At seventy-seven, Kathleen Spivack had done all the things a young writer setting out on their career aspires to do—she’d published ten books of poetry and nonfiction, received an NEA grant, taught in France on a Fulbright, held a residency at the American Academy in Rome, been nominated for a Pulitzer, was published in the New Yorker. She had done everything except, until this January, published a novel. That novel, Unspeakable Things, took Spivack twenty years to write; if Moby-Dick ended more happily, I would say the book were her white whale.
Luckily for us, it is not. Unspeakable Things is a daring, dark labyrinth of a novel that blends fact with fairy tale as it recounts one family’s struggle to “make it”—and make a home for themselves—in New York after fleeing Austria on the eve of World War II. It is a novel about the Holocaust, seen slant, through the eyes of refugees, who’ve sacrificed all to live in poverty in a single room, across the ocean from home. It is a novel that sees the Holocaust as it was seen then—as unspeakable.
Spivack and I had a long, rambling phone conversation that spilled over into email in the week following our interview.
The Rumpus: In your author’s note at the back of the novel, you dedicate the book, in part, “to the music that I love and have played, which animates this book.” What role does music have in your life? In what way does it animate the book?
Kathleen Spivack: European classical music drives the book. I went to Oberlin in the college and conservatory and played the cello there, and that has informed all of my work.
While writing, I heard the music of each character, would put on the appropriate tape (the first drafts were written while CDs were still a novelty), and turn up the volume until my ears were so filled with music that I could, via the ladder of music, enter my characters’ souls.
For The Rat, it was Schubert, “Death and a Maiden,” because the cello has such a great part in it, for Herbert, the Brahms Requiem, both tough and tender, for Rasputin, the Demon Lover, Mussorgsky, and for Felix, who was a character out of the ballets, the evil sorcerer or wicked puppet master—he takes your body, he takes your will—Stravinsky.
While writing Unspeakable Things, in that meditative trance, or “flow,” where one is concentrated, deeply within and yet at the same time without, I seemed to hear Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei.” It was the underground river running through the whole endeavor. It was and is the lamentation of the Earth herself. I sensed again the caramel caress of my beloved cello. To weep and expiate, to heal, soothe, perhaps to accept, and even laugh—
I sat alone and let the book almost write itself. Words were streaming from my fingers faster than I could catch them. It was like liquid silver, writing that first draft.
Rumpus: Do you see the book or the characters as a kind of translation of music into words?
Spivack: No. I mean just because I heard it in my head, doesn’t mean you have to hear it in yours.
Rumpus: This is your tenth published book, but your first novel. What is like to be a “debut novelist” at seventy-seven? Do you have other novels in the proverbial “desk drawer”?
Spivack: Well. I wrote two novels before, and I wiped them completely off my hard drive. I just didn’t think they were good. I didn’t even send them out. I figured I was learning.
As for this novel, I had been in teaching in France and I got a Fulbright to research for what I thought would be a short story. And I did try to do some short stories with characters from the novel, they just didn’t work. They were really flat. Then I was going to do a short story that I thought would be just a few pages, but it became this novel.
Rumpus: Could you describe the process of composing the novel? How many drafts did you go through? What was the revision process like?
Spivack: I did the first draft with the music playing and so forth. And then I let it sit for a while. Then I figured I would do three drafts before I showed it to anyone—or at least two. I had a really wonderful agent, who was a wonderful reader and encourager, but never placed one of my works. To her agency, I was their “literary writer.” I placed my own work myself, especially as I was mostly with smallish presses, but she did my contracts and generally advised me. And those words alone, “my agent,” those words opened doors.
We agreed she would send it out to three places and we’d see what the comments were like. If there were a majority in one direction, I’d pay attention to them. We hoped every editor wouldn’t say something different, but that there would be some agreement. In the first round, everyone felt the beginning was too slow, that people wouldn’t be interested in it. So I let that thought sit for six months. At that time I was also working on a book of poems and my book With Robert Lowell and his Circle.
Six months later, I went back to change the opening and all of a sudden my characters changed, the whole story changed really.
Rumpus: How did it change?
When Knopf took it, they wanted yet another, different beginning. By this time I had a new agent, for my lovely older woman agent had passed. I struggled for months to get back into the frame of mind that animated the manuscript. I sent the new draft of the first chapter to my new, enthusiastic agent. “This is very turgid, Kathleen,” he pronounced.
But I just couldn’t get a new beginning, every attempt got worse and worse, so finally Knopf told me I could keep the beginning I had but I needed to rewrite it. Basically, I ended up introducing the main characters much earlier in the book.
