Watertown Writer’s First Novel Based on Her Family’s Experiences as Refugees

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Writer Kathleen Spivack of Watertown debuted her first novel, "Unspeakable Things" this year.

Writer Kathleen Spivack of Watertown debuted her first novel, "Unspeakable Things" this year.

Writer Kathleen Spivack of Watertown debuted her first novel, “Unspeakable Things” this year.

Kathleen Spivack faced many obstacles to publishing her first novel, but the award-winning writer and writing teacher had her book published this year despite being hit by a car while walking to the big meeting with her publisher.

While this is her first book, the 77-year-old is far from a newbie when it comes to writing.

“They keep saying I’m a debut novelist at 77, but I’ve been writing all my life,” Spivack said, sitting in the living room of her Watertown home.

Most of Spivack’s work has been poetry and short stories (she has eight other books and had poems and stories published hundreds of times). Her latest work is a novel called “Unspeakable Things,” which will be reading from on Wednesday, June 1 at 7 p.m. at Newtonville Books, 10 Langley Road in Newton Centre.

A few years ago, when she was trying to sell her book, Spivack had a meeting with Knopf Doubleday in New York.

“There was an ice storm, and while I was walking on the street a guy skid and hit me,” Spivack recalls. She was pinned and when someone pulled her by her arm, her shoulder dislocated.

Someone gave her a lift the remaining 28 blocks to Knopf, where she was able to keep her appointment, despite the agony.

“They have letters from their authors on the wall. I was sitting there under one from Nabokov and others,” Spivack said.

While feeling daunted knowing some of her favorite authors had been in the same spot, she said she hit it off with the editor and in January her book was published.

The Novel

The book draws inspiration from her family and those she knew growing up as the child of refugees who moved to New York. It chronicles European refugee intellectuals who fled Hitler’s armies to try to create a new life in the United States.

Spivack loosely based the main male character, Herbert – a former minor Austrian civil servant – on her grandfather. She remembers tagging along with her grandfather to the New York Public Library and the automat (a cafeteria where food comes from vending machines).

“People came to petition my grandfather,” she recalled. ” I sat quietly as people came, refugee people, looking for help.”

The main character, however, is Anna (also known as the Rat), who is described as “an exotic Hungarian countess with the face of an angel, beautiful eyes and a seraphic smile, with a passionate intelligence, an exquisite ugliness.” Anna is based on people Spivack met growing up in a small apartment in New York.

“I shared my bed. I did not have a bed of my own until I was 16,” Spivack said.

She often shared her bed with refugees who had recently moved to America. One was an old woman – a countess from Russia – who had sold herself to Rasputin to help her husband.

“She would tell me stories, and say, ‘then he would do unspeakable things.'” Spivack said. “She would roll over and go to sleep, and as a young child I sat there wondering what that could be.”

There is also a villain, who Spivack likens to an opera villain, who is based on her family pediatrician.

Watching all the action unfold is Maria, Herbert’s 8-year-old granddaughter.

While the book has some dark and serious topics, including abuse of children, but Spivack said she also likes to think there are humorous parts of the story.

“When people read it, they laughed. I was laughing when I wrote it,” Spivack said. “People don’t like to read such dark things.”

This is not her first attempt at a novel.

“I wrote a couple novels, and they were just horrible,” Spivack said. “I erased them from my hard drive.”

While writing a novel can take just a couple hours, Spivack said a novel takes eight hours a day – day after day.

Selling a novel is different, too. She has been traveling the country doing readings. She kicked off her book at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge and also had an event at Porter Square Books. Along with the event in Newton, she also has one planned in Wellfleet.

She also has worry about her Facebook page and Twitter, which is a new experience.

A Scholarship

Spivack moved around as a child, and her father got a job teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. She went to college in Ohio.

Stories she wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer while she was a student at Oberlin College earned her an opportunity to come to Boston. She got a scholarship and since there was no creative writing program at Oberlin, her advisor recommended she study with a poet.

“I wanted to study with Ginsberg, but Oberlin wouldn’t accept Allen Ginsberg. He was too out there for them,” Spivack said.

Instead she came to Boston to work with Robert Lowell at Boston University. It did not get off to a good start because, “he forgot all about it,” and wasn’t expecting her. However, it turned into an amazing opportunity for Spivack.

She attended his workshop, and met up and coming poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and later Robert Pinsky.

“It changed my life,” Spivack said.

While she loves writing, Spivack also said she has always been drawn to teaching.

She began teaching at BU and got her master’s degree along the way.

“I taught here at every university in the area, then I got the job in France,” said Spivack who went back every year for 25 years. “It was wonderful.”

Moving to Town

Spivack and her husband moved to Watertown in 1969. They live in the bottom half of a home on Spruce Street which used to be a nursing home.

She felt at home there, as the street became a sort of artist colony in the middle of town.

“We had writers living here, kind of like communal living, down the street. There was a photography community,” Spivack said. “This was in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Spivack enjoys the richness the diversity of ethnicities gives the town and said the she had a great experience with the schools. She added, that the town has “the nicest most friendly police force.”

“Watertown is a wonderful place. It’s quiet, there are trees, a lot of artists and musicians. It’s like the working class end of Cambridge,” Spivack said. “I wish we had a bookstore, and a movie theater. That’s all we need.”

To purchase Unspeakable Things, you can click here.

2 thoughts on “Watertown Writer’s First Novel Based on Her Family’s Experiences as Refugees

  1. Watertown is a wonderful place for artists, musicians, and writers. There are many readers, and many book groups as well. Watertown has always been known for its high literacy rate, and its fine library. Thank you for writing Watertown News, and covering the many things that happen in this quiet corner of the planet.

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