The day to visit Rhinebeck, N.Y., Scott Spencer's picturesque hometown on the Hudson River, is the dazzling morning after a January snowfall, when the laden branches droop languidly over the nearly deserted Taconic Parkway and the ever-present river gently steers our journey. This is the rustic Hudson Valley as the Wappingers and the early Dutch once saw it. One hundred miles from New York City, and we begin to pass Christmas tree farms and modest wood-framed houses before reaching the village of Rhinebeck itself—"Such as it is," Spencer warns us, with a couple of traffic lights, an ice cream parlor and numerous antiques stores that hint at a knowing sophistication beneath the town's bucolic exterior.

Rhinebeck (population: 7,662) has been Spencer's home for 18 years, since he fled the big-city bustle after the startling success of his third novel, Endless Love—when he was still an obscure novelist writing in "that weird privacy that comes when you're sure no one will read what you write." He jumped at the chance to purchase a capacious house for his growing family and so many acres he won't allow PW to say. "It will appear too privileged," objects this unpretentious writer, born of working-class parents. He prefers to meet at Blondie's on Main Street, a noisy, crowded coffee shop where the cheeky waitresses know him by name and hover to refill his coffee cup. "I told everyone here I'm a blacksmith."

Spencer is a husky, gap-toothed man in his mid-50s whose native Chicago is revealed in his vowels; he wears round, wire-framed glasses that reflect the snow-bright sunlight and his generous guffaws put PW immediately at ease: he's worked on both sides of the table, having interviewed Norman Mailer and Al Green, among others, for magazines and newspapers. He's also written six novels, all but the first with Knopf, though none has rekindled the sensation of Endless Love, a book that electrified America's adolescent zeitgeist in 1979 (and later became a forgettable movie)—until his latest work, A Ship Made of Paper, published under a new editor and house, Daniel Menaker at HarperCollins (who has since moved on to run the Random House imprint).

A town called Leyden is the locus of his new novel—in fact, Leyden has appeared in no less than four of Spencer's novels. With its quaint Dutch dollhouses and a waitress named Becky at the Double K coffee shop, Leyden could—without undue textual violence—pass for Rhinebeck. It's also the hometown of 36-year-old lawyer Daniel Paris, who returns here with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter to settle down in neutral complacency after an unhinging incident of thuggery in New York City. Except Daniel falls in love ("like a man who suddenly discovers he can sing") with a Leyden nursery school mother, Iris Davenport, who happens to be married and black. Together, the two embark—recklessly, ecstatically—on a scorching affair that will destroy the trust and well-being of everyone around them.

A sticky affair to conduct in a small, predominantly white town where everyone knows everyone's business—especially as Spencer sets the novel during the time of the O.J. Simpson trial, when racial tension throbs on TV sets across America. But Spencer's work has always tantalizingly pushed readers' buttons: his last, Rich Man's Table (1998), followed a fatherless young man's attempts to establish his patrimony by a legendary folk singer modeled on Bob Dylan; Secret Anniversaries (1990) exposed in flashbacks to World War II the perfidious kinship between a congressman's calls for nationalism and his collaboration with the Nazis; while Waking the Dead (1986) related the necessary compromises one man makes to win congressional election. Exploring backstage politics, Spencer quips, "is one of the great advantages of being from Chicago." Still, a subject must hold his interest over the four years Spencer customarily takes to write it ("It's a long haul for me"), and he is of the rare opinion that a serious novelist should engage in serious topics. "I've long despaired that literary novelists surrender too much territory to pulp fiction" he says. "And there are things that the most serious novelists wouldn't engage in, and are left to TV and genre novels." He adds with quiet conviction, "I like trying to reclaim some of that material."

The character of Iris is black, he notes, "because that's how the story made itself up for me." Setting the story during the O.J. Simpson trial gave Spencer a chance to ponder the divisive issue of race. "What interested me about the trial was that disquieting snapshot it took of America when the verdict was read, and how almost every person of color felt one way and almost every white person felt another. And it was this moment when you realize that for all the progress that's been made, the divide is really so painfully huge. Race," Spencer contends, "is still one of the most troubling, depressing and unresolved issues in American society, and I wanted to think about it and invite it into my life as an artist."

Protagonist Daniel Paris is a recognizable Spencerian character: a man trying to maintain his sense of personal integrity, but who "fundamentally doesn't know whether he is a good person or not." Spencer describes his characters as "people who are not above a ruthless moment, a selfish act." Like the teenager David Axelrod in Endless Love, whose creepy adoration of his girlfriend prompts him to set fire to her parents' home, or novelist Sam Holland in Men in Black (1995), whose extramarital affair plunges his teenaged son into runaway despair, Daniel Paris possesses a shaky sense of self-knowledge. He is undone by his passion for Iris, while still grasping after its proffered taste of immortality: Sexual passion, for Spencer's characters, is "defining, enlarging," explains the author. "It is our temptation to leave ourselves and step out of the boundaries we've drawn for ourselves and walk as if we're on some higher plane." Spencer's challenge, in A Ship Made of Paper, was to render Daniel's actions both understandable and disastrous. Indeed, by the end of the novel, Daniel will conclude that, despite having wrecked his career and standing in his community for love of Iris—not to mention having maimed her husband in a hideous accident—he has never been happier.

