Writers are often hesitant to reveal the real people upon whom they model characters, but Scott Spencer enthusiastically, unabashedly, identifies Shep, the rescue dog at the heart of his 10th novel, Man in the Woods (Ecco).
Shep is Spencer's dog… Shep. "I didn't even change the name. It actually makes me happy that my dog is in the book," a comment that sheds light on the character of this writer, who, along with the writer JoAnn Beard, lives on five acres in the bucolic Hudson Valley, in a town not unlike the Leyden of his fiction.
Shep is key to the new novel's moral dilemma, and in writing the dog's character, Spencer says he considered a dog's concerns: protein, safety, comfort. Forget the current trend of animal anthropomorphism.
Spencer comes across as easygoing, good-natured, all round edges—admirable for a writer whose career has covered the gamut of author experience. He's been on the literary radar since his 1979 breakthrough novel, Endless Love—an unforgettable exploration of obsessive teenage love—sold over two million copies and was made into an equally unforgettable film for all the wrong reasons. There's also a song that's popular at weddings; Spencer jokes that friends have called him the "Barry White of Literature." But, he says. "I got $10,000 for that book and I was thrilled. And when it became such a success, it was surprising. Before, I'd always written in such privacy."
Endless Love was a National Book Award finalist, as was A Ship Made of Paper (HarperCollins, 2003), about an interracial adulterous love affair. Waking the Dead, another life-upending love story, about a political candidate who imagines his dead girlfriend has come back to life, was a Jodie Foster–produced film.
Spencer's books range in subject from devastating relationships to a comic novel about a journalist on an erotic sex tour (Willing, Ecco, 2008). He's gotten soaring reviews and seriously bad ones. Of unflattering reviews, he's succinct. "I don't care for them," he says. "It's not like being stabbed but it's a lot like being pinched."
Ultimately, though, what's important to him when he's writing a book is to learn. "If a book isn't teaching me something, pulling something out of me, then it will be dull for me and the reader."
So what he likes to do is put his characters in extreme situations. "Everything gets purified when you turn up the heat," he says. "There have to be barriers to overcome." In Endless Love, the obstacle is youth," in A Ship Made of Paper, it's marriage and the complications of class and race.
For Man in the Woods, Spencer has brought back Kate, the betrayed woman of Ship, and her daughter, Ruby, who's now nine years old. Kate has stopped drinking and found God. She's also found a loving new man, master carpenter Paul Phillips, and success with her inspirational collection of essays, Prays Well With Others. All's right with the world until Spencer makes life difficult. Driving back from New York City to Leyden, Paul has an odd encounter with a man and his dog that will color his life, test his conscience, and threaten his future.
"I wanted to explore the idea of fate," Spencer says. "Is it actual or just a sense of order we have to impose on experience to make some kind of narrative? Because we all need narrative or we'd go mad. Writing this novel, I was thinking ‘Is there a God?' "
Spencer has written screenplays, taught writing, most recently in the Bard Prison Initiative, and worked extensively as a journalist. In the end, Spencer sees writing books as a responsibility. "Writers are stewards of the culture. Publishers, librarians, bookstore owners. We're all in this together. To write books that are gripping, important, that people want to have, is to keep publishing alive." And citing his family's longevity, he expects he's got 10 more to go. And the dog? "I live with dogs," Spencer says. "So I thought, ‘Why not get something out of them?' " Shep has no objection.