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Charting Difficult Territory 

by Sheri Boggs

The physical world can be mapped in the cartographical sense, laid out in neat square-inch grids with the lakes colored in blue, the roads limned in black and red, the national forests neatly parceled out in green. But it can also be mapped out in a personal sense. The neighbor's house you were afraid to go to because of the dog smell and because that scary older boy lived there. The sunlit stretch of river that claimed your fishing rod and never gave it up. The left-hand turn on a residential street where you suddenly knew you were completely in love.

Gregory Spatz writes about the world in this sense. In his new collection of short stories, Wonderful Tricks, and even in the first paragraph of his previous novel, No One But Us, there are occasionally recurring variations of the phrase "in the world." His characters long to memorize the exact sense of what it is to love and leave a place or person behind, or secretly to relinquish an adult's vocabulary, articulation and knowledge in order to bump along like a small child again. Spatz reads from Wonderful Tricks at Auntie's on Wednesday.

"Any time you're writing fiction, you're making a self-contained world that's bound by its own logic," says Spatz, who holds degrees from Haverford College, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. "That was a big breakthrough for me as a writer -- to realize that what there is in the world is impossible for anyone to know objectively."

Not unlike the airy Marc Chagall figures on the book's cover, the characters in Wonderful Tricks circle ineffectually around one another and are estranged by varying degrees of emotional gravity. In a sense, these are love stories, inhabited by strong-willed women and bewildered men, and by children who see more than they should, both literally and figuratively. In one, a boy cares for his alcoholic grandmother while realizing he will have to leave the farm he loves, with the milkweed pods and the breastfeeding neighbor. In another, a famous artist's son seduces a reporter. And the title story reads like a cross between the Brothers Grimm and Raymond Carver, with its imagery of sleeping adult sisters, a scaly old house and a man who falls for a married woman as much for her exquisitely clean feet as for who she is.

As the director of EWU's Creative Writing MFA program and the author of both a novel and a collection of short stories, Spatz has come to appreciate the theory and craft of writing every bit as much as the actual storytelling. His appreciation for form is just as evident in his other life, as a fiddler for John Reischman and the Jaybirds, a widely respected bluegrass outfit from Vancouver, B.C. On their self-titled CD and its follow-up, Field Guide, the band performs such traditional tunes as "Katy Dear," "Lonesome Dove" and "Bravest Cowboy," as well as Gillian Welch's "Winters Come and Gone" and their own compelling compositions. Spatz was drawn to bluegrass, both because he was introduced to it at a young age -- his parents are folk musicians in New England -- and because it posed specific challenges.

"It's an extremely evolved form. It's formal, in the sense that there's a right way and a wrong way to play it," he says. "There's such a defined role for the fiddle in bluegrass music, and I was drawn to the fact that there's a very rich tradition of really great players. Understanding how to improvise within that tradition is fairly cerebral. The music makes a lot of sense theoretically, yet it's full of feeling, and I find that truly satisfying."

Spatz has been with the Jaybirds for three years, roughly about as long as he's been in Spokane, where he lives with his wife Caridwen (also a fiddler) and two sons. He came here for a faculty position in the Creative Writing program and recently took over as the director, bringing an outsider's fresh perspective to a program that has long been identified as rather regional. He says changes in the program's identity were already taking place before he arrived, but that he's nevertheless proud of the department's new direction. This year's class is the biggest the program has ever had, and it has, over the years, become nationally recognized even with the current glut of creative writing programs at the nation's universities.

"I'm really incredibly lucky to have the job I have," he says. "Sometimes I'll be driving to school, and I'll think, 'I get to go talk about Chekhov for two hours.' He pauses, then adds that it's just as surprising that he's paid to go over an "abysmal" student story in workshops. "Either way it's sort of astonishing that you can build a career, you can buy a house, by working on this stuff."

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