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Air date: January 1, 2012
[1:30] Okay everybody, here we go again, this is Otherppl, this is it. This is the show. It’s coming through the wires, it’s in your brain. Welcome back to the program. It’s great to have you here. Happy New Year to everybody. Happy 2012, to all of you wherever you might be. I hope you made it through the holidays okay. It’s all over with, folks. It’s done. And we are now in 2012, which is a leap year. So, that’s sort of interesting. And it’s also the last year of life as we know it on planet Earth according to Mayan prophecy. I think the end is supposed to arrive on December 21st of this year, so less than a year away, it’s all gonna end, apparently. As if we all didn’t have enough to worry about.
[2:10] So, that grim business aside, Dana Spiotta is today’s guest. I can’t think of a better person with whom to kick off the new year. She’s a terrific author and she’s written three books. The first is called Lightning Field, that was her debut. The second is called Eat the Document, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. And most recently she has published a novel called Stone Arabia to great acclaim. The New York Times Book Review calls it “a work of visceral honesty and real beauty.” So Dana and I are going to be talking about all of that and a lot of other stuff in just a moment. She’s a terrific guest and I think you’re gonna enjoy hearing what she has to say.
[2:49] A couple other random thoughts before we begin. Christmas, the holidays, for me, it was good. It was logistically easy. No airports, no travel chaos, and, you know, sort of unbelievable weather in Los Angeles the entire time. It was kind of, it was like 75 and perfectly sunny every day. And, you know, it was the kind of weather where the air is cool but the sun is warm. And we went hiking, went to the beach, took some long walks, ocean breezes, that kind of thing. And I gotta say, you know, I didn’t pine for snow or for a winter wonderland or any of that stuff. I grew up in cold climates, I’ve lived in Colorado, so I’ve had plenty of snow and cold weather in my life, and I do like it, but the truth, I think, is that the only time I really like snow is when I’m outside playing in it. You know, whether I’m skiing or I’m out playing hockey or something, which I haven’t done since I was a kid. The hockey. I’ve skied since I was a kid, but I haven’t played hockey since I was really little.
[3:47] And sort of a random aside. I’ve fallen through frozen ice three times in my life. All when I was a kid, and I think two of the three I was playing hockey. So, thankfully, nothing serious ever happened. I was able to extract myself from the frozen water or, you know, the cold water, but I spent the early part of my childhood in suburban Milwaukee, and we used to skate on frozen ponds and frozen creeks, and sometimes the ice would be thin in patches or we’d be getting close to the end of the season or whatever and, you know, I went through on three separate occasions as a boy. And you know, what’s the takeaway? Well, I think when water is that cold, it’s kinda hot. That’s what I remember. I remember it burning. You know it’s kind of a painful cold.
[4:35] So those are pretty vivid experiences and interestingly–at least to me–I wound up incorporating those experiences into the very first screenplay that I ever wrote. And it was kind of this like trippy, weird kids movie that I called Roy G. Biv and the Magic Sniffles. And I wrote it when I was really young. And way before I was any good at writing anything. I was probably 20 years old, I think. Maybe still in college.
[5:02] And looking at my work now and my leanings now, I can’t believe I actually wrote this kind of kid’s movie, but the premise of it was that Roy, this eight year old boy who’s the protagonist, is really shy and imaginative and quiet, and kind of nerdy. So he’s like that kid. And he lives in this bucolic country town and he goes to school in kind of like a one-room schoolhouse. So, it’s just you know, this land of imagination. I don’t know how dated it is. This small country town, he’s a shy kid, he’s hyper-imaginative, he gets made fun of a lot, his teacher picks on him a lot. And she’s sort of a shrew.
[5:40] And, you know, to get to school he had to walk a mile in the snow. So the movie is set in winter and Roy lives in this town called Hillsville. I think that’s what I called it. And every day to get to school he has to walk through the woods and he passes this pond, and the pond is frozen in winter. And so on like one particularly bad day, after school he’s walking home, you know and he got yelled at that day for not paying attention, and he got picked on, on the playground, and people were throwing snowballs at him, and just like a shitty day.
[6:11] And so he’s walking home past this pond in the woods and all of the sudden he sees these lights under the ice, out in the middle of the pond. Just like sort of these magical dancing lights. And they’re kind of purplish and pinkish. And so he walks out there and he gets curious and he walks out onto the ice, out to the middle of the pond to see what all this light is. And all of the sudden the ice breaks under his feet and he falls through into kind of this like surreal, kaleidoscopic swirl of colored lights and like, tinkling music, if I can use that expression.
[6:47] And you know it’s sort of psychedelic and the next thing he knows he wakes up soaking wet on the shore of the pond. Or on the bank. I think it’s the shore. Pond shore? Pond bank? Whatever the case, he’s wet, he’s alive, he’s freezing, and he walks home and his parents are very upset with him. You know, they’re like, what happened? Did you walk out on that frozen ice? They get mad at him. He winds up mouthing off to them. He gets grounded. He gets sent to bed.
[7:14] So that’s just sort of the capper to his terrible day, and he goes upstairs and he’s kind of crying and he’s in bed and he falls asleep. And he wakes up in the middle of the night with a terrible head cold and all of a sudden he has this extremely violent sneeze in the middle of the night. And he winds up sneezing a creature out of his nose, because he’s now got the magic sniffles.
[7:39] And so he sneezes out this kind of like Jiminy Cricket-type character and it’s essentially a talking booger. It’s this little green guy, about two feet tall, who wears a top hat and has a British accent. And he speaks in rhymes, exclusively. And his name is The Magnificent Goo. And so, The Magnificent Goo starts like dancing around Roy’s room and he’s like, “Roy, we need you. We’re in terrible trouble. The creatures of Weebilwell need you.”
[8:05] And, long story short, The Magnificent Goo leads Roy out of his house and into the night in the dead of winter. And they’re kind of walking across this empty snowy field under a full moon, and they go into the woods and they get back to the pond and the light show is there again. And they go out onto the ice and they get sucked back into the light tunnel. And they’re transported to a parallel universe called Weebilwell, which is a land of extremely creative beings.
[8:31] And, you know, visually it’s like, you know, it’s like someone’s imagination on steroids. You know, and other things. So, there’s like flying polar bears and crazy stuff everywhere. And the key is that all the inhabitants of Weebilwell are essentially artists. They’re creative types. And there’s a villain named Argon Hideous [laughs], which is a terrible name for a character but that’s what I chose back in the day.
[8:57] And so Argon Hideous is like this dark magician and he’s cast a spell on Weebilwell making it so that it’s always cloudy but it never rains. So nothing grows. It’s just bleak. And all of the inhabitants of Weebilwell are therefore starving or they’re running the risk of starving, and it’s up to Roy to save the place with his magic sniffles. So he’s essentially gotta save a land of starting artists with the stuff that he sneezes out of his head.
[9:23] And you know I believed in this idea implicitly. And, you know, I still kind of do. I think I find that once I invest myself in a creative project and see it through to some form of completion I can’t ever fully turn my back on it. So there’s still a part of me, I think, that believes Tim Burton could make the movie. And I remember I was like 21 or 22 and I actually got a meeting somehow at a production company in Hollywood. And I forget what it was even called. It was just some, you know, kind of a small shingle and some producer guy on Sunset Boulevard. And I remember going in just totally green. You know, no pun intended.
[10:00] And I’m pitching this movie to this guy and I remember him just looking at me like I was insane. But there was a lot of laughter as well. And I remember his assistant was this young girl, and she was in the meeting too, taking notes. And she had like her fist pressed to her mouth, trying to like stifle her laughter. And…yeah. So I don’t even know how I got onto that whole storyline. I think it was like, what? Christmas and snow and weather. But, anyway, another one of my early efforts thwarted. A kid with magic boogers, and you know, just imagine if Pixar made that movie, you know.
[10:37] Just imagine, visually, a little boy having these enormous sneezes where his entire body is contorting and he’s sneezing large animals and things out of his head. You know, I don’t know about you, but I remain convinced that kids everywhere would love it. Because children love boogers. And I think I actually said that in my meeting. I remember looking the guy in the eye and saying, “Kids love boogers. That’s been my experience.” And I remember saying it really earnestly.
[11:08] And of course he wasn’t buying it. He didn’t believe me. Or he didn’t believe in my dream. So, I was thwarted. He thwarted me. And on that note, let us turn our attention now to Dana Spiotta, who has not been thwarted. At least not recently. And, you know, R.I.P. to The Magnificent Goo.
