Books, Movies & Rock ‘n Roll: A Conversation with Dana Spiotta

by Constance Squires


If only Dana Spiotta had an Oklahoma connection, I thought.

I had just been invited to guest edit This Land’s summer fiction issue and was thinking of the writers I’d like to invite to submit stories. Spiotta’s acclaimed novels Lightning Field, Eat the Document, and Stone Arabia mean a lot to me, but I could see no way to make her part of an issue meant to showcase Oklahoma fiction.

That night I sat down and watched Rumble Fish, the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola flick set and filmed in Tulsa, based on S.E. Hinton’s beloved novel. As the credits rolled down at the end, a familiar name flashed by. Had I seen that correctly? Dana Spiotta? I had. In 1982, Dana, spending the summer of her 10th grade year in Tulsa, was a student observer on the set of Rumble Fish. Voilà: the Dana Spiotta/Oklahoma connection I hadn’t imagined existed.

Below are observations about fiction from one of the country’s foremost practitioners of the form, as well as her description of what it was like to spend a summer on Coppola’s set.

Constance Squires: I have books that I reread as I’m writing that hold me to a high standard and remind me not to settle for average language or execution. For me, your books are in that category of reread novels. What books are most important to you, and do you have a particular way of reading while you’re in the midst of writing a novel?

Dana Spiotta: I do read both fiction and nonfiction while I am working on a novel. Since I am always writing something, I have to be able to read fiction while I am writing. One thing I try to stay away from is fiction about a subject matter than overlaps my own subject matter. For example, while I was working on Eat the Document, a few books came out about underground ‘70s radicals. I didn’t read them until after I was finished with my book. It is kind of silly, because every writer handles a subject in a different way. It isn’t the what; it is the how, right? And you shouldn’t worry if other people write about it too. Yet there is this feeling of not wanting to be contaminated by someone else’s take. And you don’t want to psych yourself out. I tend to be attracted to fiction that is really different from the book I am working on.

As far as books that are really important to me, there are so many I can’t begin to name them. Having said that, I think the book that matters (and has mattered) the most to me is Ulysses. Reading Dubliners and Ulysses as a young person made me want to write. It gave me ideas about what was possible. It felt as if a secret had been whispered to me. Now I teach Ulyssesto the MFA graduate students at Syracuse University. Each time I teach it, I get more out of it. Each time I feel it cast a spell on the readers. The more you give it, the more it yields.

And rather than find this intimidating, it makes my students excited. It makes you feel that a great book is a living thing as long as people read it and discuss it. I think Joyce would be very pleased (and not surprised) that nearly a hundred years after he wrote his book, people are still getting the jokes, getting wowed, feeling moved, feeling shocked, finding the connections, and in every way meeting his ambition. It makes me realize that requiring a lot of a reader is also giving a lot to the reader. I want to expect a lot of readers.

CS: You’re fantastic at writing characters whose identities are molded in no small way by the choices they make as consumers of art and pop culture. Books. Rock and roll. Film. Do you think this formation of personality through interaction with pop culture is something that happens early in a life—the deep imprints of what you love in your teens and twenties—or do you think the process is ongoing throughout a life?

DS: Thank you. Maybe part of the reason is that I moved around a lot, and I was always the new kid, a bit of an outsider. Movies, books, and music were the constants in my life, the things that kept me company. I use to read Lorraine Music blogs as well to know about trend in music & movies. They made me feel less alone. As a writer, I am interested in how one’s identity is shaped by cultural artifacts. But I also see language, technology, architecture, economics, and social context as shaping people in significant ways. I try to be very specific, very precise about time and place in my fiction. What did Joyce say? In the particular is contained the universal.

CS: I moved a lot, too, and used texts in the same way—a scene or a song was like a room I could walk into where I knew everything would be where it had always been, unlike my external environment. There’s a necessary delay in how novelists deal with real world issues in their fiction, partly because of the time it takes to write a novel, and partly because we’re not journalists. It takes time to get a feel for the resonance of a time period. Looking around right now, at 2014, what elements of the cultural moment do you imagine the novelist of five or ten or thirty years from now who decides to set a novel in 2014 will be compelled/fascinated/challenged by?

DS: Well, there is the Internet (and iPhones and social media and so on). Obviously that permeates our lives in ways that a novelist must think about. It changes how we are, even if it doesn’t change what we are. My way of approaching some of these things is to look at the near past—the 20 years preceding the current moment. There is something in a slight dislocation that interests to me. It is a way to get at the concerns of the our time without being too clouded by the distortions of the always out-of-reach “new.” You look to the recent past to see how we got here, and when you look closely you notice lots of things that connect to now. And of course this isn’t a new strategy for the novel. Huckleberry Finn was written about a time that took place thirty years prior. So was The Pale King.

