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Scott Spencer: Plot Twists, Where Everything Changes

This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 15, 2010. Man in the Woods is now available in paperback.

Many of Scott Spencer's novels feature a turning point — a dreadful, often unplanned act committed by one of the characters — after which nothing will ever be the same.

In his classic 1979 novel Endless Love, a love-struck teenager accidentally burns down his girlfriend's house after he's told he cannot see her again, an incident that plays indelibly in his mind for the next 30 years and changes both his life and his girlfriend's life forever. In A Ship Made of Paper, a lawyer flees his career and New York City after a violent incident and then becomes obsessed with a married mother in his small hometown.

Spencer's newest novel, Man in the Woods, starts off ordinarily enough: A carpenter named Paul takes a detour to the woods to have a few quiet moments to himself.

But Paul is not alone. He's soon joined by another man in the woods, who has amassed a number of gambling debts and thinks he is being tracked down by his creditors. That second man has a dog with him — a dog he stole from his ex-girlfriend — and is hitting the dog and yanking him around by his chain. Paul intervenes, which leads to an altercation — and Paul accidentally kills the man.

Spencer tells Terry Gross that he chose a death as the turning point in this novel because he's interested in lives being changed very suddenly — and wanted, in the aftermath of that change, to both push his characters to the edge and test their conscience.

"I'm interested in how close our orderly lives are to chaos," he says. "Just the way we see how savagery can break out in societies that just a year before were orderly. ... This expression of some inner beastliness is compelling to me because I can identify with it. ... I think it's something we all wonder if we could be capable of — this kind of violence and under what circumstances ... and what would the aftermath be."

Scott Spencer is the author of 10 books. Both Endless Love and A Ship Made of Paper were nominated for the National Book Award. He is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harpers Magazine and GQ.

Interview Highlights

On his belief in D-O-G vs. his belief in G-O-D

"I definitely believe in dog. You can't have as much dog hair in your house as I do and not believe in dog. And God [was] one of the things I was most interested in figuring out while writing this book — and at one point I thought, 'I'm really writing a religious book here.' And another point in writing it, I said, 'I'm really writing a very irreligious book here.' And then when I finally finished, I realized that this was something — and this is not a contradiction in terms — something that was passionately agnostic. Really, [this novel was] as passionate about agnosticism as much as Graham Greene is about his Catholicism because I could feel the otherworldly intentions of fate hovering over my characters yet I could not ever really ever quite come to a true narrative understanding that this fate was some sort of otherworldly intelligence that made sense enough that we could call it God."

On agnosticism

"Before [deciding I was an agnostic] I bounced between atheism and a desire to give some sort of religious meaning to my life. I was just talking to my mother last week and she talked to me about when I was a little kid, sometimes she'd have to bring me to a church — not that we went to church, because my parents were militantly atheistic — but she'd go to a church for some community meeting and she'd turn around and I'd be gone. And I'd be in one of the pews sort of praying fervently. I always had this feeling that I wished that religion, or a belief in God, and that ritual and that living metaphor [with] which I could explain my life was available to me.

"And there would just be times when I would just feel withering contempt for the whole thing and sort of glad that I hadn't entered into that system of thought. But novelists think a lot about God ... [because] we create whole worlds and we people them and then we tell the people what to do: We make them fall in love or fall out of windows. So there is that curiosity about God that I think all novelists have."

On physically defending others

"I always felt that that was the responsibility that I was born [into] because I'm male. When I was 10 years old, my father said, 'Men don't sleep as deeply as women because we need to be ready if somebody comes.' In my life as I've actually led it, I've always felt it was up to me to step in if somebody who is in my circle, who because of my relationship to them, I am duty-bound to protect. It is up to me to step in. I have not been in some situation like that Dustin Hoffman character in Straw Dogs with his little wire-rimmed glasses and his porn-starry-looking wife while all of these cretinish locals pound on the windows and try to get in — but there have been a couple of instances when I've had to 'man up,' as we say, and step between someone who was mine to protect somehow and someone who was going to do them some harm."

On the idea that men have a genetic impulse to defend others

"It's very hard to say what anyone is genetically because ... people don't exist outside of society. You can't find a person who isn't culturally determined to one extent or another. So I don't know — until we start making people in test tubes — and then we have to keep them in the lab and study them, but even then they'd be the victims of some sort of deprivation — so it's very hard to say what people are in essence. I think it's one of the jobs that novels have, really. I think it's one of the things that keeps people reading — that we are endlessly amazed and curious and perplexed about: What is our nature?"

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