An Interview with Dana Spiotta


An Interview with Dana Spiotta


An Interview with Dana Spiotta

Liza Johnson
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Dana Spiotta’s novel Eat the Document takes self-invention to extremes. Its protagonist, Mary, is forced underground after a botched political action turns deadly, and she remakes herself in a hotel room. What do you need to scrape together an identity at the moment you’ve been forced to leave one behind? Should Mary pick a new name that sounds like a cheerleader? Should she become the kind of person who doesn’t drink coffee? How much can you remake yourself? Mary is modeled on Katherine Ann Power, a political radical who surrendered to authorities after successfully spending twenty-three years underground, while safely but unhappily reassimilating into society.

Spiotta meditates on how it feels to be underground, how it feels for Mary to become Caroline Sherman. She weaves together a present-day story line that includes Caroline’s son, the denizens of a political bookstore in Seattle, and a man who has Agent Orange-esque symptoms despite never having been in combat. In this textured novel of ideas, Spiotta asks us to rethink the bomb-throwing radicals of the ’70s as well as their very different counterparts in contemporary counterculture. She asks us to consider identity and politics and commodities, and even to wonder whether the Beach Boys were counterrevolutionary.

In the immediate post-grunge mid-’90s, I had been motivated by the media spectacle surrounding Power’s surrender to make the video Good Sister/Bad Sister, about Power, her psychotherapist, and the therapist’s daughter, Courtney Love. In 2002, Spiotta traded me a copy of her first book, Lightning Field, for a copy of my movie. We met again in March 2006, when this interview took place.

— Liza Johnson


THE BELIEVER: When I was working on a film about Katherine Ann Power in the 1990s, there was a lot of mockery on the occasion of her surrender. It was the same time that Newt Gingrich was coming to power by calling Bill Clinton a countercultural McGovernik. The press was making fun of Bobby Seale, for example, for publishing a barbecue cookbook, as if that fact is proof that radicalism was always ridiculous. The ’90s were about making that countercultural moment of the late ’60s and early ’70s less legible, and making all the radicals seem like freaky loners or bizarre oedipal rebels, and making it impossible to imagine a context in which their actions could make any sense at all. How do you make that period and context legible to the present?

DANA SPIOTTA: Getting the historical context right was extremely important to me. And I think actually it’s easier to understand the context now than it was five or ten years ago. I think the war in Iraq and the actions of the current administration have some obvious parallels to the early ’70s. It’s not hard to imagine how frustrated people felt. And to understand how it must have felt to be an anti-war protester in 1972 when Nixon got reelected. The Vietnam War had been going on for seven years, and the majority of Americans opposed it at that point. It did push some people to extremes or to consider other tactics besides peaceful protest. And socially the America of 1972 has remained unresolved. It’s all still in play-the environment, the women’s movement, and particularly the role of protest and dissent in a democracy overrun with corporate interests. I had been thinking about all of this, starting with the language and rhetoric. How ecology became the environment. How women’s liberation became feminism. That was how I began to find my way into the novel.

BLVR: People have had a lot to say about books with characters that are “terrorists.” When Power was involved with that bank robbery in the 1970s, at that time, people on the left and on the right were calling her a terrorist, but perhaps with a different valence than it would have now, and for different reasons. People who might have understood themselves as revolutionary-which admittedly might have been a misrecognition, even then-are so easy to frame as terrorists after 9/11.

DS: Of course, ’70s American extremism really has nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism. Even tactically. If you’re a suicide bomber out to kill as many people as possible, it’s a lot different than the Weather Underground setting off a bomb in an empty office building. Not to say that it isn’t incredibly dangerous and irresponsible to do these things.

Certainly it’s harder than ever to engage the idea of revolutionary violence, even if the intention is only property damage. It’s hard to make it legible. But I always think the novelist should go to the culture’s dark places and poke around. Pose a lot of hard questions. Tell me it’s forbidden, unthinkable, and that’s where I want to go. Because the chances are it’s complicated, and the complications are meaningful. One of the things I was contemplating in Eat the Document-and I wasn’t trying to come down on one side or another-is that violence, even property damage that isn’t supposed to include human damage, really does have a profound cost on the perpetrators. One of the tragic aspects is that people were drawn to act out of desperation or nažveté, people who in many cases were trying to do good and then ending up in a very different place than where they expected to be. When I was doing the book, I thought, What would it be like to think about it, years later, after the fact? And surely you must. You know, you can imagine that if Katherine Ann Power lived in a different time her life might have been different. She might have made some different decisions if things didn’t line up the way they did.


BLVR: Your first novel, Lightning Field, has a lot of things in common with your new book. In Lightning Field, Mina is constantly performing the curious action of walking in Los Angeles, anomic and slightly adrift, partially separated from the core of her personality, possibly because of the highly developed consumerist demands of Los Angeles itself. There is a comparison to be made between the protagonists of the two books-they have fragmentary and tentative relationships to themselves. But one big difference is the level of reference to external historical reality. Both books are beautiful subjective investigations of what their characters think and feel and do, the words they say, the music they listen to. Is that a different process when there is a concrete historical referent to think about, like the surrender of Katherine Ann Power?

