After I read the highly acclaimed novel Wire To Wire, I imagined author Scott Sparling as a quiet, dark loser sort much like the characters he portrays so vividly in his debut novel. It’s a good thing I like a surprise because that’s not at all who showed up for a Powell’s reading last Thursday. Portland hometown boy, Sparling, is exactly the kind of author I enjoy most at a reading: relaxed, articulate, funny and friendly. Maybe he was relaxed because he came prepared. The day before he had jokingly posted online a list of ten questions people could ask him in order to avoid the awkward silence that can suck the air out of a room when an author finishes reading and is waiting for that first question from the audience to fly. That turned out to be totally unnecessary.
Sparling captivated the crowd of around 100 fans, family, and friends, with the story of the convoluted and arduous 20-year journey he took to get Wire To Wire published. He told us about working at Seattle City Light in the 80s – the utility company where he first started thinking about the power lines that play a key role in W2W – when he came across an interview with Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone. Sparling says, “the last paragraph of this interview really struck me and I clipped it out and it’s been on my writing desk continuously since then and here’s what it says. This is Dylan talking about the sixties: ‘Everything happened so quick in the sixties, there was just electricity in the air. It’s hard to explain. I mean you never wanted to go to sleep because you didn’t want to miss anything. It wasn’t there in the seventies and it’s not there now. But if you really want to be an artist, you’ll go somewhere and find the electricity. It’s somewhere.’ So I read that and I’m thinking – I’m working with electricity everyday, but clearly not the right kind.” He decided to quit his job to write a novel but didn’t quite yet.
It was when he attended a Prince concert at the Tacoma Dome that he had an epiphany. Sparling says, “I can remember the moment. It was toward the end of Purple Rain. If you remember that song, at the end of it Prince says, ‘I know, I know times are changing, it’s time you all reach out for something new, that means you too.’ I remember standing there thinking Prince is telling me, it’s time to act on this decision I made and a week later I had quit my job. I think back on that and I think – first of all I think why the Tacoma Dome? – how many people have life-changing epiphanies at the Tacoma Dome? But the obvious question is why Prince? Couldn’t it had been Bob Seger?”
Sparling gave big props to former writing teacher and mentor Jack Cady, a Nebula award winner, whom he studied with at the University of Washington. “He was not prescriptive – he had almost no rules. I think he understood that beginning writers can do terrible things even with good rules. He said that when you’re trying to write a story you should play with it the way a child would play with it and get a couple of reams of paper and fill them up with mistakes because if you’re not making mistakes that means you’re not taking any risks, and if you’re not taking any risks you’re not learning anything and you’re not writing anything other people would want to read.”
He also had nothing but praise for the five years he spent as part of Portland’s Pinewood Table critique group run by Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. “It was so amazing and so valuable to me. There’s simply no way this book would exist without (them).”
Sparling wrapped up the evening by sending some love to his publisher. “I also very much want to thank everybody at Tin House. It’s just been an amazing experience for me. I’ve always said during all those years when the book was just hanging out there that my goal is not to get this book published – my goal is to get this book published well. Tin House has been above and beyond everything that I ever expected.”
He is working on two new novels – one about organ theft set in Seattle and another set in Detroit. “I’m going to work on both of them and see which one rises to the top.” Can’t wait for your next book, Scott – hope it doesn’t take 20 years!