You draw in a deep breath. Your day has been hectic. You feel overwhelmed and are longing for a simple moment where life will just stop. You pick up a book and begin reading. Your quiet comes. The words rest on the page, pulling you into the lives of each character. Suddenly your day melts away and you no longer care about yourself—you are transported. This is what it’s like to read Inukshuk, Gregory Spatz’s latest novel, which was published in June by Bellevue Literary Press (the publisher that brought us the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers).
I first met Spatz when I began the MFA program at Eastern Washington University where he was my professor. In hindsight his input was much like his writing: always direct, soothing and when you returned to his comments there was always something more—a gem left uncovered. As a student I never thought to read Fiddler’s Dream, Wonderful Tricks or No One But Us but after graduating I began to read his work and felt like I had discovered a new layer to my professor.
Spatz’s stories have appeared in many publications, including Oxford American and The New Yorker. The recipient of a Washington State Book Award, his most recent accolades include the 2011 Spokane Arts Commission Individual Artist of the Year Award and a 2012 NEA Literature Fellowship. When he’s not writing or teaching at EWU, Spatz plays fiddle and tours with Mighty Squirrel and the internationally acclaimed bluegrass band John Reischman and The Jaybirds.—Melissa Opel, Auntie’s Bookstore
MO: In Inukshuk, John Franklin has moved his 15-year-old son to the remote northern Canadian town of Houndstitch to make a new life after his wife, Thomas’ mother, left them. John, a high school English teacher, writes poetry and escapes into an affair, while Thomas withdraws into a fantasy recreation of the infamous Victorian-era arctic expedition led by British explorer Sir John Franklin.
Recently in an interview with Glimmer Train you spoke about Inukshuk being the first novel you researched prior to writing. How did this change or influence your writing process?
GS: Inukshuk’s focus on my distant relative Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer of the mid-1800’s who led the single most tragically, disastrously failed Arctic expedition of all time, required me to do a lot of background work before I could write. I had to get familiar first with the facts and details of the expedition itself, and then with some of the theories about what happened and why it failed so badly.
I also had to learn about the larger context. What was the significance of finding the Northwest Passage? Who was Sir John? Who was his wife, Lady Jane? And, most importantly, I had to read up on what life was like for the sailors on the ships and later, once they’d abandoned the ships to walk overland. We know from the trail of artifacts where they went and where many of them died. We know that there had to be significant lead poisoning and scurvy, and it’s indisputable that there was cannibalism to an extent never seen before or since in such circumstances. Beyond that there’s just a lot of mystery.
Once I got going, it wasn’t really all that different than it ever is; there was just a lot more work up-front—reading, researching, thinking, paying attention to anything I could find about Franklin, until I was able to start formulating my own internal version of the people and landscape. Once I had that, the writing process itself was very much like it generally is—good days, bad days, longer hours during breaks and sabbatical leaves. Tons of editing and revising.
MO: In the novel we get this great historical story and a present-day family drama that intertwine and slip back and forth. Did you play with the idea of telling the story in a different way or using other devices?
GS: I think in the very beginning I liked to imagine that I was going to write a straight-up historical novel. The main root of the story, for me, was always the Franklin expedition—something in it that both fascinates and compels me. But pretty quickly, as I got underway with the research, I became equally fascinated by the relationship between imagination and history—how we generate stories to understand something that can never be known, so that we can live with it, make sense of it. And more than that, I became convinced that yet another straight-up fictional, historical, narrative account of the Franklin expedition would be too big of a literary lie for me to believe in or feel inspired by. There are already versions of that story out there aplenty, anyway; it isn’t really what the world needs.
In fact, I came to feel that the kind of Merchant-Ivory or “Master and Commander” technicolor vision of the past we’re comfortable entertaining and which we’ve come to accept as telling us “the truth” about history, is itself akin to the kind of fable-making distortion that leads people into mineral extraction and polar exploration. More interesting, I thought, and more truthful, to show how an imagination becomes obsessed with an unknowable history and spins a tale out of it—how difficult that process is and tangled up with daily life. History is, after all, just a story we all agree to believe in, based around selected known facts.
At first I thought I’d write about a father and daughter—that the main focus of the story would be on a younger Jane character, obsessed with mapping the north as the polar ice melts. There would have been a corresponding reconciliation with the long-estranged father, a military cartographer obsessed with the Franklin story. I’m sure I had other plot points in mind. But then one night visiting my wife’s family in Okotoks, Alberta (just south of Calgary) I had this vision of my characters John and Thomas and knew that was going to be a more fruitful way to go.
MO: The landscape, the cold, the place of Alberta and specifically Houndstitch, feels like a character in and of itself. Can this story be told in a different setting?
GS: I couldn’t picture the story anywhere else. It needs to be in this cold, austere setting that isolates Thomas and John and highlights their inner-lives and emotions. And given that Sir John Franklin is a much more commonly known public figure, a figure of epic lore even, in Canada than in the US, it seemed essential for Thomas’s obsession with him that he be in Canada. I also wanted to juxtapose the effects of tar sands extraction and the way it’s impacting life and culture in that particular region of Canada, with the Franklin expedition and with Jane’s (Thomas’s mother) mission to go way up north to observe the effects of climate change brought on by the same dependence on fossil fuels that’s driving the tar sands extraction.
