An embittered old man sits alone on a porch, "surrounded by a mob of half-feral cats." Mark Spragg says that the idea for An Unfinished Life started with this mental image -- and wouldn't go away, even in his dreams.
But writers often share their initial mental pictures without ever explaining how they grow them into full-length novels.
For Spragg, the craft involves asking lots of questions. "You've got this embittered old man," he says, "and so you ask 'Why?' Why is he that way? Can he be redeemed? What if he won't ever stop being embittered? What happens then?"
The old man is Einar Gilkyson, a widower in his 70s who lives in a remote corner of Wyoming. Bad things have happened to his wife, his son, his best friend.
"Einar is so consumed by memories. He lives his life with very little clarity, because he's stuck in the past," says Spragg, adding that eventually, "Einar goes through a process of rediscovering the gifts in his life."
The people Einar has to learn to appreciate include Mitch, a friend from his Korean War years, now constantly in pain and confined to Einar's Wyoming property because of a terrible injury; and Jean, Einar's estranged daughter-in-law.
Spragg worked out the relationships among these three during long road trips and conversations with his wife, Virginia Korus Spragg. Together, they wrote a screenplay as well.
"I think it's unprecedented to have written the book and the film at virtually the same time," Spragg comments. It doesn't hurt the movie's chances of success, either, to have nailed down a Dec. 24 Miramax release with three fairly well-known actors as Mitch, Jean and Einar -- Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez and Robert Redford -- and Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) as director.
Asked about the verbal/visual contrast between book and film, Spragg notes that "the novel by its nature is more contemplative. Some scenes are weighed differently, of course. The film has tilted itself so that it's much more about Einar, Mitch and Griff -- the relationship between the two old men and the little girl."
The little girl, Jean's child and the granddaughter whom Einar has never met, is Griff (newcomer Becca Gardner in the movie). Spragg has written a wonderful scene of their first encounter: old resentments between Einar and Jean barely suppressed, Einar's gruff incredulity over the appearance in his life of a talkative, curious, self-reliant little girl.
Her self-reliance reflects the author's own. Spragg grew up on a dude ranch in remote northwestern Wyoming, just east of Yellowstone. Surrounded by miles and miles of forest and mountains and by a clutch of hard-bitten old cowboys, he was put to work as a tour guide on the ranch at an early age: "I was working at 11, outside a nuclear family, and given a good deal of responsibility. I was very aware of my impact on everyone around me. I wanted to grow up, to be an adult, to prove myself," he says.
Spragg's unusual upbringing generated Griff's precocious nature. But how would Spragg respond to charges that the character is mature beyond her years, given her combination of spunk, bravery, and the kind of adult sensibilities that allow her to write pithy diary entries?
"I'd say, 'Sit down and really have a talk with a young child.' I have several godchildren -- nine of them, now ages 3 to 29 -- and I've been a trusted adult in all their lives," Spragg says.
Spragg quite specifically wanted Jean's little daughter to be short of her 10th birthday: "Two years later, a cynicism creeps in," he says. "Two years further on, the hormones start to rage and they become so sexualized. But at 9, 10, you have a being who wants so much to be effective, to be of use, who's very aware of the lives around them, especially those of adults."
"I am quite sure that 9-year-olds are utterly aware of all the nuances of the adult world around them -- their insecurities, the choices they make."
Again, a lot of the author's boyhood went into the creation of Griff. "As a kid, I kept journals," says Spragg, echoing Griff's resorting to her diary in times of stress. In researching for the novel, he found about 40 of the journals. "I was very observant: I recorded where Orion set, scraps of conversation. And when I reviewed them, I discovered that my existential concerns were the same -- I was still concerned about death, suffering, the need for forgiveness." He chuckles, saying that in all the years since, "I was afraid that there hadn't been much emotional growth."
But then the need for forgiveness is a lesson we all need to relearn continually.
For Spragg himself -- who, when he was just 15, was compelled to mercy-kill his favorite horse (an event recounted in his memoir, Where Rivers Change Direction) -- themes of death, of asking forgiveness from the dead, keep reemerging.
His new novel's title derives from the epitaph on the gravestone of Einar's son, who died in an accident when he was just 21. Somewhat predictably, nearly all the characters in Spragg's novel lead unfinished lives. But then none of us are done until we learn to forgive, right?
"I think so," Spragg agrees. "And I think there's some kind of grad school-level seminar in forgiveness later on, after we die and move on.
"We all, to some extent, see ourselves as victims. And we also regard ourselves as entitled to a considerable amount of bad behavior."
While An Unfinished Life in uneven - familiar plot elements undercut lyrical descriptions and the gradual unfolding of character - Spragg's novel has the virtue of depicting people getting past their bad behavior and getting on with their new lives.