Gregory Spatz’s most recent book publication is a collection of connected novellas and stories, What Could Be Saved (Tupelo Press, 2019). Previous books include the short story collection Half as Happy and the novel Inukshuk. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The New England Review, Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train Stories, Santa Monica Review, Iowa Review and elsewhere. Past honors and awards include a Washington State Book Award and a 2012 NEA Literature Fellowship.
Kristina Marie Darling: What Could Be Saved exists at the interstices of artistic disciplines, utilizing the artistic repertoires of fiction, music, and more. What can writers learn from creative practitioners working in other mediums?
Gregory Spatz: For me, any book, story, essay, poem that provides an immersive experience in a world I hadn’t entered or considered before, and does so in a way that engages the senses while teaching me how to understand its particulars, is really valuable. Valuable, meaning the reader can come away from his/her reading experience with some new wisdom and an ability to re-see and re-think the world as a consequence of being so immersed. For my money, this is really one of the best gifts a closely detailed piece of literature can give its readers. And, I guess for the most part I’m thinking of something a little different from the sort of escapism offered in more conventional forms of genre fiction – historical fiction, sci-fi, fantasy – though that world-bending immersion can be equally challenging, satisfying, and consequential if it’s done well. So, for me, when the immersion in another world involves a closeup perspective on some other art form, there’s also the potential for artistic synergy; there’s the potential for a rich and unique kind of reflection or introspection opening new ways of thinking about all of art and creativity, and what makes a thing of beauty and creative merit hang together or work at all. There’s something just so rich and pleasing about seeing the images, language and metaphors of another art form layered into a good piece of writing!
KMD: In addition to your achievements as a writer, you are also trained as a musician. Can you speak to the value of having experiences outside the literary community, particularly when striving to generate and refine one’s creative work?
GS: In some ways working in two unrelated artistic disciplines is just distracting and kind of a drain (in terms of time and energy), which is why I think many people who pursue more than one artistic discipline will often eventually abandon one thing or the other. Paul Harding, for instance, was a heck of a drummer before he started writing. And then once he started getting serious about writing, he stopped playing music in public. But for me, this was just never an option. I was never going to stop playing and I’ll never stop writing. So I’ve come to see that there are also many ways that the two artistic pursuits can feed each other, provide balance and perspective, give relief from each other, etc. Among the many, many differences between writing and music, one is that music is intensely social and collaborative by nature, while writing is very solitary. Music is physical and much more in-the-moment, both for the audience and the player, so there’s a kind of emotional immediacy in it that can be cathartic in a way that writing rarely is. But then, once that cathartic moment is gone, in a live performance...well, it’s just gone. So it can be a little crazy-making, bouncing back and forth between worlds, and also really great.
More technically/practically speaking: the music world often provides me with story material, subject matter, and inspiration. Music also gives me unique ways to meditate on or think about whatever I’m writing. In addition to playing the violin I also play octave mandolin (bouzouki) and usually that’s the instrument that allows me the most freedom to go off in my thoughts, visiting with scenes and characters and working out the logic in a piece of fiction as I’m playing. Similarly, whenever I’m writing, there’s always music playing in my head, and I’m sure some of that ends up coming through in the sentences. And occasionally, as I’m writing I’ll try to think in terms of harmonic analysis and more general musical structure to understand the form of the thing I’m working on.
So a lot of symbiosis and synergy. And a lot of distraction!
KMD: We’re thrilled to feature “The Lost World of Ended Summers.” Tell me how this new short story fits within your larger body of work.
GS: This story is part of a constellation of stories featuring Martin Elliott, and also featuring some of the other characters mentioned here – Paula and Hank. It’s all part of a story collection I’ve been chipping away at the last few years. I had a somewhat different project in mind to write at the time I launched into it, but with the election of 2016 that project ended up getting derailed. I decided to shift focus and to examine/memorialize some of the experiences I had growing up in New England and playing country music. Specifically, I wanted to address (without judgment) some of the anger of those unrecognized white voters who “surprised” many of us in 2016. These are people I grew up with and played music with as a kid. They were a little better off back then (80s-90s) than now, but not much. So, who are they and what do they want? This story doesn’t go into those kinds of questions as directly as others in the collection, but they’re in the background with Paula and Hank.
As a college kid in this story, Martin definitely has the kind of outsider perspective I had much the time I was hanging out, playing country music around New England. As I did, he loves and hates the whole scene. And while this is definitely not autofiction, a lot of what’s in the new book is pretty personal; there is an attempt to draw on experiences from my own world of lost summers.
KMD: You also teach creative writing at Eastern Washington University, and many of your students have gone on to publish books of their own. What has your work as an educator opened up within your creative practice?
GS: Like with music, there’s an undeniable push and pull between the demands of teaching and writing. In some ways teaching does nothing but steal time and energy from writing. But that’s not the whole story, because it also gives back a lot – it gives you new perspectives on your own work, it forces you to keep more current with what’s inspiring younger writers, it helps you to articulate your own strategies for revision and composition and your own esthetics, and it forces you to be more disciplined and organized with your time. All good things. But the best and most rewarding part of teaching comes with witnessing as a student makes that inexplicable quantum leap from writing something that just sits there on the page, to writing a living, breathing, moving, vivid piece of fiction. It’s almost never the person you think it’s going to be, and it almost never has a reliable set of instructional cues or triggers or prompts, but when it happens (and all you can say is that it does happen, regularly, and that it requires a lot of work and discipline and open-mindedness) it is the best and happiest part of teaching. Later, of course, whether or not students go out in the world and stick with the practice of writing (many of them do, with real success!) they often become long-term friends with a really special place in my life. I’m always glad to hear from them and to read them again!
KMD: What’s next? What publications, events, and workshops can readers look forward to?
GS: Well, first thing is I want to finish this collection of stories. There may be one or two more to add. We’ll see. And then I want to get back to the novel I started writing last fall – all loosely based around or inspired by my reading about the Venetian Ospedali of the mid to late 1700s – specifically, the all-female cori (orchestral and vocal music groups) housed in those asylums. More music! To me, it’s a fascinating confluence (and juxtaposition) of some of the highest and most celebrated culture/music in the history of western civilization, and some of the starkest deprivation. The women of the cori were among the most disadvantaged people in their society – orphaned, sick, elderly, disabled – but also they were celebrated all over Europe. They were stars, celebrities, and weirdly they were almost entirely autonomous within the confines of the asylum. But they were confined and also more or less invisible since they had to perform from behind a concealing grate for fear that the sight of them would be too sexually arousing to men in the audience. This of course didn’t stop men from imagining them as angels and writing rapturously about the experience of hearing them play and sing – though face-to-face performances (which could be arranged for the right price) tended to leave them pretty shocked at the mismatch between their ideals and the actual musicians, and then eventually reconvinced of their perceptions of them as angels. Apart from all of this, the music of this period is some of the most exquisite, refined and challenging stuff out there. In all, a lot of both the best and worst of humanity, in one fascinating package. So some of this book will have a historical focus, but most of it is more contemporary. It’s too early to say much more than that, but I’m excited to get back to it!
A New Short Story by Gregory Spatz
lost world of ended summers