ISU Magazine

Volume 41 | Number 2 | Spring/Summer 2011

Tom Spanbauer

Tom Spanbauer teaching a Dangerous Writing workshop in Sheffield, England in 2009.

Photo by Michael Sage Ricci

Dangerous Writing with Tom Spanbauer

Spring 2011 Issue | By Chris Gabettas

When Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the bestselling novel Fight Club, was on a national book tour last May he opened with a quip he credited to his former writing teacher, Tom Spanbauer.

"Tom's theory is that writers write because they weren't invited to the party," he told his audience at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.

In the early 1990s, Palahniuk took writing classes from Spanbauer, the founder of a minimalist form of literary expression known as Dangerous Writing and a 1969 graduate of Idaho State University.

In a recent interview with ISU Magazine, Spanbauer, an award-winning novelist, talked about his early days at ISU, the professors and campus experiences that influenced his life, and what it means to be a Dangerous Writer.

Born in Pocatello in 1946, Spanbauer grew up on a farm in Tyhee where he spent his summers baling hay. After graduating from Pocatello High School, he enrolled in ISU's English and literature program.

"It was a wonderful, wonderful time for me. Full of expansiveness and full of worth," said Spanbauer, listing his favorite professors by name-teachers who introduced him to the classics, philosophy, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

He loved the energy and diversity of campus life during the politically-charged sixties. From his apartment on Fifth Avenue he'd walk to class-through Mount Moriah Cemetery, the Spud Bowl (now Bud Davis Field), and through the arches of Swanson Hall.

He had the opportunity to attend lectures by the social and political activists of the day, exposing him to new ideas. One of his fondest memories is dancing to the music of the great Duke Ellington, who performed on campus one year.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in English and a minor in German, Spanbauer spent several years in Kenya with the Peace Corps before returning to ISU to work as a counselor, then it was off to Boise where he taught high-school English for a year.

In 1983, he moved to in New York City and enrolled in the creative writing program at Columbia University, receiving his Master of Fine Arts in 1986. At Columbia, he studied the structure of language, refining a minimalist, deeply personal style he would call Dangerous Writing.

"Writing dangerously is going to that place inside each of us that is hidden and secret. There is something sad or sore there," said Spanbauer. "It's going to that place, investigating it and writing from that place."

In the 1990s, Spanbauer started teaching Dangerous Writing classes at Portland State University and in the living room of his home. Students included aspiring writers, such as Chuck Palahniuk.

"Chuck wrote Fight Club in my front room. I thought it was really remarkable-one of the strongest things to come across my table," said Spanbauer. In 1999, the novel, which explores male aggression in white- collar society, was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton.

Spanbauer is the author of four critically acclaimed novels, including Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, which won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award, In the City of Shy Hunters and Now is the Hour.

His books explore class, race and sexual identity in graphic, humorous and heartbreaking detail. They're often infused with Spanbauer's passion and respect for Native American culture.

In the City of Shy Hunters is the story of cowboy Will Parker, who moves from Jackson Hole to New York City during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. He's searching for a lost lover, but ends up finding himself.

Now is the Hour-a Publishers Weekly's top 100 novel of 2006-is the tale of teenager Rigby John Klusener, who, in 1967, hitches a ride from his home in Pocatello to San Francisco on a journey of self-discovery.

When you read a Spanbauer novel, you'll recognize Pocatello. There are references to landmarks, like the old Chief Theatre on Main Street, the Green Triangle bar, the Tastee-Freez across from the ISU campus.

Spanbauer's latest novel, titled I Loved You More, is scheduled for publication in winter 2012 and will include scenes at ISU.

"It's a complicated love triangle about two men and a woman. It's a weeper," said Spanbauer. And quite dangerous, he assures us.