by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here's a moment in Greg Spatz's new novel, Fiddler's Dream, when his protagonist, Vermont fiddle prodigy Jesse Alison, realizes that he will have to leave home to pursue his dream of music. The scene is revealed in a flashback, but it's the moment that drives the rest of the story, as it follows Jesse on a solitary road trip to Nashville, the land of this fiddler's dreams.
Like Jesse, Spatz is a bluegrass fiddler with New England roots who spent some time in Nashville and has traveled far to follow his parallel dreams of making music and writing. But that's where the similarity ends. Now a teacher in EWU's creative writing program, Spatz attended the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, where director Frank Conroy was his mentor. For a long time, he didn't write about music and kept his twin loves separate. Fiddler's Dream is his attempt to bring those worlds together.
"I was talking to Frank Conroy about it when I was working with him, and he said the trick is, if you're going to write about music -- which you shouldn't do, but if you do -- make sure he's a way better player than you are," Spatz recalls. "Write up to him. So that created a little distance. And [Jesse] has a different aesthetic than me. He starts off being taken by the real traditional music -- like Bill Monroe -- while I was way on the outside fringe at the beginning, listening to people like David Grisman... As a character, he's much different than I am."
Whether Jesse is a better fiddler than Spatz may be open to debate as well, for Spatz has certainly proven his chops. His parents are folk musicians in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, and he began playing out with them as a youngster after learning classical violin techniques via the Suzuki method. For several years, Spatz has been the fiddler with the Jaybirds, mandolinist John Reischman's band, for several years and he spends many weekends and much of the summer playing tour dates with the band.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & patz's immersion in the world of music-making comes through in the language of Fiddler's Dream. Early in the book, where the story moves largely through Jesse's interior world, much of the communication happens through the music -- the choice of tunes, the decision to take the lead or play in the background, even the choice of key. Musicians who read the book will glean more from these details, but the music talk isn't so technical that a layperson will get lost. Spatz says that balancing act took a great deal of care.
"I wrote this book very slowly, and I had to rely a lot on readers and editors to tell me where the musical descriptions were going too far," he says. "That was very hard to figure out -- how to anticipate a reader's knowledge of music. I had to rely on non-musicians to read it and tell me if it worked."
Once in Nashville, Jesse hooks up with a fiddle maker he knew in Vermont and slowly meets the scenesters in the city's bluegrass brotherhood as he pursues his dream of being a Bluegrass Boy with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. As readers come to know Jesse, though, it becomes clear that he's not just there to make music -- he's following the cold trail of his father, a hard-drinkin' hard-livin' country music songwriter whose last known address was in Nashville. As the novel progresses, Jesse moves from the interior world of his thoughts and memories to finding the words he needs when at last he confronts his father.
"I wanted to borrow the form and language of bluegrass, the aesthetic of the music, and use it in the writing," Spatz says. "I didn't want to do what other people have done -- to borrow from the lyrics and the stereotypical assumptions about the people behind it. I just wanted to think about the bluegrass as other musicians think of it, which is the sound of it. They don't really pay attention to the words."
Fortunately for readers, Spatz paid attention to both the sounds and the words. Fiddler's Dream is a subtle, atmospheric read that's a lot like listening to a master musician at work: You don't have to know the chords to feel the sound is tugging at your heart.
Gregory Spatz reads from Fiddler's Dream at Auntie's Bookstore on Friday, May 26, at 7:30 pm. Call 838-0206.
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