Novelist draws on his own life in writing

Harford resident writes of character's adventures

November 09, 2003|By Amanda Angel | Amanda Angel,SUN STAFF

David Spencer said he tried to detach himself from his first novel, How I Became a Fisherman Named Pete, while writing it. But as he read excerpts and answered questions at the Bel Air Library on Thursday, plenty of the author showed through in his characters.

"I'm a firm believer that you need to distance yourself from your story," he emphasized. But Spencer, who lives in Kingsville, set the novel in his back yard, based one of the characters on his uncle (to whom the book is dedicated) and even provided the protagonist with an anecdote from his personal experience, when he vomited on himself.

The parallels do not end there. The book tells the story of Tom, who is running from the police because they believe that he stole money from his employer when he was actually overpaid. Spencer himself said he was fired from a bookstore, which he declined to name, for receiving too large a paycheck - an event that gave the author time and an idea for the novel.

"I took a lot of the aspects of my friends and put them in the characters," Spencer said before the start of the reading.

Many of those friends showed up at the library, where Spencer worked while he was writing the novel, to listen to him read excerpts and then to ask him questions.

Bob Hoff, the librarian who organized the evening, said he often spoke with him about literature as Spencer was writing the book.

After spending several years after high school working various jobs, Spencer made the conscious decision to become a writer.

"It was an overnight decision," Spencer said of his decision to start writing the novel. "I didn't understand how much work went into it."

For Spencer that work included four years of college - he graduated last May - and several drafts. He attended Essex Community College and later Goucher College with the intention of perfecting and later publishing the novel.

"They made it sound that they were handing out book contracts like candy," Spencer said of the Goucher representatives. "I learned afterward that it was a little harder than that."

However, Madison Smartt Bell, an English professor at Goucher and the author of 11 books, helped Spencer complete the novel and gave him the names of publishing companies.

Eventually, Jeff Putnam, an editor at Baskerville Publishers Inc., called Spencer and asked him to send the novel by overnight express. It cost Spencer $30 to mail the 418-page manuscript to Fort Worth, Texas, where Baskerville is located.

The two worked together, shortening the book to 342 pages that Spencer said they were both happy with, except for the phrase "banana shrapnel" - one of Putnam's additions.

"Every time I see that, I see Jeff lighting a match behind a one-way mirror," Spencer said.

It was not Putnam, but Spencer who lived out of his car in Ocean City and worked as a fisherman and was arrested in Gettysburg as he tried to sleep by the Pennsylvania Monument - all details that appear in the novel - in the name of research.

Although Spencer said he never wanted a desk job, he spends five hours a day at his computer writing, in addition to the research at Goucher's library.

He is starting work on a third novel. He hopes his second, A Boy in the World, a Depression-era novel about a teen-age hobo, will be finished and in bookstores next year.

But the discussion of the night centered on Spencer's first novel.

"It's about living up to the expectations meant for you. Tom was stuck in a dead-end job, and he didn't know how to get out of it. It's a blessing in disguise," Spencer said.

He might as well have been talking about himself.

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