Subtle Connections: A Conversation with Gregory Spatz

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Gregory Spatz is a short-story writer and novelist who over the last two decades has published six well-received books, won an NEA grant, and been recognized by multiple award bodies. He has spent roughly this same amount of time teaching in Eastern Washington University’s MFA program.

His latest from Tupelo Press, What Could Be Saved, is set mostly in the world of violins and strings, and Spatz’s other career as a professional musician gives the writing an insight that creates depth in the work. As a child, he begged his parents for violin lessons, and many of his passages have a kind of legato feel to them—a style of playing that connects notes smoothly together, without silence in-between, while still allowing each note to be articulated. This expressive but not quite traditionally lyrical effect has become something of a signature style for him.

After spending most of his childhood in New England, he now lives in Spokane, Washington, a small city that is closer to Idaho than Seattle, and he has set his recent fiction in the Northwest. We recently discussed his new book, the nature of the novella, the interplay of music in his work, how teaching writing helps guide his own practice, and texting.

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The Rumpus: You’ve written three novels and two collections of short stories previously, and What Could be Saved is a novella and stories. What was different about writing this book? Why a novella?

Gregory Spatz: I’ve always loved the novella form. Some of my favorite works of fiction are novellas, like Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief and Good Will, Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger, Andre Dubus’s (the father, not the son) multiple contributions to the form including especially Adultery. There’s also The Turn of the Screw, The Awakening, Goodbye, Columbus, Family Happiness, and Ward No. 6.

What I like about the form is that it has all the focus and control of a short story, but also some of capaciousness of the novel. Meaning, it can have multiple rising and falling points in the action, multiple narrative threads, but still it has to have the unified singularity of focus required in a short story.

Rumpus: Great examples but it feels like writers are always told “Whatever you do, don’t write a novella,” because novellas are notoriously hard to place.

Spatz: Sure. But consequently, the novella form tends to invite writers to play or stretch out in a way they might not elsewhere in their work. It’s actually freeing to not chase a big, ambitious commercial idea that might be a novel, or to try to compress everything into a thirty-five-hundred-word gem. There’s a kind of lift and playfulness that’s inherent to the form that invites writers to do some of their most heartfelt work.

With What Could Be Saved, I actually began with a big, ambitious commercial novel idea. The book was going to have a lot of plot elements related to all the crooked violin dealings I’d been reading about. It would have twin brothers in a cutthroat business tricking and fooling each other, and some kind of triangulated love-interest serving as a fulcrum to heat things up and bring in international espionage via a bunch of forged instruments at auction.

Rumpus: Sounds like you could have had a hit on your hands. What happened?

Spatz: As I began writing, I realized that I actually hate the sort of people who live in that world of cheating and crookedness. Mitt Romney had recently failed in his bid at becoming president and he seemed like actually the closest parallel to a character-study for the sort of jerks I’d have to invest my time and efforts in making lovable and human and interesting and… I just didn’t feel like doing it.

Those people get enough air time already for being selfish, greedy, and dishonest. Why feature them, when the world is full of good people who never get featured in any way? So, I started experimenting with these two other possibilities. One turned out to be the title novella, and the other became the novella Time and Legends. I bounced back and forth between the two stories daily at first, then weekly, trying to figure out which voice would work better, which set of characters had more going on. I began realizing they’d both taken on their own lives and would have to be finished, and also that neither of them was going to become a full-blown novel. And finally, no surprise given the twinned nature of their origins, there were so many connections between the two. I decided to just go ahead and work with those connections to make them more purposeful and deliberate.

Rumpus: Ditching the idea of the big, commercial novel has been part of your larger career, as well. You’ve been working with small presses after debuting on Algonquin. Your second title was with MidList, and they’ve subsequently closed. And, each of your books has been issued by a different press, which is not all that uncommon. Does that feel emblematic to you of publishing trends or is that just how it worked out?

Spatz: Publishing trends seem pretty inscrutable to me. What sells, what doesn’t, what gets readers really excited; I don’t think anyone can predict this.

