Notes on reading, writing, books & publishing

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Nailed Magazine's "Letters: Gordon Lish Wants Tom Spanbauer’s Shoes," by Matty Byloos

Posted by Rhonda Hughes on 03 Mar 2014

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Matty Byloos, co-publisher of Nailed Magazine, tells the story about how Gordon Lish wanted Tom Spanbauer’s shoes. Tom thought Gordon wanted to publish his debut novel, Faraway Places. Tom thought that because Gordon said that. But then things went awry.

I am one of the editors Gordon Lish said might consider Tom Spanbauer’s debut novel, Faraway Places.  Before I was that, I did not know the story of the shoes. Faraway Places was one of our Rediscovery titles, and for each of these titles we ask for a preface from the author as well as an introduction by another writer. In the case of Faraway Places, A.M. Homes wrote the introduction and Tom’s preface is his letter to her about the original publication of Faraway Places. I’ll post it below and then you can go to Nailed Magazine for the rest of the story and the actual letter from Gordon to Tom.


Preface: Tom Spanbauer, in correspondence with A.M. Homes

Faraway Places means a lot to me. It was the first time that I gathered myself up to complete a large work.

I know it is only one hundred and four pages, but at the time, it
seemed a real stretch. I don’t know how I can talk about it
without talking about Gordon Lish. I was straight out of his class
and Gordon was still over my shoulder. With each new sentence
I trembled with fear, thinking that Captain Fiction would not
approve.

I don’t know if you know the story of how Faraway Places
was published. It ain’t pretty but it’s the truth.

Gordon read it and called me up while he was in the bathtub,
making a big fuss that he was in the bathtub while he was
talking to me. He told me he was going to publish “this fucker.” I
don’t think I’ve ever been so happy. A couple days later, Gordon
asked me to come to his office. What a trip, going to midtown and
into those halls of power. I put on my best duds, which for me
at that time was a vintage suit and a pair of black high-topped
grandpa shoes. Gordon and I talked about some changes on
the book, and then he proposed that I take his private class. This
was impossible for me because I had just graduated from Columbia
and I owed Citibank $25,000. At that time, I was working
as a super. I got my apartment free and $400 a month. There was
no way I could afford Gordon’s private class. Then, after our
meeting, he sent me a note. In the note he asked me where I had
bought the shoes I had been wearing. He wanted to know where
he could get a pair in brown instead of black. I didn’t think much
about the note, and then a couple days later, I got another note
that read: Tom, don’t forget about those shoes. I’d bought my shoes
at a secondhand store on Second Avenue. I didn’t know what
else to do, so I set out to find Gordon some brown shoes, never
thinking there was anything unusual about his request. I finally
found a pair of shoes at a saddlery store on Twenty-third. Then I
bought a postcard—a cute postcard with shoes on the card—
and sent the postcard to Gordon with all the information on
where to buy the shoes, their price, etc. That same week, I received
my manuscript back. In it was a note from Gordon saying that
I was copying the rhetoric and style of his novel Peru, and if I was
any kind of moral human being—which he was sure I was—I
would shelve the book or rewrite it.

That fucked me up good. I went in the bathroom and stood
under the shower until the water got cold. And that’s saying
something because I was the super of that building. Finally I decided
that I needed to get out and do something. Which in those
days meant get drunk. I checked my funds and I had fifteen dollars.
I was headed across Third Avenue and I was at Astor Liquors
when I ran into a guy selling his wares on the sidewalk. I looked
down and there for all the world to see was a pair of brown shoes
like Gordon wanted. I thought, “Oh, there’s Gordon’s shoes!”
Then after a moment, I thought, “No, there are my shoes.” The guy
was asking fifteen dollars for them. I didn’t even haggle with him.
Right there I put the shoes on. They were a little big, but I figured
I’d grow into them.

That next week, I gave Faraway Places to J.D. Dolan to read,
just to see if for some weird reason I had unconsciously copied
Gordon. J.D. told me the only thing similar between the two books
was that the fathers both drove Buicks. So I changed the Buick
into an Oldsmobile. Then Stacey Creamer got wind of what had
happened between me and Gordon and she thought she’d give
me a sympathy read. On my fortieth birthday, Stacey called and
offered me a contract.

Now that was a happy day.

Then the stars were in the right place, or whatever has to
happen to get reviewed in the New York Times. And it was a good
review. Then Gallimard in France bought it. I think that was the
day I began to believe that maybe I really was a writer.

So I’d say that Faraway Places was my coming out, not as a
queer man yet but, even more important, as a writer.

I’ve reread it recently and it’s an amazingly dark little piece
of my heart. The combination of the innocence of the narrator
with Idaho’s underbelly really is quite shocking to me. Shocking
in a way that a child can be shocking. Saying the obvious at an
inappropriate time. But what’s appropriate? I thought it was fitting
that the Los Angeles Times review said something like Spanbauer
is trying to write a southern novel.

I guess the way I’d like the book talked about is that it was
my first step into one of the themes that goes through all my
work: racism. Then, too, there’s the dark, unrepentant father and
the wacky Catholic mother. When you read on through my next
novels, these two characters always pop up in some form or
another. Then there’s the Catholic Church. As Rose, a character
in In the City of Shy Hunters, says, “ With Catholicism, you don’t
recover—you reupholster.” From Catholicism, the theme branches
out to all dogmas. The Mormons take it pretty hard in The Man
Who Fell In Love With the Moon
.

As far as a shift in how the book has been perceived over
time, I sometimes think it’s even more daring now with its use of
racial epithets. There have been many times reading Faraway
Places
aloud when I’ve thought: My God, what was I thinking! But
if I go back to my childhood and to the language I heard in my
household and in my community, I have to say, the language in the
book is unfortunately right on.

Something else about Faraway Places. I was just teetering
on the edge of sexuality. If nothing else, I think my writing is
known for its explicit sex. Someone recently asked me why I write
so much about sex. My reply was nobody really talks about sex.
Sex is either something that’s forbidden and nasty, (and now of
course with AIDS, sex can kill), then there’s the other side, pornography.
With the Internet all you have to do is type in a few
chosen words and you’re right there. What I’m trying to say is that
sex may have its extremes of celibacy and overindulgence, but
essentially sex is something very particular that happens within
the bodies of the people who are involved, and in their minds
and spirits. Like racism, sex is something we need to talk about.
In many cases, we don’t even have the words to have a real
conversation. Just saying the words can cause people to get up
and walk out.

Your question of how I like myself characterized is the
hardest question.

I want people to see my love of language. The voices I’ve
created in my books are something for me like a painting by
Francis Bacon. I’m constantly trying to push at the representational
image. Character lies in the destruction of the sentence.
Or as Bacon says, “I want to pour the representational image over
my nervous system … and in what comes out I hopes the portrait
is there.”

Along with my love of language, I want people to see that
the voices of my novels aren’t just language-driven tap dances.
I love language because it investigates the lovely mess that is the
human heart.

Amy, I hope my answers can help you. If not, ask some more.
After all I am my favorite subject.

Cheers,

Tom

 

Well?

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