Dana Spiotta, Author of Innocents and Others, on Film, Clarity & What We Find Beautiful
The seductive promises of the telephone, the possibilities of films imagined, but not yet made, the way a rough demo of a song extends the relationship between musician and fan from fling to full-blown love affair — these are just some of the obsessions that preoccupy Dana Spiotta’s characters, firmly situating her novels in art and the everyday. Innocents and Others, Spiotta’s recently published fourth novel, is about the possibilities of narrative, and the impossibility of controlling the reception of any narrative, whether they are the stories you tell about yourself or others. Spiotta and I conducted this interview through e-mail over the course of a few weeks.
Kavanagh: The first section of Innocents and Others is an essay by one of your protagonists, Meadow Mori, titled “How I Began,” published in a journal Women and Film. With this I was forced to recognize several things. One, a journal titled Men and Film would sound absurdly general, but the fact that there are still so few women directors necessitates a niche journal. Two, the world depicted in the essay is several decades earlier than the world in which the essay is published, the contrast of which is highlighted by the mention of unpublished love letters (written by hand) and the Internet comments you included at the conclusion of Meadow’s essay. Three, the Internet comments planted doubts about Meadow Mori’s reliability as a narrator, even of her own life, which shifted how I read the book — and made clear that unreliability of narrative and its unintended outcomes are central themes of the book itself. So, why begin here? We might guess why Meadow Mori begins here, but why Dana Spiotta?
Spiotta: Writing the novel’s opening was pretty intuitive. I had this voice in my head that came alive as I wrote. I discovered that Meadow was looking back on her beginning for a reason. And that was interesting to me. As for her imaginary affair with Orson Welles — he came into my head along with her. Which made sense because he was a magician, a self-storyteller, and a hugely iconic American filmmaker. If you are going to have an imaginary affair, why not pick the biggest person in every sense of the word? So magic tricks and seduction and passion were all there right from the first sentence.
Kavanagh: Carrie thinks at one point, “…no camera or lens she had ever used was very good at capturing the simultaneous long and short view. Nothing like her eyes.” She’s frustrated with the limitations of her specific artistic medium, film. By writing about music, and film, are you expressing frustration with your chosen medium, prose? Either way, why are you so drawn to other art forms in your writing? What are the limitations of prose?
I love recursive syntax. Repetition of words separated by many pages. I love space breaks, prefaces, codas, lists and set pieces.
Spiotta: On the contrary, I love the sentence and love the novel as a form. There are so many possibilities for creating meaning and resonance. I love paragraphs and chapter headings. I love written dialogue. I love recursive syntax. Repetition of words separated by many pages. I love space breaks, prefaces, codas, lists and set pieces. I love how you can construct a whole world, a real three dimensional shape, out of only language on the page. The limitations of prose are the constraints that make it exciting to me.
Kavanagh: In your last two novels you wrote about a musician and filmmakers. As I read both books I wondered — is their art good? Is the art meant to be good? Does is matter?
Spiotta: In the world of each of the books, that is certainly one of the questions raised. But each book is different. In Stone Arabia, we only see Nik from his sister’s very subjective point of view, but she thinks he’s good. He is devoted, so the work is at least interesting. In Innocents and Others, both filmmakers receive acclaim in the world of the novel. But the book doesn’t dwell on the acclaim too much. It is more interested in the making of the films. What is good does matter, but it isn’t conclusive, the reader has to decide for herself, just as the characters do. At one point Meadow thinks Carrie’s film is not good, but she also concedes that her view is not quite fair. She admits to herself that on a different day or maybe at a different time in her life she might have found the film to be a perfect, playful comedy. The novel tries to ask some questions about what we find beautiful and why.
Kavanagh: There are two strands in Innocents and Others — the story of two filmmakers, Meadow and Carrie, and a woman named Jelly. Which strand came to you first, and how or why did you decide they needed to be braided together?
Spiotta: They came together, right from the start. And I wrote them in the order you read them in the book, so they were always very integrated for me. Writing in this way means that there are a lot of organic connections between the strands long before their narratives meet. I would say that there is a third “Carrie” strand too. We get a number of chapters from her point of view.
Kavanagh: Meadow’s personal essay is an example of the ways in which your characters self-mythologize or read the myths of musicians and other artists for clues beyond what the actual art provides. I’m also thinking of Nik Kranis in Stone Arabia (a musician with a tiny cult following who self-mythologizes because if he doesn’t write his own myth, who will?) and Jason in Eat the Document, who obsesses over The Beach Boys, and the unreleased Bob Dylan film, “Eat the Document.” What do artist’s myths tell us about artists?
Spiotta: Interesting question. You get Nik exactly — he creates a counter-identity through his self-myth making. And you could argue his persona is his art form. Meadow is certainly creating an origin story for herself, and I think it tells us something about what older Meadow sees as her own loss of innocence. Her love for films and filmmaking, at the beginning, was urgent and whole hearted — a love story. As a writer, I am drawn to passion. Extremes.
Kavanagh: As I did research for this interview I read an interview you did with Liza Johnson, who made the film, “Good Sister/ Bad Sister,” about political fugitive Katherine Ann Power (which your Eat the Document protagonist is loosely based on), her psychotherapist, and the psychotherapist’s daughter, Courtney Love. I decided I needed to watch that film to do this interview (others might call this impulse procrastination) but I couldn’t find it online, and the closest library copy was more than 100 miles from my home. I had to give up on watching the film, but it made me wonder what role research has in your writing. How much research do you do?