I had this wonderful editor at Knopf and, in the final edit, she said critics might find loose ends. She used the carrot and the stick to great advantage, in that she never actually demanded rewrites: she just told you what would happen—in hushed dire tones—if you didn’t do them!
“It’s only my third novel,” I thought, “What do I care if there are loose ends? I’m seventy-seven years old. Of course there are loose ends.” That’s what I thought, that and also, “I am so sick of this manuscript, I can’t touch it another minute.”
Then I sprained my ankle and someone, a guitarist, took me to the orthopedic doctor There was a long wait, and the musician started telling me about trying a different tuning on his guitar—and suddenly I saw how to deal with the loose ends. But there were about two or three months where I just thought, “There are loose ends, and I can’t see my way out of them.”
Rumpus: Given that your father and mother immigrated to the US from Austria and Germany, I couldn’t help wondering about the relationship between the characters in the novel and your own family members. Were some of these stories drawn from family myths and legends?
Spivack: Some were, but there is a lot of fiction and magic as well as some fact in the book. For instance, I shared my bed with a lot of these old ladies who had come right out of horrible experiences and would share them with me. One of them—The Rat is based on her—would obsessively tell me about her affair with Rasputin. I was pretty young then, and she would break it off at a certain point—she would say “and then we did unspeakable things,” before turning over to go to sleep. Maybe she was a complete nutcase but maybe it was true, maybe she did have an affair with the Mad Monk.
She had also lost two of her kids trying to escape [Russia] through Manchuria. Her life had been one of unbearable suffering. It was more than one could contain as a child. I wrote this long poem about her kids dying in the snow and my mother said, “Don’t show her that. It could hurt her.” I was totally startled by that a remark—that writing could hurt.
But anyway, yes, definitely, many of these people [who served as characters in the novel] lived with us or passed through.
Spivack: Relations. They had very complicated relationships with my grandfather, who was a wonderful, amazing person. I wrote the book to understand my grandfather Herbert.
My parents are not so much in the book because they were alive when I was writing it and I knew I had to show it to them. I didn’t want them to be upset. I did show it to them, and when it came to the doctor Felix [who molests a child] their reaction was bemusement. “Oh, that nice doctor, we thought he was so nice, and we didn’t know.”
My parents were in total poverty at that point—we were eating potatoes, my mother had job, my dad couldn’t get a job, and she was supporting everybody. My dad was desperate. He couldn’t get a job driving a cab because his vision was so bad, couldn’t get other jobs because of his accent.
Another “unspeakable thing” is that we lost a lot of our family during the war and of course it was never spoken about, never.
My mother was able to talk about it toward the end of their life. But before that, not a word was said. They didn’t want to put their suffering onto their children. It’s so true of what’s happening with refugees everywhere right now. Older refugees don’t talk. They’ve gone through so much and the only way they can survive is by putting it behind them. The younger generation is left to wonder where they belong, and which culture is theirs.
There are so many wonderful immigrant or refugee authors who are writing from this perspective—Edwidge Danticat, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston—and we’re all trying to give voice to what our—not exactly ancestors—but what our populations lived through.
America is a land of immigrants. It’s a universal story. A little drop in the bucket here.
Rumpus: At the end of the novel, Herbert and his family has moved out of a one-room apartment in New York City to a small house in the suburbs that is “identical to all the other houses on the street.” This ending surprised me, since so much of the book seemed to be concerned with preserving the old ways, old stories, old music—and now it seemed the family was assimilating, losing their eccentricity. Is that the price they needed to pay for happiness in the new country?
Spivack: They didn’t lose anything. They’re still sitting and quarreling and whatever. They just want a little peace after everything they’ve gone through. It’s a refugee story.
Watertown, [Mass.], where I live, is full of recent and non-recent émigrés— Lebanese, Syrian, Armenian, Greek. When many of them emigrated, Watertown was a very inexpensive little town with little houses and yards. People just wanted that after the kind of genocide that went on. I mean, wouldn’t you? Maybe their children and grandchildren are going to go have adventures but the older ones are tired; they have suffered and managed to survive and they want to spare their children.
I had a choice, whether I was going to end the book at a high pitch, or whether I was going to let some kind of a resolution come. In this case, I wanted to give them new life and promise and hopefulness.
Personally, growing up, speaking German at home and English in school, I wondered where I belonged. I didn’t quite belong in America even though I had wonderful friends and so on. I felt very European. Of course, once I had a chance to go to Europe, I felt very American. That feeling of being different can’t be lost.
