A Q&A with Author Mark Spragg Question:
You’ve said that the genesis of Bone Fire
started with a series of reoccurring daydreams of Einar Gilkyson tending a huge fire of bones and antlers. Where do you think this particular image came from?
Mark Spragg: I’d guess the image emerged from that part of my subconscious that yearns for a sense of completion and comfort and rest. Einar appeared very satisfied in my daydreams, calm in the firelight at the very end of his life but not at all disturbed by the idea of death. I believe it was because of Einar’s apparent ease that I began to wonder about all of the old men who must have--through the centuries of human existence--sat in the night warming themselves at a fire, perhaps reflecting about how they’d managed with their lives. It was his fearlessness that was initially attractive.
Question: Bone Fire takes place many years after An Unfinished Life. You’ve also said that you didn’t intend to write another novel set in Ishawooa, but found that you had to in order to satisfy your curiosities about these people. How did you know you weren’t finished with them? And how did you decide to revisit them at this particular moment in their lives?
Mark Spragg: There was primarily the image of Einar at the fire, but then I became obsessed with Griff, the little girl in An Unfinished Life, wondering about what she might be like as a young woman, and then Paul, the little boy from The Fruit of Stone, wondering about the young man he had become. I was surprised every step of the way that I had so many unanswered questions about the characters from these previous two novels, and that their lives had become so linked together in my imagination.
Question: Many people have an idealized view of the West as a place that in many ways is frozen in time. Is this something you think about, trying to create a more accurate accounting of it in your work?
Mark Spragg: It’s very natural for me to set my books in the West because it’s where I grew up and have lived for most of my adult life. I care for the place enough to try, at the very least, to render it accurately. Idealizing anything--a region, a religion, an individual--strips it of its humanity, and one is left with only parody. So yes, I try my hardest to write the reality of what I know.
Question: Further to that point, early in this novel Crane Carlson, the sheriff, finds a teenager murdered in a meth lab, a crime he’ll continue to investigate throughout the book. Natural beauty and violence seem to intersect in your novels in surprising ways, each really shining a laser-sharp beam on the other. Is that contrast intentional?
Mark Spragg: The contrast may be more unavoidable than intentional. Certainly, there’s violence everywhere, but perhaps in a starker landscape--one-half of Wyoming is owned by the Federal Government in the form of parks and national forests and wilderness areas, and there’s quite a lot of deeded land that remains undeveloped--violence appears to be more shocking, strangely more personal.
Question: Can you talk a little about the relationship between McEban and Kenneth, and where in your life or imagination that relationship comes from? Kenneth is the same age as Griff was in An Unfinished Life. Is it a coincidence that both novels feature a child around the age of ten? How does having a child’s perspective feel important to you?
Mark Spragg: I particularly love children at that age. They’re remarkably capable without owning the self-consciousness of adolescence, or the arrogance. They seem to me uncommonly brave and insightful, and even in very bad situations, at ten they still seem hopeful, believing that they might make a difference in the world. There was also the ten-year-old Paul in The Fruit of Stone. So, clearly this is an aspect of human relationship about which I am utterly fascinated.
Question: Kenneth is a boy in a world of men, much as Einar remembers being as a child. It’s a childhood filled with fun, but also one very much about apprenticeship and learning how to become a man. When he’s taken out of this world and thrust into a more conventional childhood--the one with iPods and channel surfing--he’s miserable. Why did you decide to put him in this situation?
Mark Spragg: I believe children want to be useful. Further, I believe that each of us yearns to contribute to something grander than ourselves, to become part of a family, a community. This rather modern notion of childhood as an 18-year stretch of unfettered play and irresponsibility was not my experience.
Question: Of your own childhood, you’ve said: "My appetite for quietude, no doubt, has something to do with being raised on a National Forest just off the edge of the Yellowstone Plateau. We couldn’t get television or radio reception, and of course the Internet was years away. I was raised with the luck of silence." Could you expand on that particular piece of luck?
Mark Spragg: More specifically, I was raised without distraction. There were no electronic screens, however large or small, or supposedly informative and essential to my happiness, that I looked to for entertainment or information. There were the people around me, and the natural world, and I was required to be engaged. I was not allowed to be merely a spectator. There was nothing about my boyhood world that was virtual, and I suppose I miss being that completely undistracted in my day-to-day life.
(Photo © Virginia Korus Spragg)
Spragg's disappointing third novel (after An Unfinished Life
), a dry and unsatisfying contemporary western, lacks narrative momentum and a sense of purpose. Griff drops out of college to care for her ailing grandfather, Einar, on his Wyoming ranch. Einar, suffering from a mysterious illness, is unhappy with Griff throwing aside her life for his sake, so he summons home his estranged lesbian sister, Marin, to watch over him. Griff, a gifted sculptor whose works involve clay bones wired into exotic and fantastical skeletons, is also at odds with her alcoholic mother and faces the possibility of a long separation from her boyfriend, a graduate student about to leave to volunteer in Uganda. In a parallel plot, Griff's stepfather, sheriff Crane Carlson, finds a dead body in a meth lab and receives a dreaded medical diagnosis that inspires him to reconnect with his first wife. Although there are some touching moments, most of the novel is humorless to the point of parody, and the attempt at tying together everything at the end feels forced. Despite all the issues it touches on, the overall effect of this modern western is oddly inconsequential. (Mar.)
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