(Bellevue Literary Press, 2012)
I’ve admired Greg Spatz’s work for years now—since we were students together at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, when I’d come across lines like the following in his workshop stories:
I began having the weird sensation of distances disappearing. Some nights at their house I’d look out the rear window of her bedroom, see the plants and trees under the streetlight waving in the wind across the lot from us, and I’d feel I was touching them in my eyes—like they were inside my eyes the same way a reflection sometimes sits in the bottom of a spoon. Cars passing on the street next to the front porch went into my senses and stayed there. A muffler’s noise tingled in my right elbow.
Perfect, precise details to capture the moment and put you in scene, without calling any attention to themselves or their artistry. Simple, strange, and right. I always found his characters’ frankness a bit disconcerting; they were naked on the page in a way that I was too shy as a writer to ask my own characters to be. At that time, Greg was already a few paces down the road from most of the rest of us—contract for a first novel with Algonquin Books, story in the New Yorker. Sharing a workshop with him would have been a little daunting if he hadn’t also been a nice guy. He knew more than I did and he was more confident than I was—more able to recognize bullshit and more willing to call it out when he did—but he was never condescending, never gave off the sense that he was above sharing and critiquing work with people like me who were just starting out. You couldn’t help but try a little harder and bring your very best game. So it was that I became and have remained a big fan of his work. (We also played a lot of music together at Iowa—on porches, at parties, at the occasional local bar. He’s a hell of a fiddle player, an actual pro, and he would gamely—enthusiastically—play and play, always making the people around him sound better, having a good time without showboating, and never getting huffy when we’d struggle to find pitches or hit clam after clam in trying to solo. He noted it, of course, we knew that, but accepting it all as part of the fun of beer-fueled, exuberant musical hackery.)
This past fall, when I stumbled on some clips and news items announcing the discovery of the HMS Erebus, one of the long-lost ships from the 1845 Franklin expedition to seek the Northwest Passage, and the centerpiece of Greg’s excellent and meticulously researched new novel, Inukshuk (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012)—one of my favorite reads of recent years—I had to ask him about it. (I’m a polar exploration geek myself, a sucker for stories of ice-bound misery and striving.) People have been looking for those ships for well over a hundred years now, and at a huge cost of human lives and dollars. Had the discovery changed anything for Greg? What was he thinking or feeling about any of it? The conversation below grew out of our email exchanges about that discovery and about writing, life, history.
Doug Dorst (Rail): Before we get to the Erebus discovery itself, there’s some backstory about your relationship to the material of Inukshuk. Can you talk about that? What about it made you want to turn it into a book?
Gregory Spatz: Family lore has it that my great-grandmother on my mom’s side was Captain Sir John Franklin’s niece or great-niece. Whether it’s true or not, I can’t verify—I think a visit to the local parish in Islington, England would be the only way to say for sure—but everyone in the family has always presumed it to be true. Her maiden name was Franklin. The locale is right, and cousins of ours in England, to this day, won’t speak Franklin’s name out loud or talk about him at all because of the presumed family connection and the fact that Franklin is still, for them anyway, associated with such spectacular failure and shame. To say anything about him supposedly opens you to bad fortune. So knowing that, of course I had to wade right in there and make a novel out of it, right? Bad fortune?
Rail: It’s what all writers want, right? Bring it on.
Spatz: I grew up hearing so often about Franklin and connecting with him via the family lore—he’s your great-great-great uncle … some of that silver in the family silver collection might even be from his estate—reading kids’ books about him, etc., it came to feel like a personal story to me. A story I had a personal stake in. Connected with this: both of my parents are folk musicians who were pretty active on the circuit through the ’60s and ’70s, and as I was growing up whenever I’d hear them singing the song “Lady Franklin’s Lament”—a folk ballad based around an 1860s broadside set to music sometime later—I’d experience this emotional tug; this unfamiliar depth of emotional connection. And later, in high school, discovering Bob Dylan’s take-off on that same song in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” again, there was the same kind of emotional resonance. Later still, working on the novel, for a time anyway, my wife and I would play and sing (she sings, I play) our own version of the song together almost nightly without thinking about it, so the song became a kind of emotional touchstone for the words in the book.
So these things—the music, the presumed family connection—were the seeds in my imagination. I knew for years that I was eventually going to write something about Franklin—felt, actually like I had to. The story was kind of there waiting for me to get to it. At some point I remember doing a reading from the novel before Inukshuk—Fiddler’s Dream—and being asked the question, “What’s next for you? What are you going to write next?” and on the spot improvising an answer about Captain Sir John Franklin and the few things I knew about how screwed up his whole expedition had been and saying I was going to write about him next. And as I was rattling away I remember it dawning on me that by saying this out loud I’d kind of sealed the deal. Not long after, it in fact became the next project.
Rail: I saw that they’ve brought up the ship’s bell from Erebus. Are you aware of any other particular things they’ve found, or at least observed, at the site? What, specifically, do you hope they find, and why?