DS: Not really. Both books are grounded in precise social contexts. That’s what I’m interested in-humans as they negotiate the cultural terms. In Lightning Field the characters are less able to find the will to resist, so that’s part of their alienation. The characters are more impotent and self-directed. They try to escape, which doesn’t do much for them. In Eat the Document they face the challenge of the culture more head-on, and that leads to other complications, other issues. So I guess I’m saying we’re screwed no matter what!

I did a lot of research for both books. For me, research is a way of meditating on things. You think you’re researching one thing, and then something else catches your eye. It’s a way of letting the subjects reveal themselves. The historical research I did is obviously more important in Eat the Document. But it wasn’t meant to be a specific person, so I didn’t feel hemmed in or constrained; it wasn’t meant to be Katherine Ann Power. I mean, it was inspired by her, but by other people too, so I felt the liberty of just going with the narrative in every direction I wanted to. Re-creating the early ’70s was a challenge. You have to be really careful about depicting the recent past because people do remember it. You want to make sure you get it right.

For Lightning Field, I studied Los Angeles. It doesn’t necessarily end up in the book but it just gets you thinking, dreaming, breathing-everything from Mike Davis to movies to L.A. fiction to spiritual or religious things like Scientology and new age stuff. I remember going into the Bodhi Tree bookstore and looking at all the titles and trying to get a sense of the language and the rhetoric. I had to walk around L.A. and notice what could be seen from specific street corners. And the architecture. So much of who you are in a place like L.A. has to do with architecture. I wanted to capture that. Also it’s fun, I love it.

I also enjoyed the research for Eat the Document. Maybe I’m a writer so I have an excuse to do research. I really like it that much. I loved looking at old magazines, old out-of-print books. Movies, documentaries. Again, it was about submerging myself, a total immersion enterprise, almost like what an actor does. I went to the Museum of Television and Radio and watched hours of old television programs with all the original ads from that era, and watched talk shows, and what the colors were like and what the furniture was like, how everyone smoked on TV-it’s the details that you’re not looking for, the odd small details, those are the ones that will make it feel authentic, I think. The real interesting thing about research is when it gets to the point where you feel the speech rhythms of the time. It isn’t so much the slang as the rhythm. I tried to read a lot of primary documents, like the underground radical papers, the second-wave feminists-not just what they say but how they say it, the various groups, the manifestos and the essays written at the time rather than reading the essays that were written thirty years later looking back-I read them to feel the language, the syntax, the diction, the rhythm. Because that’s all part of capturing the specific cultural moment. The deeper in you go, the more it yields.


BLVR: Your treatment of the different women’s communities in Eat the Document becomes quite specific, even eccentric. One great and historically resonant moment is when the lesbian feminist activist Mel is very clear to tell Mary, “Hey, get out of here, you’re violent and violence is not part of my movement.” The contests within the communities you invent are very compelling, nuanced correctives to the common, more totalizing clichés of the women’s movement.

DS: That’s well put. The totalizing clichés. Certainly it was complicated then. There were women in consciousness-raising groups, and women who were in separatist communities, and women who were in suburbia and making these small changes. There again is this whole spectrum of experience. It’s not just Gloria Steinem and that’s it. I wanted to allow things-subcultures for the most part-to be complicated. Our whole culture tends toward reductive clichés-the novelist has to try to actively undo those tendencies.

It’s the same with the back-to-the-land movement and communes. People have a very one-dimensional idea, but every group had different things going on. Some were very open and everybody could come, others really had a lot of rules. All of them working it out with their actual lives. Which you have to admire. And it’s hard for me to say that those were failures. If you can do a community for five years, three years-wow. These people learned interesting things about themselves and about how much you can really shake off versus how much is just with you no matter what. Which is, of course, one of the themes of the book. What stays with you and what doesn’t. And reinventing yourself. Which is what the people on the commune are trying to do, it’s what she’s trying to do for different reasons, because she has to. It’s a big strand in Eat the Document.

And some people also think of that era as just this “We Shall Overcome” monolith of earnestness, but look at the Yippies, the Diggers, the Whole Earth Catalog. They used humor and irony. They were playful.

BLVR: Recently I saw some footage of a bra-burning at a Miss America pageant, which has become iconic for the humorless protests of second-wave feminism. But when I watched it I realized it was totally comic.

DS: There is some legitimate criticism of some second-wave feminists being kind of humorless. On the other hand, they changed things so quickly and so dramatically. That was one of the things about my research that I found so amazing-the discovery of this prefeminist world in the details and in the everyday. It would be great if more women under forty could just realize that. The word was so different in 1965 versus 1975 as far as a woman’s experience in the culture. When I was watching TV from that period, I saw a 60 Minutes segment on the Pill. First, they referred to everyone as “ladies,” which now seems kind of creepy. But then they interviewed only men! They didn’t interview a single woman for a segment about women. The women’s movement did a lot of work in a short time. So no wonder they seemed militant and frowning. We get the benefit of that. We get to reclaim high heels and makeup without any jeopardy. Maybe. If Roe gets overturned, watch for a return of militant, frowning feminism.

