by Chanelle Benz
I met Dana Spiotta in 2009 at the Syracuse University MFA Program. We had both just arrived, but unlike me she knew what she was doing. As she challenged our literary boundaries, she was finishing up her inventive third novel, Stone Arabia, a meditation on siblings, mortality, music, and middle age. The novel quickly won acclaim, becoming a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and New York Times Notable Book. Prior to that her novel Eat the Document was nominated for a National Book Award and her first novel Lightning Field was a New York Times Notable Book of the year. While talking with her over email last month, it was clear that she is as fiercely inquisitive, forthright, and generous as when I first met her, if not more.
Part I: beginnings
Cosmonaut’s Avenue: What was Dana, the kid, like? How does that connect to Dana, the adult and writer?
Dana Spiotta: We moved around a lot– eight moves by the time we settled in Los Angeles, and I went to high school. I didn’t always have friends– I spent a lot of time with my dolls and in my own world. I played make-believe with my brother and whatever neighbors were around. I do think that made me a writer– I kept journals and tried to understand the worlds I was failing to fit into. I often felt like an outsider, which gave me a perspective that is useful to a writer. My family was very close, so I felt pretty securely loved despite always being the new kid. I think moving so much made us closer.
Aside from the dolls, I was a bit of a tomboy. I even went to boy scouts meetings with my brother. We lived in suburban places, and we were allowed to roam without supervision. I remember long summers exploring in the woods and the world behind the back yards and construction sites. Riding bikes and stick ball. Also we watched TV– tons of bad TV.
CA: Funny, I spent my childhood summers like that too, and apparently we aren’t the only ones– a great comic and friend of mine, Baron Vaughn, has an album called Raised by Cable. What affect do you think all that bad TV had on us as artists? For a writer’s childhood, the wandering and riding bikes and inventing games makes sense, but reruns of Who’s The Boss?
DS: I write about this very question in my new novel! I think it is interesting to me because of how it has changed in my lifetime– my daughter can watch anything she wants on demand. Over and over. Most of the time without commercials. I watched terrible TV AND commercials. Maybe there is something to being in a sea of crappy pop culture that gives you a desire and appreciation for something deeper. Maybe. Or maybe our kids will be way smarter and less tainted then we are.
CA: What did you read as a kid? Were you always fascinated by old magazines, manuals, photographs? Meaning, were you conducting research for your works from the start?
DS: As a little kid, I read a lot. I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, all of them. They had great descriptions of food and place, very vivid. I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins. I liked strong female protagonists. I loved this Irving Stone novel about Abigail Adams. We had big beautiful art books and I spent a lot of time looking at those. I did like finding old Lifeand Look magazines at garage sales. I was really into the photos of the Apollo and Mercury astronauts for a while, space capsules and so on. I was pretty nerdy.
At around age ten I got really into humor and satire magazines. I read Mad and Cracked. Anything with “take offs” I loved. I stayed up late and watched Saturday Night Live when it started in the late 70s. I was a little wise ass.
CA: What was it like for you when you knew your first book was getting published? I know you once told me that materially nothing changed, but what did change, especially once you started getting reviews and national attention?
DS: When I wrote and published my first novel, I was working in a restaurant in New York City. I got a small advance. Money gives you time, so money matters, but this was not life changing money. The biggest change was in how other people perceived me. My parents and my friends and my relatives. I didn’t get any more eye rolling when I said I was working on a book. I worked harder than ever– it built my confidence. I felt I finally had become the thing I wanted to be, a novelist. When I got my first big review– I won’t lie, it was pretty damn thrilling. Unbelievable to think that a stranger read my book, thought about my book and then wrote about my book. But I kept my writing life away from my restaurant life. My life was very compartmentalized, and writing my first novel was a secret devotion. This was true for my second novel as well. In the years of writing it, I kept it to myself and led a kind of double life. When my second book received some notice, people who knew me from my restaurant life were pretty surprised. It changed how others thought of me, I think. They (wisely) became a little wary. Is she listening to our conversations? (I was.) But the people close to me knew what I was up to.
CA: Are you at all secretive about your novels now?
DS: No– I just think paraphrasing a novel is hard. When I do it, I can feel the stupid fall out of my mouth. And then if my listener reacts badly or not enough or even smiles, I read all sorts of bad things into that. It is no-win for me. I can deal with this when the novel is done, but it isn’t helpful when it is still underway.
Part II: streams
CA: I know you’ve recently taught James Joyce’s Ulysses. Has teaching this book influenced or inspired your writing? Do writers really ‘know’ who their influences are, or do you think we know who we love and hope they come into our work?
