A Conversation with Gregory Spatz on Inukshuk

Q: What is the significance of the title, Inukshuk?

A: For the longest time the book had another title, which I never liked: Ice Masters. That title always made me picture a figure-skating tournament or exposition, but I couldn’t think of anything else to call the book, so I seemed stuck with it. Then, as often happens in the final stages of drafting and revising a thing, I was struck by something out of the blue and just kind of knew, like the proverbial light bulb coming on—there’s my title

In this case, it was the passage where Franklin misidentifies something out in the field, tries to remember the word for it, and thinks “inukshuk.” All along the text had been giving me clues with its native words for section titles: Chinook, Kabluna, Tallurutik. Of course! So I tried it out. And the more I looked at it, the more I read about the meaning and uses of the word, the more perfect it seemed. Literally, inukshuk means “in the likeness of a man.” Practically, it refers to a stacked arrangement of stone slabs with a human-like shape or form. Traditionally, native people of the north make inukshuks in order to communicate something—the mysterious man-like stone figure might point to a food cache or inlet, might stand atop a cairn, or it might set a traveler on the right path. It might be constructed as a form of encouragement for lonely travelers: we were here—you aren’t alone.

Why in the shape of a human? Probably for all the same reasons we shape our fictional characters, our novels and stories, after the same likeness. A novel is also a kind of inukshuk. It encourages, points you toward something else, stands as a sign on the path, caches meaning and experience, and tries to look like a person. In this case, for this novel, the title is also particularly fitting because of what we know about John Franklin’s remains: we don’t know where they are, exactly, but from multiple oral accounts we are fairly sure that somewhere on King William Island he was interred in a concrete cairn, possibly marked by an inukshuk that has long since fallen down and disappeared.

Q: Unlike Inukshuk’s main character Thomas, who only fantasizes about being the namesake of Sir John Franklin, you actually have a family connection. What is that connection?

A: Sir John Franklin was my great-grandmother’s uncle. Her last name was Franklin before she married into the Dobkin family and converted to Judaism. Cousins of mine in England, to this day, will not mention Sir John Franklin’s name aloud because of powerful superstitions relating to his tragic failure as an explorer.

Q: Is that what inspired you to write the novel?

A: Yes, but I was also thinking a lot about the oil-consumption/climate change equation and the first hand ways in which I’d witnessed the direct and indirect effects of that equation working on Canadian culture in Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

Being in an active, touring bluegrass band comprised half of Canadians, half of Americans, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, I find myself often traveling through northern and central Alberta and Saskatchewan—places I never, as a kid, would have envisioned knowing or visiting. It’s been amazing to witness how literally, overnight, as a result of oil sand exploration and other mineral extraction throughout central Canada, everything has changed: entire towns have sprung up where, until recently, there was nothing but prairie, or prairie and a crossroads.

Calgary and Edmonton in particular have grown at ridiculous rates, and the quality of life there, property values, etc., in both towns, booming out of control, has transformed the culture and way of life. This is particularly notable to me, traveling through every year or two, playing in the same towns and venues. And the boomtown changes we see there are mirrored inversely by the kinds of overnight culture-shifting changes I’ve also witnessed (and read about) further north in the Territories where increasing temperatures are making it more and more difficult for people to continue living in the ways they always have.

That there’s a direct correlation, via greenhouse gases and oil-dependency, between the boom-times further south and end-times up north, goes without saying. And tying all of this back in with the Franklin story had always seemed to me like the natural thing to do: Victorian polar/arctic exploration embodies the same kind of privileged and tragically short-sighted incursion into the natural world that now compels us to go ahead with oil sand extraction in the never-ending search for more fossil fuel.

In other words, where there was once too much ice to navigate the passage, now there’s too little ice for native communities to continue. Ironically or not, the phantom “open polar sea” that explorers of Franklin’s era hypothesized, fixated upon, and chased after to their own destruction, may one day be a reality.

Q: What fascinates you the most about Sir John Franklin’s story?

A: Once I started digging into the research, reading about Jane Franklin, John Franklin, and all of the various theories explaining how/why the expedition failed as tragically as it did—and whether Jane should be seen as a heroine or a vain and egotistical virago and John as a kind and compassionate captain or a complete dunce and a failure as a leader—I became more and more attached to the material.

What I came to feel was most fascinating about the whole story is that, quite simply, no one knows what happened to Franklin and his men, and no one ever will. There are only two pieces of written documentation, and neither one gives much information. Both are confusing, brief, and fragmentary. Everything else that we know is pieced together from clues and fragments and relics—bones with cut marks on them; frozen bodies that show abnormally high lead levels; oral accounts from native people collected by Charles Hall (indisputably half-insane, himself) indicating that there was massive scale cannibalism among the crewmen, and scurvy, and that some men survived for as long as 5-6 years on the ice; inventories of canned food and a record for the manufacture of that food indicating that most or all of it could have been spoiled. We also know how far the men traveled on foot over King William Island before they all died, and what they brought with them and some of what they abandoned along the way.

