“Spring hopes eternal.” As she says these words, Spring Warren sits across from me, drinking Balvenie scotch and laughing at herself—one of her distinctive mannerisms. There is a not-so-underlying thread of irony in Spring hoping eternal. Of the five books she has written, so far only two—the novel Turpentine and her memoir The Quarter-Acre Farm—have been published. And it’s not as though the others are works that she’s embarrassed about.
On the contrary, Deep Earth was the thesis that secured her graduation from the prestigious UC Davis creative writing program, and The Breaks was the first winner of the school’s Maurice Prize in fiction. Her latest, Cripples, Mourners, Thieves, is a stark and gorgeous novel about “lives lost, limbs lost,” and “the losses nobody tallies up” in the aftermath of World War I. She calls it a “somewhat disturbing read,” though I found it luminous and redemptive.
Warren was born and raised on the high plains of Casper, Wyoming, the middle sibling of an older sister and a younger brother named, respectively, Summer and Winter. She recalls Wyoming as a “harsh and wonderful,” albeit “polarizing,” place. It has obviously had a huge impact on her creative life: Open any of her novels, and you’re going to find yourself transported to the lonesome geographies of the American West.
More likely than not, you’ll also be transported into the mind of a male narrator, one of the more unexpected facets of Warren’s work. (When a female writer and I served as judges for the original Maurice Prize in 2005, in a blind reading we chose The Breaks as the winning entry, thinking that we had been reading the work of an amazingly talented guy. As it turned out, not so much.)
Taking a sip from her scotch, Warren tells me that it’s interesting for her “to work within a man’s emotional turf,” though “interesting” hardly says it. She gets inside men’s heads and hearts with confidence, even swagger. So real are her portrayals that they can almost make a cynic believe that men have real feelings. I find this incredibly refreshing.
We have another round—a familiar enough ritual at Bistro 33 in Davis, where a loose collection of writer friends gathers on Friday nights—and Warren laughs again when I ask her how she came to concentrate on creative writing.
“I got sick, and for a while I wondered if I was going to be able to walk or hold a paintbrush.” She figured that if the worst happened, she could write books using voice-activated software. “By the time I was pretty sure that the worst wasn’t going to happen, I’d decided I preferred writing to just about anything.”
So fiction it was to be.
And, after winning the Maurice Prize for The Breaks and publishing Turpentine, Warren appeared to be on her way as a novelist of the western scope— until she mentioned to her agent that she had turned her yard into a farm and was trying to feed her family on what they could grow on the ground around their home— all quarter acre of it. Hence The Quarter-Acre Farm, the success of which brought on a bit of an identity crisis: Was Spring Warren a novelist or a memoirist?
“Experiencing and writing The Quarter-Acre Farm was great,” Warren says. “I loved the challenge, and it changed the way I live and eat. The year was a real celebration of growth and food and family. So, how to explain that now I’m divorced? I have to assure people that it wasn’t the vegetarian diet.”
When I ask her if she’s concerned about not finding a publisher for Cripples, Mourners, Thieves, she grins and tips up the last of her scotch. “I don’t want to make a chair no one sits in, and I can’t keep writing books if no one buys them. If I were more disciplined, I’d draw out a career plan and write books in the order and genre more conducive to publishing. But I get an idea and go with it, writing books because I want to write books.”
She thinks for a moment. “At the same time, I fervently hope they sell.”
Yes, Spring hopes eternal, and I’m hoping right along with her.
John Lescroart is the New York Times bestselling author of 24 novels, including, most recently, The Ophelia Cut. He has a pied-à-terre on Russian Hill and a residence in Davis.
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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco
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