A Conversation with Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta will appear at 12th Street‘s launch event friday, November 30 at 7:00 p.m. at the Union Square Barnes & Noble (33 E. 17th Street, New York, NY 10003.)

Dana Spiotta is the author of the novels Lightning Field; Eat the Document, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006; and Stone Arabia, which was a finalist for the 2011 National Books Critics Circle Award . Stone Arabia is about a musician who chronicles his rock star career meticulously and privately: for decades Nik Worth shares with only his sister, Denise, and a few others, self-produced albums, reviews, fan mail, and even an obituary. The book opens with Nik’ disappearance, when Denise is left to sift through the mnemonic debris.

Spiotta lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter, and she teaches Fiction Writing at Syracuse University. 12th Street Online Editor John Emrys Eller discussed books and writing with her over email.   


STREET: The protagonists in both Stone Arabia and Eat the Document feel very relatable, even though they’re people living in unusual and difficult circumstances. Does the discovery of who your characters are shape the plot and what happens to them?

SPIOTTA: I usually start with a question, such as: what does a life devoted to a private art project feel like 25 years later?  Or, what is it like to go underground, the first day and then twenty years later? How does it feel to the people who love you? As I work, other questions emerge. I try to be precise and specific. I am always interested, it seems, in the sound of a particular consciousness, how it creates and contains consequences and contradictions.

The work itself, once I begin, tends to become obsession with the language world of my characters.  When I figure out how they use language, I discover what my book is about. The language is the entry point for me. Character and language are entwined in a profound way. The plot, or conflict, or action, organically comes out of things the language has set in motion. It is hard to describe, and I may have a totally different approach on each book.

STREET: I read that Nik Worth was loosely based on your stepfather. Was there other motivation for writing this story? Of course, so many of us know people whose art and dreams of success haven’t panned out as hoped. Did you start with a character, or a theme?

SPIOTTA: The book was inspired by my stepfather—the central conceit of keeping a chronicle of a fake rock-star life came from him. There are some other people: Mingering Mike makes fake record albums, labels, etc. I had a lot of people in mind.  There are cult musicians like Jandek and R.Stevie Moore.  I thought of the painter Ray Johnson and how he staged his own suicide. I spent a lot of time looking at outsider art.  Anyone who had a secret enduring obsession was interesting to me, especially private artists, the people who don’t care if they have an audience.

But at the same time I was thinking of a private artist, I was thinking of the person who loved and cared for him.  I really didn’t want it to be a romantic love affair.  I wanted it to be a life-long relationship, so I thought it should be a sibling.  Only after I began to write did the ideas of memory and family get involved.  I discovered that their mother had dementia, and as I wrote I understood how it all worked together.  Ideally the initial idea is just a starting point, and you discover the deeper ideas as you go.

STREET: Reading it and specifically Denise’s “counter chronicles” felt like memoir. It seems to me that identity and how we tell histories—to each other as well as ourselves—is important in the book. I was wondering if you ever write or teach nonfiction?

SPIOTTA: I’m glad that it read like memoir.  The middle of the book is supposed to be a kind of memoir, but an odd one written out of grief and desperation for clarity. Of course that is a construct of the fiction.  There is no actual memoir in it at all.

I don’t teach nonfiction, and I have written very little of it.   I wouldn’t mind doing more, but I don’t think I have the right personality for memoir.  I think I am too attached to creating a world of my own devising.  I don’t want to think about the concerns or claims of actual people.  And I don’t want to have myself as a subject.

STREET: Did you set the book in 2004 partially to write about the theme of self-documentation without getting into social media?

