Q&A: Gregory Spatz '86
Award-winning writer, fiddler and bluegrass musician Gregory Spatz '86 is the author of the new novel Inukshuk (Bellevue Literary Press), which probes fraught, and modern, family bonds through the story of a father and his teenage son who gets lost in his historical obsession with the tragic and ill-fated Victorian-era Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin. Spatz is based in Spokane, Wash., where he teaches in the MFA program at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University. Cheryl Sternman Rule '92 inquired about his newest work.
Cheryl Sternman Rule: How did you first become interested in Sir John Franklin's expedition? And how, specifically, were you able to research an event so shrouded in mystery?
Gregory Spatz: My inspiration has roots in my family connection to Sir John Franklin. He was my great-grandmother's uncle or great-uncle. We're not totally sure which. So I grew up hearing about Franklin, and I knew it was a topic I'd eventually get to. Once I started all the research, reading books of the era by Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, Jane Franklin, Admiral McClintock, as well as books about the expedition itself and attempts to understand what had happened, I realized I was going to have to find my own personal angle.
I also felt queasy about the ways in which historical fiction tends to dress things up and pretend to know much more than it can know. History itself is kind of story or narrative we agree to believe in and tell each other. And historical fiction is just a very polished and authoritative seeming version of that. It's a seductive narrative angle to take, but not one that ultimately felt right to me. So I devised this other way of getting at the historical material: I gave the historical stuff to Thomas [the son], and let him work his teenage imagination on it, fully knowing of his own artifice in doing so. Drafting the historical stuff through the filter of his vision was fun and liberating.
CSR: It's a dark novel in many ways, yes?
GS: It was always the darker threads of the Sir John Franklin story that excited and inspired meâ€”the mystery and suffering and incredible deprivation, and literal darkness, of course, 24 hours a day in winter. I just found all of that fascinating. And scurvy is such a fantastic literary device/metaphorâ€”both in the way that it disfigures characters and the way it causes old wounds to open, old broken bones to unmend.
CSR: Why set the novel in Canada?
GS: A few reasons. One, Franklin is much more present in the contemporary consciousness for Canadians than for Americans. Right now, for instance, he's in the headlines because of renewed efforts to find the lost sunken ships. This is a regular preoccupation for Canadians because in some ways Franklin is“theirs.” I also felt that I needed the Canadian setting to show, in scene, the effects of climate change and tar sand extraction. I travel a lot through this part of Canada, and it's been staggering to see how the urban areas there have just quadrupled overnight and how full-fledged towns have popped up in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to set the novel on the edge of these significant social/environmental changes and to link them with the Franklin expedition to show how that Victorian impulse to conquer, control and dominate the land still affects us today
CSR: The novel touches, thematically, on our fear of abandonment, our quest for love, and the extent to which some people go in order to protect themselves from the former (abandonment) and attain the latter (love). Do these themes figure prominently in your prior works as well?
GS: Those are themes I've been drawn to write about again and again. In this case I wanted to create an internal quest for connection and love which mirrored/ reflected the Franklin quest for a passage through the ice. My overarching concern throughout the book is desire for connectionâ€”internal and external.
CSR: Did you feel empathy for the character of Jane (Thomas' mother and John's estranged wife), who abandons her family?
GS: I do feel empathy for Jane. But I also wanted her to embody some of the most puzzling and off-putting traits of Sir John Franklin and Lady Jane Franklin. Based on what I read, both Sir John and Lady Jane were incredibly career-oriented and driven people. Jane especially was a real powerhouse character and has been written about both as a kind of manipulative virago and as an epically tragic and lovelorn romantic heroine. I transposed the tragic and lovelorn characterizations for her onto my modern day John character, and gave the more ambitious, driven aspects to my modern-day Jane. What I hope makes Jane more sympathetic in my story is that her motivations are all humanistic and altruistic. She's kind of an environmental crusaderâ€”that doesn't help her family feel any better about the abandonment, but.â€¦
I'm really interested in this kind of hyper-focused drive which, as far as I can tell, is necessary to accomplishing big thingsâ€”socially, artistically, etc.â€”but which comes at a price to the people who are close to you. Jane gives me a chance to kind of explore the effects of that kind of myopia.
This interview originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Haverford magazine.