DS: Ulysses is my favorite novel, first read at age 20. It was the book, along with Dubliners,that made me want to be a writer, or at least it made me think about the formal possibilities of fiction. My second short story stole its structure from the Wandering Rocks section in Ulysses, only in my story it was downtown Seattle (my big swerve). I walked the length of the Belltown neighborhood with my notebook, trying for some of that Joycean precision. My third story was a cringy piece about the Irish Troubles called“Ourselves Alone” (Sinn Fein, get it? I know, so bad). My point is that Joyce is a life-long literary love. My obsession with novel structure was born with Ulysses. Whatever formal radicalism I aspire to have came from that book (plus Faulkner and Woolf). Eventually this lead me to more contemporary writers like DeLillo. My first short story, in case you are wondering, was not Joycean. It was about a girl’s obsession with a long-dead Montgomery Clift. This was inspired by one faintly erotic scene in A Place in the Sun, a scene I could not shake. So my first literary impulse came out of George Stevens.
CA: I heard you say once that writers only have two or three themes or preoccupations and that no matter how they try to avoid them, these keep resurfacing in their work. What are these for you? How did you become aware of them? Do you consciously or unconsciously resist them? Or do you feel like you’ve given them the slip?
DS: Honestly, I try not to think about it too much. I will say that I often think I am writing about something very different from my previous work, and then I discover that some of the same thematic and formal obsessions emerge. Maybe all a writer gets to do is create different takes on the same obsessions and concerns. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing. In any case, I don’t usually think about it until after I have written the book, or very late in the book. Or when people point something out to me. (You see I have avoided saying what these obsessions and concerns are–naming them seems like a bad idea to me. That is for the reader, maybe.)
CA: How does one idea (of all your ideas) become The Novel? How do you know when you’ve struck gold?
DS: A very smart writer told me to respect what fascinates me. If something sticks with me, that means there is something there, a starting point anyway. It can be a setting or a person or an idea or a word. Something that I don’t understand. Something I can investigate through the application of language. Something I can build a structure around. It usually is a problem, a question, a complexity. And the more deeply I go after it, the more complicated it becomes. In some ways it doesn’t matter what the subject is–I can get interested in almost any subject. It is getting close enough to see beyond the received idea , the surface, the things you already know. At about a year or two in, I tend to have a moment where I hate it and wish I had focused on something else, anything else. Just part of the joy of writing long-form fictional projects.
Part III: specifics
CA: Your novel Stone Arabia is interested in outsider art and one of its two epigraphs is a quote by the experimental French artist, Jean Debuffet. Having a deep interest in a subject is one thing, but bringing it into a novel and having it pulse with life is another. How were you able to do this? Did it provide you with specific challenges?
DS: I was interested in Nik in particular– he is private artist, an artist with no audience, and that led me to various outsider artists, cult artists, underground figures. As I wrote my way into the implications of making something only for yourself, I found it very appealing and admirable. It seemed pure to me in a romantic way; you are doing something for its own sake and not to get approval from anyone. But like many ideals, it doesn’t always wear well over time. Obscurity can be solipsistic and lonely. And Nik is not an outsider artist in the way we usually think of one– he isn’t out of touch with the real world, he isn’t naive. He is pretty self-aware and sophisticated. Ideally whatever idea or question I start with gets increasingly complex as I write. The closer you look at a person or situation or idea, the stranger it gets. So an initial interest tends to progress into an obsession as I work on something for years and years.
CA: It seems like your novels often gravitate towards lesser known artists with a cult-like status, unknown or forgotten radicals and misfits who influenced few and rarely made their mark on the larger cultural consciousness– why is that?
Refusal of any kind fascinates me. I gravitate to humans who subvert the given terms, to resisters and noncompliers, despite (or maybe because of) how doomed that resistance might be. A novelist is an outsider too, as the novel today operates “from the margins” as Don DeLillo put it. Longform fictional prose constructs feel subversive to me in that they run counter to the current cultural impulse (meaning, of course, the internet and all its territories).
Chanelle Benz‘s fiction has been published in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, Granta, The American Reader, Fence, and others. Her work has also been selected as one of the Top Ten Longreads of 2012. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Boston University. She teaches at the University of Houston.
Dana Spiotta is the author of three novels: Lightning Field (Scribner, 2001), Eat the Document (Scribner, 2006), and Stone Arabia (Scribner, 2011). She teaches in the Syracuse University MFA program.