BLVR: In Lightning Field, Mina, the protagonist, posits that her identity is a “collection of references.” The book spins out that idea as far as possible, and it’s very articulate at showing the ways that people use references, products, shopping, to constitute themselves. Is that part of your attraction to the figure of the underground radical, who is forced to shuffle those references and see what remains?

DS: Yes. There are a lot of similar themes in the books, but maybe approached from a different way. It’s true. Cultural context is a big issue for both books, although they are very different contexts. But what happens if you take someone out of that context? They also both have secret, compartmentalized lives. I think that’s something else that is specific to women, but I haven’t quite figured out how.


BLVR: In our generation we sometimes act like we invented this way of understanding identity through references and products, as if this stands in contrast to some more organic, lost way of imagining identity. Do you see yourself as nostalgic?

DS: I’m not nostalgic, but I do think things have gotten worse. I don’t feel sentimental about the past, but I can’t help noticing how hard it has become to keep a grip on anything. Maybe it’s the totalizing impact of corporate culture, maybe it’s the atomizing impact of technology.

BLVR: For example, in Eat the Document, Caroline’s son Jason can only understand himself through products. In his case, they are his records of the Beach Boys-beautiful vinyl, fetishistic, a special kind of product, and by collecting and owning and knowing them, he understands himself. Whereas in the ’70s, his mother was actually in a bar with the real Dennis Wilson. Are you suggesting a time when life was more direct, less mediated by products? Do you see that, a kind of historical shift in identity formation?

DS: I see it as complicated. On the one hand, Jason’s not simply consuming popular culture to his detriment. His obsession has depth, which yields things. You can make the argument that knowing something deeply is better than knowing a hundred things in a shallow way. But it’s definitely about getting the exclusive thing that’s hard to find, so it’s about the consumer aspect of the culture, too. You always want something else; a need is created, something just out of reach, of course. It’s complicated. I think there’s a lot to be learned from pop culture. But at the same time I see the dangers of using it in an exclusive way to construct meaning in your life. I mean, you do need to engage other people at some point. Which he does-he engages with his mother, or tries to.

BLVR: Not everyone works in the way you do, with a lot of research, and with stories that are also structuring ideas. Sometimes people are reluctant to talk about structuring ideas, because it’s as if that’s the opposite of the craft of writing, or somehow separate from it.

DS: My intention is not to create an essay or a polarized, polemical, didactic fight. It’s not interesting to think about the world in that way. Describing all these interlocking subjectivities through different characters, over time, in a specific cultural context is more interesting and more challenging. There are few places in our culture where anything is allowed to be complicated or complex. Most human things are full of conflict and ambivalence, not ease and simplicity. The world has grown increasingly fundamentalist, and the parameters of discussion have become narrowed. People, when they’re fearful, are vulnerable to certainty in rhetoric. The novel tries to counter that tendency, I think.

For me it’s an organic process that starts with engaging the language and then thinking about the structure of the novel as you move along. Especially in revision you start to notice correlations. Things come up, not self-consciously, because you’re busy feeling your way through sentences and trying to push the language into new places. You’re trying to create an event of language that hasn’t been worn out-it is just like how you get beyond all the philosophical clichés we were just talking about, and I think it begins by being as rigorous as you can about language. And each character. Each character requires different language, and these issues become inseparable. You have all these balls in the air: language, character, narrative. For me, the primary focus must be words, sentences, paragraphs. Out of that, you kind of trick yourself. If you directly try to write about an idea, it will never be what you imagined. But if you’re imagining through the building of sentences, through the characters, and paying attention to avoid ease and comfort yet still thinking about making the sentences work, you will get a shot at some real interesting stuff. Those are the best moments, when you say, “Wow. How did I make that connection?” But you’re just trying to make the language work, and your subconscious is being allowed to make these deeper, more profound connections. It’s much better than going at it all frontally. But you can’t conjure it in an intellectual way; it has to come out of another engagement, a more intuitive engagement. Revision is where the intellectual, analytical work happens. At least for me.

I think there’s a false division people sometimes make in describing literary novels, where there are people who write systems novels, or novels of ideas, and there are people who write about emotional things in which the movement is character driven. But no good novels are divisible in that way. There are lots of authentic, moving characters in so-called systems novels, just as there are certainly deep structural ideas in some character-driven novels. I do want to write about social/cultural/historical context, and some people aren’t interested in that. I think that’s a more interesting way of looking at that division. I’m interested in relationships, in character, but within a specific social context. Which is kind of a political thing-I admit that. But it’s what I’m interested in, and it’s how I believe human behavior is legible. Some people don’t see it that way, and they see any reference to the outside world as contaminating.

BLVR: It’s a false distinction, but an operative one.

DS: Why not go for it all? 

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