* * *
[11:33] BL: All right, so, I guess, maybe the place to start or something that sparked my curiosity is Los Angeles and your relationship with Los Angeles, because you do have some history…
Dana Spiotta: Mm-hmm.
BL: And, you know, it’s a part of your fiction as well. So like what’s your story with L.A.?
[11:51] DS: Well, I went to high school in Los Angeles. I went to school in Santa Monica and we moved around a lot when I was growing up. Maybe every two years. Two, three years. And we went to California when I was in seventh grade, Northern California–yeah, seventh grade–and then in ninth grade I moved to L.A. And then we stayed there, so my parents stayed there. It was kind of, so the way I think of it is it’s the closest place I have to a home, in the sense that it was where I would go to see family and stuff. And it was where I went to high school. But I also, you know, I don’t really feel any place is…you know, I don’t really feel…It’s hard to call anything my home.
[12:34] Because I wasn’t born there. You know, and I didn’t have my childhood there, you know?
DS: But that’s the closest. Yeah.
BL: I have that too. I have that too. Like I moved twice when I was a kid and then I moved away to go to school and then my parents left where I went to high school. So I never go back there. You know, I don’t go back there all that often, and so I don’t feel rooted anywhere. You know?
[12:53] DS: Right. I mean I think that’s an increasingly common experience, that people are…you know, move around a lot more than they used to. But I think the reason why I’m so attracted to, I mean, L.A. is interesting to me because, I think I kind of had–I grew up while I was there and essentially became the person I am. My sensibility was really informed by being there. It was a time…those years of high school were really a big part of who I am and so I think a lot of…So I kind of fixated on L.A. from that time period. And although I wasn’t particularly happy there [laughs] when I would come back and visit my mom and my dad–they split up and they were in different parts of L.A. My mom was in Santa Clarita, my dad was in Topanga Canyon.
[13:38] I would just have so much fun, kind of exploring it. So I have this kind of weird, you know, inside/outside relationship. I feel sort of…like it’s not my place but I also feel it is my place. I feel very comfortable there but I also don’t feel that I’m from there. And so it’s weird. You know, I mean, I guess you kind of…I think I write about things that I can’t quite figure out. You know? That kind of…my imagination is interested in it for whatever reason and I think Los Angeles is compelling to me…I wonder if I actually lived there if I would lose my interest in it? You know? I like to go there a lot and I like to think about it a lot. I love movies. And, you know, I love the music of Los Angeles, so it’s very exciting to me. And I like the literary scene that’s in Los Angeles. But if I probably lived there, I would, you know, start writing about New York or something. I don’t know…
[14:30] BL: Yeah, like wherever you’re not. So why did you…
BL: So why did you move around so much as a kid?
DS: Well, my dad–when we were young–my dad was a corporate guy. And so every time he would get promoted we’d move. So we were in Connecticut, and New Jersey, and Chicago. We lived in Italy and we lived in Northern California, all that. And then, when he got involved in the movie business that’s when we moved to L.A. finally.
BL: Oh, he did. Okay.
BL: And he lived in Topanga? I mean, was he kind of a, I mean he sounds kind of like a pretty cool guy? Like, you know…
[15:01] DS: He is a cool guy! He is a cool guy! I mean, I think to a certain extent it wasn’t…I mean it was kind of, I mean, I don’t know…It wasn’t a tremendously successful move in the end, on some level. But he is a very cool guy. He now lives in Syracuse. He’s in his mid-70’s and last year I moved him out here. So he’s near me.
[15:24] BL: Oh, okay. Well that’s kind of cool.
DS: It is kind of cool. He gets along with my daughter really well. So, he complains about the winter [laughs], he really wants to live in Topanga. But it’s hard. You gotta be near your kids sometimes, you know.
BL: Well, yeah no…
DS: I’m in Syracuse now so it’s very different from Los Angeles. I don’t know if you know about Syracuse but it gets lots of snow [laughs].
BL: I did know that. I’ve never been there but I did know that it gets lots of snow. And it’s got a great writing program, you know…
[15:50] DS: It does. And I teach in that program. And it’s wonderful in many ways, but you know, if you’re used to many years of 70 degree weather it can be shocking.
DS: If you’re old, I think, to move here…
BL: Jarring to the system. But you know…
DS: Very jarring to the system…[laughs] bracing…
BL: But it does make me think, like when you talk about having your dad near you and having, you know, family near and then having some sense of rootedness, like…that’s not such a bad thing, the older I get. It’s just, because my family is spread out and my parents, you know, they lived far away from their parents when I was growing up. Like my grandparents lived in Louisiana, so, you know everybody gets all spread out. It gets difficult.
[16:30] DS: It is difficult, and my mom was in Santa Clarita, until I had my daughter, and then she retired to upstate New York, which has been great. So I have these grandparents very close by and it’s really nice for my daughter. I mean I only have one kid, so it gives her more family. You know?
DS: And it makes them so happy, the grandparents. So I like it. I mean, I don’t want to all live in one house, like in the olden days as my daughter calls them. [laughs] She calls everything the olden days. Anything that happened before she was born is just the general olden days.
[17:02] BL: Right.
DS: But, but I like the idea of, you know, seeing them on the weekend if you want. That close by. And then they can babysit for you [laughs].
BL: That’s what I was gonna say. That’s the key, you know? You can leave town and, you know, know that they’re gonna be safe and with their grandparents.
DS: No, that’s a big deal. I think it makes a huge difference. You know, for your happiness.
BL: So, okay, I want to know more about you as a kid. Like when you’re, you know, living in Los Angeles and you’re kind of this, were you like an unhappy teen…is that like the time of life that you were here? Is that right? You’re like an adolescent?
[17:35] DS: Do you know many…do you know a lot of happy teens?
BL: That’s what I mean. I mean, just like, I use that as like a general…I mean, just you were a teenager, so you were naturally, just like kind of morose and like, you know, all that kind of stuff. But like…
DS: Yes. That’s true.
BL: What was your social life like as a teenager? And like were you a really bookish kid then or is it something you gravitated to because you were new in L.A. and didn’t know a lot of people. Or how did it work?
[18:00] DS: Well, I was…we, before we moved to L.A. I had been in suburban schools in Northern California. Suburban public schools and it was very…I was an outcast. I did not fit in. I was very unhappy. I wasn’t bullied but I was just sort of ignored, which was better than being bullied, right? But I was just, you know…I didn’t have…
[18:25] BL: Was it better though? You’d almost want…I mean, at least they’re paying attention to you [laughs].
DS: No, I’d rather [laughs]…I mean, what would happen was if you were sort of an unpopular person but you weren’t a hated person, you were always on the verge of becoming that hated person, right? So you were always kind of trying to be as invisible as possible so you wouldn’t become the person that people would actually abuse. This high school is in Orinda, California. It’s a conservative, rich suburb and it was the worst, cruelest social environment that I could ever imagine. I mean it was just unbelievable how nasty and cruel people were to each other. And so being invisible was fine with me [laughs].
[19:09] BL: Like what would people do? What would people do…what were the kids doing to one another?
DS: Oh, you’ve seen the movie Carrie, right?
DS: Where they all just, where she’s being pelted with tampons in the shower kind of thing?
DS: The girls. There was a girl I remember who was, you know…mostly psychological abuse. And I’m just talking about the girls, I have no idea what the boys were doing. Mostly psychological abuse, but occasionally sort of borderline physical. And it was one of these things where the teachers kind of were…like they wanted to be liked by the popular kids, too. It was a horrible, yeah, it was just a terrible place.
[19:44] BL: Okay. Okay. But why? Do you ever think about why?
DS: So I came out of that…
BL: Do you ever think about why? Like do you think that…’Cause I mean like culturally schools are different, and like do you have a sense of like why the students were so mean? Like was it their parents? Or…?
DS: Yeah! They were spoiled and under-parented. I don’t know. I don’t know why. I mean I think that when you’re an adolescent you are really concerned about what other people think and that creates, I think, a bad…that’s why most people are pretty unhappy when they’re 14, 15, 16. It’s very hard to be self-possessed at that age and say I don’t care what other people think. And there are always a few people who did that. I remember there was a girl I really admired. She wore these vintage clothes and this is like 1980. And John Lennon died and she wore this entire vintage black outfit to school and I just thought, ‘Oh my god! She’s so cool.’ You know, this is a very kind of…I don’t know what…preppy kind of school, very sports-oriented, and here she was in this vintage head-to-toe black outfit in mourning for John Lennon. And I just thought, ‘Well that’s…I want to be around girls like that.’ But I was too shy to even be her friend.
