by Julia Stewart
Grant Spradling’s second novel is about to be released and he says he is just getting started. Palenque Murder brings back the same three bumbling detectives who solved the crime in his first thriller Maya Sacrifice, which took place in and around Merida. This time the detectives move from Key West, Florida, to various places in Mexico – Xalapa, Tlacotalpan, Villahermosa and Palenque – in search of the killer of an eccentric writer named Rage Stone.
Grant has taken full advantage of his eight decades to become accomplished in a variety of fields, and he isn’t stopping. Grant began his career as a minister, has performed in Broadway musicals, sings opera, and writes fiction, among other endeavors.
Grant’s collection of short stories From High in the Mulberry Tree explores his youth in western Oklahoma. He combined his theology and writing background to co-author two volumes of Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, a collection of fine art and literature that follows the Christian church calendar.
Below we chat with the multi-faceted, indomitable Grant.
Q: In your lifetime you have seen incredible advances in technology in the way people write (among other things) – from the invention of the ball point pen to computers able to access more information than one can use in a lifetime that are only the size of a pad of paper. In what ways has this affected your writing?
A: The computer, the cyber age and the help of friends have opened a whole new world in my later life. I’m severely dyslexic. The computer, spell check and grammar check are like brain prostheses. I still need a lot of editing, for even in correcting myself, I add mistakes.
Q: What made you change course from being a minister to a singer?
A: Oh, my! Do you want the short or long version? Well, I have always sung. While an associate minister in the Congregational Church in Cambridge, I was recruited to do a lot of solo work. I hate bad singing, even when I am doing it, so I took vocal lessons at the Longy School of Music
near my church and Harvard. Leaving my position in Cambridge, I vagabonded around the world for a while, running a bar in Saint Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, getting lost in Africa, attending the World Council of Churches assembly in New Delhi India, and falling in love with Japan. The head of our church’s world board said that I was exasperating, but the kind of person the church should keep in its fold and agreed for me to go back to Japan and become an ethnologist. I knew the Western style of singing was popular in Japan, so I resumed voice lessons, at which point the teacher told me I could have a singing career. I was thirty two. An age Gail Sheehy described in 1976 in her bestselling psychology book, Passages, as the Deadline Decade when “time starts to squeeze.” I gave myself ten years to try. It was a brief but not stellar career.
Q: What training did you have in singing, and when was the last time you performed?
A: We were a singing family. My smart older brother listened to the Saturday Met broadcasts. I was always singing. Out on the tractor I imitated the screaming sopranos, but I sang off-key. At my parents urging I used my fifty cents per week allowance to pay our choir director for voice lessons. I later won a lot of awards and received voice scholarships in college.
My last performance was as a soloist singing Broadway tunes and operatic arias in the Felipe Carrillo Puerto auditorium here in Merida about fifteen years ago.
Q: Tell us about your time on Broadway; in what musicals did you appear and who did you work with?
A: I performed in four Broadway Shows as a singer/dancer and had a few understudy parts. I worked alongside such luminaries as Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake Melina Mercouri and Giorgio Tozzi and sang opera with Beverly Sills. As a tenor soloist with the Metropolitan Opera Studio, I sang in small towns all over the country—as far as Minot, North Dakota. I remember singing the tenor solos in John La Montaine’s ‘Wonder Tidings.’
I also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with Ethel Merman and the cast of Annie Get Your Gun. Another act that night was a group of beautiful black women—I was very naïve, in terms of ’show business.’ All the other members of the cast were wild about the women’s group – called the Supremes – and said they were really going places.
I got a job as soloist with the Camerata Choral who were invited to sing at the White House. I’m a little embarrassed to brag about that, because it was when Nixon was in office, still I have to say that he was extremely pleasant. We were invited to a lavish reception for the president of
Norway. My most lasting memory of the occasion is that it seemed to me that nearly all the women had had plastic surgery and had champagne colored hair.
Q: Which creative person that you met has left the biggest impression on you?
A: That’s hard! Every one of them had ’star power‘and they were all nice to the cast. Ethel threw parties for us—an intimate gathering at her favorite restaurant, Goldie’s, for just us and Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers. Georgio Tozzi [an operatic bass who featured at the Met for many years]–my partner and I lived in his garage; I officiated at his marriage and baptized his children.
But it would be my Russian voice teacher, Madam Olga Avorino, who told me I could have a career. She regaled me with stories of singing for the Tsar. During the 1917 Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff rescued her and her husband and daughter, who escaped across Siberia. Her debut at Carnegie Hall, Rachmaninoff as her accompanist, was the night the stock market crashed.
Q: What inspired you to start writing fiction and specifically murder mysteries?
