PW: What was the impetus for writing An Unfinished Life?
Mark Spragg: I had this image of this man who became Einar Gilkyson sitting on a porch. Sort of a hideously embittered man. I always saw him surrounded by this mob of half-feral cats. A lot of my work begins that way. It becomes this image that comes again and again in my daydreams and finally in my night dreams. I start asking myself: why is he embittered? Does he have a chance at personal redemption? Who shares in his suffering? So I start to flesh out a story.
While this book has a well-defined and driving plot, its strength lies in the characters. Do you agree?
Absolutely. I believe all stories are character driven. It's very obvious to see what the plot of most stories is; and yet, if the characters weren't recognizable to us, the story would be so trite it would be unreadable. John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler—people who are seen as absolutely narrative writers—also give us characters that our souls recognize.
You and your wife wrote the screenplay for a movie adaptation of An Unfinished Life at the same time you were working on the novel An Unfinished Life. How did that come about?
Like many people who live in the west, when my wife and I take road trips to see someone it's a seven or eight hour drive. We'd talk incessantly about that scene with Einar; and she'd write down notes. We did that for about a year, and I prepared to start writing the novel. She said, "Wouldn't it be interesting if I started fleshing it out as a screenplay?" I said, "Yeah, it'd be real interesting." For the next two or three years, I would take little breaks from the novel and we'd work together on the script. There are things one can do in a novel that you simply cannot do in a movie and vice-versa. So it became this sort of prose-dialogue experiment. As it turned out, there are some things that are very different in the book than they are in the movie. I think they are both stories about forgiveness, stories about an extended family, stories about how our love extends to our dead.
With the movie adaptation coming out and Knopf giving the book such a big push, do you think the timing may be right for a bestseller?
I'm not sure timing is everything. You can't ride a lame horse to the finish line. If the novel isn't worthy, it may not sell at all; and the movie may open and close in a weekend. [But] Knopf is very keen for the novel. That makes me very hopeful. When Knopf bought this book, they weren't sure whether the movie was going to be made; and they didn't care, which made me absolutely sure they were the right publisher for it. Knopf bought the book on the strength of the first 100 or so pages. I deeply hope this book sells well. I would like a broader readership. But if it does, I would hope that it deserves it. I'm not holding out any expectations. I'm just trying to get as much work done on my next book as I can. I'm a man who is absolutely in love with the process of writing. I feel utterly useless in the world unless I am writing.