Gregory Spatz unearthed his family history of Arctic exploration, starvation, notoriety, romance, and publishing as he prepared to write his latest novel Inukshuk. There’s a little lead poisoning, cannibalism, and other intrigue wrapped in the stories about that distant branch of his mother’s relatives.
Talk about having material to draw on.
But Spatz doesn’t simply present a new novel that has drawn praise from the likes of Karen Joy Fowler and a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. A fiddler who plays with two bands, he also recorded two songs to accompany Inukshuk that book purchasers can download from his website at no charge. And the book earned him a 2012 NEA Literature Fellowship.
Spatz has taught in the creative writing program at Eastern Washington University for the last 15 years. He also is author of two other novels, Fiddler’s Dream and No One But Us, as well as the short story collection Wonderful Tricks. Spatz has a new short-story collection coming out early next year titled Half as Happy. And he has a list of publishing credits and writing accolades that run from Glimmer Train to the New Yorker.
Native Home of Hope recently interviewed Spatz to find out how one goes from violin to pen, when to admit you’re a writer, and additional details of his notable family history.
“The most rewarding part of teaching writing is sharing that pleasure and excitement with student writers. And then seeing them grow as writers – seeing them suddenly break through into better work.” ~ Gregory Spatz
Why did you switch from teaching violin to writing?
I wouldn’t say that I “switched.” I taught violin to pay the rent before I made any money as a writer or teacher of writing. It was a really decent way to make a living – easy to keep it part-time and still make enough money to stay afloat; low stress, and no take-home work. It left me a lot of time and energy for writing. Sometimes I miss those aspects of teaching violin.
But I didn’t like the instability. Violin lessons are anyone’s lowest priority – so if money gets tight, the lessons stop. If things get busy, no practicing happens. The students who were serious and invested in getting better were a blast to teach, and many of them became good friends. Too often I found myself either worrying about my income, coming up short, or falsely encouraging people who hadn’t done anything and weren’t making progress, just so they’d keep coming back and paying me. I hated that – finding different ways to say “Good job” every week. I never intended to make it a lifelong thing. My long-term plan was always to start publishing and eventually find an MFA teaching job. I don’t regret that, but I wish I would have appreciated how low stress teaching private violin lessons is by comparison with teaching at a university.
What was the most challenging aspect of that transition?
Finding a teaching job.
What was the most rewarding?
Feeling engrossed in a story and doing a good day’s work. The other stuff – prizes, publications, words of praise – is also rewarding, but not as deeply satisfying. The pleasure in that kind of reward evaporates quickly, I find. I still like it and need it, but it doesn’t do nearly as much for me as being lost in the work and plugging away at it.
The most rewarding part of teaching writing is sharing that pleasure and excitement with student writers. And then seeing them grow as writers – seeing them suddenly break through into better work.
Do you prefer to be identified as Greg or Gregory?
When I was first getting started as a writer I made this decision that when I started publishing I would use my full legal name Gregory. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was to protect and define that part of my professional life – distinguish it from my music career and day-to-day life. Gregory would be the writer, Greg would be the guy I was the rest of the time. People who I played music with didn’t know anything about my writing, and vice versa. So the name separation helped keep that straight. Now basically everyone I know calls me Greg, and everyone I know is in on both my music and writing lives. Still, it looks wrong to me if I see anything in print relating to my writing life with the name Greg attached to it. Looks amputated or something. Not mine. And if I’m on stage playing and someone introduces me as Gregory I feel like I’m suddenly at a legal hearing or expected to give a reading.
Why didn’t you tell people you played music when you were writing?
I needed to be taken seriously as a musician. I was already younger than most people I was working with, which could be a challenge as far as getting work, so the last thing I needed was for them to have any notion that I was some kind of hobbyist. Among full-time, gigging musicians there can be a bit of a prejudice against players who aren’t in the game 100 percent.
Also, it was just too much trouble and too complicated to explain. I didn’t want to answer all the usual questions – no, I don’t write romances; no, I don’t write mysteries, sci-fi, or horror; I haven’t read The Bridges of Madison County, etc. And I had no publications to point to, so maybe the real truth is I just felt too unsure of myself to be comfortable explaining what I wanted to write and why.
That all changed as I started getting a foothold in my writing career, publishing stories, and simultaneously started focusing more exclusively on playing only music I liked rather than playing any and every gig that would pay. As my focuses shifted, I learned that the bluegrass polymath is actually pretty common and soon I found myself in a scene – this was in the San Francisco Bay area – surrounded by people who were readers, thinkers, many of them college educated with professional careers in fields outside music who were also very serious about music.
I do still sometimes find myself in musical situations where I can see right away there’s no point in mentioning that I also write books. So I don’t. I don’t keep it a secret, I just don’t mention it. And vice versa. Bluegrass can be just as specialized, obscure, arcane, and generally misunderstood in the wide-world as literary fiction, and sometimes I find myself in situations with writing/editing people where I know it isn’t going to be worth mentioning or trying to explain what I play or why. And that’s fine too.