[20:56] BL: That was like the Ally Sheedy character in The Breakfast Club.
DS: Yeah. [laughs] Exactly, exactly! She was so cool.
BL: I’m hearing you say all this stuff about self-possession and not caring what other people think and like of course my mind is immediately going to myself. And I’m going, ‘Oh my god, like I’m still an adolescent [laughs] because I’m still like…I think I care too much what other people think still,’ you know?
DS: Oh, sure, sure. So do I. So do I. But you’re better than you were when you were fifteen or whatever.
BL: Let’s hope so, right?
[21:21] DS: Or you at least surround yourself…I mean, the thing is it’s partially about understanding that you’re in this kind of fake environment, right? You’re with these people ‘cause you happen to live in the same neighborhood and you go to this school. But you don’t have anything in common with them. And then you go out into the world and you move to a city and you find people that are interested in the things you’re interested in. And then, you know, and then it’s different. So different kinds of social Darwinism happen after that, [laughs] but at this point it was just, you know, a feeling of I don’t belong in this…And I moved around a lot so I always had that feeling. I was always new. And the only time I fit in, I think, before L.A. was when we were in Italy and I went to Catholic school for a year. And that was a very happy year.
[22:03] BL: At Catholic school…
DS: With uniforms…At Marymount International School in Rome. There were no boys and everyone had uniforms and everybody was new because it was all these international kids. So I was just so happy there, you know.
BL: Why were you there? Was that work as well? I mean just like…
DS: Work. My dad, yeah. And then we came back to suburban Northern California and I didn’t have the right haircut. I had really long hair down to my butt and everybody had like a Dorothy Hamill cut.
BL: You had the Crystal Gayle?
[22:31] DS: Yeah, I had the Crystal Gayle! I still was goin’ on the, you know, the 1978 Crystal Gayle look and they…so, I was just weird. You know, I came from Italy. Like how weird, right? And I was chubby and I just didn’t know how to dress. I was trying to dress like them…it was terrible. And then we moved to L.A. and I went to this school in Los Angeles called Crossroads. Do you know Crossroads at all?
BL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[22:57] DS: It’s in…it’s this art school and at the time it was very kind of arty. You picked your major, so it was like college. In the morning you did your classes and in the afternoon you could be a drama major or, you know, you could pick what you wanted. And I was a drama major. And it didn’t have any football team [laughs]. It was in an alley. And it was full of freaks. You know. So I was happy there. I had friends. It was nice. I mean I wasn’t happy…
BL: Okay. It’s a good school.
[23:28] DS: It’s a very good school and the teachers are wonderful. And I mean, it has its own problems. It has a lot of privilege and, you know, there’s a lot of issues. I mean it did then, I’m sure it still does. You know, it’s a private school, there were some scholarship kids, but it was a lot of kids with a lot of money. You know, that always causes…has a weird impact on kids.
[23:52] BL: You know, I was…
DS: Like you give them a Porsche. Like, here’s your Porsche. [laughs] You know. Welcome to being sixteen young man, here’s your Porsche. Good luck!
BL: Ugh. I remember, I was talking…I live in L.A. so I was talking to…I met somebody at a reading and she teaches at one of these private schools and I don’t think it’s Crossroads, but she actually has, like, Arnold Schwartzenegger’s kid and Sylvester Stalone’s kid in the same class and I’m just like, ‘How surreal is this,’ you know? [laughs]
[24:18] DS: Yeah we had a lot of kids of famous people in the class. And actually, one of my schoolmates, the one who had the Porsche, was Michael Bay, the filmmaker, right?
BL: He had a Porsche?
DS: So he had a Porsche in high school…
BL: Of course he did.
DS: And you’re just looking at him, you’re like, ‘That guy got a Porsche’ and I just remember him wearing sunglasses–he was two years older–and he’s got a Porsche and you’re just thinking, well his life is just gonna be a letdown from here, but of course he becomes like this blockbuster filmmaker! [laughs]
BL: Ugh, I saw him out…
DS: His life has just been one big Porsche all the way…[laughs]
[24:47] BL: I saw him out in L.A. one night and he was like with some like woman and they were both drinking like, I want to say like Appletinis. They were, like, green drinks and he had this shirt on and it was like unbuttoned down to his naval and I was just like, ‘This guy is too much.’ I couldn’t deal with it.
DS: But we were, my parents sent me there and it was good for me because I had an amazing film teacher named Jim Hosney. He’s kind of a cult figure. He’s retired now. And he was just showing us these amazing films as part of our Communications class. I think I switched to being a Communications major at the very end. And you got to see all these great European…he was showing us like Godard’s Weekend, and he was showing us The Conformist, Bertolucci movies, and I had never seen any of these movies. And he just totally changed me.
[25:36] Changed my sensibility, opened up all these worlds. It was very different from Northern California suburbia. And so he really sparked my love of movies and so, to me it was a great school. Now, we never were rich. We were always living beyond our means, many people in Los Angeles do this. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but it was just way, way…we rented houses…it was just bad. Anyway. So, we didn’t have… I was exposed to a lot, but we actually didn’t have any money, really. And we still don’t. But that…
BL: Okay, so…
DS: It was a weird upbringing.
[26:15] BL: Do you think that having the exposure even though like the money might not have actually been there, do you think that that was a good thing? I mean, it seems like in some ways…
DS: [laughs] No, it was a bad thing! You know why? Because I have all…I have the bad part of a privileged upbringing, you know like slightly spoiled and everything, but I don’t have the good part, which would be the money.
BL: Right, right. Yeah, you got to see it all but you’re like, ‘Oh wait.’ And then like Michael Bay peels out in his Porsche and like drives away [laughs].
DS: No, I mean, we had a…You know, we lived well. You know, and then it all sort of fell apart. I don’t really want to go into it because it’s not really about my life, it’s really about my dad’s life, but it was very…it all disappeared, like just…seemingly, in the snap of a finger. It was just all of a sudden everybody just had nothing. [laughs] It was really traumatic! [dismayed laughs]
[27:07] BL: Wow…You should write about this.
DS: I did! In my first book, Lightning Field, I wrote about it a little bit. It’s very fictionalized, but it’s hard to write about these things because like they’re so cliche, you know? That you can’t even write about them…[laughs]
DS: Oh, you went to Los Angeles and you lost all your money! [laughs] You’re living beyond your means, you know?
BL: Yeah, yeah.
[27:30] DS: But anyway, it’s an amazing place, you know? There’s a great amount of… it attracts a lot of ambitious people: artistically, financially, all these different things. It’s very heady. And…I’m interested more in the fringe, the way it sort of trickles out, you know, into the corners where people have been sort of living on the edges for a while. And there’s so many interesting people on the margins and that’s really what I relate to. I feel I’m a pretty… uh, and that’s why I became a novelist really because when I was in L.A. and I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I want to make movies.’ And then I just saw my dad’s life and I just thought, ‘Uh I can’t deal with this.’ I also like books…[laughs]
[28:14] BL: Right…
DS: And I started out writing screenplays. And then I just really liked the idea of being able to do something completely on my own. Without waiting for somebody to give me money to make it or the greenlight, you know what I mean? Something I could just make and it would be mine. And if nobody else liked it I would still have this complete object, you know?
BL: Sure, yeah.
DS: Here’s this novel. Who cares if it got published? Great. But if it doesn’t it’s still a novel. It’s not waiting for somebody to make it into what it’s supposed to be. So to me, that’s very appealing to be self-contained in that way. Because if you’re dependent on somebody else for your satisfaction, your happiness, that’s rough.
[28:50] BL: Well, yeah. Just to get permission to do what you want to do, you know? It takes a lot of the fun out of it, for sure. I feel like the movie, the business of making movies, and especially the kind of storytelling that you would probably be drawn to–I mean you’re not making action movies. [laughs] Or I would imagine that’s not what you would be doing.
DS: No, Michael Bay’s doing that [laughs].
BL: Yeah, exactly, you know. [laughs] That doesn’t seem like that would be your bailiwick or whatever. So you get out of high school and then where do you go? You leave L.A. or do you stay in L.A.?
[29:20] DS: Yeah so I go to college at Columbia, in New York.