Spatz: That bell is especially cool because it would have announced so many daily, hourly activities for the crew. Looking at it, you can’t help but feel this kind of emblematic significance for it—how it would have structured the lives of the men on board and maybe assured them through the months of darkness, the hours and half-hours and quarter-hours of their lives rung out—activities, warnings, watches, and jobs. For my characters, especially for the Captain’s steward, Edmund Hoar, that bell would have been such an integral part of daily life it’s hard not to feel a personal summons in it.
From everything I’ve read, it sounds like there’s some hope that written and maybe even photographic artifacts will be found in the wreck. The crew did supposedly have these state-of-the-art-time-capsule, weatherproof, brass cylinders which they could use to store documents, and the water in the channel there is so frigid that everything on board stands a pretty good chance of having been nicely preserved. So I’d say this is not an unreasonable hope. Any kind of captain’s log or diary of Franklin’s, letters from him, would be beyond interesting and illuminating—he was, after all, a notoriously thorough self-chronicler and letter-writer. It’s pretty much what he did on the ship, aside from serving as commander. He wrote all the time about what he was doing. Some stories from Inuit and other regional First Nations people mention written documents that made it off the ships and were not saved (probably burned or played with by kids since they would not have been perceived as having much practical use) so we know that a lot of what was chronicled—letters to home, etc.—is gone for good. And that lack of a written record is a huge part of what enshrouds the whole expedition in total mystery and darkness. What happened and why? Why did so many officers die before the crew? What was going on there, on board, once they were frozen in? Why didn’t anyone leave a written record? Why did they make such bad decisions? To have solid documentation on any of this would be hugely illuminating and fascinating.
Plus … pictures?
More fancifully, there’s also speculation that Franklin’s body might be found on board. No one is sure what was done to bury him. And I guess it’s not out of the question that he would have been left with his ship. If that’s the case and his body is found on board, it would of course be pretty amazing and fascinating. And potentially revealing if a cause of death can be determined.
But a lot of what was on the ships (too much) was hauled away in the long boats and keeps turning up scattered around King William Island. Other stuff left on board was probably taken by First Nations people who we know later boarded the vessels for a look around. So who knows? Divers for Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team do report that diving into the wreck they could see through skylights on deck and that the lower decks seem very well preserved. So there’s that and I guess that whatever is found on board will almost certainly demystify a few things. Without a doubt it will tell us more than we know currently!
Rail: The scenes in Inukshuk in which you narrate an imagined version of the events that befell Franklin and his team are amazing—dark and harrowing and richly detailed. I assume that you used the historical record as a foundation and then built upon it with inference, imagination, speculation, and your sense of good storytelling—is that right? Were there any ways in which you altered the historical record for the sake of the story—even minor details? To what degree did you think you owed a duty of fidelity to the historical truth?
Spatz: The short answer to this is yes, I did feel as if I had a certain obligation to get those scenes “right” and to be as true to the history as possible, so yes I built around what’s “known” with inference, imagination, and speculation. Lots of research, lots of reading to absorb the language of the time (much more than I actually found a use for), and definitely an adherence to what’s known of the timeline for the crew. Both Edmund Hoar and Thomas Work (the two main players in the historical part of the story in Inukshuk) were actual guys onboard the ships, so especially when I was thinking of them and focusing on events seen through their eyes, I felt an obligation, for their sake, not to be wildly far off in how I imagined things. I felt a kind of chastening humility or respect for them that made me want to get it “right.”
But the longer answer is that getting it “right” is problematic and maybe impossible. History and storytelling blur together from the source outward. Between what happens to us in “reality” and what we tell ourselves and other people about it immediately afterwards there’s already slippage, deceit, embellishment, editing, shaping, mediation, etc. You can see this in Franklin’s own writing about his other expeditions—how the style of the time (very Victorian, elegant, and gentlemanly) and the expectations of his readership (man dominating over nature, prevailing boldly, teacup in hand, and making a pretty picture along the way) caused him to report events in a very stylized and storyteller-ish way. It’s already a partially imagined event, from the root written source out. And this gets more complicated as you add into the picture all the expectations of today’s readers when it comes to historical novels or historical films: there’s a flavor we’re expecting, a tone, a narrative arc, a kind of escapism, heroic valor, and a lot of received language to go with it all. Plus the added weight of knowing that the ways we imagine history to have happened—what we tell ourselves about it and what we agree to believe in as “truth” in all the stories we hear and tell each other about the past from a young age forward—these ways of imagining our past end up shaping and reflecting how we think of ourselves and who we tell ourselves we are.
Rail: So how constrained were you in accomplishing the task of actually telling this history as a story?