I’ve certainly had my close calls. Wonderful Tricks was nearly bought by commercial publishers too many times to count. But in the end there was no splashy personal narrative about me and my life, no big personal platform to help sell it (that was the trend even in those days), and worse, the novel I had to go with it, Fiddler’s Dream, was so completely different, so stylistically dissimilar, that anyone who liked Wonderful Tricks was almost guaranteed to dislike it.

So, when Wonderful Tricks won the MidList Prize, I went with it. It was my ticket to tenure and stability. Better than a book deal, I figured, or at least as good, and it was one of the top national story prizes at the time. The trend for me, switching up my style, form, and subject matter from book to book, has been the largest reason that I keep switching publishers and agents.

Fiddler’s Dream, for example, once it had been turned down by a dozen or so NYC agents and accepted at SMU Press, became the favorite hobby of my next agent, who was absolutely convinced he’d get me a gigantic splashy paperback sale for it. Never happened. And then my next novel, Inukshuk, which again was completely unlike the previous work, well, he couldn’t even see how to sell it. So I was marooned again, on the lookout for a press (which I found on my own, Bellevue Literary Press), and another new agent.

If that’s a trend that speaks to anyone else’s experience, I don’t know. The market and its drivers seem utterly fickle to me. I suppose it’s because all readers are subjective, including and maybe most especially agents and editors whose attentions are already stretched beyond the limit. They tend to view every manuscript or book that crosses their desk with an eye to finding the first and most immediate reasons to say no and stop reading because of course they do. They’re too busy and read too much already. All I can do is keep writing the books I want to write and keep mixing it up enough for myself so I stay interested.

Rumpus: You are also a musician, and not just a hobbyist; you tour and play with well-known bluegrass musicians, and music plays significantly into What Could be Saved, as it did in your second novel Fiddler’s Dream. How has your music career influenced you as a writer, and are there things from the solitary practice of writing that inform what feels like the more public practice of performing music?

Spatz: The most obvious way that my music life influences my writing is subject matter. It’s a world I know, live in, and mostly love, it’s a world I return again and again for stories and subject matter.

Yet, there are other ways the symbiosis works. I’m attentive to the sound and rhythm of language in a way that I suppose all my music training informs. There’s a way that the esthetic choices I make in both endeavors enforce and inform one another.

I generally like fiction that it is not full of artifice or conceit or trickery or loud plot points and I try to write in what I think of as a style that has the tone and bearing of acoustic music, un-amplified music. In music, one of my favorite things to do is to accompany a singer, to find the exactly right tones to weave through a vocal line and bring out the feeling, enhance, and support the emotional impact. I like this much more than being featured as a soloist, and it’s probably the thing I do best, as a musician.

Likewise, in writing, I think my favorite thing is drawing out the nuances in subtle connections between fictional moments and naming the fleeting emotions and impulses that underscore a kind of liminal space between dramatic actions and lines of dialogue. I like all of it, of course, but in the way that I do my best work accompanying a soloist on stage, musically, I also like to imagine that I do my best work as a writer with the interior asides and observations that enforce and underscore the protagonist’s actions and experiences and make them resonate.

Rumpus: Also, in What Could be Saved, there’s a kind of technical interplay of how violins are actually constructed versus the relationship the musician has with the instrument, and you manage to weave both aspects into the narrative without being arcane. How do you balance a specialized knowledge against readability for a larger audience?

Spatz: The fact that I’m fascinated by and in love with violins is both the mainspring for much of the energy that went into writing the book, and it was the thing I struggled with the most as I was writing—knowing how to control it, how much was too much, how to rein it in, when to offer explanations.

I had some discouraging conversations with my agent about this aspect of the book early on, and she suggested reading a book of stories about plumbers as an example of the sort of fiction that was heavily reliant on a trade without being distracted by it and without compromising plot and character by providing endless descriptions of toilets, sinks, wrenches, main stacks. Ultimately, I decided that in order to be true to the culture, I was going to have to allow my characters to be exactly as obsessed with violins as all the people I know from that world are.

At the same time, I was learning how very little I actually knew about violin culture (buying, selling, valuation, building, criminality) despite having spent my whole life playing violins, and I realized that this could be an angle into it, a way of allowing characters and the processes they engage with to offer the sorts of explanations I needed. And vice versa, when a character who has never played a violin in his life tries to describe what he hears in technical terms or even, at one point, tries to play, I could use his unfamiliarity with the thing I’m so very familiar with as an angle by which to render it clearly on the page and to keep an uninitiated reader grounded.

