Gregory Spatz’s most recent book publications are the novel Inukshuk and short story collection Half as Happy. Recent awards include a 2012 NEA Fellowship in Literature and a Washington State Book Award. He directs and teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. His story “We Unlovely, Unloved” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “We Unlovely, Unloved”?
I wrote most of this story in a burst, during the week between winter and spring quarters that we somewhat fictionally call “spring break” at my school. The impetus for it was a combination of things: I’d been immersed in the beginning stages of a longer project focusing on two families of violin builders—high end, fancy violins—and after months away from it (because of teaching) I was facing all the usual anxieties about getting back in: what was I doing . . . had I gotten it all wrong . . . could I recapture the mood and tone . . . ?
Mixed in with this was a revelation that woke me up and kept me up one night: I realized I had probably badly fucked up by leaving out all the violins the world around that most people, if they play at all, begin with—the working class of violins, if you will. The rental cheapo salt-of-the-earth violins, and the people who love them without any aspirations of ever becoming “great.” All of that, I’d left out.
And with this revelation was a handful of lines that wouldn’t let me get back to sleep—descriptive language for all those lousy instruments. So half delirious, I got up and started writing. I wanted the story to be like some kind of love song to the neglected violins of my own project and of the violin world, generally. And I suppose the fact that it had interrupted my own literal dreaming is in some way responsible for the story’s opening line—“You had a dream of playing the violin . . . ”—which eventually led me to the central question of the story: how do junked violins represent our junked, lost, and deferred dreams for ourselves? Every violin is, after all, a record of human history. But unless it’s a violin with a pedigree, that history is a secret.
Coming to the end of it, I realized that I needed to close with a strange thing that happened to me just after my grandmother’s death, which more or less mirrors the ending of this story—the radio coming on suddenly and her favorite violin concerto playing as I walked into her bedroom. It was one of those hair-on-end weird moments you never forget.
We published an earlier story of yours in Spring 2009, “The Bowmaker’s Cats,” also about violins. What draws you to writing about this instrument? Do you play yourself?
I’ve played the violin since I was about six years old, so yes it’s an ongoing thing in my life, an obsession, and one I’ve tried more than a few times to write about. “The Bowmaker’s Cats,” and a novel all about bluegrass music, Fiddler’s Dream (2006), and a few other stories and some nonfiction. At times in my life—most of my twenties and thirties—I made my living exclusively by playing and teaching fiddle, and I still play regularly. My main gig of the last fifteen years is with a bluegrass band called “John Reischman and the Jaybirds.” Work has fallen off a bit in the past few years, but at our busiest we were doing around 100 dates a year all over the US and Canada. Insane with a fulltime teaching job, but I think I’d quit the job before I’d quit the band!
So these two stories, “The Bowmaker’s Cats” and “We Unlovely, Unloved” . . . I like to think of them as being kindred or even sibling stories, despite the fact that I wrote them many years apart. There’s the shared subject matter, of course; but beyond that, both have a lyrical tone and contain hints of magic, and both utilize an unconventional viewpoint. I haven’t written any other stories quite like them, so for that reason it’s especially pleasing to me that they should both appear in the Kenyon Review.
You shift the voice in this story from second person to third and back to second again. Can you tell us a little about this choice and how it works in the story?
I think of the story as being essentially a dramatic monologue—an address from the perspective of a collective consciousness (the crate of busted violins) to a collective audience consisting of anyone who’s ever dreamed of playing the violin. As the address gets more particular, matching specific junked violins with specific histories and people, it seemed to me like the obvious and most organic way of getting things across would be to shift from second person to a kind of omniscient third person. So you end up with the talking violins, the people who dreamed of playing them, and the specific histories of a few different violins as told by the talking violins. . . . Hopefully, if I navigated all the back and forth smoothly enough, the layers of perspective don’t get too confusing!
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
My process hasn’t changed much over the years, though my time for daily writing has definitely gotten more restricted. I’ve never been one to write from a plan or outline and I usually don’t have much idea of where a story is going. I get a line or an image/metaphor to start, and with that, usually, a tone. From there I’m always improvising to find the story. The excitement comes with discovering what it’s all about and seeing the story take a final shape as characters come better and better into focus.
As for the writing itself . . . I like to think that I’m less risk-averse in what I write now vs. what I wrote when I was younger. My tastes are broader so hopefully my own tonal, stylistic palette is bigger too? Maybe I’m not the best judge. I can say for sure that twenty years ago, everything I wrote was in first person. It was what I loved and what worked for me. No way I could have written in a layered perspective like the one in “We Unlovely, Unloved.” But the flip side is that it’s been years now since I was able to write in a nice simple first person without getting all hung up and mired in problems.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Definitely music has had a huge influence on my writing. I often think of narrative structure in terms of harmonic analysis, and I’m always listening to sentences as they go by (my own and other writers’) for their sonic and rhythmic qualities. Because of that, I just can’t read fast. Every sentence has to sound out in my head. Kind of a liability at times. Also, because my main role as a musician (and my favorite role, for that matter) is usually backing up singers—accompanying them and trying to find the least intrusive ways to support and make them sound great and to foreground all the emotion in a song—I find I often approach fiction similarly. I’m always listening for the story and looking for ways to fill in around it; listening to the characters and trying to make the language lift and support them.
Family is the other big influence in my life. I’m always looking to my kids for interesting, funny stories, or mining back through my own family life for the things that still strike me as meaningful or mysterious, poignant, or just somehow in need of clarification.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I once had Frank Conroy call one of my stories a “half an ejaculation.” That was definitely some of the worst and best writing advice I’ve ever had. It spun me off fruitlessly looking for the other half of the ejaculation, writing pages and pages of nonsense, until I realized that really what the story needed was for the main character to have an ejaculation. So he was right, and he was wrong. Either way, it was memorable workshop criticism.
Another thing Frank said that always stuck with me—since he was a musician himself: If you’re going to write about a musician, make sure he’s a much, much better player than you are. Don’t write down to your characters, write up at them.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
My current project is still the longer form piece I mentioned in question one: A pair or trio of novellas with “We Unlovely, Unloved” included (I hope) as an interlude. As soon as I can, this summer hopefully, I’ll wrap it up and start on new work. Maybe I’ll keep with this trend of writing from the perspective of inanimate objects—Jell-O molds and talking flower pots! Key chains? Maybe not.