DS: For two years and I drop out, just like Jack Kerouac [laughs].
BL: Yeah. What happened? What happened? So like give me a little like, you know, synopsis of your time there?
DS: I just…my family was kind of falling apart. I was just freaked out. I don’t know…I just freaked out and had to go, so I left. And I was doing well, I mean I really liked it, but it was also really intense. And I wanted to be a writer. I was studying philosophy. I was going to be a philosophy major. There’s a big core curriculum at Columbia where you take nothing, but you know, you’re reading, like, Plato…And you’re reading Ulysses to Ulysses. In literature/humanities you’re reading Homer to Joyce and then there’s all these like hardcore, Western-Civ stuff that you’re doing. And it’s very intense. And very different from Crossroads in Santa Monica, which is what I wanted. I wanted it to be hardcore. And then when I was all done with all these requirements I just left. And I just thought, I just really want to write novels and I’m not gonna…I don’t want to study…I don’t want to be a scholar. At the time I was stupid. I thought you had to be either this or that. And I was very dramatic, so I just had to just leave and dropout and be dramatic. And then I moved back to L.A. for a while, and then I moved to Seattle. This was in the late 80’s. I moved to Seattle and I finished college at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, in 1993. And I lived in Seattle for a long time–five or six years. I loved Seattle. It was fantastic.
[31:02] BL: That was like right when the whole like music explosion was happening, right?
DS: Exactly. I was there for…it was wonderful because I was never…as I said, I’m not…I’m more of an observer, outcast, kind of loser person, I’m not a cool person. However, Seattle was a place where even…you know, it was a very kind of sweet, loving [laughs]…it was such a small scene. There were only a couple of places you could go, you know? So you weren’t…it didn’t feel very clique-ish. At least not to me.
[31:38] BL: Well and it’s also easy to navigate. It’s easy to navigate. Right? Like you just kind of know where to go.
DS: Yeah! Yeah, there were only a few places to go and parties…everybody was…There’s only a couple hundred people who ever went out and it was always…everybody was in a band. Like the Comet Tavern, which is on the Pike, all the bartenders were in bands. Everybody was just doing it. And it seemed so easy. And I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And you could get a really nice apartment in Capitol Hill in those days, for nothing, with a view of, you know, the Sound, and everything. So you only had to get a waiter job and work two days a week and then you could just go out and have fun. Or write. It was a great place to be young. You know?
[32:19] BL: Right…
DS: Except for occasionally people would get murdered and stuff. [giggles] But otherwise…
BL: It happens.
DS: That girl from, I think, Seven Year Bitch, got murdered. That really kind of put a damper on things. There’s always…the weird thing about the Northwest is that they have a lot of serial killers. They have the Green River Killer. I think Ted Bundy’s from the Northwest. There’s just something about the Northwest there. I don’t know if it has a particular…but that kind of put a damper on wanting to hang out after that. Yeah.
BL: The serial killers.
DS: Yes! [laughs]
BL: That will put a damper on things [laughs].
[32:56] DS: So, no, I loved Seattle in the early ‘90s. Just really fun. And I have such good memories. When I wrote about it in Eat the Document there’s a, the house, this anarchist house, called the Black House, and I actually lived in the Black House. It was on Capitol Hill, and so I just put it in the book. I mean, it’s not an autobiographical book, but I put a lot of experiences of Seattle in there. And Portland and Eugene and, you know, all that whole Northwestern…Although I left well before all the real anti-corporate activism was starting up. But Seattle always had a big kind of political, activist scene, and so did Evergreen, where I went to college. So it was all part of…I wrote about that a lot in Eat the Document.
[33:39] BL: Well yeah and I mean, I feel like Oregon, too. I feel like the Pacific Northwest has a particularly vibrant activist scene.
BL: Like people are really dedicated up there.
DS: And it’s been that way always. The Wobblies were very active there. You know, the labor movement’s been active. It’s just something in the air. There’s either serial killers or labor activists [laughs]. Political activism is in the air there.
BL: Oh, man. So, in your twenties, like and you’re living there and you’re waiting tables. And are you writing?
DS: Yeah, yeah.
[34:12] BL: With a good amount of discipline?
DS: Not really. It’s very…I was going to Evergreen, commuting from Seattle, and doing some independent studies where I’m reading a lot. I mean, the nice thing about Evergreen is you can do whatever you want. And there’s some great teachers. And so I tried to do some writing there. And I spent a lot of time in cafes reading and writing. It was a lot of reading…
BL: Who were you reading?
[34:35] DS: …and some writing…Well, you know, I was really reading a lot of James Joyce. That was really the…Ulysses was the book that really made me want to be a writer. And Dubliners. So I remember sitting in cafes and, you know, taking notes and thinking about…I wanted to do a version of–I do remember doing this–there’s the Wandering Rocks chapter in Ulysses, where it’s all these different things are going on at the same time and he uses Dublin, different places in Dublin, and he tries to make it simultaneous, so it’s kind of like a movie, almost. And I tried to do that in Seattle. And I have my notes from it. So I was just imitating writers, you know?
[35:10] BL: Sure, yeah.
DS: And then at Evergreen I met my friend Jody Davis. And she introduced me to this magazine called The Quarterly, which was a very cool magazine that Gordon Lish published. And so one day she called the number on the back and said we really like your magazine. And Gordon Lish answered. The editor, Gordon Lish, answered.
BL: No way.
DS: Just answered!
[35:31] BL: You’re like, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t expect you to pick up,’ you know?
DS: Yeah. And he said, ‘C’mon out. Be my interns.’ You know? ‘How long of a leash do you want?’ I think is what he said. And so we did. We just moved to New York.
DS: To go work at The Quarterly. And it was great. I mean, you know, it was really fun and I made a lot of writer friends in New York, at that time.
BL: Like who?
DS: Well, let’s see. Christine Schutt, I met. And Ben Marcus. And Victoria Redel, I mean just tons of writers that were around Gordon at that time. And, it’s funny. Everybody, I mean, you know…anyway, The Quarterly was an interesting thing. I read the slush pile and watched Gordon edit. We were really just the office slaves. But we were called the Managing Editors. But really it was all Gordon. But I learned a lot about writing from his editing.
[36:31] BL: Yeah…
DS: Watching him edit. Very much. I took his class, too. That was part of my pay. And that was an intense experience and I didn’t really do so well in that class. I took it for two years. But I was just…I just didn’t really…it was a very narrow aesthetic, and it wasn’t really what I was interested in doing. So I didn’t…
BL: Like what was the aesthetic? Describe like that…
DS: Very…I mean it’s very…I don’t want to…you know, I mean, it’s something I like, it’s just not something I was gonna end up doing.
[37:02] BL: Yeah.
DS: It’s very language-driven. It’s sentence by sentence, and I’m a sentence writer as well. And I’m very language-driven, but it had a lot of rules. Well, Gordon had a lot of rules, you know? You know, you couldn’t name anything. You couldn’t say the word…I mean he had some random rules. But he had some good rules [laughs], and I was just…you know, his, it was a very narrow vision. And well done, it was amazing. But if that’s not the kind of writer you are then you sounded fake if you tried to write that way.
[37:34] BL: Yeah.
DS: It sounded mannered. If I tried to do it that way it would sound mannered. It’s like I was an imitation of an imitation of an imitation. You know, there’s some writers who just write that way. Like Gary Lutz just writes sentence by sentence amazing sentences, and uses syntax and language in completely inventive ways. That’s fantastic. I was really interested…what I liked to read most, and what I was most interested in, was the novel. And so I really wanted to write a novel and it wasn’t really a class that taught you how to write a novel, so much. It was more of a short story orientation. More of a sentence by sentence short story orientation. And so, when I left the class I just said, you know, forget that, put all that aside. I’m just gonna do what I wanna do. And then I started writing Lightning Field. And I just wrote everyday for four years and waitressed at night. And then I was very, I had a very strict schedule then. I gave myself…I suddenly had all this discipline I never had. This was, like, 29.
[38:36] BL: What happened? Did you just feel like, ‘Well, time’s tickin’. I’m gonna do this or I’m not gonna do this? It’s time to get going,’ or?