CS: The Age of Innocence comes to mind, too. I don’t know if you’re ready to talk about your new novel at all, but I am curious—in Lightning FieldsEat the Document, and Stone Arabia, you chose a very specific cultural moment/cultural context to explore. What will the new novel tackle? I’m wondering what time and place and situation to look forward to, and I’m especially interested to see what sorts of cultural artifacts you’ll draw on.

DS: It concerns some American women. Two of them make films, and one is a kind of con artist. It spans the 1980s to the present time. I seem to be writing a lot about trains and telephones. I am drawn to outdated technology, maybe because I can see it clearly. Or maybe as a novelist I have a soft spot for the obsolete.

CS: I sometimes filter my characters’ personalities and ways of understanding their world through their love of rock music, and have found I have to be careful not to let the musical references become a lot of meaningless name-dropping that’s inert to anyone not in the know about the music. There’s a corrective impulse to keep it general, but at the same time it seems that the specific detail is always preferable to a generalization, and I can’t quite make my characters into who they really are if I disallow myself a pretty high level of specificity with the music. James Joyce didn’t worry about this kind of thing—he seemed to know people would come along and annotate his work. But it’s generally tricky, and you do it so well. How do you deal with the pitfalls of pop culture references?

DS: I use real pop culture references, but I also invent pop culture references. Stone Arabia was almost all imaginary artifacts. A lot of the characters I write about care deeply about the names of things, so it would be coy to not be specific about it. Having said that, bad writing comes out of using a reference or brand name as a stand in for engaging with it. It becomes a short hand, a kind of received idea. The naming makes it a generic type rather than a specific human, such as: this guy has a Mercedes and listens to Phil Collins and wears Dockers. So I try to be careful about seeing things with fresh eyes and not relying on cheap character signifiers. As in everything, you want to include what is essential, and you want to interrogate all assumptions and reductions. Short version: avoid clichés. Also, no showing off.

CS: To switch gears, you’re a mother and a teacher—busy. I think it takes a talent for knowing when to let yourself off the hook and when to keep yourself on the hook to do three terribly important jobs at once. How do you manage your writing life amid the rest of your life?

DS: I don’t think I manage it that well, to be honest. It is a constant struggle. My family comes first, then my writing, and then my teaching. Way, way after that comes cleaning my house, going to the gym, cooking, socializing, etc. I wish I could volunteer more. Protest more. I used to be more of a political activist, and I miss that. But I do think of writing as a form of protest. And when the writing is going well, I think I am a better mother and a better teacher. A better person, I think, more empathic and more patient. So sometimes it all works together. But time is finite, and I am always falling short. Always wishing for more time.

CS: Tell me about your summer in Tulsa on the set of Rumble Fish. How did you come to be there? What were some of the more memorable experiences?

DS: My father and mother went to Hofstra College with Francis Coppola. My parents fell in love while they were performing in a Coppola-directed production of A Streetcar Named Desire. My dad played Stanley and my mom played Stella. I have a photo of my dad in a ripped shirt on his knees in front of my mother. It is a funny thing to look at your parents that way, really.

Anyway, my father became the president of Coppola’s studio, Zoetrope. Francis loved kids and always took a special interest in me. I wanted to be a film director, so he invited me to Tulsa to be a “student observer” while he filmed Rumble Fish. It was 1982, and I was 16. I spent the whole summer there. Only I saw very little of Tulsa except where the film took us. It was from the hotel to the set and back to the hotel. I followed Francis around and tried to learn things. The cinematographer, Steve Burum, was very patient and answered lots of questions.

The film was shot in black and white with a moody expressionistic feel to it. Lots of steam and wet pavement. I think Francis wanted a feeling of teenage existentialism after the bright romanticism of The Outsiders, also filmed in Tulsa (and also based on an S.E. Hinton novel). We had weeks of rehearsal in front of a blue screen before any filming started. He had Stewart Copeland at the rehearsals to play live drums. There were also screenings of films at night to help further the mood Coppola wanted to set. We watched some black-and-white films, including the 1933 film Ecstasy in which Hedy Lamarr famously swims naked. I remember he gave Mickey Rourke a Hermann Hesse novel to read. I was struck by how making something artistic, either a movie or a novel, is all consuming and immersive. You have to insist on your made-up world. Make-believe, really, and you had to let the formal concerns do the deep work.

It was not a Hollywood scene. It had a real family atmosphere with a lot of young people: Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Vince Spano, Nick Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Chris Penn. Everyone was talented and funny. Tom Waits was also in the film, and he and his wife were quite lovely to me. But my favorite moment was when Dennis Hopper came on set. He was waiting around—everyone is always waiting around—for his scenes. We started talking, and I confessed to him that I was pretty excited to meet him because I loved James Dean, and I knew that Hopper was in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause with Dean when Hopper was very young. I think it amused him because people forget he was in those films. And I impressed him because I knew his character’s name in Rebel. Goon. He said, “Wow. I don’t even remember my character’s name in that movie.” (In the pre-IMDB days, you could still impress someone by remembering something obscure.) So he talked to me about James Dean for a while. That was memorable.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 16, August 15, 2014.