Spiotta: I always do a lot of research, and maybe some of that is procrastination. I also enjoy it — I like to learn about things and study them. I don’t just read or watch things. I try things out, like an actor. I overdo, and I would say 80% never makes it into the novel. I have an austere prose style, and I like concentrated forms, but I have a kind of maximalist impulse. It is a weird tension.
Kavanagh: When do you know to stop?
Spiotta: I don’t know when to stop. I am still doing research for all my previous novels. Seriously. It is like an affliction.
Kavanagh: What was your most serendipitous research moment?
I am pretty ruthless about leaving things out that aren’t essential.
Spiotta: I was in Gloversville, NY, where part of the story takes place, because I found it mysterious and wanted to write about it. I discovered the Glove Theater, owned by the Schine family. The Schine family had a movie theater empire during the heyday of Hollywood, and it was based in Gloversville. I also discovered that Sam Goldwyn, the famous producer, worked in Gloversville for a while. So there were these strange cinema connections. But those facts didn’t make it into the book! Only the beautiful ruin of a theater. I am pretty ruthless about leaving things out that aren’t essential.
Kavanagh: In Innocents and Others it’s the telephone and film cameras, in Eat the Document it’s vinyl records, in Stone Arabia it’s DIY zines. What, besides nostalgia, is so seductive about analog technology/forms?
…we are estranged from outdated things, so we can see them more clearly.
Spiotta: The recent past and its slightly outdated technology fascinates [should be “fascinate,” technically] me. For one thing, we are estranged from outdated things, so we can see them more clearly. The sound, look, and feel of these machines when you use them shapes how you experience the world. Like Meadow, I am drawn to discarded and obsolete things (and places). Maybe it is an off-kilter way to address the present. But while Jason and Nik have a kind of nostalgia for the analog, Meadow’s interest in early film devices is more about exploring (devouring) the history of filmmaking so she can make her own inventive films. She “steals” from all of the filmmakers she admires, and partly through her remixing of these past innovations, she creates her unique vision. How does this person move from watching films to making her own? Her camera becomes a way to connect with and to distance herself from her subjects, which creates conflicts for her.
Kavanagh: Innocents and Others is about the art women create, and the lives they live while creating it. Whether it’s Meadow and her experiments in upstate New York, or Carrie and the tension between her commercial success and the everyday disappointments in her romantic life, and even Jelly and her performance art as the telephone seductress, you manage to ground their lives in their art. In a recent review Meadow was described as a cold “narcissistic artist, adept at using others,” her character arc as chilling, and the reviewer even goes as far as describing Meadow’s treatment of her boyfriends as cavalier. On the surface this struck me as an accurate, if negative, description of Meadow, but one that isn’t balanced by Meadow’s self-doubt, and her attempt to reconcile the life she lived in pursuit of her art. Criticizing a character strikes me as an odd and uncharitable measure of a novel, reminiscent of the Internet comments we read at the end of Meadow’s personal essay, where her character is objected to and called into question. Why do you think Meadow provokes this reaction in imaginary (your novel’s Internet commenters) and real people? Would Meadow’s character receive this criticism if she was a man? Did you anticipate this reaction?
Spiotta: Since my first novel, some readers have complained that my characters are unlikeable or unsympathetic. (In fact, I was asked to serve on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival a few years ago called Enduring Unlikable Women. I wasn’t sure if the title referred to me or my characters. In any case, it was an interesting discussion.) I strive to make my characters interesting and very specific humans, to make them complex and provocative, so I am not surprised when I get a strong response to them. Meadow is a smart, devoted, difficult, and ambitious person. She is what the writer Jenny Offill refers to as an Art Monster in her novel The Department of Speculation. Meadow’s single-mindedness makes her an interesting artist, but it also causes a lot of damage to her and to the people around her. As the book progresses, as she gets older, her awareness of her own mistakes starts to undo her. She worries that she is a bad person, and she tries to have more humility. (Does she succeed? That’s up to the reader to decide. I think the fact that she tries means something about her.) I am fascinated by self-reckonings, by the moments when a person sees herself with startling clarity. And the even more unnerving realization that having that clarity often doesn’t change anything. Middle age is all about learning humility, and I don’t think that is a bad thing. I think it is the essence of wisdom.
Kavanagh: It’s interesting you mention Jenny Offill’s novel, because her novel’s protagonist, the would-be “Art Monster,” was similarly described as narcissistic by a reviewer. (I thought she was funny and relatable!) And you said earlier, about Meadow, “Her camera becomes a way to connect with and to distance herself from her subjects, which creates conflicts for her.” This is clearly necessary for this particular artist, but she eventually pays the price for this distance. I wonder, then, is it possible to be an artist without being perceived as narcissistic? How does an artist like Meadow achieve the humility of middle age without giving up her art? Maybe you can’t answer this, but this is the question I’m left with at the end of Innocents and Others.
Ideally the artistic impulse is to see beyond yourself. It should be an act of generosity and the opposite of narcissism.
Spiotta: I think Jenny Offill’s novel is masterful — the way she uses her wit to disarm you so that the intense (and genuine) emotion she has been building really surprises you. You ask a good question, and one that deliberately is left unresolved. Ideally the artistic impulse is to see beyond yourself. It should be an act of generosity and the opposite of narcissism. Meadow has a reverie at the end of the book in which she starts to imagine a sublime film. It’s a pure glimpse of possibility. It is wild and grand, but then she comes to “something quieter and simpler — a person with an open face…How plain could an image be, how humble?” I think you can take that to mean that she will start making things again. Less carelessly, perhaps. And falling short the way we all do. Maybe it is related to what we see last in the book, Sarah getting on her knees, every day, quietly making herself see what is to be seen. That’s one way to understand the end.