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Subversive Complications


Last Updated: 08/07/2013 6:06 pm
  • Elizabeth Dubben
  • Dana Spiotta




This past year has been Dana Spiotta’s annus mirabilis, her wonder year as a writer. For five years, she had been living in relative obscurity in the small town of Cherry Valley, New York, northeast of Cooperstown. Early in 2006, Spiotta published her novel Eat the Document, which quickly came to the attention of the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani. Five years earlier, Kakutani had reviewed Spiotta’s first novel, Lightning Field, and praised the author as, “a writer with an unerring ear for how people talk and try and cope today.” Yet the praise her first book received couldn’t match Kakutani’s exuberance over Eat the Document. Spiotta’s “stunning new novel,” the Times critic proclaimed, possessed “the staccato ferocity of a Joan Didion essay and the historical resonance and razzle-dazzle language of a Don DeLillo novel.” The book tells the story a fugitive Vietnam-era radical who has been living underground for three decades and her teenage son who has become suspicious of his mother’s past. The parallels of living a secret life were apt for Spiotta—not long after the review, the Times sent a reporter in search of the 40-year-old author, and found her running a restaurant with her husband in the Otsego County countryside. “If people don’t like my books, I can always say I’m a waiter,” Spiotta said at the time, but there has been little need for that. In October, Eat the Document was a finalist for the National Book Award. “The novel beautifully anatomizes American disenfranchisement and anomie, without succumbing to either,” the judge’s citation noted. The book went on to make year-end best-of lists across the country, and its author was declared, “a major American writer,” a verdict underscored when Spiotta was chosen for a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. Artist Elizabeth Dubben, herself from Cherry Valley, interviewed Spiotta for Chronogram early in May.

Elizabeth Dubben: We’ve known each other for five years, but until last year I didn’t know you as a writer, but as a friend who ran the Rose & Kettle Restaurant. What was it like living in artistic anonymity in Cherry Valley?

Dana Spiotta: I’ve always had my mornings for my writing. I have worked in restaurants most of my life, so my mornings were free. I don’t talk about my work until it is done. I think this privacy has always helped me take chances. I have the freedom to attempt things that might not pan out. So it worked very well for me to do my work in a kind of solitary, secret fashion. In a small town like Cherry Valley, people seem to have respect for artists. At the least, they have a history of tolerating artists.

How has life changed after this amazing year you’ve had?

It is pretty much the same, except people ask more about my work. In a way, it is nice. I don’t have to explain my tendency to be solitary. They understand I am working. The only downside is I feel slightly more exposed. I am actually a little shy. Also, I work slowly, so if people ask about my new work, I feel a little pressure. But if you publish successfully, you have to accept a certain amount of publicity. Most people have been very kind and supportive.

I just keep working. After I finished my first novel [Lightning Field, 2001], I imagined I would publish work throughout my life. I never assumed that would mean I could make a living at it. I still don’t assume I will make a living at it. But I will always write, no matter what. So my interior life hasn’t changed much at all, really.

But there are the benefits to success, of course.

I have a little more money, and so I have more time for writing. Which is wonderful. And I have a little more credibility. If relatives come and visit and I say I’m working, they don’t roll their eyes as much as they used to. But I have more obligations as well. Nonfiction writing and other things people ask of you, like readings and social events. I have more writer friends. I love having more writer friends. Through e-mail, I feel I have a writing community.

How did you get interested in the subject matter of Eat The Document? How much of your personal history comes into play in the book?

Not very much. I have never been a fugitive, of course. But I have lived in the places I describe in the novel. I find it easy to project myself into another’s experience and to write from their point of view. It is my strongest asset as a writer. I have always had an intense interest in other people’s experiences. I could always imagine living inside their skin. I convince myself of this, in any case.

Weren’t you in Seattle during the time of the World Trade Organization demonstrations? My feeling is that Eat the Document makes the protests of today seem clichéd, compared to ‘60s-style radicalism. Is that what you were trying to convey?

I lived in Seattle in the early ‘90s, well before the WTO protests. But the Northwest has always had a healthy culture of rebellion. When I was there, there were plenty of protests. I loved it. My intention was not to make the present seem cliché but to describe how difficult rebellion has become in post-’60s America. The present corporate-dominated culture absorbs and commodifies rebellion at a faster and faster pace. I was interested in investigating what subversion and rebellion required in these different time periods. I think it is complicated, and much of it has to do with the overall cultural climate as much as protesters themselves. I do see the Internet as a really powerful contemporary tool for rebellion and organizing. It has great potential as a portal for alternative culture, in art as well as in politics. Of course, it is also potentially a huge portal for even more hyper-commodification, so we’ll see. I don’t write fiction as polemic or as judgment. I write to investigate and explore. Most of the things that interest me as a writer are complicated. A novel is a place in the culture where things are allowed to have complexity. I see the novel as a potentially subversive medium, because so much of the culture is so anxious to reduce everything to simple black-and-white terms. Look at the way Bush loves to paint the world in such simple strokes. It is usually much more complicated than what is allowed in the 30-second snippets we see on the news. Understanding a particular cultural moment requires time and a willingness to engage at a deeper level. It requires looking at things in an unprocessed, unsimplified way. The novel—at its best—is really good at examining the culture in all its contradictions.

Each character in Eat the Document has such intense and in-depth investigations into their identity; their voice, thoughts, and feelings, even the music they listened to became an integral component of their character. There is a particularly strong reference to music through out the novel. What’s the importance of this element?

Rock music has been such a large part of youthful rebellion in the last 50 years. And it’s also a place where the culture is constantly absorbing that rebellion and selling it out. It seemed a crucial part of the story of these characters.

So you feel that analyzing the music one listens to shows evidence of one’s inner character?

I can be a snob about music. I admit it.

Beginning with the title, there are references to Dylan throughout the novel. How, exactly, does his influence come into play?

Dylan reinvented himself on his 1966 tour. This is documented in his film Eat the Document. He went from folkie to electric rock ’n’ roller. Also, Dylan never released the film, so it is an underground artifact of the era. It fits in many ways.

What compels your interest in a story? What gets you writing?

I usually start with a lot of questions. I like to say I write about what I don’t know. Then, after I have written, I end up with a series of deeper, more interesting questions. Questions about characters, questions about ideas. I am not interested in making things simpler or easier. I am not interested in judgments. I am interested in truth and authenticity. But I am interested in creating a formal whole to get at that truth. I am interested in language, structure—the novel as a beautiful thing.

The power of words…

Language is everything. The truth of a character comes out when you focus on words. Use language in a true, specific way and things are revealed that you would never have arrived at any other way. Language allows you to access your intuition and your subconscious. It is kind of a funny trick.

Your style of writing could be compared to a Ken Burns film, the way he reveals history through individuals. Given the amount of research involved in your writing, the end result could be history, except you write fiction. Why?

Fiction can approach a subject with dreamlike qualities that are perhaps not available to the historian. Writing fiction is potentially transportive, intuitive, even mystical. It is interested in the common human experience as expressed in something imagined and very specific.

You recently received a Guggenheim grant and you are working of the screenplay for Eat the Document. What else occupies you?

I’m working on my new novel.

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