Artist Humphrey talks to Spiotta about her recent novel Stone Arabia and the overlaps between acting and writing.
In 2009 in Rome, where we both had yearlong residencies at the American Academy, I heard Dana Spiotta read a fragment from what would eventually become her latest novel, Stone Arabia. Denise, one of the main characters, is trying to recall the forgotten name of a dead movie star. As Denise works through all the associations and related mental images of the soon-to-be-named blond, we listeners become ensnared in a thickening tangle of pop references, brain patterns, and emerging character. Like the city of Rome (Freud’s favorite metaphor for a mind) Stone Arabia compresses astonishing amounts of history and lived lives into its thriving surface. It’s not surprising that some of our most astute and warm-hearted cultural commentary is articulated in fiction, where entertainment products make sense in the context of a person’s life. Spiotta refracts images of post-punk Los Angeles and ’80s America through the lens of the Krainis family. Denise’s brother, Nik, is an unsuccessful rock musician who continues to make his work and command the attention of his sister, mother, and niece. Stone Arabia adds to the accumulation of interlocking, morally fraught psycho-social themes of Spiotta’s first two novels, Lightning Field and Eat the Document. Our email conversation wanders the streets of her new book, pausing at the significant landmarks but also digressing to its side streets to see what might turn up.
David Humphrey Do you consider writing a form of acting?
Dana Spiotta I have an idea of how an actor prepares that might be totally wrong. But in my idea, yes, I see an overlap with writing as far as creating characters. Most writers try to infuse made-up characters with convincing personhood. I do this by researching the world that made them: I try to imagine their secret desires and fears, their diction and syntax, and the details of the landscapes they inhabit,. I think about what their reference points are, what they notice when they walk into a room, what their bodies feel like moving through space. I don’t put everything in the book, necessarily, but I do know these details.
Unlike actors though, writers have to invent speech and I find that I get the deep sense of a character mostly through writing dialogue. As soon as I make characters speak, I begin to feel them and believe in them. For both actors and writers, concrete and specific detail is key to believing in the person they are creating. They must listen and pay attention to the idiosyncratic ways in which we all negotiate the world: the gestures, the inflections, the verbal tics. Actors must also have faith that each person—even people whose experiences are very different from their own—is understandable or legible on some basic level. I feel that way about fiction. It requires an almost creepy amount of empathy to make convincing humans on stage or on the page. Actors and writers are both a little bit creepy, that’s what I am saying.
DH Artists too! That selflessness of empathy seems to also require a suspiciously narcissistic confidence that others will notice and care. You produced quite a vivid sense of Nik’s music without a lot of specific description. Whose music were you listening to for inspiration or reference?
DS I didn’t want to place many specific references to existing music in this book. I already did that with Jason in Eat the Document (and with movies in Lightning Field). In Stone Arabia I wasn’t so interested in how people use pop culture references as markers of their identity. I wanted Nik to read as hermetic and self-contained. He doesn’t even listen to anyone else’s music anymore. However, when we get glimpses of Nik as an adolescent, we learn that he admired “Bowie, Bee Gees, Donovan, J. Lennon, Faces, John Cage, Velvets & Lou, Macca sans Wings, the Residents, Can, John Fahey, Miles, Incredible String Band, Otis Redding, Carl Stalling, La Monte Young, Eno.” Or at least that is what Nik has himself tell his self-invented fanzine. He is interested in presenting himself in a certain way for his “public.” As for me, I thought about (and sometimes listened to) a number of off-center musicians: Robert Pollard, Syd Barrett, Alex Chilton, Roky Ericson, Skip Spence, Jandek, R. Stevie Moore, Emitt Rhodes, Johnny Thunders, Calvin Johnson, Epic Soundtracks and Swell Maps, and many others.
DH Your characters are often very committed to inventing themselves, so that make-up, make-believe, and masquerade figure prominently in the narratives. I’m thinking of Nik in Stone Arabia writing a fake letter from his sister to her daughter within his Chronicles (itself a fictionalized account of his life as a musician.) You’ve highlighted the way writing can sometimes be a deceptive performance. Is writing in character, as opposed to writing a character, also part of your method?
DS In the case of Nik’s fake letter to Ada, it was tricky. I had to remember it is Nik, but it is Nik pretending to be Denise. And he is actually talking to Denise, not Ada. It had to feel artificial while still being engaging to read. It had to be dynamic at the level of language. I didn’t want Nik’s Chronicles to be a silly conceit. I wanted them to be fakishly beautiful, I wanted them to imply a long-elaborated world. And Nik’s character was shaped by how I wanted to write his Chronicles. Strict “realism” is not the most important thing to me. I want it to be convincing, but I also want it to be other things. Dialogue, for example, has to be slightly stylized to read as both genuinely colloquial and also as compelling writing. The way we actually speak to each other, if you transcribed it on a page, would be horrible to read. You have to insert just enough reality. While I do think of these characters as people I can (and must) inhabit through imagination, I still never forget that they are cogs in the machine of my book. The integrity of the novel shapes them more than the other way around, I think. Having said that, when I have a character’s voice going, it feels as if I can imagine the character’s response to any situation or question. It just comes out right. But after I am finished with a book, the feel goes away. I lose my deep sense of how they speak. If I had to write a new scene between Jason and his mother from Eat the Document, it wouldn’t be right. I think it comes from not being in the world of the book, from not being seized by those people and those concerns any longer.
DH I guess forgetting has its protective uses. It would be a nightmare to live with all your projects and past experiences close to the surface of consciousness. Your character Denise is fretful about losing her memory in a way that gives urgency to her need to write, as though losing her mother and brother was also to lose an important part of her self. Do you think fiction can perform a similar function for the culture?