DS: Well this is why I think Gordon’s a really good teacher. One is he taught me a lot about language and about sentences. Which I’m, you know, I’m forever grateful for. But also he kind of pushed me because he was trying to shove something, you know, shoving something at me. I mean, I showed up for class, I was asking for it, but you know, he was sort of like, ‘This is the only way, you know, you need to do this.’ And I needed to say no, there’s other ways to do this. And so that kind of burst of, ‘No, that’s not what I want to do this,’ kind of pushed me into doing my own…putting my money where my mouth is, you know. There’s a nice, original phrase.
[39:23] And so I just, so I think, in a way, writing teachers were interesting because sometimes you need somebody to react against, you know. You need someone to push you. To make you pay attention to what your project is. To make you define yourself. To make you think about what is good and what you’re interested in. And so maybe that’s all that a teacher is supposed to do, really. Is just be consistent in their aesthetic vision and then it gives you something to measure yourself against. To react against. You know what I mean? So it wasn’t so important that he said you’re a good writer, because he didn’t say that, or anything like that. What was really important is that he was just, you know I felt sort of oppressed by his vision and I needed to push away and make room for my own thing.
[40:09] BL: Yeah.
DS: So it kind of gave me some…yeah, is that weird?
BL: Well no, I mean I think too sometimes maybe part of it, as well, might be that he’s teaching in an aesthetic tradition or whatever that doesn’t necessarily mesh with, you know, you and your particular sensibility. But just by forcing you to engage it, it might strengthen muscles that you, you know, otherwise weren’t inclined to use. Maybe?
[40:33] DS: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that is absolutely true. And like I said, everyday, practically, I think of something that Gordon said and at the time I might have dismissed. And then it comes back to me and I say, ‘He’s really right about that, you know.’ And I think he would be the first one to say, I mean, we’re still friends. He’s been a great friend. And we don’t always agree about what books are good or what we like in books. And he’s not consistent. You know? His rules don’t always apply. And I’ll tell him that and he’ll say, ‘Yeah. I know, I know. You know, so what?’ [laughs]
[41:10] BL: So yeah, but that’s good that he doesn’t take them that seriously. You know what I’m saying?
DS: No, you know. Yeah. He’s a character. And he’s just doing what motivates him and that’s really what an artist’s job is.
[41:26] DS: What motivates him is saying this is what I think is good and I’m certain of it. And I like this and I don’t like that. That’s not particularly motivating to me. But that’s what motivates him and that’s what he’s showing me how an artist lives. You know? How his version of an artist lives and in some ways I think that’s the thing. You’re trying to get your own practice and you suddenly see actual writers, people who are really interested and passionate about it, and what they think. And you surround yourself with them and you start to learn, okay I sort of agree with that, I don’t agree with that. And this person needs to talk about it a lot and that person never talks about it. You know, and that’s part of how you figure out how to do this thing. ‘Cause it’s sort of an apprenticeship in a way. You know, I’ve had one sentence pieces of advice that were very helpful to me. I had a writer friend who just said to me, simply, and it’s the right place and the right time, you know? And he said, ‘Just make writing your top priority. Everything else comes second.’
[42:25] BL: Right.
DS: And I did that. And that was the key for me.
BL: Yeah. I mean it sounds like…what was your regimen back in those days, once you really started getting going?
[42:35] DS: Well, I mean, now it’s all changed because of my daughter. I don’t think of writing as my top priority. I think of her. And then writing is my second priority. Which is okay, you can still get a lot of work done that way. But I think when you’re starting… what I did was I would get up in the morning, I would get coffee, I would get the newspaper. I would read the paper because I always got kind of ideas from the paper. And then I would sit down and start and write for three hours. And then go to the gym and then go to my job, which was waitressing. And then I would do that for four or five years. The same friend told me, ‘Try to write seven days and you’ll probably get five.’ And that’s what I did. I tried to write everyday and then I would get four or five. And I also would just start at the beginning each day and read everything–this was really from Gordon…because I wanted…Gordon had the idea of writing, not his idea but it’s something that he thinks about when he’s writing is, you’re sort of writing backwards, you know, you’re looking at where you’ve been to go forward. So you’re sort of walking backwards. So you’re holding all the language that you’ve put down on the page in your mind as you go to create new language. So you get that kind of depth and connection deeply embedded in the language, in terms of the sonics, in terms of the content. Everything. And by paying attention to the sonics and the shape of the sentences you kind of trick yourself into revealing sort of emotional things. And intellectual things that if you went at directly you would make stupid. But if you’re kind of sneaking up on them you find you’re smarter than you thought you were. The work becomes smarter than you. And that was a big turning point for me. I had been this person where people would read my writing in my 20’s and they’d say…they’d be kind of disappointed because I talked a good talk, but then I wasn’t such a good writer. And then it switched, and all of a sudden my writing was good and then when they met me it was like, ‘Oh, you’re kind of stupid in person.’ [laughs]
[44:34] BL: Such a disappointment [laughs].
DS: Yeah, you’re really a disappointment. And I was like, that’s it! That’s great! [laughs] That means I’ve succeeded. I disappoint people. So it was really weird, because it did kind of change. I mean I’m not saying I’m that disappointing, but I’m a little disappointing [laughs]. And that’s okay!
BL: But I mean, no, and then, like just to kind of, you know, move the story forward, like you’ve published three books now. Correct? Three?
DS: Uh huh.
[45:00] BL: And you’ve had an amazing run. Like I mean just looking at like critical response, and awards, and grants. And like, for a writer of literary fiction you must be thrilled.
DS: I am.
BL: I mean like Michiko Kakutani is in love with you. You need to know this. I read her blurbs. I mean like she’s not always like the most…she can…I don’t know…she does praise a lot of books, but like, you know, she really seems to love your work [laughs].
[45:27] DS: Yeah, it’s very nice. I mean, it’s been wonderful and I’ve been extremely lucky. And, you know, and that’ll change. I’m sure I’m due for the drop-kick next time. I’m preparing myself. So you know, these things, but yeah, it’s been incredible how…I still can’t believe that I’m even published, to be honest with you. I mean, the person that I was, writing in my room, as a failure, after my life as an outcast. [laughs] And now waitressing, you know, and writing. And then to think that it actually had a life in the world and then I kept going it’s sort of amazing to me. It really is.
[46:15] DS: And I just feel very happy about it and very lucky. And now teaching is great, too. At Syracuse, because you kind of feel a little bit insulated. I’m away from New York and I feel kind of isolated from the literary center of things. And that’s kind of nice, too.
[46:43] BL: Yeah.
DS: You know, I kind of like to be on the margins and a little bit off-kilter. So, it’s good for me to always feel that I’m sort of an outsider or…I kind of want that. And I still feel that way, so that’s good.
BL: Well, it’s comfortable. You know, I mean, right? That’s like…that’s kind of like…It seems like kind of like how you were as a kid and then you kind of gravitate to that through life.
DS: Right. And you never sort of change that. I mean, no matter what happens, you sort of always feel sort of that person that you…I don’t know. What is the age that you remember your sort of identity gets fixed? I mean, you know, there’s some sort of things that you sort of decide about yourself and they kind of stay for a long time.
[47:29] BL: That’s true. Yeah, I mean, it’s like, people essentially are who they are, you know. It’s like identity sort of like locks in at a certain age when you’re a kid and, you know, there are parts of it that can change, but really it seems like the essence or the core is pretty much the same, you know, for people.
DS: Well, don’t you find with your daughter, you probably already noticed this, but I noticed this with my daughter is that, I think that that identity really happens young. I mean, I feel my daughter has been this person since the moment she was born. It has nothing to do with how many books I read to her or what I dangled in front of her face or how much I hugged her. I just think she was just this person.
[48:06] DS: And, I mean I could make a happier version of that person or an unhappier version of that person, if I’m a good mom or a neglectful mom. But I can’t really change… you know it sort of felt like it was there. I don’t know if you had that feeling?
BL: Yeah, no, no, I mean already. I mean, she’s fifteen months old, so it’s still like we’re just starting to get like, you know, a little bit of talking and stuff like that, but yeah, there’s definitely a personality and she’s…yeah, It’s there. Like you just, you can see…
DS: It doesn’t have that much to do with you, you know? [laughs]
[48:32] BL: No. [laughs] I’d love to be able to take credit for this. But we always say like she’s so sweet. Like, where does this come from?
DS: Yeah, it can’t come from me! [laughs]
DS: And isn’t it good. I mean, what if she was horrible and you were like, ‘Oh, great, I got stuck with, you know, the serial killer baby.’ [laughs]
BL: Well, that’s the thing, that’s the thing…
DS: Because that happens to people [laughs].
