Reading a novel by Dana Spiotta is a dynamic experience because you’re never quite sure what tiny storytelling miracles it will offer next. The tone might shift, or the story might reveal something wholly unexpected. You might be pushed forward in time, or given sudden intimacy to a character that was held at a distance for so long. Every time I immerse myself in her work, I am reminded what a novel can do. There are no rules for storytelling, only instincts, emotion, and the brainy brain. Spiotta’s latest book, Innocents and Others, is about two female filmmakers, friends since attending high school in L.A., and a third woman who forges her most meaningful relationships over the phone with men she’s never met. How the three women’s lives intersect is one of the book’s little miracles. But there is also so much more to this book that defies quick summary: technology and how it creates, bolsters, and distorts identity; making and consuming art; the responsibility and trespassing of representation; friendship; imagination; the fear of being unoriginal. The week I was reading Innocents and Others, I kept saying to my husband, “I love Dana Spiotta!” To my new baby I’d sing, “Spiotta! Spiotta!” in a weird squeaky voice. To my four-year-old, I’d say, “Leave me alone, I’m reading.” It’s telling that I, a person who has never loved movies, loved this movie-loving novel.
The Millions: Lately I’ve been interested in books that are readable but also create suspense in non-traditional ways. Innocents and Others fulfills this requirement: the shifts in narration, and the way the pieces fit together, create drama while bypassing the typical cause-and-effect-to-climax formula. In your books there are often a lot of structural surprises, such as a switch in perspective or time frame, or, even, a shift to a different narrative mode, be it a description of a movie scene, or an essay on a website, and so on. I love this! It keeps me from being able to categorize or truly know the narrative until I am finished and can step back and see it as a whole. Do you set out to write a book with these kinds of shifts and disruptions, or are they a byproduct of your process? I also wondered if you bring this point of view to your classes as a writing teacher. What are your thoughts on plot, for instance?
Dana Spiotta: You just gave a very perceptive description of some of my narrative strategies. And I like what you say about not knowing the book until you are finished and can see it as a whole. I do think a lot about structure: structural analogies and the engineering of the book as an integrated object. I think much of the deeper meaning in a novel is created by these kinds of formal decisions. It is one of the things I love about writing novels, truly. In the novels that have stayed with me, when I get to the end I want to go back and read the book all over again. You can only understand a novel’s shape when you reach the ending and see all the connections, the repetitions with variations. The rhythm and juxtapositions. All of that ideally will accumulate and resonate as much as the narrative itself. I don’t know how successful I am at creating meaningful novel shapes, and I am sure my idiosyncratic structures annoy plenty of readers. But I try to be organic about it and let the structure emerge as I work. Then as I revise, I become more deliberate about shaping it for meaning, but I always try to resist too much neatness and symmetry, or easy correlations. It has a lot to do with intuition, and what you find interesting as you are writing, I think. I use this Samuel Beckett quote for my own purposes when I talk to students (and myself) about structure: “The danger lies in the neatness of identifications.”
I don’t focus on plot in particular, but I do focus on character and conflict, though, and that leads to plot complications. And like some other novelists (and filmmakers), I sometimes skip important events and show the aftermath before I show the event. I did it in this novel because it felt right in the moment. And then I kept it in because it created something interesting to me. Dischronology works in a similar way to how cutting between various threads in a novel creates side-to-side momentum, not simply forward momentum. But it should never seem arbitrary, and I am always aware of the risks. One doesn’t want to feel that something is withheld simply to create narrative suspense. You better have some other, deeper reason for doing that. In Innocents and Others, maybe I was more interested in the consequences of actions than in actions themselves. I wanted the action refracted by the fallout from the action.
TM: For a novel that’s largely about film, there aren’t that many straight scenes (as there are in movies). Here, there are first-person essays, descriptions of movies made by the characters, retrospective musings on past relationships, and so on — time is nimble and elastic, and the narrative controls and contorts in a way that feels distinctly (and wonderfully) novelistic. As in: this could only work in a book. And yet, Innocents and Others feels really cinematic: there are distinct details, bright and memorable moments, and they are artful. People say that about your work, right, that it’s cinematic? What does that word mean to you, and to your writing? And what is the difference for you, between the art of film and the art of novels? The similarities?
DS: I do describe some imaginary films in the novel, and within those films dramatic things happen. So I get more conventional scenes and action within the film story as well as in the “real” world of the novel. But they are filtered/framed through something: the consciousness of the viewer or a technological device or some other distortion.