DS That is an interesting way to look at it, the novelist as the culture’s memoirist. It would be an idiosyncratic, inflected version of the culture, as opposed to a more objective history or biography or documentary. Although of course everything is inflected and distorted, so maybe the novel is more open about distortion in its version. I wanted the America of 2004 to be a big shaping presence in the novel—2004, the year of Abu Ghraib and the Bush reelection, felt especially bleak to me. The characters are eccentric and specific humans, but they exist in a historical and cultural context. I wanted the challenge of writing something intimate and contained, but I still wanted it to be about the wider American moment.
Maybe fiction is to history what your memories are to your past. Subjective, distorted, even parasitic, but something hard-felt and recognizably human. Fiction is good at getting at the way people engage with historic events or facts. If all our memories are memories of memories, or memories of photos or images of events, with an experience at the end of the chain or not, verifiable or not, than we are all constructing something—a personal version of the past and of how the world operates—that isn’t all that different from an ongoing art project, or a life-long narrative, a kind of autobiographical novel. So history owns the verifiable facts, but everything else—all our personal memories—are these constantly mutating, deeply connected, constructed things. Novels can occupy the space between consciousness and facts.
DH Doesn’t remembering corrupt memory, so that the only pure memory is the unremembered? Your fiction seems to crawl into that paradoxical space. I’m thinking of Denise’s New Year’s Day cleaning purge as the mirror image of Nik’s accumulations and that together they constitute one rickety whole person.
I’m interested in the way Stone Arabia puzzles over what counts as success and failure for an artist. You present Nik’s lack of success with a lot of sympathy, almost rendering his practice a model of unfettered freedom, yet here’s your third published novel that arrives with much acclaim and attention. The book constructs a myth of origins for itself, but is it also a kind of inoculation against the possibility of failure? I’ve made artworks that I hope do this for me.
DS I will take my inoculations against failure wherever and whenever I can find them. I think that in Stone Arabia, as in my other books, I try to look at things in more than one way. I feel multiple ways about people (and ideas) when I examine them closely. So I tend to make the best possible case for everyone I write about, but I also try to look hard and long enough that all the inevitable contradictions come out, the embedded problems that every life contains. I do think Nik is an artist, but that means exactly nothing to anyone but him and his sister. He settled for no audience, but that doesn’t mean he never wanted an audience. He didn’t want to do the things required to find his audience. That wasn’t how he wanted to spend his life. So he made some decisions, and the decisions have consequences. In Stone Arabia and in Eat the Document characters have to come to terms with the consequences of their choices. In some way, I suppose I write a kind of old-fashioned moral fiction. I’m very interested in how well we understand and reckon with the consequences of our decisions. I also am very interested in families—parents, children, siblings, the people you are stuck with—and tracing the intricate filigree of consequence over time in the closed system of a family.
DH Finding an audience or promoting a career is a labor that seems to have nothing to do with the work of making art. It’s no wonder so many people founder on that challenge. I didn’t have a morsel of a clue when I started how the system worked, or that there was a system at all. I guess young people are productively blind to the long-term consequences of their choices. Novels are so good, though, at picturing that process with drawn-out psychological depth and social context.
Denise seems to have trouble navigating the boundaries between herself and her family and sometimes between herself and the world, as represented by certain unfolding news stories that pierce her fragile autonomy, like one about an abducted Amish girl or the massacre of children in Beslan. I’m sure some artists convert this problem into a virtue, but I’m getting a sense from your remarks that you are a careful researcher and crafter of form, that writing for you synthesizes and constructs new patterns from the world in ways different from your writer protagonist.
DS The world is too much with Denise; she struggles to make the right response. One thing I was curious about was the difference between responding to art (in this novel, music and movies) and responding to information (TV news, Internet search engines, WebMD, Wikipedia, etc.). What is the precise on-the-brain difference? Or the on-the-heart difference? Do they feel different and why exactly? And I think how you feel afterward is important, also. One is possibly sustaining (perhaps because there is room for you within it) and the other often is not. In my first book, it was the consumer seductions that seemed to annihilate from within. In this book, it is the endless waves of media noise. In both cases we are willful participants, and we also misread the actual world of people right in front of us. As the book progresses, Denise is coming undone. She is losing her mother and her brother. She feels the downward slope of midlife, and she also has the chronic crisis of being in debt, extremely overextended. So her coping mechanisms break down, and she becomes, as she says, hyper-pervious to everything. I was very interested in creating a world of chronic and acute crises. It is the old writing-teacher advice: put your characters in jeopardy, because that is when they/we reveal ourselves. Money, I felt, was very important to this story. Both the brother and the sister have never had any money. And aging, especially in the America of today, is very hard if you don’t have any money.
On the other hand, Denise’s permeability is part of what makes her a good human. She doesn’t look away from the meanness of the world, whether it is the enormities she sees in the news or witnessing her mother losing her mind. Maybe she needs to curate the world. She needs to figure out how to cope without retreat and how to respond. I think of Denise and Nik as idealists, almost resisters, in their own odd way. Nik retreats and creates his own alternative world. His refusal to engage the real world is part of what is admirable in him and also what makes him such a problem. His alternative life and his real life are completely self-directed. But the terms of the real world apply, no matter how self-contained he imagines he is. Denise understands that you can’t actually retreat. She tries to engage the wider world. She needs more of Nik’s self-protecting narcissism, and he needs more of her empathy. You are right—together they almost make one complete person. But I think that families often work that way. Nik and Denise imagine that their family love and their creativity and their wit would carry them through. Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t.