees is what is familiar, not what is different.
Young: Your writing has a very pronounced spiritual “darkness” to it, for lack of a better word, i.e. very bad things happen to good people. There is no pretense in your stories or your writing about making anyone “feel better” about things. At the same time, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, especially, is widely read and I’d even go so far as to say cherished by many gay men. Given the underlying sadness of the story, why do you think it had such an effect on people?
Spanbauer: There is a Zen saying that goes: When you look into the eyes of another, be kind — for inside there is a huge battle going on. It is just the way life is that there is darkness and there is light. So many artists, I think make the mistake of either trying to create an upbeat message or a nihilistic one. An artist doesn’t really have to try for either because if he looks closely at his world, he will find great tragedy and great ecstasy standing right next to each other.
I may have a terrific day, a day in which I feel alive and connected to the world, yet when I go to tell my friend about my day, he may think: “isn’t that great but the poor thing has AIDS.” Or else I will tell a friend the suffering that AIDS is putting me through and he may think: “yeah, but he’s got four books published.”
In each of us, there is great sadness, great pettiness, great grief, and great selfishness. During a day, I may feel jealousy, rage, disdain, homophobia, and racism. Yet, I am a good man, or I am striving for good, so my negative feelings don’t stop me because I am also forthright, honest, empathetic, and sensitive to other people’s feelings.
I think it is the epitome of health to live in the ambivalence of all one’s virtues and vices.
How many stories do we know of great men and great women—people that we admire and try to exemplify—and then when we get the inside dish of how they treated their friends, or employees, or their colleagues, how they were alcoholic, or cheap, or greedy—how disappointed in them we become.
One of the most disappointing stories I know is that Cary Grant was a tight-ass with his money.
Every good person I know, something very bad has happened to — disease, untimely death, bankruptcy, the loss of a child.
I think that a lot of us in America tend to think that underneath it all, life really is the Disney channel. That if you’re good and work hard, and are kind to others, then you’re not going to go through any severe suffering. That’s just bullshit. Someone said to me the other day, “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” Fuck that. Just my two little years in the Peace Corps showed me how many people can’t handle what God can dish out.
I think people respond to the characters in my books and their stories, even though their stories are sad or tragic, because I’ve done my homework and have been able to create real characters who we can love.
I think artistically, it takes some skill to make real characters. A character is real because he or she has a certain face, a certain facial expression, a particular way she braids her hair, a certain way he licks his lips. Physiognomically the character has to be present in the physical events on the page. In fact the characters themselves have to be a physical event.
I think if you looked into the eyes of Ida Richilieu or Alma Hatch or Shed, or Dellwood Barker, or Argwings Khodek, or Ruby Prestigiacomo, or Fiona Yet or True Shot you would find a huge battle going on.
All these characters were set down on this earth bewildered. Not one of them knows how to get out of the quandary they are in—that they’re going to die.
So as far as life goes, I may be chosen for a great literary honor, but while I’m sitting on the stage I’ll probably be worrying about the grease stain on my pants leg, or how the label in the collar of my shirt is scratching the back of my neck. Or even worse. I could be receiving my award while my cousin, a National Guardsman from Montana, steps on a land mine in Iraq.
That’s life for ya. And we’re all in the same boat.
Young: In The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon, Dellwood tells the story of “The Hairy Moon Man.” I know that one stopped me in my tracks, as it did a lot of people. Where did that come from?
Spanbauer: The Hairy Moon Man came out of my very own dirty little mind. I think it may be based on the archetype of the puer, or Eternal Boy. I hooked up the puer with Narcissus and I got a pool of water. And inside the pool of water is the exact opposite of the fine sensitive boy. The dark side of the fine puer who wants to be pulled down to the darkest place and have his asshole ravished by the hairy beast. Those of us who have made this journey under water, or to the other side—to the under world and back—have an awareness, and a responsibility to the rest of the world to tell the story.
Young: There is such humanity in your statement: “I think it is the epitome of health to live in the ambivalence of all one’s virtues and vices.” I mean, there it is, the classic, sacred in-between place. Your belief that the light and the dark are part and parcel of the whole spirit is what makes your writing such an authentic spiritual experience for me. That “denial of Disney.” It strikes me as the classic “contrary” role.
Clearly, some of the roots of your philosophy grow from your growing up in Idaho and Native American experiences. You and I actually know one another through a shared friendship with Shoshone two spirit, Clyde Hall (see WC #31). Would you talk a little about how he has affected your life?
Spanbauer: Bo, Clyde Hall put my feet on the ground, and when I looked at the ground I saw that it was my mother. Clyde helped me to see the world was alive and full of mystery. He pretty much took me out of my Christian European culture head and helped me see that I wasn’t separated from nature. That by stepping into my body, I stepped into nature.
