SEPTEMBER 17, 2019
GREGORY SPATZ IS the director of Eastern Washington University’s MFA program, author of six books, Michener fellow, and recipient of an NEA fellowship. When he isn’t writing and teaching, he is playing fiddle in the bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds. His most recent book, What Could Be Saved (Tupelo Press), includes two novellas and two short stories, all of which explore the world of the violin trade. Encyclopedic and rich, the details welcome the reader into the close-knit world of violin builders, dealers, and players who obsess over their craft like poets. In this interview, Greg shares stories about his background as a musician, his use of research, and how he crafted these stories.
In July, I had the opportunity to see Greg read at the University of Washington’s bookstore. I joined him for dinner, where we began our conversation. We continued through email in order to thoroughly cover the topics.
JACOB SINGER: Before we discuss the stories about violins in your book, can you share your own life as a musician?
GREGORY SPATZ: I’ve played violin since I was about five. Consequently, in most ways music has been the anchor in my life. Most of my 20s and some of my 30s I earned my living as a fiddle player in country and bluegrass bands around California and the Northeast. Whenever I’ve moved to a new town — Iowa City, Tucson, Davis, Sacramento, Memphis, Spokane — I’ve immediately hooked up with a network of bluegrass and Celtic musicians and fallen into a kind of ready-made community, and with a genuine feeling of connection. It’s been the social glue in my life. In 2000, for instance, shortly after starting to work with John Reischman and the Jaybirds, the band I’ve played with now for almost two decades, we were all hired to teach at a bluegrass camp in Sorrento, British Columbia, and that’s how I met my wife, Caridwen. She plays fiddle and sings and was instructing at the same camp. And from that musical association, which began basically the day we met, I’ve branched out further, learning other styles of music (mainly Eastern European) and picking up the octave mandolin so I could accompany her. Last year, we finally got it together enough to do a record featuring just the two of us called All Along the Sea.
Long story short: I might have to go weeks sometimes without opening a new document for a short story or a novel, but I’ll never go more than a few days without playing the fiddle or the octave mandolin!
Your most recent book is What Could Be Saved: Bookmatched Novellas and Stories. Please share the etymology of the word “bookmatched” and explain why it is important to help understand the book.
“Bookmatched” is a term from woodworking, and more specifically from violin building. Picture the wood that goes into a violin in its rawest state as the trunk of a tree — always maple for the back and spruce for the top. What’s involved in the process of bookmatching is splitting out wedges — like slices of pie — from the round of the trunk and then matching them together butt-end to butt-end and flat-joining the fat ends together. The result is that the two pie slices of matched wood will have an identical figure — or what we call “flaming” — resulting from the growth pattern in the rings of the grain, but running in opposite directions away from the center-join. Together, these become the top and the back of the violin. This process is called “bookmatching” because the end product should look like an open book with lines of text running out from the center. So etymologically, as far as I’ve been able to tell, it comes from letterpress or book publishing.
Stealing back the term from woodworking began as kind of a pun — the stories would be matched within a book, word-working instead of woodworking. But I think it actually ended up referring to something specific about my process in writing these four pieces: two stories, two novellas, each pairing more or less matched. They aren’t exactly linked in the conventional senses of sharing narrative arcs or common characters, though there is some of that. They’re conjoined more by having a common obsession or grain or buried figure inside the narrative grain, and a kind of resonance that I hope ends up making them feel as if they work more fully together, as an ensemble, than separately, though I think they also do all stand alone as individual pieces.
A sense of destiny links the stories. In the novella “What Could Be Saved,” Paul accompanies May, a music student, to a music store where she plays a number of violins. Of course, the one she feels most connected with is made by Paul’s father — as if there is a cosmic force pulling them together. In “Time and Legends,” Nick and Guy are adolescents who are destined to take over the family business of violin building. Can you unpack how you used the idea of destiny in these stories?
