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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Gregory Spatz

At a glance
Wonderful Tricks
by Gregory Spatz

Mid List Press
246 pages, $$15

Gregory Spatz is one of those kinds of guys whom a lot of us like to hate.

He's a published writer, having penned one novel that's been published ("No One But Us"), another that is, he says, "making the rounds in New York" and collection of short stories "Wonderful Tricks" good enough to have won a 2003 Washington State Book Award.

But if that's not enough, Spatz is talented enough at playing the violin to be a member of the popular bluegrass quintet John Reischman and the Jaybirds.

Talk about being greedy.

But we're a forgiving lot, we members of The Spokesman-Review Book Club, and that's why we've decided to spend February - typically the longest and most dreary month of the year - reading the short-story collection "Wonderful Tricks." If the title doesn't lift our spirits, then maybe the stories will.

At 40, Spatz is in a place that most writers aspire to but never attain. In addition to having been published in such august publications as The New Yorker, two of his stories - "Wonderful Tricks" and "My Mother Jolene and Me" were included, respectively, in the 100 Distinguished Stories list put out by Houghton Mifflin's Best American Short Stories collections 1994 and '97.

His success hasn't come overnight. Not only did he spend many years supporting himself by teaching and playing music, but he's also gone the academic route, winning graduate degrees from English from the University of New Hampshire and from the prestigious Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa.

He was hired to teach at Eastern Washington University when former faculty member Ursula Hegi ("Stones From the River") lefts, and he now serves as director of the Inland Northwest Center for Writers (which is what the creative writing department at Eastern calls itself these days).

And the critics love his fiction.

"In this magical collection of 10 stories," wrote Seattle Times reviewer David Flood, " 'Wonderful Tricks' shines a light on the holographic nature of relationships and all their hard-edged fragments, giving the reader a pleasing whole that lingers long after the book is closed."

And as I type this, I'm listening to his violin soaring about the rest of the group on the album "John Reischman and the Jaybirds."

On top of everything else, Spatz is happily married to Canadian fiddler Caridwen Irvine, with whom he has performed at Get Lit!, the annual literary festival put on by Eastern Washington University.

I met with Spatz recently to talk about his dual careers. While sitting in the lobby of the Davenport Hotel, me drinking a Brews Brothers americano , him an Italian soda, we chatted about everything from the work of Elizabeth Graver to the problems caused by long-distance relationships.

Following is an edited version of the conversation.

Webster: So, where are you from originally?

Spatz: I was born in New York.

Webster: In the city?

Spatz: Yeah, but I didn't grow up there, though. I grew up mainly in Massachusetts.

Webster: Where?

Spatz: In western Massachusetts. In the Berkshires.

Webster: When we took my daughter back east to look at colleges, we drove over there. We went to Williams

Spatz: That's right where I grew up, right there in Williamstown.

Webster: Where'd you go to college?

Spatz: I went to Haverford.

Webster: Which is in Pennsylvania, right?

Spatz: Yeah. Haverford and Bryn Mawr are brother and sister schools. And Swarthmore. The three colleges are a community right there in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I think Haverford's campus is the nicest of the three. It's the most secluded. It's great. You go up this driveway past the duck pond, and then you're up there on the hill and there's nothing but this little college. It's unreal.

Webster: When did you start writing?

Spatz: Seriously? Or like

Webster: Well, both. Were you one of those kids who told stories and then later on picked it up for real, or

Spatz: I think I had aspirations to be a writer since maybe ninth grade, although I don't think that I had any realistic idea of what it meant or what it actually involved. And at the time, I was sitting next a woman named Elizabeth Graver. Do you know her work?

Webster: No. Way back in my brain, maybe but no.

Spatz: She is a great writer. It was just my bad luck that we happened to be sitting next to each other in English class, both of us saying, "I'm going to be a writer." And she's pretty well kicked my butt. She's really good. She's working on I think her fourth novel now.

Webster: What's she most known for?

