William Browning Spencer:
Whose Reality Is It Anyway?
It takes guts to be a writer, and if you're a writer whose books don't fit into any particular genre it can be even more disconcerting. You can't help wondering where the next paycheck will come from.
Writer William Browning Spencer survives on humor and sheer determination. It takes a lot of both to create powerful books about man-eating toilets and corporations run by Lovecraftian monsters. It takes even more to imbue those books with an innate sense of reality. But like H. P. Lovecraft (with whom he's often compared) Spencer has experienced a lot of the powerfully strange sides of reality.
Crescent Blues: You started your career as a graphic artist/typesetter. How did you get into that field?
Spencer: I have no formal training as a graphic artist. I was -- like many another doomed dreamer and potential homeless person back in the Sixties -- an English major in college. I dropped out of college my senior year, went to Munich on impulse, got drafted when I returned to the States, got court martialed twice for sundry acts of insubordination and spent five months in an Army stockade. Some of this is actually in my first published novel, Maybe I'll Call Anna.
When I returned to the civilized world, I held a number of jobs that appear in some of my fiction (emergency room orderly, clerk typist, photographer, graphic artist). I became a graphic artist when a friend of mine contracted to produce a magazine and, not knowing any better, hired me to handle the graphic chores. I learned stuff on the job. Typesetting was different then, and years from now, when I wind up in the home for retired typesetters, I will bore any available young nurse's aide with stories of the punch tape that was fed into huge computers to produce small columns of type. You kids today don't know how good you have it, etc.
Crescent Blues: Would you tell us about some of the newspapers and magazines you worked for? Was there a project you particularly enjoyed?
Spencer: No. Well, that's the short answer. Anyone who has read my novel, Résumé With Monsters, can probably guess how I feel about most forms of employment. I have worked at huge corporations and hated being there. I have worked at small, family-run businesses and hated being there, too. I have never been good at pretending enthusiasm for other people's projects, and that seems to be the nature of employment. Someone with sufficient money enlists you for his endeavors; if his venture is a success, he makes considerable money, buys that house on the hill, and, if you are lucky, you have enough money to repair your ancient car when it breaks down -- and still pay your rent. When employers speak self-righteously about how much risk they are taking, they seem unaware that the employee, while not risking funds that he doesn't have, is, quite literally, risking his life.
That's only my experience, of course. We Americans have become a spoiled, feckless lot. I once worked for this big corporation that kept swallowing up (or being swallowed up by) other corporations. These mergers would always result in redundant staff, so we had to hope our heads wouldn't roll each time the corporate gods enlarged their domain. I worked with a sweet-tempered, serious Vietnamese woman who said, "I have to re-interview for my job. I will tell them that it will be an honor and privilege to perform whatever duties my new position requires." The rest of us groaned, disgusted. What an appalling attitude. How un-American.
When I quit that corporation, this same woman said to me, "Perhaps you will be happy somewhere else?"
"No," I said. "I'm afraid I will always be a malcontent."
Her puzzled expression told me I had to explain this malcontent business, and I did, to the best of my ability, but I suspect it was a concept she just couldn't grasp.
I think that my wishing the world were different goes a long way toward explaining why I write fiction.
Some jobs are better than others. This is a statement that is true even in prisons, but I have never had a job that I wouldn't quit instantly if sufficient funds came my way.
I did work for a couple of trade magazines, Radio World and TV Technology, and my fellow office workers were delightful humans. I actually looked forward to seeing them. Still, I always felt it was unfortunate that we had to meet under such onerous circumstances, distracted by the mundane press of deadlines.
Crescent Blues: When did you begin to focus on being a writer?
Spencer: I always wanted to be a writer. I was a voracious and eclectic reader, and I was attracted to what I thought was the writer's life. A lifestyle that allowed sleeping in late seemed designed for me. I have never been a morning person. It can't be good for a person to be smacked out of a sound sleep by an alarm clock. It is better to wake up when the natural desire to do so asserts itself.
I suppose wanting to sleep in late is not an exalted reason for becoming a writer, but it was up there on the top of my list. I also liked words.
I wrote five novels before I got a novel published. I wrote my first novel in college, and half of it was in free verse. I'm sure it was awful. I wrote another novel called The Endless Laundry, about a psychiatrist who quits his New York practice to run a laundromat in a small Florida town where he encounters an alien egg with strange corrupting properties. My first ex-wife may still have that novel (and another novel, Last Words, about a post-apocalypse world where a janitor in a ruined university accidentally programs a murderous Christ robot). One of the few good things about not being famous is that people will never see those early efforts.
Crescent Blues: What was your first published work?
Spencer: Maybe I'll Call Anna was my first published work, if you don't count some essays and newspaper pieces which I would just as soon not count. Before Anna, I was writing a novel at the request of a successful book packager. I was about halfway through the book when he called and said, "As long as this book is set in Washington, D.C., why don't we have the President in it?"
"Huh?" I said. He explained the law of bestsellers, which went like this: For a book to become a best seller, the people in it needed to be very big, very famous. If you had a fashion designer in your book, be sure she was the world's greatest designer, same with a rock star, lawyer, billionaire, whatever.
Hence, the President.
I gave it a shot. The book never got published, and I went off and started writing Maybe I'll Call Anna with a sense of immense relief.
Crescent Blues: Maybe I'll Call Anna concerns a crazy romantic obsession between three characters that lasts for over twenty years. What was your inspiration for that book?
Spencer: Maybe I'll Call Anna is about obsession, various sorts of obsession--and the way time can create a dangerous, idealized past. I have known a few very unstable young women who were forces of nature, and Anna Shockley is a combination of several. Often these women, who seem so fragile, so self-destructive, are possessed of incredible inner strength, and I wanted to write about that, too. But I don't write autobiographical fiction. I've always felt fiction should be fiction. The book that is the closest to the truth of my own life is Résumé With Monsters, and that book has Lovecraftian monsters from outer space running huge corporations. The truth is always an emotional one.
Crescent Blues: You've worked on many different kinds of fiction from psychological thrillers to surrealistic, dark fantasy and Lovecraftian horror. Could you give Crescent Blues readers who might be unfamiliar with your work an idea of what you've done in these fields?
Spencer: Maybe I'll Call Anna was my first published book, and it was my most straightforward one. It's weird enough, but you can call it psychological suspense, and that's pretty accurate. The books start getting weird after that, harder to categorize.
The short story collection that followed Anna was called The Return of Count Electric & Other Stories, and the title story was about a guy who was delighted to discover that his father might be a legendary serial killer -- so our hero goes blithely off, seeking confirmation. The collection also had a story about a writer who thinks his wife is sleeping with Stephen King, and a story about two entomologists battling it out in the South American rain forest. That story got written when I had the thought, "What if your endangered species threatens my endangered species?" That story is presently optioned for a film.
My favorite story in the collection is a novella entitled "Looking Out for Eleanor," a sort of road novella about a social worker and a Vietnam vet trying, in their separate ways, to save a beautiful but not very bright girl from the evil that inhabits the world. Publishers Weekly compared the novella to Charles Willeford's novels, which I took as high praise. And Roger Zelazny…