Thursday, July 28, 2016

Kathleen Spivack Speaks about "Unspeakable Things"

Kathleen Spivack with Doug Holder at the Cafe Juliet in Somerville, Mass.

KATHLEEN SPIVACK is an award-winning writer. She studied with Robert Lowell and remained friends with him for eighteen years, and is the author of many books, among them Moments of Past Happiness, A History of Yearning, and With Robert Lowell and His Circle. She has had residencies at the Radcliffe Institute, Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and the American Academy in Rome, and has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Commission. She teaches in Boston and Paris. Here latest book is a novel " Unspeakable Things" According to Spivack's website it is: " A strange, haunting novel about survival and love in all its forms; about sexual awakenings and dark secrets; about European refugee intellectuals who have fled Hitler’s armies with their dreams intact and who have come to an elusive new (American) 'can do, will do' world they cannot seem to find. A novel steeped in surreal storytelling and beautiful music that transports its half-broken souls—and us—to another realm of the senses." 

The setting: the early 1940s, New York—city of refuge, city of hope, with the specter of a red-hot Europe at war.

I spoke to Spivack on my Somerville Community Access TV show: Poet to Poet :Writer to Writer.

 Kathleen Spivack Speaks about "Unspeakable Things

With Doug Holder

Doug Holder: Can you tell me about the genesis of this first novel that you have written?

Kathleen Spivack: I had written two other novels before but I threw them out. I didn't show them to anybody because I thought they were horrible. I didn't want them to be around. When I was teaching in Paris—my friends wanted me to stay and they wanted me to apply for the Fulbright. A Fulbright Scholarship is funded by American universities-- not French-- so this took a lot of pressure off me. So I got the Fulbright, and I wrote three pages, and those three pages became a novel.

Doug Holder: How much of this novel was inspired by your own immigrant family?

Kathleen Spivack: A lot. When my family came to this country they were incredibly poor. We all lived in a one room apartment. My family came from Austria, Russia and Germany. They seemed to be coming from all over. I often had to share my bed with an old lady. Now, a lot of my people had been through the concentration camps. And a lot of them had lost family. They were pretty broken people. Getting back to this old lady who my character of the “Rat” is based.--she was a woman who came out of the camps and experienced incredible hardship. She would tell me stories in the middle of the night. The “Rat” would tell her story over and over again to the young girl she shared the bed with.

Doug Holder: The “ Rat” in your novel is a hunchback woman with a beautiful face. She was the objection of affection of Rasputin, a doctor, and others...

Kathleen Spivack: Yes—this woman that I slept with told me that she “Sold herself to Rasputin.." I listened to her—terrified by the whole story. And she said: “ Then we did unspeakable things.” She didn't go into detail...I was a kid.

Doug Holder: You have very graphic scenes of the sexual liaison between the Rat and Rasputin.

Kathleen Spivack: I imagined what she might have done with him. I think I went a bit overboard. (Laugh). But in reality she was beautiful and compelling. Yet she had whiskers and was hunched over...but she definitely had something about her.

Doug Holder:  Tell us about Herbert your main character.

Kathleen Spivack: My main character was based on my grandfather—Herbert. The reality was that during World War ll in New York City none of us could get a job. My mother managed to secure something. She would send the kids to the New York Public Library with my grandfathers. In the winter libraries had heat. One of the reasons that Marx used the British Museum in London was because it had heat. My grandfather was a minister of finance and commerce in Austria. He had been trying to raise funds to get people out of Austria, and the library was a place where people cut deals, etc... My dad was a decoder during the War, just like Herbert's son was in the book.

Doug Holder: The character of Felix was a bizarre one. In the book he pleasured himself in front of a picture of Hitler.

Kathleen Spivack: You have to remember the book is based on fact and fiction. Felix is a true villain. He is based on our family pediatrician back then. He delivered my mother. Like Felix, he called his child charges “ bad girls” and threatened to have them “ turned them into liverwurst.”

Doug Holder: I always find coffee shops, libraries, etc... as a gathering place for eccentrics. You use the New York Public Library and the Automat in your book. I remember writing a poem: “The Eccentrics of the Reading Room: Boston Public Library,” that was published in a number of places.

Kathleen Spivack: These refugees met in public places like the Automat. My grandfather met in the periodical room—the newspapers were on rolls—the children in the novel sit all day and wait for Herbert to be done with his business.

Doug Holder: There seemed to be a dose of Magic Realism in your book.

Kathleen Spivack: There is an element. The book was somewhat based on German Expressionism. I didn't think of it as Magic Realism. It was useful to write this way.

Doug Holder: There was a recurring subtext in the novel of the Old World of Europe vs the New World of America. There is a lot of music in the story as well.

Kathleen Spivack: My parents were civil servants in Austria, and they loved music. I went to Oberlin and I was a cellist. I think music is the heart of the book. I write to music. I set the book up in a symphonic structure. My son was very into the saxophone—and he would sleep with his instrument. I used this in the novel—where a group of musicians sleep with their instruments to the neglect of their wives. I did a lot of research into the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for this book. My book is full of music, and so is my life.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful interview about the roots of this mesmerizing new novel.