Spatz: Her most recent book, "The Honey Thief," did really well. She's won like every prize that you can think of. Guggenheim, NEA. She was so good in high school that when we took the AP exam in for English, within like 24 hours of having mailed them in, they called up and asked who she was. Her essay was so good that they said, "We're going to take this essay and use it as a template for evaluating for the next 10 years."

Webster: That's intimidating, huh?

Spatz: No, but she was a great person. We're still good friends.

Webster: So why did you choose Haverford?

Spatz: I was torn between that and Wesleyan. I didn't want to go to Williams or Amherst, because that seemed too close to home. But I wanted something like that, a small-college experience. Everyone in my family had gone to Wesleyan - my dad and sister, my cousins. I was slated to go there, but I just didn't want to. So I went to Haverford instead.

Webster: So what did you graduate in? What was your degree?

Spatz: It was English. By the time I was finishing up my college interviews, one of the questions they asked was, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years." And I would pretty much say, "Well, I'll be writing and playing music, somehow making a living doing that."

Webster: I want to get back to the music. But, first, you graduated from there and then what?

Spatz: Right after that it was kind of a turning point. I ended up majoring in English and did a creative thesis. Haverford at the time wasn't really suited for people who wanted to work in the arts. It was primarily pre-law, pre-med. The arts were not as emphasized, not as well-funded. Academically, the English department was great. But not in the sense that you would go there to be a writer. It made sense if you wanted to go on to law school with your English degree. So I didn't meet a whole lot of artistic soulmates in college. It just didn't happen. But I did my junior abroad in Ireland and got just completely absorbed in Irish music.

Webster: Really?

Spatz: Haverford nominated me for a Watson Fellowship to go back to Ireland and collect Irish music and study it. This was my senior year. And everyone was convinced that I would get this thing. I was the favored candidate from the school, and we had a good track record of always winning one. But I didn't get it. It was kind of the big defeat. I kind of suffered over that for a while. But what happened was actually all really for the good. I ended up heading out West, to California, and began supporting myself playing music. Within a week I was hired to do a couple of things.

Webster: Where?

Spatz: In the Bay Area. And then I got a lot of teaching work, teaching violin. And I would just write. I wrote all day and I played at night. And I had my teaching days. And it was pretty good for the couple of years that I lived out there.

Webster: When was this?

Spatz: This was about, '84 to '86, could that be right?

Webster: How old are you?

Spatz: Uh, 40. Maybe it was '86 to '88, I can't remember. Somewhere in there.

Webster: The mid-'80s. So, somewhere did you get pointed toward an MFA?

Spatz: Well, yeah, after a couple of years. I was living with this woman and we were both writing all day. She was writing poetry and I was writing fiction. And we both decided that we wanted to go back to school and getting our MAs, MFAs, whatever. And I ended up going to the University of New Hampshire.

Webster: Wasn't that where Ursula Hegi went?

Spatz: Yeah, that's right. We had some of the same teachers. But she went there many years before me. Her favorite teacher there was a guy named John Yount. He wasn't the best teacher for me. The teacher that I worked with was Tom Williams. A great writer, really, really good. And I studied with him the last semester he was alive, which was a real eye-opener for me. He had cancer, had a remission, came back, and I worked with him one-on-one. You know what they say, write for your audience as if they didn't have any more time to live. On top of that, he was a really intimidating presence for me. I admired him so much. I knew he was dying, so I was like, "Wow, I better not waste his time." And that turned out to be the opening of my novel.

Webster: And so did you get an MA or MFA?

Spatz: That was an MA. And then we left there and went back out to California because we really missed it. And my girlfriend, we got married, she enrolled in the program at Davis. She'd been in the program at Brown while I was at New Hampshire, but she hated it. So we ended up back out in California, and promptly got divorced. And I started getting stuff published, and she didn't. That's sort of the short version of that story.

Webster: Sometimes there is justice in life.

Spatz: So I guess I was in California for about four or five years.

Webster: Doing music?

