Dana Spiotta on living the creative life
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.
DS: It would be much easier for them. I think first of all, the culture has become much more conservative; we want people to conform more completely. We have less tolerance for eccentrics. Being a bohemian today is considered suspect. Just not having health insurance right there, that’s a really horrible thing to face –- that's practically suicidal as you approach middle age. What are you supposed to do? Somebody, your wife or you, has to get a job. The idea that you can live off the grid and just do your own thing is a very American idea -- that you should be able to do your own thing, if you want to, if you're willing to pay the price for it. I think the price has gotten higher and higher.
And I do think it's more difficult than it used to be. It feels less hospitable. People think it's suspect and self-indulgent to make art, and I don't think that's true. Some people think you should be busy making something that you can sell in the marketplace, and if nobody wants to buy it, it must be crap. And that's not true. There's lots of things that can't make it in the world that are worth making. There are lots of great artists who never make it, there are lots of great writers who don't get published -- is it still worthwhile? Aren't we glad people are still doing it? That's part of what I think the book's about.
JC: Let me switch gears -- as a writer, what's your basic process? Do you put super glue in your laptop ports so you can't go online?
DS: Because I get ideas from doing research, I do spend a lot of time on the Internet. But I find that my hunger for deep concentration, which is required to write a novel, is the thing that enables me to feel whole in the face of that. In other words, because I have a kind of secret world that I'm creating which I'm in control of, when I go online I don't feel that I'm being annihilated.
CK: How long did it take?
DS: Four years. You have to go and live with it, and it has to be deep. It has to be that point where everything pertains to the novel that you're working on. And then you get the deep connections, because you're operating more intuitively. I have to have that intuitive, long, festering, weird, living-with day in, day out having it be your world, and then stuff comes up.... And you get your little surprises, where you're jogging or something and you get that idea and you have to write it down.
JC: Do you jog with a notebook?
DS: No, but -- I don't jog anymore, that was a lie. I actually walk.
JC: Why do you think novelists like you and Jennifer Egan are turning to rock music and music culture in their books, right in this moment?
DS: Huh. I don't know why so many novelists are rock geeks, but there are a lot of them. We all grew up listening to music. I have to say that movies have as much impact on me as music. And that I learned as much about narrative from movies as I did from reading novels, how to arrange stories, how to juxtapose things.
JC: What hope is there for books in the face of all this Internet annihilation?
DS: I like when the novel is not afraid to talk about what it's like to be alive now, and isn't afraid to talk about the world as we really live it. I like when people try to engage the thing. What does this mean? What are the repercussions of this? The novel needs to do that sometimes, and Jennifer Egan, she does that in her book too. Go in there, tell us what you think, figure it out. And I do think that people have a hunger for a kind of sustained engagement, that concentration that the book can offer, which is that you can't click through. You can throw it across the room, but between these pages, it's one sustained thing.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Dana Spiotta at Ye Rustic Inn in Los Angeles in July. Credit: Arkasha Stevenson/ LA Times