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West remains author’s muse

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Mark Spragg, author of "An Unfinished Life," and his wife, Virginia, at home in Montana.

Mark Spragg, author of “An Unfinished Life,” and his wife, Virginia, at home in Montana.

Becky Bohrer, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — Mark Spragg is back to being anonymous, schlepping around, as he puts it, in T-shirts and pajama bottoms and cross-country skiing near the mountains outside his home in Red Lodge.

And he couldn't be more relieved.

Not that he didn't enjoy the paperback tour for his acclaimed second novel, "An Unfinished Life," and premieres for the movie based on it, because he did. But it sure feels good to get back to the solitude of writing and to the rugged lands from which he draws inspiration.

"I prefer the process of writing over the product," says Spragg, who is working on his next book. "But when you're on tour and meeting people who truly enjoy your work or find solace . . . in your work, that's satisfying."

In "An Unfinished Life," Spragg takes readers to the fictional town of Ishawooa, Wyo. There, bitter Einar Gilkyson basically subsists as he cares for his friend, Mitch, and battles personal demons, when the woman Einar blames for his son's death arrives at his ranch. She's on the run from an abusive boyfriend, and seeks a safe haven with the granddaughter Einar never knew he had.

The story is funny in places, heartbreaking in others, but ultimately a tale of family, forgiveness and the relationships that bind even after death.

The idea that our lives are unfinished lends poignancy to how most of the characters "must learn to forgive what they perceive as wrong in their life, whether that wrong was committed by other people or by some form of cosmology," Spragg says.

Spragg and his wife, Virginia Korus Spragg, were writing the screenplay for the movie around the same time that their mothers died. The couple believes their own experiences added greater weight to their work.

"I think . . . at first you're going to think of an unfinished life as someone who died too soon, and you need to move on," Korus Spragg says. "But I think there was a sense of how we honor our dead, how we live within the relationships we have with the people who are gone."

One of the book's more memorable characters is Griff, a world-weary girl, wise beyond her 10 years, who helps bring about an awakening for Einar. Spragg says he's gotten hundreds of letters from mothers, telling him how spot-on his portrayal of Griff was. He's received similar letters from therapists who work with families of domestic violence.

"One of the hardest challenges for any writer is to portray a character with some authenticity; it's harder if that character is unlikable," says Spragg, who wandered the prairie for hours near his home in Cody, Wyo., working himself into a frenzy, trying to put himself in the shoes of the abusive boyfriend, before rushing home to write.

"I think with the right amount of diligence and (focus), you can tap into different aspects of yourself that speak to experiences you haven't had," he says.

Both of Spragg's novels are set in the West, where the writer's own roots run deep. He and his brother, a furniture maker, were raised on a guest ranch just outside Yellowstone National Park. Spragg worked odd jobs for years — school teacher, oil-rig worker, horseshoer — to support his writing. Though he had short stories published when he was in his 20s, it wasn't until his early 30s that he started writing screenplays and later still when he says he matured as a "prose writer."

"It wasn't a matter of choice," says Spragg, who published his memoir in 1999, when he was 47. "It was a matter of a later-blooming talent."

At Gary Robson's book store in Red Lodge, Spragg's last three books were among the 25 best sellers for the last quarter of 2005. "An Unfinished Life," in paperback, was No. 5.

Robson said that Spragg avoids easy stereotypes and delivers a realistic view of rural life. Spragg's close friend, author Kent Haruf, agrees. Haruf notes, for example, Spragg's treatment of Einar and Mitch, whose deep abiding friendship — and genuine love for one another — challenges the image of the macho cowboy.

"It's not only grown men who'd grown close but . . . a story about old men, living as well as they can in their last years," Haruf said. "But it's not something cute, like 'grumpy old men.' This is a complex rendering of these men's lives."

Spragg may not be done telling their stories: While reluctant to say much about his next book, he says he is planning to revisit characters from his first novels — he won't say which characters — and take perhaps one last trip to Ishawooa. Characters like Einar and McEban, from "The Fruit of Stone," turn up in both of Spragg's earlier novels.

"There are aspects of the human experience I want to explore in this next book that lent themselves to some specific characters later in their life," he says.

He hopes to have the book done early next year.

One thing he likely won't be doing: screenwriting. He and his wife co-wrote the screenplay to "An Unfinished Life" as an experiment in telling the same story in two very different mediums.

While Korus Spragg continues writing screenplays, "I'm much happier being a novelist," Spragg says. "I like the solitude and dealing with one editor."