I am not sure what cinematic means when applied to novels. I wanted to play with the grammar of film and visual culture, and I think applying ideas from one medium to another one is a way to discover new ways of making meaning. But I agree with the cliché that the best novels make the worst films. I think that fiction is concerned with language and consciousness in a way that film can’t be. Voice, consciousness — cinema can do a voice over, but it usually feels very performative, too talky, a bit artificial. Private thought, consciousness, is evoked visually: usually an actor’s face, a POV shot, images remembered in a montage. Language play and repetition — the way a word or a sentence or a even just similar syntax separated by 50 pages can make subtle and mysterious connections — that only works in a novel.
I do like to write about the experience of watching. In this book, and in my others, I wanted to explore what it feels like, in the body and mind, when we watch a film (or listen to music, or surf the Internet, etc). How our own subjectivity distorts what we see or how we understand what we see. I am interested in the primacy of visual information. And the deceptiveness of various technological mediations: movies, phones, the Internet, etc. And I am deeply interested in the thingyness of technology — how it shapes us both in body and mind.
TM: Stone Arabia ends with a first-person memory from 1972, and Innocent and Others also ends in an unexpected way, with a scene of someone the reader has only met once: a minor character whom we suddenly get this intense and beautiful access to — and even now, I’m not sure if it’s a filtered representation of her or as “real” as one can get in fiction. My husband said it was like how Don DeLillo’s Americana ends — with a scene that is quite different than what comes before, and is not commented upon or totally explained. (Full disclosure: I don’t remember the last scene in DeLillo’s novel, but my husband’s description was pretty entertaining.) Can you talk about your novel endings (without spoilers, I suppose…?), and how you come to them? How do you want your reader to feel when they finish one of your books?
DS: Your interpretation of and reaction to the end of Innocents and Others is spot on, wonderfully keen about what I was attempting. The ending of a novel is the most important aspect to me. As a reader, I have studied the ends of my favorite novels. The ending has to be of the case but also not predictable. It has to have a satisfying closure for the reader, but it doesn’t have to answer anything or shut it down. Instead it can open up or circle back. For example, my favorite ending is the famous ending of Ulysses. It works on a formal level, a narrative level, and a character level. We get an interior monologue, which is of a piece with but also an escalation of the stream of consciousness we get in the first third of the book. It fits the odyssey organizing principle, so in an important way it is inevitable. At long last we get to be intimate with Molly, someone we have heard about for the entire book, but this is the first time we hear from her mind directly. So on a narrative level we are primed and excited to hear from her. We really want it! She gives us another perspective on her son’s death, on her marriage, on her daughter, on her infidelity, on her body. It builds on the book’s way of seeing things from multiple perspectives. And finally, it ends on a moment of joy and love (that famous “Yes”) but it is a memory of a past moment, so it is poignant and resonates in multiple ways. It has a satisfying closure, a sure beauty, but it also changes how you look at the whole book (and this very particular relationship). So that, I think, is the gold standard of landing a book. Everything put in motion has to pertain. But it still has to swerve and avoid being too neat or schematic.
As for my own work, I try to surprise myself (and my reader) but still be true to the built-up meaning. I try to remember everything that has come before, both in form and content. Often I work by reading over everything that I have written so far before adding to it. When I get to writing the end of the novel, I have read it over and over and over. So it is all in my mind as I write, which I hope gives it the density of accumulated meaning that I strive for. I feel it is necessary to take a risk at the end, to reach beyond the previous borders you have set for yourself, to wild it up a little.
TM: There’s a lot about imagination in Innocents and Others. For instance, the imagined films of young Meadow Mori that don’t exist — and, yet, are there, sparkling in the land of potential. And Jelly, who loves to call men just to talk, muses how meeting one of her phone friends would only lead to disappointment: “the failures of the actual to meet the contours of the imaginary.” Of course I want to connect these two. Is art-making like that: is our future, unmade work perfect because it doesn’t exist yet, doesn’t have to face the harshness of the real? What parallels to writing are there here for you, either with Meadow’s filmmaking or Jelly’s phone calls?