Every piece of fiction, for me anyway, is the result of a struggle to find the balance between presenting a narrative structure that is chaotic or un-patterned enough to appear lifelike, but which in the end turns out to cohere around an artistic design and to embody a kind of artistic wholeness or shape that is meaningful, truthful, and hopefully beautiful. Inevitably, in trying to find that balance between pattern and discord, meaning and chaos, you’re always going to end up thinking about fate and destiny somewhat. Character is destiny, right? So, in meditating on characters and trying to know what they mean or what artistic purpose they might serve, we’re also always inevitably meditating somewhat on destiny — on the readable patterns inherent in image, metaphor, action, causality — embodied in a lifelike fictional representation of life. What Could Be Saved explicitly goes after this tension, I guess because I was interested in seeing how similar characters in very similar settings — Guy in his luthier family and Paul with his luthier father — could meet entirely different fates by either strongly resisting what appears to be the most obvious direction forward in life, as in Paul’s case, or never even questioning it, as in Guy’s case. Violin building is a uniquely insular trade with a long history of being passed from father to son — and more recently to daughters as well — over multiple generations, with trade secrets, tools, tricks, and processes handed down for hundreds of years. Violins themselves can come to seem as if they have a fate or destiny — the more famous or storied ones do, for sure, extending over hundreds of years — and so the thought of putting these questions about belonging and identity, character, fate, meaning, and longing within the microcosm of a little artisanal trade, wherein so many of the usual existential questions about Why are we here and What are we doing and What does it all mean might seem actually moot — well it really piqued my interest.
You’ve said in other interviews that because your parents played folk music, you felt a greater connection to that genre than to classical. Did that seem like destiny to you as a kid?
My own musical pursuits have never felt particularly predestined in any way, despite growing up in a musical family. I think it’s true that growing up surrounded by music and having some kind of genetic predisposition for being a decent musician made it easier for me to slide into a lifelong commitment to playing music. And no doubt my parents’ commitment to helping me with lessons, being understanding (rather than scornful), being interested, engaged, excited for me, all of that gave me a boost. But it never felt expected or forced on me or preordained in the way I think it is for Guy or for Nicky in “Time and Legends.” I fell in love with the sound of the violin and the rest of it, chasing after a sound in my head, trying to get closer and closer to it, that’s just been something I wanted to do. Something I had to do only because I wanted it so much.
In the acknowledgments, you thank a number of people for helping with research and suggested readings. Please share your relationship with incorporating research into fiction. Do you struggle to find a balance between studying and creating?
I’ve only done a few research-infused or research-reliant books. For something like Inukshuk, which leaned heavily into Arctic exploration of the Victorian era, with a particular focus on John Franklin’s search for the Northwest Passage, for instance, I’ll immerse myself in reading and note-taking once I’ve found a topic that really engages my imagination, a topic that I relate to well enough somehow, one which leaves enough unsolved, unanswered, or unanswerable to suggest narrative connections, images, details, characters that I can inhabit imaginatively. There’s a fair amount of comfort and escapism in doing this, being lost in reading and thinking and learning, simultaneously looking for narrative threads to grab on to and then just kind of leaving them there, leaving them alone.
What I’ve learned every time I’ve done this is that I reach a saturation point for material that will actually make it into the fiction much sooner than I stop reading and researching. But I’ve also learned that this is okay. It’s part of the process. Part of the gestational phase of finding the story — to over-saturate yourself in research. But eventually I do have of wean myself off it.
There’s a natural process for this too. You know when the information starts seeming repetitious, when you reach the end of your most pressing questions, or when that nagging feeling that you’re postponing the writing part of the job just a little too long starts asserting itself more? The voice in your head that keeps reminding you that you’re not writing a term paper — no one’s going to care if you’re a little inaccurate and only five percent of all the reading and background research is going to make it into the story, so you should stop already — that voice gets a little louder somehow and then it’s time to start writing.
Once I’m underway with writing, I’ll more or less jettison all the notes and research. As needed, I’ll dip back in for facts or details, but I’ll try to leave the research out of it and become as fully immersed in the narrative as possible. I’ll imagine myself to be “expert” enough and just let the research percolate in.
That said, every time I’ve done a research-reliant project, I’m also aware some of the stuff that gets cut first and that keeps getting cut with more and more editorial passes is the more obviously research-reliant and note-takerish detail. The goal for me is a book that’s accurate and informative and true to the subject, but not textbook-like. I have an internal barometer for this which involves comparing pages to those awful educational filmstrips we used to watch in grade school (pre-internet), but even with that, I’m constantly wrong, constantly having to cut more and more of the research away, until what’s left is really only what the reader needs.
Still, this book is lush with details regarding the world of the violin — all the tools needed to shape wood, famous luthiers, and mafia tales surrounding sketchy deals gone wrong. The book leans toward the encyclopedic.
