The title of Wyoming author Mark Spragg's new novel comes from a tombstone:
BORN 1972 DIED 1993
AN UNFINISHED LIFE
Griffin is the deceased son of Einar, a contrary Wyoming rancher grown bitter over his son's untimely death.
Living quietly with his lifelong friend Mitch, who is horribly crippled by a bear mauling, Einar's life is shaken up by the sudden and unexpected appearance of his former daughter-in-law, Jean, and his granddaughter, Griff.
Jean is fleeing Roy, the most recent in a string of abusers she and Griff have lived with, returning to the only safe place she knows. But Einar blames her for his son's death, and it is understood that she won't stay under his roof for long.
This is the basic dramatic premise for Spragg's uncommonly good novel, An Unfinished Life, a modern western with the lean prose of a contemporary Hemingway and the humane sensibility of Carson McCullers in her prime.
Winner of the Mountains and Plains Booksellers 2000 award for his memoir Where Rivers Change Direction, and author of the critically acclaimed first novel Fruit of Stone, Spragg has also authored a number of successful screenplays. He grew up on the eastern edge of Yellowstone on the oldest dude ranch in the United States, went to a one-room schoolhouse, and was coached by the cowboys in his father's bunkhouse in the ways of men, women, wilderness and the West.
With An Unfinished Life, Spragg has broken new ground, simultaneously writing the novel and sharing the writing of the screenplay with his wife, Virginia. The film version of An Unfinished Life, directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules), stars Robert Redford as Einar, Morgan Freeman as Mitch, and Jennifer Lopez as Jean, and will open in theaters on Dec. 24.
The Independent recently spoke to Spragg from his home in Cody, Wyo., about the book and the upcoming film.
Indy: How did An Unfinished Life, both the book and the screenplay, come about?
Spragg: About six years ago, this fellow kept showing up in my imagination (that's how all my stories start), an old guy screwed down real tightly in bitterness and resentment. I pictured him lean and weathered, approaching 70, surrounded by a mob of feral cats. I wondered, what's caused the damage in his life?
My wife, Virginia, and I started developing his character on long road trips -- it takes six hours to get anywhere from where we live -- and over a year she started working on the screenplay while I worked on the novel. It became a sort of game, to hit a point in the narrative thrust and ask, how can we solve this in prose? How in a screenplay?
What became apparent awfully quickly was that this would be a book about forgiveness. What does Einar need to forgive? What is his inability to forgive?
Indy: Einar and Mitch are such an interesting pair -- Mitch an artist, an antler carver, disfigured and disabled, and Einar such a tender caregiver. Tell us about them.
Spragg: I wanted Mitch to have an artistic outlet that sprung naturally from where he came. I've seen some antler carvings that I very much admire. I was raised in Wyoming and lived in a bunkhouse with several older cowboys. Both Einar and Mitch spring from my fondness of them.
Part of it is moving against stereotype, this whole ridiculous notion we have of cowboys. The old cowboys I grew up with were extraordinary men. Every single one that I knew was at least bilingual, all had fought in one of the world wars, and while they weren't educated, they had one or two favorite books in their duffel bag and they didn't read Louis L'Amour. They were more likely to have the plays of Molire or the works of Milton, books they had read over and over and incorporated into their lives. I found them to be very thoughtful, fair men who did not care if you were man, woman, thin, heavy. They cared if you came early, stayed late, and got your work done in between.
Indy: Are you worried about the inevitable comparisons that are always made between the book and the film?
Spragg: I'm not very concerned. The book and the screenplay exist separately; neither is derivative of the other. Miramax bought the film not caring about whether there would be a book, ever.
Hell, when you're writing a book, you don't know if it's going to be rendered well enough to become a book. And when you're writing a film, you don't know if all the elements will come together, if the thing will ever get made. Only a fool would have thought that this could have happened, that they would come out within a half year of each other.
Indy: Are you pleased with the film?
Spragg: As Einar, Redford's hair is grayed, he plays it with eight days worth of beard, wearing Carhaarts. I think he's perhaps turned in one of the best performances of his life.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Mark Spragg will sign and talk about An Unfinished Life
Tuesday, Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m. at the Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder
Wednesday, Sept. 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover, 2955 E. First Ave., Denver