A: The second part of your question is easy. I write mystery in hopes folks will stay with me to the end of the story and to entertain.
The first part of your question is more difficult. I chose fiction, because I think fiction often hones closer to the truth than fact. I write because there is something inside that needs to get out. Once, and only once, when I was singing, the song seemed to pass through me as if I were a mere instrument, a flute, perhaps. It was an ecstatic moment, no ego. The applause was a yes to the song, not congratulations to me. I long for that experience when I write. I quote from Michel Cunningham’s novel, The Hours in ‘Chico: A Dog’s Tail,’ a story in my collection From High in the Mulberry Tree. “If she were religious, she would call it soul,” Cunningham writes about Virginia Wolf. “It is more than the sum of her intellect and her emotions, more than the sum of her experience though it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three. It is an inner factuality that recognizes the animating mystery of the world because it is made of the same substance, and when she is very fortunate she is able to write through that faculty.”
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t pretend to be anywhere near the level of Wolf. Yet when I go to the beach for solitude to write, sometimes, for just a moment, the story flows through and that is worth thousands of hours of scribbling in hope.
Ego? Of course I have plenty of that, but it is dangerous. Ego can stand in the way of art. I’m a story teller. I told a friend that if I didn’t write I would become a loquacious old man. I have discovered one can do both.
Q: You lived in Key West, Florida for twenty years and worked for the Fine Arts Council three of those years. Do you find any comparisons in the fine arts scene between Key West and Merida?
A: Oh, yes! I find a liberal, live and let live atmosphere here similar to Key West and the influx of expatriates adds to that feeling as newcomers did to Key West. Restorers and artists had already found Key West before my partner and I arrived there. Hemmingway and Robert Frost were gone but John Hersey, James Merrill, Philip Caputo, Ann Beattie and Joy Williams, to name only a few, were there. (A few years ago, I managed to get Joy to come to Merida to give a workshop.) Though none of the authors I know here in Merida are famous, there is a rich burgeoning community. There are writers groups and a Writer’s Gathering. It was my ambition, when I was president of the Merida English Library, and still is, that someday our library would rival the library in Key West which sponsored a hugely successful annual writer’s seminar.
Q: Have the places you lived affected your writing?
A: Surely! When I lived in New York, if I told someone I was a writer, they’d ask, “Have you got any books published?” In Key West, they’d say, “Great, how’s it going?” Just as subtropical light encourages the visual arts, a liberal, accepting atmosphere nurtures writing. Here in Merida I have a writing buddy and friends who help with editing, and I need a lot of help. Still, the grit of red Oklahoma dirt is in my soul. No matter how long I may live in Boston, New York, Key West or even Merida, as welcoming as it is, I’m an interloper. I’ll never forget where I come from.
Q: Did you travel to all of the Mexican locations in this novel? Was this an important part of the writing process?
A: Yes. As I travel, especially in Mexico, places start to speak to me. The divisions between present, past and feature blur and I hear things.
Q: Which mystery writers do you enjoy reading the most (and a few words why)?
A: Elmore Leonard. His dialogue is perfect. He is spare. His characters are believable if wacky.
Carl Hiaasen. He’s outrageous and funny and writes about places I know. Margaret Truman. She knew her location. Her books were clean and well crafted.
Q: Which other writers have influenced your writing?
Alice Munro has influenced my writing. The news that Munro won the Nobel Prize in literature this year brought a rush of memories. I was saddened to read she announced she is finished writing. She’s only 82. I’m older and just getting started! Munro is quoted as saying: “I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not something you play around with until you got a novel written.”
In my case, I am eager to complete the novels I’ve had in the hopper for a long time in order to return to short story writing. In short story writing, I think we may skim closer to transcendent truth.
Other writers who have influenced me? I admire greatly the lyricism of Truman Capote. I first saw his play, The Grass Harp, and then read the book and just fell in love with his style.
Joy Williams. As a teacher and as a writer, she beckons one to strike out into uncharted seas, forget formula. She said to a workshop participant who defended what he had written as fact, “We are not after the facts; we’re after art.” To which he replied, “Well, isn’t life art?” She responded, “Not enough!”
Q: Do you have more plans for your three detectives?
A: Actually I’m backing up to when David, the protagonist in all my novels, first meets Quincy. It is a walk-on part for Quincy. David must solve a murder in order to banish nightmares that are connected with his youth. It is both a mystery and about growing up homosexual in the Dustbowl and the Great Depression.
In addition to the novel, three of Grant’s short stories will appear in an upcoming anthology of Merida writers, Our Yucatan, published by Hamaca Press (hamacapress.com/readers-praise-our-yucatan/).
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