Q&A: Portland author Tom Spanbauer on writing, teaching and his latest novel ‘I Loved You More’

A look into the thoughtfulness that went into “I Loved You More” and Spanbauer’s personal experience as a writer. (Photos courtesy of litreactor.com)

“I Loved You More,” written by author Tom Spanbauer, is a sprawling novel of relationships, a love triangle, disease and unrequited love, told in rich prose over several decades and from across the country.

The Emerald recently spoke with author Tom Spanbauer about his book “I Loved You More” (published by Portland-based independent literary press Hawthorne Books).

Ghoncheh Azadeh: Was there a specific experience that drove you to write? 

Tom Spanbauer: I started writing when I was just a kid. In the eighth grade I won a contest for writing an essay on John Barry, father of the American Navy. I was always a strange kid, off to myself. I lived in a Mormon community and was the target of many a bully. I really couldn’t relate to much in my life other than school. As I got older, I wrote poetry, bad poetry, mostly as a way to communicate with myself. Because it seemed that there was nobody in the world like me, I created another persona within my diaries. And that persona was my friend. Somebody outside me who could accompany me.

GA: I’ve read about your teaching of the technique “Dangerous Writing” in Portland. You define it on your website as “the act of overcoming fear to write painful personal truths.” Has your understanding of Dangerous Writing changed over the years? 

TS: Dangerous Writing is in constant flux. It started out with a lot of influence from Gordon Lish, but soon turned into its own entity. Now, there is so much more emphasis on how to structure a scene; that is, how can the first person present the story from within the story while at the same time be outside the story telling it at the same time.

The premise of Dangerous Writing is still going to the sore, sad, secret place and investigating it fiercely.  The other basic part of Dangerous Writing is developing the art of pay close attention to your sentences. In a way, it’s like treating prose like poetry.

GA: Can you offer some examples of activities you engage students in to develop this skill?

TS: Mostly it’s sitting down with a student and going over his or her pages again and again. Some people, years later, are still writing on the first pages they brought in to class. What we’re searching for is the inherent music within the student. The “sound” that he or she has.

GA: Although Dangerous Writing seems to imply that a writer shouldn’t separate themselves from their work, are there exceptions that you can think of and consider when writing?

TS: My teacher always said that fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer. I use the example of Francis Bacon; he always paints from a photograph. So Bacon takes a photograph of the pope and then turns it into a “bizarre” screaming pope. So by comparison the fiction writer may go to his own secret place, but he or she has permission to lie and turn the photograph of the pope into a painting that is more representational of the pope.

GA: The idea of being a writer has typically been viewed as a romantic or idealistic idea to individuals. How did you wind up being successful on this path?

TS: I’ve come to define a writer as one who continues on writing and keeps his or her self-respect despite being ignored by the very people he or she most wants to notice them.

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