[48:51] BL: I know. And you know, like it’s a fear that you have, you know. When my wife, Kari, you know, when she was pregnant, we were like I hope she turns out okay, you know. [laughs] I think it’s a fear that people have that maybe they don’t talk about that much but like you do wonder.
BL: What if I don’t like this kid, you know? [laughs]
DS: Right, what if my kid is a big jerk?
BL: Yeah, exactly. But luckily we lucked out. She’s a sweetheart.
DS: Yeah but there is this one thing that we both haven’t experience yet. Is that when people hit adolescence, there’s like a whole other part of the personality that comes into place.
[49:26] DS: So, you have this personality until you’re, what is it, twelve? And then this other thing happens and then the final product comes. Like the hormones kick in and the brain develops fully and that’s where a lot of people go off the rails.
DS: And that’s where they become horrible, you know. And they never come back.
BL: Well, I grew up with sisters and like there’s a lot of females in my family. Like my mom had six sisters and two brothers. I don’t know, I just feel like I was raised around women. And I remember my older sister and my younger sister going through that. I can’t say that I’m like expert at it. But I sort of like kind of know what to expect, you know?
[50:05] DS: Mmm-hmmm.
BL: It’s been a while, but I think like I understand that like I’ve got about eleven or twelve years where she’s gonna really like me, and then at age twelve [laughs] things are gonna shift.
DS: Right. It’s horrifying. And then they’ll come back. Like, when they’re in college they’ll be your friend or something.
DS: You hope.
BL: We hope.
DS: But there’ll be those years in there where they’ll have to hate you.
BL: Yeah, it’s like obligatory. Wait, how old is your daughter?
DS: She’s eight. She just turned eight last week.
BL: Okay. So you got a little time.
[50:31] DS: Oh, yeah. We’re still really tight. [laughs] We’re best buddies. It’s gonna crush me. I’m gonna be destroyed if she becomes a fourteen-year-old girl who’s mean to me. If she does that, I will be destroyed. No. I’m trying to prepare myself because I wasn’t that way to my mom, I was really nice to my mom, but I had an older sister who was kind of rebellious. So, you know, I think I’m in for it. That’s my guess.
[50:54] BL: Yeah, you just don’t know, you just don’t know. And like the thing is, you say that you were nice to your mom, but like maybe like…Because I feel like I was nice. I was fairly nice. But then there were like some things I did where I was just like really mean to my little sister. Like just like mean stuff, right? Where I’d have my buddies over and she’d be bothering us. I’d be like, ‘Come here.’ And she’d be like, ‘No you’re going to hit me.’ [laughs] I’d be like, ‘No, I’m not. Come here.’ I still remember this and feel bad about it ‘cause she like finally decided to come over and then I like punched her in the arm. It was just an awful thing to do. You know, she was like…
[51:28] DS: But maybe you had to do that. You were experimenting with being mean.
DS: To sort of see that and it affected you. And you realize that’s not the kind of person you want to be, at some point. I mean, you just needed to do it for a while…
BL: Yeah, that’s so true. Like now that you say that, ‘cause like I didn’t do it again. And then the other thing that I did that had like…that really sticks with me–and I don’t mean to make this all about me [laughs]–but I shot a bird with a BB gun…
[52:01] DS: Yeah [shocked].
BL: In my front lawn. And like I had this BB gun, and I was like home alone. And I was like fourteen or fifteen or whatever. There was just like this blackbird or this crow or whatever just like in our front lawn and I take the gun, I open the front door. And I was, you know, I was acting like I was some sort of like soldier or something. And, you know, I’m not even a good shot, I didn’t grow up hunting or anything that. But I shot this bird and like, hit it. And killed it. And then I remember I felt awful. I buried it and I was crying. [laughs]
[52:28] DS: Yeah, that’s a classic, you know, rite of passage, I think, for a lot of people, those kind of experiences… yeah. So that’s why people are so miserable during those years, because you have so much you have to figure out.
DS: And it’s hard. And then you’re supposed to go to school and you’re supposed to figure out how to get into college. And take all these tests. It’s just a terrible…How we raise our kids is terrible, I think. All this pressure we put on them, right when they’re trying to figure out how to be a good person. I just wish it wasn’t like that. It’s another reason why I’m glad I don’t…I just want things to not be too stressful when she’s in high school. That’s what I want.
[53:06] BL: Yeah. Well, as long as you’re cognizant of it I bet you…what I’m trying to say is, at least you’re conscious of it, so I’m sure if that’s the case, you’ll be helpful in that way.
DS: Yeah, I hope so. I hope so. I’m just gonna do my best and I’m hoping it will just work itself out. But I have such vivid memories of that age that I will be very sympathetic to her.
[53:38] BL: All right. Well, let’s talk about Stone Arabia, because I have some questions that I want to ask you about. Like one of the things about the book and one of the things about your work in general is that there seems to be like a throughline. Like you seem to really be interested in identity. Like as a major theme of your work. And then the other part of it that really strikes me is that, you know, it’s about the creative person. You know, like the way that there are so many people out there who are trying to become these artists and this is the water I swim in as a writer. I’m constantly talking to writers…
[54:23] BL: And, you know, hearing about their plight and whatnot. And, you know so many people who set out to make movies or become musicians or become actors or become writers like wind up never making it or not making it in the way, like most people don’t make it in the way they had hoped, which is to have some sort of like fantastic success and gigantic readership or whatever
BL: And, you know with Stone Arabia like I was kind of thinking about that. And then thinking about, you know, the work that you do as a teacher. And I’m sure you know a million writers. Like what was the impetus? Like is that kind of how it started, where you’re wondering about, you know, how people create their sense of themselves, their identities and through art. You know, can you talk a bit about that?
[55:10] DS: Yeah, I mean, I definitely had some real-life inspirations for the book. I usually do for my books, for some reason. Some people in my life, in my family, are kind of garage musicians, or basement musicians, and keep making music and putting out records and just kind of going forward. Without a very big audience. There’s a kind of purity to that that’s very exciting and interesting to me. And I think it’s a way of keeping…And it’s just…they do other things to make a living and they just keep this part, they keep this alive, they don’t give up on it. And I think it’s part of their surviving, coping strategy. Now, the person in the book, Nick, is a very exaggerated version of this. But he’s inspired by my step-father, who has kept a chronicle, like Nick does, of his life where he’s this really successful musician.
[56:19] And so I got that idea from Richard. And Nick’s music is very different, his personality is different. But that idea of creating an alternative universe in which you’re a big success, as a way of kind of building in your own audience, I like that idea. I exaggerated him even though he’s a pretty eccentric guy, my stepfather. But I exaggerated him in the sense that Nick does these elaborate, negative reviews, which my stepfather doesn’t do. [laughs] But I think my stepfather gave himself one, like one-sentence bad review, where he sort of said, ‘This is shit,’ or something and I just took that and I was like, ‘Okay, he’s gonna actually have these fully elaborate negative reviews…’
[57:04] BL: …well and even like a character. Even like, a critic who’s got it in for him or like you know…
DS: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. So I kind of exaggerated some of that stuff and I made him much more eccentric, you know, in terms of music. Richard is more of a pop singer-songwriter. But Richard has done that same thing where he’s put out 30 records. He never stops making music. And he makes the liner notes and he makes the labels. And he has all these labels. And what was fun about that is that I got to make up, you know, another world. So when you write a novel you’re making up a world and then I got to make a world within the novel. So it had to be sort of a little bit fake, because it’s supposed to be made-up in the novel. So that was really fun. And just coming up with the names of all the bands and the names of the labels; and the different critics. So that was really fun.
BL: Yeah. Coming up with band names is fun, I think, you know.
DS: It is! I worked in a record store when I was in Seattle, when I first moved up there. So I’ve always had a big record collection and I’ve always been really interested in music. So that was fun. And my husband is a musician and he does this too, so a lot of times I would get help from him. I would say, well, you know, what do you think about this for a band name? Or what do you think about that? And he gave me two song titles I used in the book, too. So it was inspired by a lot of people in my life and it was also about me, though. I mean it was sort of this idea of, you know, I was talking about how I didn’t want to wait for somebody else to help me make my thing. I wanted to be self-contained. Well sort of that idea where you create a world in which you can be creative and you can do your thing and it doesn’t matter if anybody else gets it. It doesn’t matter if anybody else likes it. It’s just to keep you whole. To keep you sane. Because the world is coming down on you and there’s these terrible terms and we’re all gonna die and you’ve gotta find a way to be engaged and to do your thing. And so, he’s doing that to a certain extent. And sort of novel writing is like that. It’s a little, private universe in which you’re, you know, you’re god. And you create this imaginary place and it kind of keeps you sane.
