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His Own Private Idaho

The profound and unorthodox logic of author Tom Spanbauer


I once had a freshman composition student—let’s call her Princess—an Asian ROTC cadet who never missed an opportunity to tell me how little she liked reading or writing. She wrote a paper on how gays should not be allowed in the military, citing as evidence the fact that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. I was not convinced that I wasn’t going to have a problem when I assigned Princess and the rest of the class to read a section of Tom Spanbauer’s book, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, a particularly homo-e-raunchy section. I hoped Princess wouldn’t read it, that she would read the first paragraph, remember that her teacher is a worthless freak, and do some push-ups instead.

The next day in class I asked if anybody had a comment to make on the reading. Princess started talking. Her face was shiny, and her eyes were glazed, like a kid’s in front of Disneyland. She told us how she was adopted, and growing up in small town Iowa with white parents gave her a lot of family hang-ups. This eight-page section of prose made her feel OK about her family for the first time in her life.

As we went around the room, nearly every student reported something about the piece that struck them. There was a hushed silence in the room that had an impenetrably mysterious quality, as if there was a ouija board nearby.

Tom’s new book, City of Shy Hunters, is due out on June 9. The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is under contract with a Hollywood film producer (Ross Bell, who produced Fight Club, based on the novel written by one of Tom’s former students, Chuck Palinouk). In anticipation of his upcoming reading in Missoula on March 12, I asked Tom to say a few words about the importance of writing, about how writing can heal, and about what it means when somebody thinks that his writing is too raunchy for comfort.
I write because I can’t talk and cry at the same time. It’s something I have done with myself all my life, a way of contacting myself. Growing up in Pocatello, Idaho, I wasn’t like anyone else I knew. Writing was my way of reaching a part of myself that I had to have. You have to have some kind of connection to the universe. I had to feel like I was doing that somehow, working to get closer to what I thought was the truth. I had to walk through fear to get to it, and to say it there were some sentences where I had to stop and live a minute before I could say them again. Writing is a way to connect to me and my spirit and the bigger network of spirituality and spirit. Where is love? And god? And can you find them? That whole question of how am I to the cosmos. Is the cosmos something I can try and connect to, or is it a force that doesn’t give a shit about me, or does it cry as well?
On writing as healing? When you can start writing about stuff that is hurtful to you, objectify it outside of yourself, and read it to somebody else, then somehow or another you’ve exorcised something. Before it was this secret, this dark place that didn’t have words. Its not a dark place anymore, it’s an arena for discussion now. You get to that hard place, the place where you don’t want to go to, it floats to the top and you can start dealing with it better.
Is your writing gratuitously raunchy? I write about sex and gender, and I write what scares me about sex and gender. By writing about what I am afraid of, then hopefully I am touching what other people are afraid of too. When you write about a topic, you gotta tell the truth about it. And so it’s a truth-telling. There is also this nasty sacredness that you really have to be true to. I myself would have found my own work unreadable most of my life because of the frankness with which I now deal. So if you find it raunchy then it might be touching some puritan value or Judeo-Christian value in you ... some issue that you’ve been taught to talk about in a certain way.

We know it exists, we can allude to it, but to speak the truth clearly is breathtaking and liberating.
And the new book? My astrologist told me that Einstein came up with E=MC2 while in the midst of a psychotic episode. My book is an 800-page psychotic episode.

Tom Spanbauer will read selections of his work on Monday, March 12 at 8 p.m. on the University of Montana campus in Gallagher 123.

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