DS: I wanted those things (making films or making phone calls) to be very specifically what they are and not a stand in for writing novels. But I think it would be disingenuous to say I don’t share some of the agonies of imagination vs. reality that these characters experience. Perhaps I am interested, broadly, in how people respond to the enormities of the wider world, or even the harsh realities of a local, quiet life. In Eat the Document, the question of how to respond (or answer back, or resist) was political and focused outward, with all the complications and consequences of those actions. In Stone Arabia, Denise tries to overcome her paralysis so she can connect in some way while her brother Nik retreats to his own private world, much like Jelly or Sarah in Innocents and Others. Meadow and Carrie make art. Most responses feel inadequate, failed in some way. And many of the things we attempt we later see as failures and mistakes. But there is something poignant and beautiful in those fractures in your ordinary life, the moments when you realize that you were mistaken or insufficient or what you did had an unintended consequence. The clarifying and humbling experience of shedding your delusions. (At one point, Meadow says she doesn’t mind that she might be a bad person, but she would hate not to know it.) But then what? I’m not so interested in truly “bad” characters. I’m interested in bruised idealists. And the ruptures that make you question yourself, that make you implicate yourself in your own life. These are when people are at their most human, I think. It is about questions, not judgments, and letting people be as complex and contradictory as they genuinely are. And I am curious about what people do after these moments. Especially over time as the days and years go by.
TM: I love the female friendship here between Meadow and Carrie, two very different people and filmmakers. Carrie remarks, “Unlike marriage, which must be fulfilling and a goddamn mutual miracle, a friendship could be twisted and one-sided and make no sense at all, but if it had years and years behind it, a friendship could not be discarded.” Man oh man I love this line and I’m not even sure I agree with it! Can you talk about characterizing these two women and their relationship? Also, what do you think about the rise in stories lately about female friendships, be it by Elena Ferrante, or on TV shows like Broad City. Any thoughts on why these stories are capturing us right now? What interests you about this kind of relationship?
DS: You have zeroed in on the quote that captures who Carrie is, and I am not sure I agree with her either. I like writing about non-romantic connections, writing about other kinds of relationships. The ones that endure and hum through our whole lives: siblings, parent-child, and long-held friendships. Maybe because there is no real mechanism for ending them? And because of that, you end up with someone in your life who is very different from you, who made very different choices. I like unconditional love as an idea. There are some friends that if I met them today, we might not become friends because we no longer have a lot in common. If we were married, we would get divorced because we “grew apart.” But I love those kinds of friends — they keep you honest and humble. They remind you of what you used to be and what you used to want. They are a form of memory.
TM: Because The Millions is a book site, I must ask, What’s the last great book you read? And because you are Dana Spiotta, I must ask, What’s the last great movie you saw?
DS: Several come to mind. The Joy Williams collection of essays, Ill Nature, is a radicalizing, provocative book. She argues with true passion and urgency. I found it tremendously persuasive — and, as always with Joy Williams, the sentences are flawless. I also loved The Visiting Privilege, the collected stories of Joy Williams. Her novels have taught me so much about writing, and to go back and read her stories makes you realize how extraordinary her work is, how accomplished and how mysterious. She is in a category of her own creation. Don DeLillo’s Zero K is a compassionate and radiant novel. The questions it asks about death (“Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”) hit me very hard because I have been slowly losing my own father. I love DeLillo’s celebration of the “shaky complications of body, mind and personal circumstances,” his wonder at the details of the quotidian every day, and his joy in language and the mystery of words. The intensity of his noticing is epic. Did I mention that it is also funny — the dialogue in the first half is classic funny DeLillo. What else? It has the word “scatterlife” in it. It also has this one-sentence paragraph in it: “The world hum.”
The last great movie I saw was Force of Evil, which was directed by Abraham Polonsky in 1949 and stars John Garfield. Polonsky and Garfield were both blacklisted by HUAC shortly after this film came out. I have seen it many times and recently watched it with a friend who had not seen it. In Polonsky’s view, the system makes it impossible for any man to be good. Everyone in this movie is trapped and money makes it impossible to not be somewhat corrupt. But Polonsky shows us that even within the compromised morality of capitalism, there are moral choices. One can be less corrupt, less craven, or one can be more. The sort-of hero in this story, John Garfield, is a man who honestly admits his greed. He has that, a lack of self-delusion. But the insidious thing, the trap, is that all men must sink to the lowest possible point. The system rewards only the worst behavior. He tries to do one good thing for his brother out of guilt or loyalty. The two of them try to remain human, and they suffer for it. The system will crush everyone, however some will keep their dignity. Plus it has an iconic final scene on the pylons of the George Washington Bridge. But maybe the real greatness lies in the sad and beautiful face of John Garfield.
Looking back at my reading list for 2013, two books stood above all the other new books I’ve had the chance to read: The first is Susan Steinberg’s extraordinary third collection, Spectacle, which I’ve been obsessed with since it came out in January — and really, since ever before. One of the book’s stories appeared in American Short Fiction several years ago and that introduction to Steinberg set up some high expectations that were met then exceeded by the collection. In a year of great story collections, this is the one that stands apart for me. Smart and funny and brutally moving, it’s the most aggressive short story collection I’ve read in a long time, one that forces emotional participation and moral complicity on its readers.