Spatz: The same type of thing. I got a job in a music store. This time I was in Sacramento, near Davis. And I had a lot more students, so I could pick and choose what I wanted to play. When I was living in the Bay Area, I was making a lot more money performing. I was kind of like for hire. I played a lot of blues that I just didn't like, country and western. I haven't done it since.

Webster: This was in the early '90s, right? So, when did you get pointed up here?

Spatz: I ended up going back to Iowa. I ended up selling my novel, and had a contract there, and then went to this artist colony, MacDowell. And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was trying to get out of California, I wanted to quit teaching violin for a living - it was just too unstable. And I figured that I would apply for jobs and get one because I had a book contract. And I met these writers at MacDowell who were saying, "Good luck, you're a white male, and you don't have a degree from Iowa. And, actually, I don't know if you're going to get a job." That really kind of scared me. One woman advised me to go to Iowa.

Webster: All roads lead to Iowa.

Spatz: She said, "If you go there, you'll have two years just to sit around. You won't have to teach. Believe me, you'll get to teach later on and you'll wish for those two years." I made sense. I felt as if I were a bit overqualified to be applying for graduate school, but that's what I did. So I went back. They gave me this really nice fellowship, and for two years I didn't have to do anything but go to class. And classes at Iowa, you don't even have to do papers. You don't even have to read the books. You don't have to do anything. It's just about writing. Workshop is the only requirement. Go to workshop, read the stuff, engage fully with it once a week. That's it.

Webster: So you got an MFA out of that?

Spatz: Yeah, an MFA.

Webster: So you have an MA in English and an MFA in creative writing from Iowa. That's impressive, especially the Iowa degree. People look at that and they go, "Oh, OK."

Spatz: Well, I was shocked the year that I finished my degree at Iowa. I had my MFA and I decided that now I was going to apply for that job that I wanted so badly. My book had just come out, I had a story in The New Yorker, I had a brand new MFA from Iowa. But I didn't get a single interview. I had everybody check my resume, made sure that my letter was right. It was just a weird year.

Webster: What was the name of your first novel?

Spatz: "No One But Us."

Webster: Is it still in print?

Spatz: Yeah. They made way too many prints of the first edition (laughs), so it's still around. They printed like 15,000 copies of it, so it'll probably never go away. You can buy a used copy for about 30 cents. So, again, getting a job is hard. I was just incredibly disappointed.

Webster: So what did you do? Did you end up coming back out to California?

Spatz: I ended up getting a fellowship to spend one more year at Iowa. I just hung out for another year. I kept saying, "I really want to teach. I want to teach so badly." But

Webster: So, eventually, how did you get here?

Spatz: Well, I did the job application thing again and I got a job in Memphis.

Webster: Is that that Memphis State?

Spatz: The University of Memphis, formerly Memphis State University. I spent the year there. The catch about getting a teaching job is that everybody wants you to have teaching experience. But you can't get experience without a job. It's just one of those things. It was an OK job, and it was in a town that probably no one else wanted to live in, and that's why I got the job. But once I got that job, then I could do a search. And this was a better job.

Webster: And when was this?

Spatz: It would have been '98, I think.

Webster: So you've been here since then.

Spatz: Yeah. It was a visiting position at first. Because Ursula was kind of halfway out the door, and no one knew what was going on with her. But they were able to open up enough funds to create a visiting position, and then while I was here she officially retired. So then they did a search, I applied for my own job, and I got it.

Webster: Cool. So now you're the director of the - how does it work now? The complexity of that school over the years has confounded me.

Spatz: We retitled ourselves as the Inland Northwest Center for Writers. We did that when we were designated a "center of excellence."

Webster: But that still is the department of creative writing at Eastern Washington University.

Spatz: Yeah.

Webster: And you being the director of that is the same thing as being chairman of the department?

Spatz: Yeah, but the program director is a tier below the chair. If I was the chair, I'd get a bunch of extra money and I'd have to work all summer. Being the program director, you get some course release but you don't get any extra pay.