[59:12] BL: Well, it also speaks to me on the level of like social media. Were you thinking about like the internet at all? Even though, you know, the chronicles or whatever aren’t necessarily web-based, I feel like people…I mean, and this is a big reach, so…
DS: No, no, no.
BL: As far as comparison goes, I think about the show Miley Cyrus. I think I read some essay about the Hannah Montana phenomenon which was actually really astute and it made it make sense to me. I had never seen it but I was like, why is this so popular? You know it’s about this like girl who by day is sort of this like geeky high school student and then by night she’s like this rockstar. And it spoke…
[59:52] DS: Right. I don’t know this show, but…
BL: Yeah, but it spoke to the way that like kids today, I think, you know, wander the halls of their schools and feel all awkward and, you know, out of sorts during the day, and then by night they’re on like you know Facebook or whatever and they get to kind of create and curate their identity. Do you know what I’m saying, like it speaks to all…
[1:00:10] DS: Absolutely! No, absolutely. And I think, you know, the book is deliberately–it’s set in 2004–in the pre-Facebook age, but still, you know, the internet. And Nick is a Luddite. And he never uses the internet. But his sister, who narrates the book, is a big internet person. She’s constantly…And so I was kinda…I’m always very interested in sort of technology and how it changes us, and how it affects us and what it’s like to be alive right now. So, sometimes the past is a good way to get at what’s going on right now. So a lot of this stuff was made in the ‘70s, but it was kinda…he’s like his own internet. You know, he curates himself and all that. I think that it is part of this cultural moment, for sure. And I think that what we were talking about earlier, about moving around and how people do move around more. You do have a kind of fluidity in your identity and one of the reasons why I think I’m so interested in it is because I moved around so much. And I became very self-conscious of how you create an impression on other people. I became a student of it because I saw instantly sort of, because I was always an outsider I could sort of see, ‘Oh here’s the popular kids at this school and here’s the losers at this school. And here’s the geeks.’
[1:01:24] And I could see the sort of structural bigger picture, while somebody who’s just in that world may not know that that’s what happens in all high schools and here’s another version of it. So I was always exposed to different versions of sort of people and I always thought that I would be able to…I liked the idea of going to a new place and having a new chance to make an impression. You could, ‘ Nah I don’t want to be so…I want to change the way I look. So now I’m gonna wear black all the time at my new school.’ Or whatever. It might not be that self-conscious but you know there’s opportunities to reinvent yourself. So I think that’s partially why I get sort of fixated on that. In Eat the Document the woman actually makes new identities, she goes underground. So, yeah, definitely it’s something that seems to come up again and again. And it also, I think has to…as you say…with the…I wonder what it’s like to be a kid now? It’s so different from when I was growing up. I don’t know how old you are but I’m 44. So when I was growing up, if I had had access to other people on the internet I might have been happier. I would have found like-minded people…I would have seen the bigger world sooner.
[1:02:32] BL: I always feel that. I’m 36 and I always say, like, ‘God, if I had social media and blogging and the internet when I was in high school, I might have actually like had dates and stuff. You know, because I was like so much more comfortable…I would have been so much more comfortable approaching girls that way. As opposed to like walking up to them in the hall and…you know, ugh.
[1:02:52] DS: Yeah.
BL: I was not good at that.
DS: But on the other hand, they also…I have a friend whose daughter was ganged-up on, on Facebook…
BL: Oh, right…
DS: By these mean girls. There’s like a lot more opportunities for all this mean girl stuff, and I don’t know what the boy equivalent is. I’m sure there is some equivalent. Of you know, sort of bullying and also just people…that whole presentation of self, I mean there’s something about Facebook, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here, it’s quite superficial, right? It’s really based on…you know, a kind of…it’s very shallow. So, it’s all about…You see, I see a lot of young women putting all these posey pictures of themselves on the internet, on Facebook. And then you know people racking up 3,000 friends, you know, these sixteen year olds or whatever. No one really understands this and yet, here our children are, you know, using it. And I’m kind of the old fuddy-duddy. I’m very…I have a lot of skepticism about new technology and so, social media, I’m very skeptical. I get a bad feeling when I’m on it. I sort of think…You know, I use it but I have deep ambivalence about it. It feels weird.
[1:04:09] BL: I feel…I use it for work and occasionally like you know if I have something goofy to say I’ll say that, but like the constant tweeting, I can’t do it. It makes me crazy. And like you say, in some way that I can’t quite define, it makes me feel bad. Or sad or something. You know? [laughs]
DS: Right. It makes me so sad or itchy or something. Like [disgust noise]. I don’t know why I just…and I always feel this great regret, like, ‘Ah, I shouldn’t have posted that, take it down,’ or just, ‘Why?’ I need to go off Facebook, but there are a lot of people I can only reach through Facebook. So you know I go on once a week I would say and I sort of look around, and I get all freaked out and I leave.
[1:04:50] BL: [laughs] Well at least you’re consistent.
DS: Check if I have messages or something like that.
[1:04:56] BL: Well…
DS: No, I get things in my email if I get messages, so I don’t miss that. But it’s just, yeah, it’s weird, right? And I have a page for Stone Arabia, and that’s weird too because I post stuff about Stone Arabia, but I feel like everyone knows it’s me. So it’s just me posting about myself and that seems lame. [laughs] ‘Stone Arabia posted this review,’ and it’s like, ‘No, Dana did and why is she telling everyone about herself again?,’ you know?
BL: You need to get your daughter to do that, for god sakes. Put her to work.
[1:05:23] DS: [laughs] So, that whole, you know that whole sort of projecting of self is weird. You know, it’s hard for me to deal with it. It doesn’t feel private enough for me. It’s too social. Social media is too social [laughs].
BL: Or the thing about it though, the thing about it is like, I’m now at the point, I think it’s kind of why I do this podcast, is that it’s like, I like to be social with people but like let’s do it on the level and like have a conversation. All this like presenting of self and like, ‘Here are my vacation photos,’ and like, ‘Look how witty I am and look who I’m tweeting at,’ and you know it’s just like, oh god. You know, that’s the part of it that just starts to feel like a junior high school lunchroom to me and it just makes me want to run in the other direction, you know? [laughs]
[1:06:08] DS: Right, yeah. And then who, and also who…you never know, who is this a message to? Right? Which of your 500 friends is this addressed to? [laughs] And why don’t you just send it to them, you know? And so, it’s very strange. Yeah, I don’t think we’ve all figured it out. I think it’s strange. And then it’s weird because Mark Zuckerberg is kind of, he’s creating the internet within the internet, in which he’s controlling the universe. And I was like, ‘Why am I in Mark Zuckerberg’s universe,’ you know?
[1:06:40] DS: I’m a novelist, I want to be in my own…that’s the whole thing. I’m creating my own little weird world and I don’t want to be in this place. I don’t like the way it looks, I don’t like the way it changes, and I don’t like that I’m not in control. So, I’m totally ill-equipped for that world, I think. And maybe my child will not be, she’ll feel very comfortable there. And she’ll say well this has nothing to do with identity, it just is what it is, get over it. Use it.
BL: Yeah, it’s just Facebook, mom. Relax
DS: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] Use it, don’t interrogate it and you know flip-out about it, but that’s…you know, but I sort of feel like that’s my job, you know.
[1:07:12] BL: Yeah. So, Don DeLillo’s a fan of your work. Is that correct? I mean he’s blurbed your work, I just…I feel like there’s a similarity to the way that you guys approach fiction and the way that you sort of address…You address the culture in your work and you’re like really deeply…you think about it, you know, you’re deeply interested. Like how did you…I mean, did he read you and then like send you a nice note? Or like how did that happen? I’m just curious.
DS: Well he’s friends with Gordon Lish.
DS: And so when I was working at The Quarterly he would call and have conversations. And I met him through Gordon and when I had my book I sent it to him.
[1:07:53] BL: Okay.