Rumpus: I’m interested in how you handle technology in the title novella. The protagonist, Paul, has a father who is a violin maker, and Paul seems to have inherited a kind of old world sensibility from him, or at least gathered some knowledge via osmosis. Yet, Paul is fully contemporary and in moments is glued to his phone and trying to decipher texts even while he’s at the family home, in the violin workshop. Many writers, myself included, sometimes try to exclude phone culture from their writing. What made you decide to go for it?

Spatz: I have millennial kids. I witnessed firsthand how their lives were transformed by technology and often think that the day I caved to their insistent cries for me to enable texting on their phones was the worst day of my life as a parent. Really perhaps my one worst parenting choice, though I guarantee you that they view it differently.

There was an immediate and notable change in just about every aspect of the way they socialized, basically from the moment I enabled texting forward, and not necessarily a change for the good. The immediacy of texting is addictive, and yet with that there’s also this distancing or buffering effect, because it’s not your voice, not your face, and sometimes not even words that you’re using to communicate.

For kids, what could be better? The non-intrusiveness and immediacy allows you to become bold and also non-committal in a way that a phone call doesn’t. That’s not all negative, of course, but it translates to feeling freer to take emotional and physical risks, and becoming even more preoccupied with socializing than kids pre-texting culture ever were. And, we were plenty preoccupied.

In addition to having the old-school sensibility you mention and being loathe to pick up his dad’s antiquated line of work, my character, Paul, is a fairly introverted person, so it seemed like a no-brainer that he was going to be on his phone some of the time for his social connections. The other primary character, May, is also the personality type who’s going to favor the instant-access of texting over calling or speaking face-to-face.

Rumpus: It’s tricky, though, being true to the characters as they become people, and negotiating how technology invades our space. When I read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Super True Love Story, I just remember thinking how weird and dystopian it was. Now, not even a decade later, that book seems much more like bordering on the new normal.

Spatz: Sure, but in order to render Paul and May’s world credibly—and to make the dynamics of their relationship real-seeming—they had to use technology to communicate. However, I wanted most of their face to face interactions to stand in pretty sharp contrast with all that indirection and posing and faceless chatter so that texting and being on their phones did not overwhelm their relationship or their story. I wanted the use of technology to have a realistic and significant enough place in how they relate to each other because I’m convinced it has a real impact on how we all, millennials especially, relate and interact. So, it had to be part of the picture. But not the whole picture.

Rumpus: In addition to being an author and musician, you’re also an educator in an MFA program that’s part of the earlier cohorts of programs, founded in 1978. How has working with emerging writers shaped your own writing practice?

Spatz: I truly love my students! Sometimes I think that more than any musical recordings or words that will survive after I’m gone, the time, energy, and love I’ve thrown into coaching and editing so many young writers, trying to help them get to the next level with their writing, that’s been my real life’s work.

Aside from making it so that many, many days of the year I just don’t have any time to write, there is definitely a way that my students’ questions, the problems they present in their own work and the explanations they want from me or anyone who teaches writing about technical issues or problems—this inquiry has tended to help me clarify my own thoughts about writing. It helps me better understand what I like, what I don’t and why, how things work, how things fail.

There’s some truth in the maxim that you tend to teach what you most need to learn for yourself. I pay attention to that. There’s also a way that my students’ tastes and interests keep me current as a reader. They bring books and stories to my attention, and they surface concerns about older books that can tend to make me re-see and rethink texts that I might not have questioned before. All of this is incredibly valuable and does end up informing my own work.

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Photograph of Gregory Spatz by Julia Graff. Photograph of Spatz with John Reishman and the Jaybirds by Stephen Schauer.


Wendy J. Fox is the author of The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (a finalist for the Colorado Book Award), The Pull of It (named a top 2016 book by Displaced Nation), and the novel If the Ice Had Held, selected as the Santa Fe Writers Project grand prize winner and named a top 2019 spring pick by BuzzFeed. She is writing from Denver, CO and tweeting from @wendyjeanfox. More from this author →