Spencer, an only child, hails from the Chicago neighborhood of Jeffrey Manor. His parents were well educated and active in union affairs—his father, Charles, worked in the steel mills and relished his job. "He liked the camaraderie, the masculinity of it," Spencer remembers. "He had a relationship with the guys he worked with. His work in the union was important to him, and he even wrote a book about it, Blue Collar, which he self-published. The book is used in all kind of college courses for industrial relations." The era of left-wing Jewish intelligentsia, as Spencer delineates vividly in the bohemian lovers Esther Rothschild and Luke Fairchild, in Rich Man's Table, "has all but disappeared," he reflects. "And while they were wrong about so many things, and history hasn't been kind to them, there's still something there that I find moving and interesting—and want to preserve."

As a student, Spencer was a "bust," though he attended the Midwestern hotbed of activism in the '60s, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he got involved in student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He was ardently engaged by the Civil Rights movement; he met Martin Luther King while running sit-ins and was even jailed. Eventually, Spencer turned his back on political thinking. "At the time, I got into reading literature," he says, "and it was antithetical to the rigid mindset of politics." He moved to New York City, where he always wanted to be, and secured jobs passing out leaflets and then working for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. His first novel, Last Night at the Brain Thieves' Ball (Houghton, 1973), is a quirky sci-fi novel inspired by Nabokov's Despair. "I wasn't ready to tap into my personal experience," he admits. His next novel, Preservation Hall (1976), didn't fare much better, as Spencer toiled in the mid-'70s at a job evaluating federally funded education programs for impoverished students. He worked briefly at a now-extinct publishing house, Stonehill. Penniless, writing at night and with his first wife pregnant, Spencer says he was "waiting for some miracle" when he sold Endless Love for $10,000 in 1979—three times more than his previous book.

"It just took off," relates Spencer with spectacular understatement. "People read themselves in that book—they looked back on the one shining moment of their youth. And I was treated like a first novelist because my first books were so obscure." Endless Love sold a million and a half copies in paperback: Spencer could now quit his job and become a full-time novelist. But the dizzying maelstrom of success had left him "exposed and distracted," and it took him years to regain his privacy and get back to work.

"[He] stak[es] out a geographical territory, with its seismic underpinnings of passion, desire and eccentricity in the manner of Cheever or Faulkner," enthuses Dan Menaker, who inherited Spencer after the untimely death of beloved HarperCollins editor Robert Jones, to whom Spencer gravitated a few years ago after working exclusively with Knopf's Victoria Wilson since 1976. "I began hearing these passionately enthusiastic things about Robert Jones," says Spencer, "and then was seated at a dinner party next to him and we started talking. He called my agent, Lynn Nesbit, and she gave him something to look at. I told him, 'This is a hard thing to do, but let's just do it.' And then Robert died." Did Spencer's defection coincide with a frustration with low sales of his work since Endless Love—that he has not been positioned as a bestselling novelist? "I just had an instinct that it would be good for me and good for everybody to get a fresh deck," Spencer responds.

Agent Nesbit, who has represented Spencer since Secret Anniversaries, agrees that he is "underappreciated" as a novelist, and is as baffled as everyone else about why his books haven't enjoyed the sales they should have. Reviews are encouraging, though his books have fallen out of print (Ecco is reissuing Endless Love this month in simultaneous trade paper). He manages to appeal to both men and women readers with sympathetically drawn characters such as Daniel's "drink-and-dial" novelist girlfriend, Kate, whom life's hard knocks has made a little mean (Spencer acknowledges that women might enjoy his work for the "backstage pass" it offers to understanding men). Both Nesbit and Spencer felt a change of publisher would be beneficial, and after reading the manuscript for A Ship Made of Paper, she was convinced the book is a "home run" for Spencer. Moreover, she wouldn't settle with a lukewarm response from an editor; she was determined to take the book to auction if Menaker wasn't entirely taken by it. He was.

"I think he's way off the charts this time," Menaker exclaims. He calls Spencer a "riffy writer," "full throated" and "breathtaking." "There was something bursting at the seams about the manuscript," says Menaker. They worked on "length control" in the novel, which amounted to cutting 25 to 30 pages in the process of shaping. "Like all good writers," Menaker says, "he considered something I suggested and took it in surprising directions."

"I've had books celebrated and books ignored," Spencer remarks solemnly. "And what is constant is what I do." Does he troll his town for stories of passion and psychological nuance? He invites the waitress he calls Sandy to splash more coffee in his cup. "I borrow freely from my own life and whatever else I can get my hands on," he replies. He is two years into his next book, a novel that will take place over 50 years of American history. Spencer muses, "You don't write in order to address things that are of pressing interest to people. But in the end, you just write the book you want to read, and then you make up reasons why you did it afterward."