DS: And he liked it. And he’s, I mean, he’s a big influence on me. As you say, you’re right on the money, it was…this idea of addressing, you know, the culture as a whole would be part of the subject. And, you know, writing something that is really talking to the whole culture rather than trying to make like a 19th century realist novel or something. Just something that sort of reflects this moment in some…formally and content-wise, and all these other things. And not being afraid of kind of just getting in there. And being ambitious about it, you know? Being ambitious about rising to the moment, and also just…it’s a way of answering back. Because otherwise it feels as if you’re getting obliterated. And that’s kind of what I talk about in Stone Arabia, the sister narrator’s voice…sort of experiencing the world too much and doesn’t have anyway to sort of negotiate her relationship to it. So she’s overwhelmed, and it’s…whether it’s data stuff on the internet or watching TV or whether it’s the sufferings of others. And she’s just paralyzed and quite fragile. And she’s sort of…part of the book is her attempts to answer back in some ways. Her brother’s sort of in retreat.
BL: What about research?
DS: So research, yeah so…
[1:09:22] BL: Like, just in terms of, ‘cause like when it comes to like addressing the culture. And like you know taking on this big job, frankly, as a writer. To try to get inside there and to try to understand it. Rather than kind of like looking at it from the outside, like actually kind of immersing yourself in it and then trying to say something about it in fiction. Like I’m curious to know, do you do like really pointed research in order to try and understand it or do you just get inside of your story and then you know, does it happen more intuitively?
[1:09:54] DS: It’s both. I do do a lot of research. I do like to read a lot about what I’m interested in and most of it doesn’t end up in the book, but I write the book while I’m doing it. So it’s not…so the relationship isn’t direct the way it would be with a scholar. So, I’ll kind of get in the mood…I’m really interested in this, I’ll start reading all these memoirs of people who lived underground, let’s say, or for Stone Arabia I was looking at a lot of art books from outsider artists. Thinking a lot about visual artists more than musicians, even though he’s a musician. So I was looking at all these collages and thinking about that. And I was reading architecture books about Los Angeles. So everything… and then actually going to the places I’m writing about and walking around and taking pictures. So I do spend a lot of time researching. It gives me permission to do what I want to do. So I feel I have enough authority to talk about something I need to do. And I think it’s kind of a weakness, in a sense, because it takes me a long time to do stuff because I feel I have to…’I’m so ignorant, I have to read a lot before I can think about something.’
[1:11:05] DS: But I also think it’s just my way of working. I just like to immerse myself like an actor might. You know, like I’m a method writer. I want to be surrounded by this subject matter and then when I speak it will feel organic, you know.
BL: Well, yeah, I mean, like it has to kind of work on your subconscious and stew…
DS: Exactly. You’re giving yourself all these things you’re just consuming in some way, you know, movies and music and all of that, you’re kind of creating a feeling in yourself and then the language has some of that in it, in some weird way. You don’t have to make it…It’s not too conscious, it just sort of comes out.
[1:11:43] BL: Yeah, well, it’s fascinating and, you know, congratulations on all your success.
DS: Oh, thank you.
BL: I mean, Stone Arabia has done great. The other books have done wonderfully, too. And, you know, I didn’t even get to talk about when you, you went to Italy for a year, didn’t you?
[1:11:58] DS: Yeah, for the American Academy in Rome. And I have to say, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of support for these books and I think I write kind of weird books. And people like you and people on all these blogs have given me so much support. And you know, it just gives me a lot of hope because I think there’s a lot of…that people are still interested in the novel. They’re interested in weird books and odd things and they try to understand them. And to get that kind of response is just so overwhelming to me. It makes me very excited about…and I’m not one of these people who’s real pessimistic about the novel. I kind of feel…really smart people pay attention and they write about it and they’re interested in it. And it’s just so great, you know? So, I’m so grateful to you for having a show like this. I mean this is so…it’s kind of an exciting time to be a writer, I think. There’s a lot of stuff going on.
[1:12:57] BL: Yeah, I agree, I agree. It’s wide open, you know? And I think that books like yours, that actually deal with the culture head-on, I think that’s a big reason why the response is so great. I mean, a: the books are beautifully done. But it’s also, I think people are starving for fiction that really addresses that stuff, addresses the world as it is, as you say, you know. Sometimes I feel like books don’t go deeply enough into it or they don’t really get immersive in that way. Or they try to kind of stand outside of it and comment on it. Do you know what I’m saying? Like I think that might be…
[1:13:32] DS: Yeah, no. Thank you. I’m very pleased and it’s good. I mean and it’s fun, it’s also just, you know, I think a lot of changes are going on in publishing and a lot of changes are going on, and so it’s easy to get pessimistic because you hear that books sales are way down and all that stuff. But on the other hand, there is a lot of potential and a lot of activity too, where people have…where you can reach…there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening at the margins, you know?
[1:14:02] BL: Sure, yeah, yeah. Exactly. Well and hopefully, yeah I feel, that’s kind of what this is. [laughs] Hopefully.
DS: Yeah, no and it’s great. You kind of remind me, with your opening monologue, your storytelling, you kind of remind me of that guy, Marc Maron. Do you know him?
BL: Yeah, yeah. No, I love his show.
DS: Yeah, he does that too. Like he does…it’s a great show.
BL: It’s like audio…I feel like it’s audio blogging. That’s how I always describe it. But like I feel like you know if you want to build an audience, you sort of have to let people know who you are, you know? And I’m a writer, so I just have to kind of…
[1:14:31] DS: Yeah, well you’re good at it! You’re a good storyteller and it’s fun because, you know, it’s different from the usual thing. Yeah so. And I think his podcast has done really well for comedians, you know.
BL: Yeah, yeah well hopefully this show can, you know, have a fraction of that success, you know, in terms of reaching people. But I have just, I have so enjoyed talking to you and I, you know, I wish you all the best going forward.
DS: Thank you.
[1:14:57] BL: And the book is called Stone Arabia. Thank you so much, Dana
DS: Thanks, Brad. Thanks for having me. Bye-bye.
* * *
[1:15:03] BL: All right everybody, there you have it. That’s Dana Spiotta. The book, once again, is called Stone Arabia. It’s available right now in hardcover from Scribner and you can find Dana online at danaspiotta.com. Spiotta is spelled S-P-I-O-T-T-A. She also has a Facebook presence, if you want to Facebook her.
[1:15:21] This show has a website. It’s called otherpeoplepod.com. It has a Twitter feed, @otherpeoplepod. I have a Twitter feed @bradlisti. The show has a Facebook page, if you want to Facebook the show. And if you want to email me directly and tell me a story or file a complaint, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
[1:15:40] So, closing thoughts. Final thoughts. Quickly, magic boogers, my brain. What was going through my brain back in the day? When I was twenty. You know it’s funny, I look back at myself at that time and it’s impossible not to see an innocent. You know, which is to say, it’s impossible not to see a sort of fool, you know. But I think a likeable fool. Hopefully a likeable fool. And what’s funny, and sort of tragic at the same time, is the fact that I thought I was worldly, you know as a lot of twenty-year-olds tend to think of themselves. And of course I didn’t know much of anything and what’s funny is that, I thought it was gonna work. [laughs] I thought, I’m gonna get out of college and I’m gonna ride this fantastical story of magical head colds and talking boogers right to the top. It’s gonna happen. And, you know, looking back on it, it’s sort of heartbreaking, not that it didn’t work, but the fact that I was so convinced that it would. You know, it just sort of, it tugs at me.
[1:16:37] So, you know, I think the premise of the whole thing is good. I still believe that a boy with a magical head cold could get children excited all over the world. But the execution is the key, and back then, you know, the writing wasn’t so good. I think that’s true. So maybe at some point I’ll go back in and I’ll tinker with it. I still have it somewhere, lying around. And, you know, I remember I used to dream about merchandising. I actually thought of that stuff. I’m always way ahead of myself. Especially back in the day. I was thinking about like little Magnificent Goo dolls and how they would be a huge hit with kids. And I was thinking of like the little Roy doll that would shoot creatures out of its nose. So, yeah. You can think I’m crazy all you want, folks. I think I’m misunderstood. I will choose to believe that.
[1:17:22] Happy New Year to you. Happy New Year everybody. Uh, what’s my resolution? I do have one. I really do have a resolution for this year. I made one but I’m not gonna talk about it. I’m not going public with it. I’m superstitious. I don’t want to make a resolution and then mess with the cosmos by talking about it and then have it be thwarted. I don’t want it to be thwarted. I want to avoid thwarting at all costs. And so that’s the key in 2012, right there. Whatever you do, do not be thwarted.