The instrument he never knew
Fiddler Spatz writes about the world behind violin-making and playing in new book
NORTH ADAMS — As a fiddler in John Reischman and the Jaybirds and an author of novels and short stories, Gregory Spatz harbors dual creative interests. While his professional identity may be more tied to his writing career — he teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University — Spatz isn't one to rank the pursuits advanced by his artsy Lanesborough youth.
"In some ways, I think of myself as a writer who plays music, but the honest truth is I spend way more time playing music than I do writing because it's a physical discipline," Spatz told The Eagle during a recent phone interview. "If you get out of shape playing, it takes a lot of effort to catch up again and get your chops back."
Growing up in the Berkshires, Spatz was both an avid reader and listener. His parents, Alice and Larry, were always playing music.
"I grew up just surrounded by folk music and hootenannies in the house," Spatz said.
Longtime members of the Wintergreen trio, Spatz's parents still live in the county, where Spatz will return with Reischman and company next weekend for FreshGrass. At the annual roots music festival hosted by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the bluegrass group will take the Joe's Field stage at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, and hold a "band dynamics workshop" the next day at 11 a.m. in Club B10. Yet, even before those appearances in North Adams, Spatz has already made his artistic presence felt in the city: In June, his latest work of fiction, "What Could Be Saved," was published by North Adams' Tupelo Press. The book's two novellas and two short stories explore the world behind violin-making and playing, but it wasn't a "write what you know" situation for the fiddler, who will read at The Bookloft in Great Barrington on Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m.
"Even though I've spent my whole life playing violins and talking about violins and teaching violin and playing and so on, and I'm married to a violin player, what I learned really quickly was that I actually know almost nothing about violins," Spatz said. "I knew nothing about how they were made. In terms of what's valuable and what's not, I was completely ignorant."
During his research, he investigated the mechanics of violins' sound and texture. He also discovered that corruption and uncertainty underlie many sales, a fraudulent environment his book probes.
"It gave me a lot of inspiration, I guess, to try to learn as much as I could and expose as much as I could about this world, and at the same time, deromanticize a lot of notions about violins and violin playing," he said, "because I feel like if you watch a movie like 'The Red Violin,' it's full of the cliche, romantic notions of people who play violins and what violins are. I wanted to correct for that as much as possible and be really accurate and truthful, but at the same time, capture the romance of the instrument itself, because I think the romance is real. It's an astonishing instrument."
Spatz began playing the violin when he was 6. Around that time, he was also reading "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia."
"When I was a little kid, I had this notion that I wanted to be a writer, but of course I had no idea what that meant. So, what it mainly meant as a kid was just reading a lot and really enjoying reading and escaping into imaginary worlds," Spatz said. "And for music, it was similar except for the fact that, because you can get lessons and you can learn technically how to play an instrument, I was involved with that pretty much as soon as I could have lessons."
He moved to the Berkshires from the Hartford, Conn., area during elementary school, eventually graduating from Mount Greylock Regional High School. At Haverford College, he studied English but "didn't get really serious about the discipline of writing" until just after receiving his diploma. He uprooted to California, playing music for a living and writing whenever he could, before attending the University of New Hampshire for a master's degree and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop for an MFA. At UNH, National Book Award winner Thomas Williams was a vital mentor.
"His work really spoke to me," Spatz said of the writer who died in 1990 from cancer.
Williams encouraged Spatz to turn a short story into his first novel, "No One But Us." Since that project, Spatz has also authored the novels "Inukshuk" and "Fiddler's Dream," but he hasn't abandoned short stories by any means, publishing the collections "Half as Happy" and "Wonderful Tricks" in addition to the narratives in "What Could Be Saved." Short stories excite him.
"There's that possibility of writing something just so formally perfect, meditating on a thought that's profound and meaningful enough that it will give you this shock when you finish it," Spatz said, noting that this effect is rare.
Music offers an escape from academia for Spatz. He began playing with Reischman shortly after moving to Spokane, Wash., in the late 1990s.
"I think he's the best mandolin player in the world. Most people would put him in one of the top five mandolin players in the world, and that's always been the case," Spatz said of Reischman.
The two knew each other from Spatz's California playing days. The Vancouver-based Reischman was in need of a fiddler for an upcoming tour.
"That was the beginning of that band, basically. He put together ... the bass player Trisha [Gagnon], the banjo player Nick [Hornbuckle], me and John, and we had a different guitar player in those days," Spatz recalled.
Today, the guitarist is Patrick Sauber. In North Adams, Spatz will be playing a fiddle made by his wife, Caridwen, who started building them when Reischman began composing "What Could Be Saved." When he was writing, Spatz realized that his narratives' simultaneous interconnection and independence evoked the parts of the instrument at the stories' core.
"You don't need to know anything from one story to the next in order to appreciate each one individually, but I think together they resonate in the way the parts of a violin resonate with each other," Spatz said. "... When you're making a violin, you have to focus completely just on that one piece, and it is itself a complete thing, and it needs to be as perfect as possible. But it works a whole lot better when you put it together with the other three parts and play on them."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.