Steel cut oats, dried black cherries, nonfat yogurt, flax, and maple syrup. Two double-espressos with steamy hazelnut milk. Best breakfast I know of.
Agreed. So…about the new novel. You know the question I’m going to ask.
True. But go ahead.
The title. Inukshuk? How do you even say it?
It’s a totally phonetic spelling, no silent letters or special, exotic diphthong vowel sounds, nothing weird. In-uk-shuk. Simple. Like shucking corn. Like nunchucks…
My wife grew up in the Arctic. She knows what an inukshuk is, but she maintains it would be a great name for a line of slick espadrille/moccasin-inspired shoes.
That’s amazing! So does my wife!
Aside from her though, you do realize that some people, many people, when they first see the word, they’re afraid to say it aloud for fear of looking or sounding stupid?
I feel bad about that.
Do you enjoy making people feel stupid?
I just said I feel bad about it.
Well, now you’ve explained how it’s pronounced – can you say a few words about what it means?
Inukshuk. It translates literally from Inuvialuit or Inuktitut – any number of Northern languages – to mean “in the shape of a man.”
And people have to read the book to find out what that has to do with anything?
Well, yes. But I’ll tell you this much: inukshuk refers to those stone, wilderness markers you see up North – rock slabs placed one on the other to form a human-like shape, arms outstretched. First Nations people use them to point the way to a food cache or shelter, mark a cairn, commemorate something significant, or just to help a lost hunter feel a little less alone. The book had a different name for a long time, but then late in the process of drafting I saw the word on the page, “inukshuk,” and I just knew it was my title, because of the way it bridges all the historical, contemporary and thematic strands of the book. A novel is, after all, another kind of inukshuk, made of words – bearing the shape of a man or woman, pointing the way toward something useful, commemorating, caching, making us feel less alone.
While you were working on Inukshuk, you got some feedback from knowledgeable readers who thought it was a really bad idea for one of your main characters, the modern day high school teacher, John Franklin, to be an English teacher and a poet. Why do you think they said that, and why did you decide not to follow their advice? Are you just way too stubborn?
I used to hit the waves with a stick, when I was small. Remember? At the beach. I was trying to make them go away and not come back. Writing is a little like that, I think. You have to be that stubborn.
I remember. Those waves never stopped coming. So?
So, I definitely heard it loud and clear that the subject of the imagination, how the writer lives in the world and how words get onto the page, how the imagination interacts with the world, all of this is kind of taboo in mainstream fiction lately. It’s too bad, because as a nation we’ve probably never been more in need of good artistic models for how the imagination lives in the world, and how it shapes experience. I mean, here we are surrounded by people taking the words of the Bible as some kind of literal, living truth…
Stay away from the soap box. Was it a good idea or not, making John a poet?
It was essential. But let me back up a second first and explain how Inukshuk grew out of all my research into my distant relative, Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer of the mid-1800’s who died seeking the Northwest Passage. That final expedition of his was the single worst and most tragically failed, scurvy-ridden, lead-poisoned, botulism-carrying, cannibalistic expedition in all of western history. Sir John was hugely famous in his day for having vanished, like movie-star/astronaut famous. So I always knew I’d have to write about him. The subject was there, waiting. And I could go on about how timely it all felt – how the Victorian drive to dominate and “conquer” the Arctic regions is basically the same drive leading us now into tar-sands extraction, and on this ever-downward spiral toward global annihilation…
Ultimately the most interesting thing to me, in what I learned from my research, is that no one knows what happened to Franklin and his crew, and no one ever will. It’s a black box, and will be until the ships are found…probably beyond that. It’s accessible only via the imagination.
So you have this kernel of an historical story…
We both do, and we decided that the way to get at it was by embedding it in the more current, modern-day father-son drama of John Franklin and Thomas Franklin, stuck in Houndstitch Alberta. To have one of the main, modern-day characters, Thomas, use his version of the black box story of the vanished Franklin expedition as an escape. Accessing the Franklin material this way, through Thomas’s obsession, gave us some liberty to play with issues of verisimilitude and to have fun with the more entertaining aspects of the historical story threads without ever crossing over into the Master and Commander genre of historical fiction.
The “we” pronoun is getting a little weird. Stop already.
OK, but here’s the other interesting thing I learned: Franklin and other explorers like him wrote all the time. They wrote long, ornate sentences about everything they observed – poems, journal entries, letters, narrative accounts of their experiences – and they meditated on God and Nature and the nature of their observations. It was all colonialist as hell, but still, it was writing. You could even say that Franklin’s main personal purpose in exploring was to gather writing material – so he could go home and write another dressed-up, Victorian narrative account of what had happened to him, a follow-up to his other book Thirty Years in the Arctic Regions, and then to make a bunch of money from book sales. He was already mediating his experience, finding the right words for it, as he lived it.
So, since my story grows around this kernel of a lost story and a vanished culture where writing was more integrated with daily life, I decided that both modern day characters had to be writers and thinkers and people lost in their imaginations. The outer wrapping of the story had to mesh with the inner story. The book’s focus, as it turns out, is on the imagination, not history.
Let’s not say whether or not Thomas dies as a result of his attempts to give himself scurvy, but…he’s a pretty sick kid. Doesn’t that make John a bad father?
I don’t think so. He’s a harried father, doing his best to single-parent a teenager. Teenagers are so impossible, you know, because they need all kinds of autonomy and won’t be told what to do. And yet they badly need guidance. So they are themselves, kind of black boxes. The process of parenting them … there’s no chart for it. Whatever you do, it works only as well as it works. It’s essentially impossible.
Sounds as if you’d like to comment on your own experiences parenting teenagers?
But people say John is a bad father and bad authority figure. Is that not intentional?
I suspect those people haven’t been around teenagers recently. But it’s also true, because in some ways I was modeling John the high school teacher after John the dead explorer, and John the explorer was definitely notorious for being a bad disciplinarian – too much in his head, too religious, too soft. So, yeah, there’s a bit of that in my current day John, I guess. Purposely. Or maybe it’s there because I relate to it.
You mean you are actually related to it.
And I take it there are no slick, espadrille/moccasin-inspired women’s shoes in Inukshuk?
Sir John was famous for having cooked and eaten his boots on another one of his expeditions, when supplies ran out. In some circles he was known as “the man who ate his boots.” But no, no women’s shoes in Inukshuk.
Have you ever had scurvy?
There’s a lot of vitamin C in dried cherries. But I have an imagination.
Gregory Spatz’s most recent novel is Inukshuk (Bellevue Literary Press). His other books include the short story collections Half as Happy (forthcoming) and Wonderful Tricks, and the novels Fiddler’s Dream and No One But Us. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. He is the recipient of a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship; a Washington State Book Award; and the 2011 Spokane Arts Commission Individual Artist of the Year Award. He teaches in the MFA program at the Inland Northwest Center for Writersat Eastern Washington University. When he’s not writing or teaching, Spatz plays fiddle and tours with Mighty Squirrel and the internationally acclaimed bluegrass band John Reischman & The Jaybirds.
Photo credit: Brett Hall Jones