What Could Be Saved was particularly challenging for me when it came to knowing how much detail to include and how to disengage from the research process. For one thing, because of my lifelong connection with playing the violin, Planet Violin is just inherently much more interesting to me than it will be to many readers. I knew this as I was writing and knew I’d have to watch out for it, and yet the flip side of knowing that was realizing that despite having played my entire life, what I was learning was that I knew next to nothing about the history of the instrument, and the process of building, and the culture surrounding buying and selling instruments. Also, the violin world itself — the culture surrounding playing, building, buying, selling — is exactly as obsessive and insular as a research-drunk writer. In order to accurately portray the world I was creating, I would have to saturate it with details and violin-obsessed people. That is the world I was writing about, so my writing was going to have to reflect it, or risk being as predictable and inaccurate as something like The Red Violin.
So, yeah, finding the balance was tricky for these reasons, and early on I had some discouraging conversations with my agent, who suggested that I should read this collection of stories about plumbers as an example of a book that’s all about people working in a trade without being overwhelmed by details and processes from that trade. The problem, of course, is that violin builders are not plumbers. They aren’t exactly artists either or philosophers or mathematicians or scientists, but they are some combination of all the above. And to be any good, they don’t do much else. Like the people who play the instruments with any amount of proficiency, the time dedicated to their mastery of the craft is staggering.
So in the end I opted to just present the world as it is, without an effort to “teach” the reader about any of the more arcane details, just to let them emerge in the stories as they showed up, to presume that readers will either already know what I’m talking about or not worry about it, or consult Google if they get really lost. My hope is that despite the weight of facts and details, an average reader is hooked enough by the narrative lines and the characters to follow along and to remain engaged. I suspect that people in the trade or affiliated with it in any way, even people who only played a stringed instrument as a kid, will have a different kind of engagement with the stories than average readers, and I think that’s okay. Think of a book like Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, which unapologetically drops the reader into a very specific corner of American black culture, simultaneously teaching the reader about that culture and not giving a damn about what the reader already knows or doesn’t know or can’t manage to figure out about it. That was the sort of model I had in mind, the violin world being an even narrower and more specific culture in most ways, but one that also has a long, storied, and significant record going back through the centuries.
You also celebrate the average violinist and their “piece-of-crap violins.” The story “We Unlovely, Unloved” is told from the perspective of a collective of average violins. It is playful and irreverent but also captures the relationship between amateur musicians and their instruments. How did this story come about, and how did you choose this point of view?
Violins embody an interesting paradox. On the one hand, they’re our invention, and without people to play them, they’re silent. And yet, there’s also no doubt that as a violin gets passed off from player to player for hundreds of years it develops a distinct character or tone. It absorbs and reflects the tone that gets played into it like a kind of psychic or sonic/emotional patina, and this becomes its personality, almost as if it were alive. The same can be said for any number of stringed instruments, but violins have the added weirdness or distinction that they’ve been around for 300 to 400 years and that their methods of construction have not been improved or changed much in all that time. They’ve absorbed a lot of humanity. They are actually designed and built to last for longer than anyone will be around to take care of them, and the outer limit of their life span is unknown. Consequently, as anyone who’s ever picked up a really old violin can attest, when you encounter an old instrument there’s this odd invitation to the imagination that can almost feel like a haunting. Questions like where’s it been, who’s played it, what did they sound like, how much abuse did the instrument have to suffer, how do the habits and hygiene of former players become imbued in the wood, almost have to occur to you. There’s an invitation to imagine that the instrument is alive.
So somewhere along the line, as I was beginning to get serious about the book, I was talking to my friend, the wonderful scriptwriter Gill Dennis, and he asked how the book was going and what it was about. I said, “It’s all about violins.” He gave me one of his wry, eyebrows-lifted looks of dismay crossed with some amused disbelief, and said, “And do they have names, these violins?” Meaning of course that it was pretty obviously foolish, wasn’t it, trying to build a narrative around inanimate objects. I must be up to something I wasn’t telling him about. Though the truth is, of course, most of the big fancy-ass violins do have names (The Messiah, The Lady Blunt, The Cannon). So, I said, “Yes in fact, they do, Gill. They have names.”
And not long after that, it began dawning on me that I’d been way too focused on very expensive high-end violins, to the exclusion of the millions and millions of cheap, crappy, unnamed violins around the world, the violins most people will encounter when the take up the instrument, and therefore the violins with the clearest and most poignant perspective on what it means to be a human being (if they could speak). One day, at like five in the morning, the opening lines of “We Unlovely, Unloved” woke me up and just wouldn’t let me go back to sleep until I’d sat down and drafted the opening pages in a half-asleep state. Through all of it I was still thinking a little about Gil and talking back to him. “Do they have names … do they have names?” Hell yes. Of course they have names!