I was teaching in the university system in France, and a lot of my students there were intellectual refugees—maybe school teachers, translators, school principals in their country—who had had to leave because they’d been threatened. And they were in France trying to learn English so they could have one more skill to add to their teaching résumés.
The point is, it’s not just my family, my story, a story of World War II: refugees, immigration—these are huge questions right now in the world. I put it in a particular place in this book but it’s against a huge tapestry.
Rumpus: Unspeakable Things shares a lot with The Tin Drum by Günter Grass: the primacy of music, the elements of magical realism, the severed fingers, the graphic sex scenes, the use of satire, the presence of a protagonist of extremely small stature, as well as, most obviously, a time period—those years during and after World War II. Were you reading Grass while working on this novel, or are the parallels coincidental? Are there other writers you see as influences?
Spivack: Grass—I did read it ages ago, when it first came out, but I don’t think I realized the historical implications of it at that time—the translation, the tone, the nuances, see, were beyond me then.
The backdrop for this book was France, during the trial of Klaus Barbie, who’d just been found. [Ed. Note: Klaus Barbie was a Gestapo member infamous for his brutal torture methods on French prisoners.] At that time, France was looking at its participation in turning over their Jews—in fact they had rushed to do so before Germany even asked them. The whole country had been in complete denial over it.
It happened I had a very close friend who was a member of the Dreyfuss family, although it wasn’t their name anymore, and nothing had been said—again, “unspeakable things.” Then the trial happened while I was living in France. It was so interesting. The country was standing just between denial and recognition.
I ended up being in France, on and off, for almost thirty years. In those years, I could see Jews beginning to talk about their stories. This literature began to come out and my mother and I were very interested in it.
I remember going to visit my parents and my mother was reading The End: Hamburg 1943, a book by [Hans Erich] Nossack about the [Allied] bombing of Hamburg, Germany. The book had been banned, was totally forbidden, and no one knows about it even now. [W.S.] Sebald once said Nossack was the greatest writer of all time and we believed that.
Anyway, my mother was reading the book, and it was so painful she could only read about two or three pages a night. I found I too could only read two or three pages at night. We passed it back and forth and read it like that. It’s an extremely heartbreaking and vivid story.
Later in Vienna, which is an area of total denial still, there’s this very strange literature emerging, but nothing really direct about the war. Part of the writing of my novel was about being in the midst of history—how do you write about these things? Look at how long it took the Vietnamese or the Cambodians to write about their histories. These things are so overwhelming.
Rumpus: There’s an interesting tension between the title—the unspeakable being that which one cannot be, or is too horrific to be, expressed—and the form of the novel, which is of course all about expressing everything, even the horrific, in words. How did you choose the book’s title? Did you go through other titles before settling on Unspeakable Things?
Spivack: No. I knew that was the title from the beginning. It was one of the few certainties. Writing a novel is like reading a novel: you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You write to find out.
Poetry is one moment you look at from many sides—a novel, you let yourself see a lot more. It’s a different process.
Rumpus: You published four books of poems and a book of short stories during the 1970s and ’80s, and then didn’t publish another book until 2011. What accounts for the twenty-five-year gap between books?
Spivack: Lots of rejection. I had a book taken, but then the publishing company went bankrupt with the book still in proofs. I had another taken by what turned out to be a shell publishing company. The press did nothing. I had to go through a legal process to get [the rights to] the book back.
If you look at any writer my age, you’ll see they’ve hit a period of bad luck.
That period, from the late ’80s/early ’90s up to about 2002, corresponds to the fact that publishers’ inventory became taxable.
When I first published, Doubleday was publishing around sixty poets. They figured they print 1,200 books by a poet, knowing they could leave them in the warehouse. Suddenly a new law was passed saying books were taxable inventory. Suddenly you heard the word “product” in relation to a book. And publishers started shredding books. It became more of a business.
I think if you look at the history of a lot of writers my age, you’ll see there’s almost nobody who didn’t have some trouble during their publishing careers. When my book on Lowell was released—it had been due to come out twenty years earlier—a number of poets came from all over, ones I didn’t even know, to the launch, and they told me they had been through a similar time [with the publishing industry].
It’s very hard to get published now, but it’s at least a little more stable because there is more mid list and small press publishing, and self-publishing doesn’t carry as much of a stigma.
Rumpus: Are you working on another novel?
Spivack: I loved writing this novel and I do have in mind another—completely different—but who knows if I’ll have time enough. That’s the problem. I’m working on a number of projects and I have to do them one at a time. A book of poetry, a series of essays on displacement.
I love working on this new book, too. My family is long-lived, but who knows?
Author photo: Domick Reuter.