The second book is Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, which absolutely thrilled me as both a reader and a writer. Extraordinarily ambitious and well-shaped, I found it one of the biggest reading experiences I’d had all year, the kind of enlarged experience that seems rarer and rarer in contemporary novels. My admiration for The Flamethrowers also sent me back to Kushner’s Telex from Cuba, which I hadn’t read before but which now seems like a formal and stylistic prototype for The Flamethrowers, in addition to being an excellent novel on its own. I hope Kushner keeps pushing her form and her style forward so powerfully between books — I can’t wait to read her next novel to see where she takes us next.
Some books published in years past that were an important part of my 2013: Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. Kind One by Laird Hunt. Speedboat by Renata Adler. The Complete Tales trilogy by Kate Bernheimer. Light Years by James Salter. Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck.
Some books I loved in 2013 but that won’t be released until 2014: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller. Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank. Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.
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For the first six months of 2011 I was pregnant, and for the other six months I’ve been a mother. While parenthood has of course changed me irrevocably (etc., etc.), it’s comforting to know that certain parts of myself and my life remain exactly the same as always. Namely, reading. Namely, that I still do it. Taking a book to bed or to the bath, or sneaking to a cafe to read over a latte (decaffeinated now, alas), remains a joy and a privilege that I value. Perhaps now more than ever.
Many books were meaningful to me this year, but there’s probably nothing more tedious than a woman talking about breastfeeding manifestos, so email me if you want that kind of recommendation. Instead, I present to you two writers of fiction that rearranged my brain, origamied my heart into a better heart: a bigger and stranger and certainly weirder one, more equipped to face life. Oh, life! I haven’t slept in ages!
I recommended We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver back in May, when I was a very, very pregnant lady. What I said then still holds true: “Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing. It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be.” Now that I have a son, whom I am certain is 100 percent good and kind, possessing a 100 percent good and kind soul, I love Shriver’s investigation into motherhood even more. What if you were this kind of mother? What if you had this kind of child? All good fiction begins with questions that are risky, scary. I admire Shriver for her bravery, for her what-the-hell-let’s-go-there. Eva is what I call a likeable-unlikeable narrator, and to identify with her is to understand and acknowledge a thorny part of oneself that you didn’t know existed, or perhaps didn’t want to know existed.
This year I also discovered Dana Spiotta, whose new novel Stone Arabia moved me unexpectedly. I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting it. After all, the book is about siblings, Denise Kranis and her musician brother Nik, who were raised in Los Angeles. Sibling relationships and L.A. are subjects I hold close to my heart, as a writer and a reader, and as a person: I was raised in L.A. with three sisters and one brother. This novel isn’t perfect: its opening confused me so much that I had to start it three times, and there are shifts from third to first person and back again that bugged me. But! But! A flawed novel can be a great one, and never before did this fact seem so true. I loved that Nik diligently kept The Chronicles, a fictional account of his life as a rock legend, fake music reviews and all. I loved Denise’s neurotic obsessions, with news stories, with memory. I loved reading about her commute, and about the contents of her fridge: “…the jar of butter-flecked jelly, the container of capers floating in leaky brine, the optimistic bottle of multivitamins now in a moist, smelly lump…” I loved the final scene; it got me thinking about the past, and how it can be resurrected by memory and narrative, but not really, but maybe, just maybe, for a few sweet moments. Dana Spiotta is like Don DeLillo with a vagina, and, wow, that vagina makes all the difference. I just finished her second novel, Eat the Document, and her use of the adverb “unstoppingly” had my whole body buzzing. I plan to read her first novel, Lightning Field, as 2011 slips into 2012. Write more imperfect stories, Ms. Spiotta. You’ve got a fan in me.