And as far as I could tell there was no way to access those violins as living, thinking entities except via the “we” perspective. The perspective came with the voice and the lines that had woken me up. It’s one of the biggest disappointments to me of recent years that Gill’s not around anymore to talk to or cajole or to give a copy of the book so he can see how I gave those violins names.
You use this collective point of view again in the beginning of “Time and Legends” to capture the voice of the twins — Nick and Guy. Eventually the point of view shifts and settles into the first person with Guy as the narrator. How does starting in these unfamiliar narrative places allow you to open up the stories in new ways?
The “we” perspective is definitely pretty hard to sustain, in my experience, but lots of fun to play with. Maybe it’s difficult to sustain it because it strains credulity about exactly as much as it invites and requires a kind of imaginative leap. To get on board with it you have to imagine that some of the most private, intimate aspects of existence — your thoughts, feelings, and whole consciousness — are suddenly not private anymore. They’re shared. Everything’s shared. This is fun, impossible, and a relief to the loneliness of being alone with your interiority. Consequently, in addition to requiring a leap of faith which can ultimately strain plausibility, and lose readers, there’s a way that the big, conjoined, group-think perspective can feel closer to a kind of truth — an overarching metaphysical “Truth” — which again, excites the imagination and evokes a different set of emotions than what you get with solitary “I” and “she/he” perspectives. For me, in a nutshell, that’s why it’s hard to pull off or sustain for very long, but also enormously appealing.
As for the Guy/Nicky “we” perspective that begins “Time and Legends”: it has a different origin and intent than the “we” perspective in “We Unlovely, Unloved.” It’s really limited to those specific twin brothers and their little world in the violin shop. And it has its roots and inspiration in the tone and perspective of the Hill Family biographies. The Hills wrote basically all the important, definitive biographies of violin builders for hundreds of years through the 19th and 20th centuries, and did so in this very arch, snitty, Victorian tone, using a plural first person. I was reading some of these as I was getting underway with my book — found them endlessly fun and informative — and started thinking, what if I were to tell a whole story in that style? What would that style sound like if it was a couple of teenage boys? That’s what got me going. Though it also became clear to me pretty quickly that I’d never make it all the way through a book or long story in such a style. I needed to get more grounded in one perspective in order to develop some drama, or the story would never cohere. I stretched it as long as I could, as long as it remained fun to do so, and then Guy took over.
Your last few books, including What Could Be Saved, have all been dedicated to your wife, Caridwen. What about the next one?
I suppose writers mean different things whenever they offer a name on the dedication pages of their books, and over the years Caridwen has definitely had different roles and different levels of involvement, depending on the book. So, the dedications have meant different things. Always first reader, sounding board, advocate, patient listener to all the doubts and worries common to a writer, occasional taskmaster. When I was working on Half as Happy it happened to be at a time in my life when I was so busy I rarely slept. Often, I’d stay up all night writing in bed. If I was stuck, I might catch her as she was drifting off to sleep and say, “Hey, give me a good first line.” And because she has such weirdly vivid, narrative dreams, she’d come up with lines that were so evocative they stuck as the openings of new short stories. “Herb Zackowsky was not a betting man.” Or, “He just needed to get rid of all the little animals super-glued to the dashboard of his truck.” She’s also a great close reader, but more than that she’s also a fast reader (while I am pitifully slow) and she’s able to synthesize a lot of information. We tend to share obsessions — part of playing music together, maybe — so I generally pick topics that we also end up discussing constantly and reading about, and her input in that process is invaluable. In the case of What Could Be Saved, this was particularly true, since my writing and research happened to coincide with her shift from violin repair and restoration to violin building. She became the expert I emphatically am not.
The same will no doubt be true for the next book. This one has a foundational focus on the Venetian Ospedali (asylums for orphans, sick people, and the homeless from about 1300 until the end of the 1700s) and, in particular, on the all-female orchestras and choruses (cori) for which the Ospedali became world-renowned in the 1600 and 1700s. It’s fascinating on so many levels! So, being the quick study she is with languages, Caridwen’s already gotten pretty fluent in Italian; we’ve traveled to Venice once already and will (hopefully) return there soon. Mutual perks, I guess: we get to travel together, visit museums and old instrument collections — I get to do all the writing and she’s always the one ordering the due machiatoni per favore!