Webster: So, now let's go back. Where did you meet your present wife?

Spatz: We met at a bluegrass camp. In 2001.

Webster: And what is her name?

Spatz: Caridwen.

Webster: And she has your same last name?

Spatz: Yeah. Or you can hyphenate it, Irvine-Spatz.

Webster: That's an interesting name. Caridwen Irvine.

Spatz: It's Welsh.

Webster: Webster's Welsh, too. Wales is actually a nice place, although they speak this impossible language.

Spatz: All consonants.

Webster: So go back. You play the violin, the fiddle?

Spatz: They're the same thing. The setup is a bit different.

Webster: And you've played that since

Spatz: I've played that since I was 6.

Webster: So it's always been a kind of competing artistic thing, music and writing?

Spatz: I don't think of them as competing, but it's always been there. I've always played music. I more or less had stopped playing music when I lived in Memphis. I was on this trajectory where I was like, "OK, I'm going to get away from music. I've done too much of it, taught too many lessons, and I want to get away from it." But it seemed the more I wanted to get away from it there were just these cool things to do that I couldn't turn away from. When I was living in Memphis, I would go over to Nashville and hang out with friends. That was highly rewarding musically. And when I came back here, there's a bit of a (bluegrass) scene, but not much. They're really nice people, but it's not a high-powered scene.

Webster: So you met your wife at bluegrass camp, where?

Spatz: At Sorrento, British Columbia.

Webster: Where's that?

Spatz: It's not too far. It's around Shuswap Lake, just a little over the border, somewhere in the Okanagan (northeast of Kamloops). It's beautiful up there. And I was up there with the band that I play in, The Jaybirds. We got hired as a band to go and teach this camp, and that's how it happened (laughs).

Webster: Where was she living at the time?

Spatz: She was living in Victoria. She's Canadian. She was teaching, too.

Webster: So she ended up coming here? Did you guys do a long-distance thing for a while?

Spatz: Not too long. It was, you know - our hand was kind of forced. I went up there and visited her for a couple of weeks, and it was pretty clear, like, well it's a pretty long drive over there. Ten hours. And I wasn't going to move there. She didn't have the income. So if she was going to entertain the idea of coming here, we were going to have to get married. So, way prematurely we were having to decide whether we were going to get married in order for her even to come here, and then to move in. It's all worked out great.

Webster: Tell me about the gestation of this book ("Wonderful Tricks"). You wrote these stories over the period of how many years?

Spatz: It's probably six or seven years.

Webster: And did you have a theme in mind when you started writing?

Spatz: No. I mean, when I wrote the first couple of stories in there - they've arranged more or less chronologically in the order that I wrote them - I was actually working on the novel. So the first few stories you'll notice have similar themes with that novel - adolescent narrators, older women, that type of thing. That was the subject matter of the novel that I was working on, so there's a certain amount of "bleed" from one project to the other. The first three stories were pre-Iowa, and then the rest of it I wrote mostly at Iowa.

Webster: Well, you had to do something at Iowa.

Spatz: I moved into my house in Iowa. I moved there early because I was going to teach a summer class. But I wrote it that summer. I was taking a poetry class. So I fell asleep reading some poetry, and the opening paragraph was sort of there in my head. These guys were painting my house, and I just started writing it.

Webster: So for the people in The Spokesman-Review Book Club, coming into it cold, what would you tell them to expect? What would you hope that they keep in mind when they're reading this?

Spatz: That's a good question. (pause) Let me think about that. Well, I don't think you need to know anything or have any preconceived notions before you start reading it. I think you should read the stories in order because one of the interesting things about it is that, written over all those years and put in order, you can see a kind of stylistic evolution, which in itself is a kind of narrative arc.

Webster: Why did you pick "Wonderful Tricks" as the title?

Spatz: The book went through a bunch of different titles. At first, I was calling it "Paradise Is This," which is the first story, but it just doesn't have as good a ring to it. Then for a while I had an agent who was going around and selling it as "Anyone's Venus" (the eighth story).