SPIOTTA: I set it in 2004 because I thought it was a very bad year..  I have a news thread in the book, and I wanted to write about Abu Ghraib, the 2004 election, and the Beslan school hostages.  It is true that I didn’t want to write directly about social media, but I did want to write about the Internet.  I like to dislocate my writing to the not-so-distant past.  I am interested in writing about technology because I am interested in examining—in an off-kilter way—what it is like to live now. I like thinking about outdated technology; it seems to be a good lens for examining our current moment.  So the book doesn’t contain Facebook or Twitter, but I think it has a dialogue with social media.  You could view Nik as exhibiting a variation of the self-dramatization and documentation that social media encourages.  But Nik’s form is totally of his own devising and it has no “social” component.  He has his own low-fi anti-social version of Facebook; he is, as he says, a paste and paper guy.

STREET: Here in the Riggio program we talk a lot about words and their potential to affect change. I’m wondering if you see any augmented responsibility as a writer? Certainly, both Stone Arabia and Eat the Document, albeit in different ways, deal with personal accountability and the citizen’s connection to government. Do you see a link between writing and democracy? 

Spiotta: One of my central questions is, How does one respond to the world?  Eat the Document was about resistance of one sort, and Stone Arabia is about resistance of another sort.  In the face of the enormity of global injustice, how do you answer back?  How do you remain a human? How do you not become overwhelmed?  I seem to return to these questions over and over.  What is our relationship to the suffering of others?  Denise is overwhelmed, and Nik has retreated to a world within the world; he has disengaged.  Neither is sufficient, but they are doing the best they can.  I do think there is a connection between writing and democracy, or between art and democracy.  I think of writing and reading as potentially subversive acts. Novel writing and reading in particular go against the reductive tendency of this cultural moment.  Good novels are about the complexity of the human experience.  It is all about the close, focused, and long look. The velocity of technology encourages the opposite.  For me reading a good novel is sustaining and inspiring.  It encourages resistance, interrogating the given terms (on the level of language but also on the level of ideas), and it can change your perceptions.  It can engage your empathy and perhaps expand the borders of your “interests.”  Direct political action is more important, but I think novels–at their best–play a unique and important role in the culture.  I am speaking of aspirations as a writer, and of my experience as a reader.  I’m talking about what I hope for the novel.  I fall short, of course.

STREET: What kind of research did you do for the sections set in the 1970s?

SPIOTTA: My last two books had big sections in the 1970s, so I am very familiar with that era.  I watch movies, I read books, I talk to people.  I like primary documents that were written in the era, so I can get the sound of the language.  I listened to a lot of records, and I read a lot of liner notes. I read a bunch of obituaries of rock stars. I read a lot of music magazines I bought on Ebay (Creem, NME, Melody Maker).  Also, I remember a lot about the late 1970s and early 1980s from my childhood. And I made up a lot of things. Faulkner said that writing is a combination of experience, imagination, and observation.  For me research is just observation applied to cultural detritus; it is not scholarly at all.

STREET: Jason in Eat the Document reminds me of one of the music nerds in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Between this character and Nik Worth you’ve written a lot about obscure rock and roll, fandom, and for-the-love-of-the-music rockers. Is there something about music, as opposed to literature, say, that lends itself to outsider narratives?

SPIOTTA: I was interested in writing about how it feels to listen to music. I don’t write at all about what it is like to make music. I’m interested in response, I think, the way a consciousness experiences music. Music and the way it uses repetition is very closely related to how memory works, which was a central concern of the book.  I could have written about visual art, and in truth there are visual and literary components to Nik’s work.  His devotion to a private years-long art project reminds me of writing a novel.

STREET: Do you have a regular writing routine?

SPIOTTA: I try to write in the morning.  Writing for me is all about falling short of my goals.  But I don’t give up.  I fail and then I go back to it.  I have a child.  I teach.  Life can distract you from the work.  But working consistently and consecutively is crucial for writing a novel, at least for me.  You need to remember so many things, and your brain needs to become a machine of your world within the world.  It requires devotion, like anything else that is really difficult to do well.

STREET: Are you working on something now?

SPIOTTA: I always have something going.

STREET: I look forward to reading it.