But the day-to-day narrative of what happened, and how and why, and the drama, is a black box and probably always will be. That, as it turns out, is what ended up fascinating me most of all—the mystery.

Q: Why, then, set Franklin’s story in the present day imagination of a teenager?

A: During the research process, I became fascinated by the relationship between imagination and history—how we generate stories to understand something that can never be known, so that we can live with it, make sense of it; why it matters; and more than that, I became convinced that yet another straight-up fictional, historical, narrative account of the Franklin expedition would be a transgression and/or too big of a literary lie for me to believe. There are already versions of that story out there aplenty, anyway; it isn’t really what the world needs.

In fact, I came to feel that the kind of Merchant-Ivory or “Master and Commander” Technicolor vision of the past we’re comfortable entertaining and which has become more or less pro forma for the historical narrative genre, is itself related to the distortion and delusion and fable-making that leads people into mineral extraction and polar exploration. I couldn’t make myself do it. More interesting, I thought, and more truthful, to show how an imagination becomes obsessed with an unknowable history and spins a tale out of it—how difficult that process is and tangled up with daily life, how it distorts and fixates and cinematizes, how it cannibalizes from experience and gets continually interrupted.

And then, one night visiting my wife’s family in Okotoks during an early and severe cold snap, I had a vision. I saw Thomas standing outside in the backyard in the middle of the night, in the snow, half-dressed, deranged or sleep-walking or something, and I knew he had a brother and a lost mother, and I knew that his father was the one watching him through the window. I knew that he was the one obsessed with the Franklin story and that he was trying to give himself scurvy. Out of nowhere, I had the characters and framework for getting into the story. I stayed up all night making notes. Months later, when I had time for it, I went back to those notes and they still felt right, so I started working.

Q: Which came first… your recording of “Lady Franklin’s Lament” or Inukshuk?

A: That ballad is from the late 1800s and began as a broadside about Jane Franklin and later took its melody from an old Irish tune (one of the oldest existing Irish tunes in the world) called “The Croppy Boy.” I first became aware of the song in high school (when I was Thomas’ age), indirectly, via Bob Dylan’s take on it, “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” Dylan stole the melody and song concept and that was it—the rest of the song was purely his own. The first version to catch my ear was Dylan’s, but when I backtracked a little further to listen to recordings of the original version, I was even more profoundly moved. And I have been listening to that song ever since.

Recently (but some years before starting in on Inukshuk), I started playing it, working out my own arrangement with my wife Caridwen singing, thinking about Franklin and all the while meditating on some way to turn his story into a novel. I recorded it once on my on solo CD in 2007 with Caridwen, and again with the band Mighty Squirrel in 2008. Something in the song hits me very deeply, still, so it sits there (invisibly) somewhere at the bottom or in the core of Inukshuk—comprising, for me anyway, one of its musical/emotional touch-stones and some of its emotional backdrop.

Q: You’ve now published four books (with a new collection of short fiction, Half As Happy, due out in 2013), teach writing, and are a touring musician with two bands. How do you manage?

A: I’m never sure if I’m better known for my fiddle playing and other music related activities (I also play bouzouki and mandola), or for my writing. I have played music since I was six years old, made a living at it all through my 20’s and early 30’s, and continue to play around 80-100 dates a year. Most of the performance work I do is with the bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds, but I also tour and record with the folk-alt world-music quartet Mighty Squirrel, and with singer-songwriter Nell Robinson.

I worked on Inukshuk for a total of about five years, though I’d been thinking about the subject and researching it for a few years longer than that. I drafted a lot of the book in intense, long bursts of work during summer breaks and while on sabbatical leave, between one job and another. The style and voice and multiple perspectives I’d settled on early in the process always gave me a feeling of being unrestricted in such a way that when I did get time to write, I could just fall right back into it, usually with a kind of exhilarated rush and a desire to go forward.

It helped, too, having a private, secluded writing studio in the back yard (built by my wife out of rice hulls—the only one of its kind, in the world, for real!), which I never used for anything but working on the book. Having a physical setting for doing the work made it easier, when I had time to write, to just sink right back into it and pick up where I’d left off. I think, actually, without the studio there might not be a book. Being torn away from it and back to my job at the university, or on the road with my band, or back to family obligations, that was the hard part.

I tried to think of interruptions as an advantage—real-life perforations providing a way to gain perspective and distance on the material. To some extent this is always true, so it always worked. Up to a point. It also helped having the character of John serve as a kind of fictional analogue for my own continually interrupted process of working on Inukshuk. He too is always being interrupted from his writing by work and family—a lot more than I am. I came to believe, like John, that interruption isn’t bad. It just is. You live with it and then you get back to work.