Webster: I like that one. There's a crossover there, I think.

Spatz: He was selling it more as like it's a really sexy kind of thing. But I thought that was a little too close to "Anyone's Penis."

Webster: That would have been an even better title.

Spatz: (laughs) I let him go out with that title, but I was never going to let that be on the cover. And I think "Tricks" works because there are all sort of magic tricks all through it. There's the kid in the first story who does magic tricks. There's the magician's assistant in the last story. There's all kinds of appearance and disappearances, the ways your perceptions change. So it ended up seeming like the most appropriate title. And, I don't know, it sounds more like a book title than any other story in there. I tried to pull a line from somewhere in there, but I just couldn't find one. At first, I thought was way too ostentatious. Like, "This book is wonderful!" You know, like that book by Dave Eggers.

Webster: Yeah, yeah, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

Spatz: It was like, man, I don't want it to sound anything like that. But the more I thought about it, it doesn't actually seem all that flamboyant compared to what's out there. It's a pretty quiet, muted book title. So, I'm happy with the way the book looks, how it turned out.

Webster: I'd be really proud of it. Is there anything that we didn't cover? Your wife plays what?

Spatz: She plays violin.

Webster: Because I can remember seeing you perform, and in my mind I can see you. As a matter of fact, now I can see her but I can't see you with a violin. But both of you do play violin, right? What else do you play?

Spatz: It depends. She sings and plays violin and also plays some Irish drum. But just recently I've started playing the octave mandolin. I've always played mandolin, a small regular mandolin. When we play together, I'm mainly backing her up on this little mandolin. They're both up on the high register. It's not full. It sounds fine, but it's not a full sound. So for this gig that she had recently, we borrowed an octave mandolin, which is the same thing as a mandolin but an octave lower. I liked it so much that I approached Weber Mandolins and asked if they could give me an endorsement so that I could have one. They said, "Sure."

Webster: So, Caridwen's not in the band?

Spatz: No, she's not in the band.

Webster: But does she ever perform with it?

Spatz: When she's around, like if we're playing Sandpoint, or if we play here, if she comes with me on the road sometimes, she'll get up and do like an encore.

Webster: Who all else is in the band?

Spatz: The main person is John Reischman. He's probably one of the top four or five mandolin players in the world. He's really good, and he's been around a long time. Jim Nunally is the guitar player. Nick Hornbuckle is the banjo player, he lives over in Seattle. And then there's Trisha Gagnon, the bass player.

Webster: So how do you guys get together? Do all of you live in the Northwest?

Spatz: No. Jim lives in California. John lives in Vancouver (British Columbia). Trisha lives in Chilliwack (British Columbia). Nick lives in Seattle. And I live here. We rehearse when we get together on the road. In the beginning, we had to get together a bunch and rehearse because we wanted to put a record together so we could sell it get some jobs.

Webster: What was the name of the record?

Spatz: That one was "John Reischman and the Jaybirds."

Webster: And how many albums have you guys put out?

Spatz: Two.

Webster: Do they sell better than your books (laughs)?

Spatz: Well, no. . . I don't know. Maybe. I haven't seen any numbers for that (laughs). The second one, "Field Guide," hasn't been released yet in the U.S. But it will be. That one was a finalist for the Juno Award in Canada, which is a big deal.

Webster: So you guys play Irish music?

Spatz: No, it's a bluegrass band.

Webster: There's a reason why I'm not a music writer (laughs).

Spatz: We tend to have more of a crossover from old-time. That's more our thing. We don't sound much like your mainstream band.

Webster: I'd love to hear both albums. Where can you get them?

Spatz: You can get both from John's Web site. I think also you can get the first one from just about any store, Borders or Barnes & Noble. I think the second one is better. It's stronger because we played longer together as a group. Copper Creek out of Virginia did both records, so you can check their Web site.

Webster: Thanks.

Spatz: Thank you.

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