Scott Sparling's hip thriller Wire to Wire brings it all back to Michigan. Sparling’s recent release is the wild, amped-up story of train-hopping Michael Slater, who tries to pull his life together after taking a live wire to the head while riding freight through Detroit.
Wire to Wire is a slick departure to the darker side of northern Michigan. Hardly Pure, Sparling offers up a bevy of vice hidden among the sweet, touristy towns that sprinkle the state’s map. Next to photo-ops and fudge shops, Wire to Wire positions the seductive forces of money and sex which play out through Sparling's hazy constructs, sharp dialogue and escalating acts of violence.
In a recent email exchange, Scott Sparling was kind enough to field questions about his new book, its evolution and the fortunate score of publishing through Tin House.
Scott Sparling on Wire To Wire
Megan Shaffer: Where did you grow up in Michigan?
Scott Sparling: I grew up in Jackson, Michigan. I lived in Ann Arbor briefly in the mid-1970’s. A good friend lives in Maple City, northwest of Traverse City. I’ve spent a lot of time there, in his cabin. My time there influenced the book quite a bit.
MS: What city is Wire to Wire’s Wolverine based on? Was the setting based on actual areas in Michigan, Arizona and New York City?
SS: There’s a real town called Wolverine, but the Wolverine in Wire to Wire is a fictionalized combination of Frankfort and Elberta.
I’ve created a fictional version of Northern Michigan that is populated largely by people who are escaping reality. In real life, there are the same kinds of people up north as there are downstate. So you could say the values are fictional, but the geography is fairly accurate to Frankfort and Elberta. I saw a house a lot like Hidden Mist up north once — I don’t remember exactly where. As for Arizona, I’ve been in houses like that on the edge of the desert. And I had never been to NYC until after the book came out.
MS: The premise of Wire to Wire is so incredibly unique. Did you actually know someone who got hit in the head by an electrical wire?
SS: My mom once sent me a clipping about a similar train-powerline accident. It was a news story about high school kids who’d been drinking and climbed up on top of a moving boxcar as a lark. I was riding freights all around the country at the time, so I guess my mom sent me the clip as a kind of warning. In the news clipping, the boy who got hit by the power line was killed.
MS: The book feels so indie with its curling smoke, flickering tapes and dark churning Michigan waters. It all seems to unspool to a killer backbeat that sort of pulses in the back of the brain as it reads. Was that your intention? Did you listen to music to pump you up while you were writing?
SS: Early on I used to listen to Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum while I wrote. The drum cuts have a beat but no real melody and you can listen to them for hours. I used to play drums, and some of the cadence and rhythms of the prose are influenced by that in places — or at least it seems that way to me. Later I started listening to more trancy-stuff, particularly Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, while I was writing. During the final edit, I listened to Jon Dee Graham and Alejandro Escoveda.
MS: Did any particular movies, writers or books influence Wire to Wire?
SS: Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone was a big influence, as well as his earlier book, A Hall of Mirrors. Those books are probably the reason I write in third person. I also tried to learn from the way Stone moves his story forward with very little exposition. Since this is my first book, almost everything I read influenced it.
MS: The glue-huffing, if that’s the right term, is so dark. Is that where you find parts of forgotten Michigan? Does that reflect the Michigan you know?
SS: The term “huffing” didn’t come into general use until later — so it’s the correct term now, but not during the time of the book. The glue-sniffing doesn’t have anything to do with my view of Michigan. Lane’s using it as a way to dissolve her past. If she were a different character, she’d be drinking or taking drugs.
MS: I definitely picked up an anti-capitalism vibe in Wire to Wire. An extreme dislike of capitalism and its environmental crush come through loud and clear with both the Whispering Sands complex and the ruination of the legend of Sleeping Bear. Was Wire a message to the masses in the guise of a thriller novel? Was there any political intent on your part?
SS: All the characters in Wire to Wire have difficulty with money and sex. I tried to write about money and sex as if they were elemental forces like fire and water. Fire (or electricity) and water make our lives better when we keep them under control. When they jump channels, they flood us out or burn down the house. At various points during W2W, both money and sex jump their channels and become forces of destruction for individual characters. Harp doesn’t think of it that analytically though — he simply sees the damage money can cause when it’s out of control, and that shapes his view. Considering the Wall Street meltdown and greed of recent years, it seems like a reasonable take on things.
MS: Two of my favorite things in the book, oddly, were the sort of yin and yang of the gritty, skull-powdered Tru Balance knife calmed by the soft snapping of fingers by Slater’s ears. Where did you come up with these devices?
SS: Like a lot of the novel, those are little moments stolen from real life and converted into story. When my son was learning to snap his fingers, he walked around the house snapping them constantly. It seemed like an interesting bit of business and I gave it to Slater. I’m not sure where the hidden handle on the knife came from. I’ve seen scenes in movies where a hero picks up a gun and can tell whether it’s loaded by the weight. That might have influenced my thinking.
MS: How, with the utmost curiosity, did your research this book?
SS: My friend and I rode freight trains all over Michigan, and later, all over the country and across Canada. Most of the freight sequences in the book stem from trips we really took. By the late 1980’s, I was no longer riding trains much, but I was spending a lot of time in Northern Michigan. I stayed in my friend’s house in Maple City for six weeks one summer, taking notes all the time, reading the weekly newspaper, listening to his stories. Beyond that, it’s invented. I never sniffed glue or tried speed. I can’t throw a knife.
MS: How long did it take you to write Wire to Wire? Was it difficult to translate the mental version onto paper?
SS: It took 20 years and it was insanely difficult, only because I’m a slow learner. And I did a lot of other things along the way, like raise a family. The first finished version was done in 1991. I got that draft to Jim Harrison and he said he liked it. He actually passed it along to his agent, but the agent didn’t think it could be sold. After that I just kept re-writing. There was another finished version in 1996, and another in 2001 and so on. I just kept working on it until a publisher finally bought it.
MS: Wire to Wire is totally different read and exquisitely dirty. Did you choose Tin House to push the book? How did you find your publisher or did your publisher find you?
SS: A friend told me Tin House would like the book. But I’d heard things like that before, and I forgot about it. About six months went by, and then I ran into my friend again. She asked me what Tin House thought of the manuscript. I had to admit that I’d completely forgotten about her advice. So she gave it to them. I call this story "The Miracle of My Incompetence," because Tin House has been tremendous to work with. Tony Perez, who edited the book, helped me tremendously with structure and narrative flow. From my point of view, it’s been a perfect match. Obviously, I owe my friend a lot.
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