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A musical interlude
Gregory gave us permission to post two of his original compositions. For more information, go to his website.
“Lancaster Sound” – this original instrumental by Greg features John Reischman and the Jaybirds: John Reischman on mandolin; Jim Nunally on guitar; Nick Hornbuckle on banjo; Trisha Gagnon on bass; Greg on fiddle. It was written on a cold winter night in the midst of research about the Franklin crew. In August, 1845, sailing from Baffin Bay into Lancaster Sound, Franklin and crew met up with a whaling ship. This was to the be their last known encounter with other Europeans.
Click here to play “Lancaster Sound.”
“Lady Franklin's Lament” features the world-music folk quartet Mighty Squirrel: Caridwen Spatz on fiddle and vocals; David Keenan on National guitar; Nova Devonie on accordion; Greg on bouzouki. The melody has its roots in a traditional Irish fiddle tune of the era (1860s), “The Croppy Boy,” and the lyrics are from a popular broadside, also from the era.
Click here to play “Lady Franklin's Lament.”
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Do you write music?
I’ve written lots of instrumentals. I’ll go through periods where I’m coming up with a new tune every other day. But never songs with lyrics. I think this is because I always hear music in my head while I’m writing, oftentimes stuff I wrote or played on. The notes in my head generally feel as if they’re informing the words on the page, secretly imbuing them with some feeling. And vice versa: often while I’m playing I’ll be working through scenes in my head, thinking about characters or recollecting the emotional residue of a scene. By the end of the process the music will be so interpenetrated with the feelings from whatever I was writing that for years afterward, permanently even, I can’t separate the two things – can’t play or hear a particular song without recollecting all the feelings and details of whatever scene I was writing, can’t re-read a passage without hearing those notes in my head.
Putting actual words to my own music seems like a whole different skill set. I admire people who do it well. I have no desire to try it. I’m happy keeping my verbal responses to melodies on the printed page.
What is your favorite fiddle tune?
That changes day-to-day and depends on which instrument I’m playing. I love playing John Reischman’s tunes Salt Spring, The North Shore, and Ponies in the Forest. Almost all of his tunes would have to be at the top of any list of favorite tunes to play. Or sometimes I’ll get on a Kenny Baker or Bill Monroe tear and just feel like playing all the tunes of theirs I can think of, one after another. Like visiting old friends.
The Squirrels have always been a much-beloved side-project for everyone in the band, so we don’t tour a lot. A couple of trips out a year is about all anyone has time for. We do such a strange, uncategorizable brand of music (Klezmer, Celtic, Americana, swing, originals, French Canadian) it’s hard to book the band.
The Jaybirds play 2-3 times a month. Usually no more than 5-day tours. It’s too expensive otherwise. We’re too old and busy with other things to hit the road like some of the younger bands who are happy living out of a van for months at a time. I think our light tour schedule and the fact that we almost always have separate hotel rooms is a good part of the reason we’ve stuck together as a band with no personnel changes, and still actually like each other, for 5 CDs and coming up on 13 years.
|Vintage and Unique, the Jaybirds (buy CD)|
|SQWorld Record, the Mighty Squirrel (buy CD)|
What are you currently reading?
What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
I couldn’t name one. I’d have to name a handful (in no particular order): Coast of Chicago, Stuart Dybek; Stoner, John Williams; The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald; A Death in the Family, James Agee; Open Secrets, Alice Munro; Break it Down, Lydia Davis; They Came Like Swallows, William Maxwell; Magic For Beginners, Kelly Link; Cosmiccomics, Italo Calvino; After the Quake, Haruki Murakami; The Collector, John Fowles; Ordinary Love and Good Will, Jane Smiley.
What book do you reread? Why?
I re-read all the books on the list above semi-regularly because I teach them whenever they fit the reading list. But to single out one other book: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. It’s very satisfying, read after read, because of the density and complexity of its construction. I don’t get tired of trying to understand how its intertwined narrative layers intersect without somehow ever really touching and in doing so end up providing this wackily dramatized model of human consciousness. It’s ingenious.
Who is your favorite Western writer?
Possibly not favorite, but certainly one I’ve read the most regularly is Raymond Carver.
His stories are so good, read after read – dense, subtle, light, poetic, clean, spare, surprising … And I love seeing how the work evolves and changes through his life. A story like “A Small Good Thing” I just never get tired of re-reading.
Who is your favorite character from Western (U.S.) Literature?
“Get a trade or a day job that pays well enough that you can work part-time (without killing yourself), and write full time when you finish the MFA. Don’t quit. Make sure to leave the program with a few trusted and reliable readers of your stories. And don’t quit. Submit your work often and be thick-skinned about it. And don’t quit.”
What’s the best writing advice you've given?
Get a trade or a day job that pays well enough that you can work part-time (without killing yourself), and write full time when you finish the MFA. Don’t quit. Make sure to leave the program with a few trusted and reliable readers of your stories. And don’t quit. Submit your work often and be thick-skinned about it. And don’t quit.
