Dana Spiotta spent some formative years in Los Angeles -- formative enough that the city keeps playing a significant role in her novels. Yet she had never come to the city on book tour -- 9/11 tripped up plans for "Lightning Field" -- and she seemed pleased to be in Los Feliz to read from "Stone Arabia" at Skylight Books last week.
Spiotta sat down with Carolyn Kellogg -- this feature about her appears in Wednesday's paper. In this extended Q&A from their conversation, Spiotta discusses obsessive artists, being creative in 2011 versus 1968, sustained engagement and -- you're looking at it -- the annihilating Internet.
Jacket Copy: When you were working on "Stone Arabia," did you ever feel like the cultural movement was going too fast for you to capture it within the boundaries of a novel?
Dana Spiotta: Because I had the idea that it would be 2004, that was my self-imposed boundary. So I don't have Facebook, but there's still MySpace. Wikipedia's there, but not YouTube. I like having that, I like getting the details right. Writing "Eat the Document," I liked having the challenge of writing about 1972. That's fun for me.
JC: When you talked to The Believer about "Eat the Document," you said you liked to do immersive research. What could you research for the parts of "Stone Arabia" set in 2004?
DS: I mostly did a lot of research on different kinds of people who do art -- extended, elaborate, private art -- for themselves. I was thinking about outsider artists, about various musicians who do this. Someone like Ray Johnson, who staged his own suicide. People who make their own home recordings, pre-1990, like R. Stevie Moore from New Jersey, Robert Pollard, people who have that homemade feel. Combining all those, knowing those were all the elements I wanted to put together. And my stepfather is the inspiration for Nik Worth.
JC: I saw that at the back of the book, and I found his MySpace page, but I wasn't sure if I believed it.
DS: It's true! What's funny is it seemed appropriate to me that he was a willing participant in this. Richard has long chronicles of his secret rock star life, and he has the actual music to go with it, and he was in a band called Village in the '70s. He's different [from Nik] -- the music sounds very different, and the personality is different, but the concept is Richard's.... He seems content, and that was the thing that inspired me.
One of the reasons I relate to Nik Worth is because being a novelist is sort of like being a private artist.(laughs)
JC: Nik chooses writing -- on top of recording music, he creates the Chronicles to document his (imagined) life in print.
DS: Which is a novelistic impulse. I'm not a musician, so the actual making of the records to me is not as interesting as the making of the Chronicles, which feels like a book. [Writing one,] you're immersed in your world and you're in total control -- except that then you do put it out there into the world, and you get a response, which is wonderful. [Nik] just has his sister as his response. Part of what the book is about is this idea of response. I relate also to the sister because my whole life I've had response -- movies, books and music were always things that kept me going. That was my consolation; I had these things that saved me and made me feel OK. So [Denise], as a responder to his work, their relationship is deep and reciprocal, as artist and audience but also as sister and brother.
I've discovered, since I've published the book, that there are a lot of people that do not just the basement recordings, which you can imagine is very common, but also keeping fake liner notes and doing a journal and creating a sort of alternative reality. That seems to be less unusual than you would imagine.
JC: It seemed very unusual.
DS: It seemed very eccentric!
JC: This question of artist and audience response -- do you think a character like Nik could survive without his sister's gaze?
DS: I think there are some people who produce things in complete isolation, but most people have somebody who will listen to the CD they've made, or watch the movie they've made, or look at the painting they've made. Because in a way it's self-preservation. Maybe there's some narcissism to it; maybe there's some perversity to it, but [Nik] has found a way to be whole, have his integrity, in the face of what are not great conditions. I think it's harder than ever to be an artist. I think that you end up, especially as a middle-aged person, you pay such big consequences for saying, I'm just going to devote my life to making art, or I'm going to devote my life to writing novels. You end up with no resources.