Spatz: As much as I felt a moral obligation to get the story “right” for my characters, I felt an equal moral obligation not to participate in the whole game of pretending to tell or to know the truth about the past—the whole game of spinning a nice convincing, real-seeming tale or adventure out of the historical record in order to provide readers an escape, or to sell them on my agenda or vision. The only real truth is that we can’t go back, so we can’t know what happened. This is ultimately what’s most interesting and frustrating about the past and also why it’s rewarding to study, imagine, and to write about. Because of all this—because as soon as you start digging into the historical record, the narrative accounts of the time, you run smack into all this storytelling and puffery and fabrication and received language and filtering, and because so much of Franklin’s story has been chronicled to death already—I felt like the only way I could go forward and stay interested in the story was by seriously foregrounding my historical filter and actually making the whole problem of mediating history and the problem of history blurring with storytelling into an active main topic or focus of the book by presenting everything historical through the eyes of my young current-day protagonist, the troubled filmmaker wannabe Thomas Franklin. By allowing Thomas to conjecture, conjure, imagine, and spin truth and fantasy together knowingly, and to get lost in the received language of Merchant Ivory movie-making all the while consciously trying to subvert it, I felt much more at ease with the material and free to play with it. Free to embellish, take liberties and have fun.
Rail: Examples, please.
Spatz: So the scenes written through his active imagination as he’s drawing out his storyboard version of the Franklin expedition, those were all pretty relaxed and enjoyable to write, in a way that surprised me. The scenes where Thomas is dreaming and less present as an active, conscious filter for the historical events, and where the reader feels (hopefully) as if he/she has just been thrown right into the past without all of Thomas’s mediation, those required the most time and concentration. Writing those scenes, I really felt a need to be accurate and “right”—I wanted the reader to experience a near hallucinatory blurring of past and present, like Thomas feels (and like what ends up allowing his characters to slip around in time and visit him in the present). Details there in those dream sequences—the weird Peglar diary; the man dead in the traces; the body found at the southernmost point on King William Island; the cannibalism—I did not make up. I used known artifacts and events and embellished some to anchor them in my characters and to create dramatic scenes for my story. But hopefully not in a way to wreck verisimilitude.
Once I got into the actual research, reading Franklin’s own books about exploration and all the books later written about him and about Jane Franklin, everything about my thinking changed. One thing about Franklin is that so much has been written about him (and by him) and imagined about him already, the number of voices surrounding him is kind of overwhelming. The other thing though, and the thing that came to interest me the most, is that no one really knows what in the world happened to him. And by what, I guess I really mean how. How did whatever happen to him come to pass? That ended up fascinating me the most. We may never know, though with the discovery of Erebus we may get some pretty interesting new information and insights.
Rail: Thomas has to be one of my favorite teenage narrators ever. Such a contrarian, such an up-close observer of everything in his world, you can’t help but love him and roll your eyes at him and hope he’ll make it through the story alive. Who the hell has the temerity and the self-discipline to give himself scurvy in the 21st century, just to piss everyone off? So what do you suppose he has to say about the discovery of Erebus? Give us a snapshot into his brain, 2014, as news hits the airwaves up there in Alberta or wherever he is now.
Spatz: If the word hadn’t come first from his father, he might have taken it differently. Might have bolted from lecture class to his dorm room to look it up on his laptop and sign himself up for any and all related news alerts. Might even have lost the next hours of his life posting about it and perusing the web for pictures. Shaking his head and mildly freaking out about whatever he found. Ditching out on all of his classes for the rest of the day. As it was, the light buzzing in his pocket signifying a text and flipping open his phone—His Dadship, on the callback display—discretely thumbing down to read the text as his teacher rattled on at the lectern about absolute convergence and bounded functions (Erebus found! Can’t believe it! Right where you said all along … off of Victoria Point wonder what they’ll find down there. Maybe the body??? If you can stand hearing him, Harper’s on the radio in 10 minutes to announce! Go now! Over and out) he found himself in the grips of an old dilemma—an old form of self-annihilating rage. Drawn back to that icy first winter of their isolation alone together in Houndstitch, full on self-destruct mode, refusing all foods with vitamin C and then doubling down against himself even harder by getting lost in Franklin lore—everything about Franklin, all day, every day—the notebooks full of his drawings and storyboard narration, dead sailors following him around with their weeping mouths and black faces, fingers busted and frostbitten—all those emblems of a longing he never managed to put a name to but which now, from this distance looked like nothing but a lot of foolish, childish wandering. Antic nonsense. Another way of saying the same old thing—he missed his crazy mother—and another way of cutting down any attempt at love because love didn’t work after all. It always broke. It gave you scurvy and left you alone in the frozen desert with your old man and—
Jill nudged him with an elbow, eyebrows lifted in question. Who texted, she wrote in his notebook.
He pushed aside the hair covering her birthmark and leaned closer, mouth centimeters from her ear—“Tell you later. Blast from the past. Remember Franklin?”
Leaning back to observe the change in her face he knew his words had had the desired effect, reminding them both that the past is always the past. Another country. Not to be known and never to be re-entered. Tennyson’s lines for Franklin echoed in his head: Heroic sailor-soul,/ Art passing on thine happier voyage now / Toward no earthly pole.
She fished two C-lozenges from her knapsack, slid one across his desk at him, and popped the other in her mouth with a wink.
DOUG DORST is the author of two novels, S. (with J.J. Abrams) and Alive in Necropolis, and a short story collection, The Surf Guru. He teaches creative writing at Texas State University.