How did you come to include a young boy’s fascination with the Franklin Expedition and the quest for the Northwest Passage in your latest novel, Inukshuk?
Sir John Franklin is a distant relative on my mother’s side. He led the single most tragically failed Arctic expedition of all time. Set sail in 1845 and perished along with all 110 of his crewmen over a period of 5-6 years stuck in the pack ice. Scurvy, lead poisoning, botulism, cold, starvation … and cannibalism on a scale beyond anything we know of in such circumstances.
|Sir John Franklin (via)|
|Lady Jane Franklin (via)|
I had it in mind to write about him for many years. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with his story, but I’d grown up hearing about him and had always found the whole thing fascinating – especially the well-publicized and romantic heroism (heroine-ism?) of his wife Lady Jane sending out search party after search party. They were like movie stars of their era. Made front-page news regularly.
When I got underway with researching I learned, among other things, that Franklin has been written about a LOT already, in both fiction and nonfiction, and that he also wrote and published a lot about himself and his adventures. So very quickly the whole story began to look to me like familiar, well-traveled ground. And I came to realize that I didn’t want to contribute yet another well-imagined (but phony) sea-faring story that attempts to “get it right” while still entertaining a modern day reader with all the familiar tropes of the idiom … and I also didn’t want to invest a lot of energy in pretending to undermine all those familiar tropes in order to finally “tell the truth” about what happened. The really interesting thing about the Franklin story, for me, is that no one knows “the truth” and no one probably ever will (though I hear the Canadian government is once again hard at work to find the sunken ships in hopes of finally getting some answers). Was it lead poisoning, botulism, starvation, or some weird virus that killed them all? Did any of them escape and go live with First Nations people for the rest of their lives? We can’t know. That’s what’s interesting about it to me. I like unanswerable mysteries. I think life is kind of an unanswerable mystery.
So, I developed this obsessive kid as a lens through which to look at the whole Franklin story. This gave me license to play with dramatic historical elements and to explore the whole problematic relationship between history, story and imagination. What we call “history” is really mostly just a story we agree to tell each other and believe in. How does imagination figure into that? Thomas (my character) gave me a way to explore and dramatize that…and simultaneously to get at the scenes on the ice with the lost sailors. Plus I just liked him. He’s an interesting and tormented (self-tormenting) kid.
You just published a piece in Poets & Writers that argues it is possible to teach people to write creatively. Doesn’t the annual slug of Christmas/holiday letters defy that notion?
Not when the cards come from former students or classmates and are in rhyming couplets. But come to think of it, n e of them ever hit me with the annual holiday letter. They’re either too busy writing fiction or… maybe they don’t like me anymore.
How do writing and playing music and writing novels and short stories compliment each other?
Short stories: Does this paragraph make my head look big?
Novel: Are you kidding? I wish I could fit into a size 8,000 words! And I’m still tiny for a novel …
Short stories: Size doesn’t matter! How many times do we have to tell you? It’s your depth of focus and extended detailing that gets us hot and riled.
Music: Guys, is anyone going to pay attention to me? I have to learn these new songs…don’t you want to play?
Short stories: And how do you like my use of that crazy research material you were probably saving for your next incarnation? Forgive us, it was so sweet…
Novel: I’m just glad you were able to do something with it! Really, it’s a weight off my mind. Would have taken me hundreds of pages to make it work and I’m so busy already.
Novel: But are the walk-on characters in my midsection extraneous? Do I have too many of them, and too many themes and sub-tensions and …?
Short stories: You’re all connected! Don’t worry, everything turns out in the end! You can be baggy. Contain multitudes, wander a little. Relax! Me, I’ve got to watch every single thing I take in and justify the ways…
Music: Guys! We’re going on the road next week. I have to practice so I can remember all this material. Shut up!
Novel: With pleasure. I guess.
Short stories: Just remember to visit us a little in the hotel room instead of watching TV or wasting time on Facebook, OK?
Oh, wait. Did you mean complement, not compliment?
To add to what I said above about writing music: Both playing and writing are meditative and expressive, but writing makes sense of things and organizes experience, so it requires a little more distance. For me. When I’m in the thick of trouble or hard times, playing music can be an essential balm. Music can just come out of pure feeling … I guess because it’s more physical and (to state the obvious) it doesn’t use words. Words do something with experience that is really useful and essential, but for me anyway, always has to come later in the process, after I’m calm and have perspective and am ready to think.
What are you writing now?
Beginning a new novel.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Ten hours to every day.
What else are you passionate about?
Watching the political freak show in our country unfold and trying to guess what new low we’ll sink to next with the corporatization of democracy. Riding my bike 1,000 miles every summer. The smell of the pine trees on the bike trail. The color and smell of my wife’s hair.
Buy Fiddler's Dream at IndieBound or at Amazon
Buy No One But Us at IndieBound or at Amazon
Buy Wonderful Tricks at Google Books or at Amazon
This interview was conducted via email.