MO: In the opening scene, when John Franklin sees his son as the victim of bullying, I felt this underlying tone of shame, maybe even a kind of despising toward Thomas. How do you see John’s relationship with Thomas and how he feels towards his son?
GS: I think John and Thomas are at that stage in any father-son relationship where, as part of the natural maturation process, they’re becoming more and more individuated—even to the point of becoming somewhat estranged. Thomas has to come into his own more, be more independent, find his own way. Like any 15-year-old he has to engage in behavior that winds his dad up, pushes his buttons and begs for attention; he also has to be mostly oblivious as to why he’s doing what he’s doing. That’s how the individuation process at that age tends to work, I think. At some level John knows all of that—he knows he has to give Thomas room to grow—and he also feels lost and lonely and out of his depth trying to deal with Thomas as a single parent, while simultaneously trying to manage all of his own feelings about his dying marriage, and the possibility of rekindling the flame with his former crush/almost-lover. He has a responsibility to himself and his own emotional, mental well-being, too, after all. So he’s trying to navigate a tricky course between leaving Thomas alone to make his own mistakes and to make sure Thomas knows that he’s loved. So—yeah, it’s complex and mixed up.
But I wouldn’t say that John feels shame, necessarily, or that he despises Thomas; it’s more that he’s just very frustrated. So in that opening scene, before he identifies Thomas as his son, from afar, he sees him in a more individuated way as just another kid in the schoolyard. Then, as he gets closer and sees the scene for what it is, he has to reconsider everything, in the process getting a good dose of how other people at school probably see Thomas (odd, stubborn, difficult, embarrassing) at the same time he registers this really close, personal, family connection with him to the extent that he almost feels violated, himself, seeing Thomas’s underwear ripped up around his ears. That pile-up of conflicting emotions, in addition to some shame for having failed to protect Thomas somehow, having failed to parent him in a way that would make him more socially adept, is in part what causes him to lose his cool and go off on the bully—though John doesn’t have the first clue, himself, what’s making him come so unhinged.
MO: As a father, a husband and a professor, how do you find the time to write? What advice can you give to aspiring writers with busy schedules?
GS: It’s a balancing act, to be sure, and not an easy one. I’m terrifically fortunate to have a supportive family, especially my wife, Caridwen, who even went so far as to build me the world’s most amazing writing studio in the backyard! Having that—the support and the mini-sanctuary in our backyard where I can duck away, even if it’s just for an hour, and get lost in whatever I’m writing—it’s been an amazing help.
As for advice to aspiring writers with busy schedules, I’d say: be patient and persistent and disciplined. And by that I mean, expect long fallow periods and try not to get too frustrated or irritable or despondent through them. Remember that writing is very important, but it’s equally important that you not approach it in desperation or with too much anxiety. That comes across in the work and can wreck it. It can also wreck any support network of caring and concerned family if you get too desperately single-minded about your work. So you just have to be patient and tolerant, wait for the time to write, remember that writing is really only important for you, and remember why it’s important for you; and then when you have the time, don’t waste it.
In some ways, Inukshuk is all about this—finding the balance between work and life. Both Thomas and John are engrossed in their imaginative pursuits and constantly being interrupted. What interrupts them, of course, is life, and life is where all the drama for Inukshuk arises. It was good to be reminded of that all the time, as I was working on the book, and to have this analogous frustration for both of my characters who wish to escape into their imaginary worlds but who also have to live in the real day-to-day world.
MO: Will you talk about the role of indie bookstores in your life?
GS: Early on, when I was living in San Rafael, CA, there was an indie/used book store—I wish I could remember the name of it—which changed my life. I would go there just about every other day (it was just a few blocks from where I lived) and roam around picking out whatever looked interesting to read. I’d been an English major in college, but was mostly pretty uninformed about contemporary fiction, so that was part of it—I was getting my bearings. Probably looking for company, too. Life seemed pretty desolate to me at the time, and confusing; I needed some kind of intellectual companionship. And the layout of the store was very inviting, homey and relaxing—Hank Williams (senior) always playing on the stereo. So I was right at home. Hours a day I’d hang around, not talking to anyone, but looking for something. I came across many favorite books browsing that way—Kafka, Edna O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Rick DeMarinis, Richard Ford, to name a few.
As I wandered those musty smelling stacks of old and new books, I began formulating the set of questions that would later prove to be really important in finding my way as a beginning, fledgling writer: What is this story you’re looking for and why—what does it look like, who’s in it and what happens? Those same questions, a few years later, would lead me directly to the starting point for my first novel, No One But Us. I might have found my way there by other paths, but the path I took was right through that indie bookstore in San Rafael.
One response to “Gregory Spatz’s Fine Balance:
Questions for a Writer and Teacher”
I have also had the experience of reading my MFA professors’ work after graduating and discovering that extra layer–interesting that many of us don’t do it sooner. My former professor Steve Goodwin’s “Breaking Her Fall” renewed my writing after a “fallow” period by reminding me of the reader’s basic drive in wanting to turn the page to find out what happens.
I also appreciate Spatz’s insight that some of our best ideas occur while we’re away from our desks, as happened for him while visiting his wife’s family.