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In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the philosopher Walter Benjamin gives the old truism that all history is present history a characteristically gnomic twist. “Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns,” he writes, “threatens to disappear irretrievably.” Perhaps it’s a measure of our current concerns, then, that we’re witnessing a revival of novelistic interest in the 1960s and 1970s. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, those tumultuous decades had come to seem almost quaint. Green Day headlined Woodstock ’94, Have A Nice Day Cafes sprouted like daisies in “revitalized” downtowns, and That ’70’s Show reimagined the Jimmy Carter era as a fashion parade, all bellbottoms and shaggy hair. Absent the context of war and Watergate, retro dessicated into kitsch. It was possible to take part without inhaling.Philip Roth’s 1996 novel American Pastoral seems, in retrospect, a turning point. Relating the saga of Swede Lvov and his bomb-wielding daughter, Merry, Roth bypassed (by and large) the aesthetic signifiers of the counterculture in favor of an investigation of its moral and ethical ambiguities. More recently, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review) have plumbed the mixed legacy of the Age of Aquarius. Even among such distinguished company, however, Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, nominated for the National Book Award in 2005, stands out for the breadth of its historical vision and for the fearlessness of its prose. While Sorrentino keeps his radical heroine slightly out-of-focus, the book’s real protagonist – the post-Vietnam zeitgeist – comes to seem vividly present, in every sense of the word.Trance takes as its point of departure the real-life kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst by the violent screwballs of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Hearst took the nom de guerre Tania; Sorrentino keeps the pseudonym, but constructs behind it an alternative heroine, one Alice Galt. Like Hearst, Galt is the scion of a wealthy newspaper family. Also like Hearst, she ends up making common cause with her captors, assisting in a bank robbery, and subsequently finding herself both a fugitive from justice and the center of a media frenzy. Trance is largely the story of Tania’s cross-country flight from the law and of her eventual apprehension. Along the way, Tania crosses paths with a series of eccentrics: de facto SLA leaders Teko and Yolanda (a.k.a. Drew and Diane Shepard); an opportunistic wheeler-dealer named Guy Mock (reminiscent of Lawrence Schiller in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song); and an ambivalent fellow traveler, Joan Shimada. An equally motley cavalcade of federal agents, journalists, and loved ones gets sucked along in her wake. Making liberal use of the free indirect style, Sorrentino offers us a variety of perspectives on Tania and the SLA: Joan’s, Guy’s, her parents’… Of course, this technique raises more questions than it answers: has Tania been brainwashed? Has she turned her back for good on bourgeois society? Or are the SLA’s politics simply an excuse to indulge in cathartic mayhem? Sorrentino is too shrewd to resolve these tensions. Instead, he portrays Tania as an antecedent to today’s culture of celebrity – the sum of the rumors she gives rise to. At his best, he manages to refract through her, as through a prism, the mingled paranoia and hope and fatuousness of an age. Here, for example, the narrative takes on the tints of Tania’s subjectivity:She has become an expert at living in closets, has developed unambiguous preferences (e.g., length is more desirable than width), has slept in them and eaten in them and read books in them and been raped in them and recorded messages to the People in them. This, just generally, is not the life she was raised to live. Here is a seizure of a kind of exquisite loneliness, a sudden shuddering. She wants to pick up the phone. She wants to go out for drinks. She wants the free fresh wind in her hair.Present-tense narration can run the risk of falling into a cinematic rut, but Sorrentino’s prose is marvelously alive to the various registers of American English, from propaganda to cant to advertising to poetry. The latter two become indistinguishable in that last phrase, “the free fresh wind in her hair” – Shelley meets Prell. Sorrentino is in love with the name brands and anagrams overtaking the landscape, and they creep into his sentences as well. Ritz, Kraft, Mr. Coffee…the resulting tension between nostalgia and irony, and even the cadences of certain paragraphs, recall the Eisenhower-era passages of Don DeLillo’s Underworld.Trance shares weaknesses, too, with DeLillo. They are chiefly weaknesses of characterization. Joan Shimada and Guy Mock are wonderfully proportioned, and even supporting players like Tania’s mother reveal hidden dimensions. Teko and Yolanda, however, seem to have infiltrated Trance from the pages of a less searching, more satirical novel. Each has one note – shrill – and, without any way to see the forces that flattened them into their present shapes, the reader finds it too easy to write them (and, in turn, the SLA) off: They are simply, in the parlance of the times, “on a power trip.”The case of Tania is more complicated. It’s clearly part of Sorrentino’s design to keep Tania a mystery, and for long stretches of the novel, that mystery draws us hypnotically in. However, in the end, we long for her character to precipitate out of the stories told about her, rather than to disperse like the airwaves that carry them. When Teko assaults her in an abandoned barn, we glimpse, suddenly, the woman she’s become, but her early days with the SLA – those weeks in a closet, her indoctrination, the rape alluded to above – remain frustratingly opaque. Perhaps this is Sorrentino’s nod to the ultimate unknowability of Patty Hearst’s motivations, even to herself.Still, in its capacious interiority, Trance recovers a time when it seemed possible, however briefly, that a new age was about to begin… and that individual actions could bring it into being. It recovers, more specifically, that time’s violent conclusion. That these 1970s – full of bank robberies and kidnappings and assassination plots and wars real and imagined – can seem, from 2007, a more innocent time only speaks to the size of their legacy.