It was a particularly rich time for me when I met Clyde. I’d just returned to the States from the Peace Corps in Kenya. I had all that wonderful Africa ju ju running through my veins and here I was back in middle class America looking for a job. I got a job as a counselor at Idaho State University and I was made an advisor for the Indian Club. Clyde was the president of the Indian Club. One day, I didn’t really know what the fuck I was supposed to do—who me advise Indians? So I was busy in the Indian Club library, putting books on the shelves in alphabetical order. (There’s a metaphor for you.) I was up on a ladder when Clyde walked in the room. It seems my ass in the pair of green corduroys I was wearing was quite appealing to Clyde. And so began our spiritual life together.
It was three months later that during Indian Days at the University that Clyde took me to his tipi that he had set up on the campus quad, that we cut each other’s wrists and became blood brothers.
Really, I haven’t been the same since Clyde. Those first years, neither one of us were out of the closet. In fact, I had just recently been married. Thirty-seven years later, here we are, queer and still here and still loving brothers.
I could write a book just about Clyde. We’ve had lots of adventures, spiritual and not so spiritual. But the thing I want to impress on you the most, is my life and his came together in such a way that kind of blew us both out of the water. Speaking for myself, I could never have written The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon without Clyde, or any of the rest of my books. Faraway Places was my first tentative grasp on portraying real people who were Native American, then Moon, and the same goes for In the City Of Shy Hunters. There is a strong Native element in Shy Hunters in the character of True Shot and Charlie 2Moons. And in my new book, Now Is The Hour, I’m going back to basics, on the farm in Tyhee Idaho baling hay with George Sereno, a Native American from the Fort Hall Indian reservation.
Like I said, I could go on forever. I am blessed to have Clyde Hall as my brother.
Young: Can we talk a little bit about the new book?
Spanbauer: Now Is The Hour is back to Faraway Places. At the end of Faraway Places, our hero was just coming into puberty. In Now Is The Hour, he is full blown into masturbation and the guilt associated with it and the Catholic Church. There is a war going on between the narrator and his mother and the battleground is the narrator’s soul—who does it belong to—the church and his family or to himself?
Our hero’s name is Rigby John Klusener and this time around he has an older sister. The novel investigates the dynamics of this particular family.
There is also an investigation once more into racism in terms of the Mexican migrant workers who work for his father, and a Native American man he ends up baling hay with one summer.
I might add this Native American man is queer and Rigby John has a girlfriend.
The main part of the novel takes place between the years of 1966-1967, but so much of the story has to do with how the 50’s turned into the 60’s.
Young: Reading your books can be a harrowing experience, but you have also said that writing In The City of Shy Hunters almost killed you. How? And is Now Is The Hour a more pleasant experience for you?
Spanbauer: Shy Hunters was more than a book for me. There’s a line in the book which describes how I felt about Shy Hunters: It’s the responsibility of the survivor to tell the story.
A friend came to my writing shed one afternoon, and she asked me: Dude, why do you have all these pictures of dead people on your walls?
I really did feel I had to tell the big story, the story that almost killed all of us.
There’s another line from the book: “Something so big as your life is hard to tell.”
AIDS has been every bit as big as my life and sometimes even bigger. I felt such an obligation to tell the emotional, spiritual, political, personal story of how AIDS tore into our lives. I didn’t want to spare anyone. I wanted to take the reader there and feel our panic, our fear, our feeling of loss and destitution, Then how our government ignored us and how the Big American Dream failed us so miserably.
It was my personal sense of duty to those who died, it was the scope of the story that almost killed me. At one point, I actually had to stop because I wasn’t smart enough yet to write the next sentence.
I still don’t think that what happened to us when AIDS hit has been fully comprehended by the American public. AIDS is like war. The truth of it can only be told by the vanquished, and the vanquished can’t really rally themselves to actually speak. And then, finally. one of the vanquished gets it together and writes a book. But it’s twenty, thirty years later so who gives a damn.
I think AIDS truly won’t be looked at until it stops being a menace. When it’s over, done, finished and in the past, then the world can wring its hands in grief.
Right now, like war, AIDS is just plain too terrifying.
The drug companies are the only ones who are benefiting. Everyone else our religions, and our government—instead of doing their Christian duty—to treat their neighbor as themselves—are only finding ways to create more fear and divisiveness. In any case, nobody’s really looking the horse in the mouth.
Why I almost died is because I took a good long look at this virus and the death and anguish it caused. I lived with it every day for years, then came down with it myself. I went to a place so dark it is unspeakable.
On the other hand, Shy Hunters may have been the thing that saved my ass. Now Is The Hour is a beautiful story and I am in love with it to my very bones. But nothing will ever be as important to me as In The City of Shy Hunters.
The desire to tell the true story as clearly as I knew how kept me going.
Please read an excerpt from An Exclusive Excerpt from Tom Spanbauer’s Now Is The Hour
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