A Cinema of the Mind: An Interview With Dana Spiotta

Vincent Scarpa

My experience first reading Dana Spiotta was similar to my experience first reading many of the writers I now think of as my heroes—I read one novel, and then I immediately purchased everything the writer had written and consumed the books rapaciously.

In the case of Dana Spiotta, that first novel was Eat the Document, a book that floored me on the sentence level and the story level, a rare feat. (I have a signed, well-worn copy on my bookshelf that I’d never lend out.) I immediately bought her other two novels, Stone Arabia and Lightning Field, and found them both equally remarkable and awe-inspiring. But I think that with Innocents and Others, Spiotta’s fourth novel, she has somehow managed to outdo herself—which is also to say: outdo all of us—by writing a book so inventive, so intelligent, so rich with emotion and insight.

Spiotta perhaps unwittingly gives a concise summary of what Innocents and Others is interested in at its core when a character bemoans “the failure of the actual to meet the contours of the imaginary,” a phrase and idea so loaded as to be of more than enough substance to fill a novel, for what is writing but a space to test out such curiosities, such failures of the real and the imaginary to congeal? And I can think of no one better—no one with a sharper pen nor equivalent reservoirs of empathy and curiosity—to have at the intersection of the real and the imagined, reporting back from that place—in language that will positively stun—for the reader’s edification. I was lucky enough to speak with Dana Spiotta over email the last few weeks as she’s been doing press for the release of Innocents and Others.


 Vincent Scarpa: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this novel was a relatively long time in the making, yes? I remember hearing you read from it at Tin House a few years ago and feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t buy the book then and there. Can you tell me the origin story, how Innocents and Others came to be? What was the initial spark? What was the writing process like?

 Dana Spiotta: It seems that each of my books takes four-five years to write, even if each time I imagine I will be more efficient. With Innocents and Others, I had that opening section first. I played around with it for a while before I wrote more. I had this voice, this character, this tone. And she was not telling the whole truth, but she was telling a kind of truth, a lie-truth. Initially, I imagined that Meadow would be the one that called quasi-famous men on the phone. (I was inspired in this by internet catfishing and by Miranda, an infamous 1980s phone personality). I imagined she was a filmmaker, but she did this thing in her private life with phone calls. As I wrote it, I realized that it worked better as two characters, and I wrote Jelly. I really have no idea where I am going or what shape it will be for the first year. I mean, I am trying to figure it out, but it always changes in the writing.

VS: Did you know from the outset that you were writing a polyphonic—polyformic, even— novel? What do you see as the possibilities for this kind of modality of novel writing? And furthermore, did you know that you’d wait a significant amount of time in the text to show us how these two discrete narratives connect? It isn’t until page 179 that we get that glimmer, and it’s so exciting. I found it a remarkably confident decision—it asks that the reader accept and trust the writer will satisfy a natural curiosity about how the pieces fit, but she will do it on her timeframe.

DS: I didn’t know how polyformic it would be, but my novels have been getting more and more flexible in form. When I wrote Stone Arabia, I really wanted it to be an intimate novel of two characters. I wanted the insularity of a family, the hermetic qualities. And it was that, but the characters themselves could not be rendered with simple/straight/invisible narrative alone. The constructed chronicle of Nik’s life dictated some of the different modes: obituary, letter, articles. But organizing principles emerged. Those fragments, or clips, are always seen through Denise, his sister. They don’t exist outside her consciousness engaging them. So Denise’s mind, her urgent need, drove what we would see. In Innocents and Others, I knew pretty early on that there would be imaginary films. So one technical issue was how to treat the films. I imagined they would all be treated in the same way, filtered through a character’s consciousness as she is watching the film. But as I wrote it, I discovered that each instance of a film required a rendering specific to its content and placement and purpose. So sometimes we see a film as it is being made, almost live. Another time we see it as a straight, unnarrated, uninflected transcript, like a teleplay. Another time we see it as it is edited. And a number of times we see films through a mind watching, highly inflected and shaped by memory and personal perspective. For the film at the center of the book, Inward Operator, we watch it twice: once from Carrie’s point of view and once from Jelly’s.


As for withholding the connection between Meadow/Carrie’s story and Jelly/Jack/Oz’s story, you are right, it is a long time. I knew their narratives would connect, and I knew the reader would be looking for that. But I hope it works since there are many connections between them long before those storylines cross. I wrote them in the order you see in the novel, so the juxtapositions, the language, the feelings, and the concrete details of the various threads are meant to engage, reflect, and interact before the storylines do. At some point I had this image of billiard balls that would move separately, crash into one another, and then separate again, instead of two storylines meeting and then staying entwined, which is usually how that kind of structure works. After a time, I realized why that structure worked for the story. We get the story of one of Meadow’s subjects beyond the film Meadow makes about her, but we get her whole adult life. We get her before and after her filmed moments. That seemed crucial to me, for the book not to treat her the way Meadow treats her. At the end, we get another version of that with Sarah. I am compelled by how structure makes meaning in a novel. Innocents is divided into four very unequal parts. It functions like a thread novel in places, but each strand has sub strands braided in. Sometimes we get Meadow’s point of view, sometimes Carrie’s. In Jelly’s strand, we get the ongoing present with Jack, but we also get the past with Oz interspersed for a while. In Part Three we get an essay to match the opening essay—an orienting symmetry that came to me deep into writing the book. I thought, can I really do that? Yes, why not? So much of the book is asymmetrical, so a little structural repetition helped make it cohere. In Part Four, we get quick beats that push to the end, one after the other, which I wanted to build in a way that was very different from what came before, but still made of similar stuff. An escalation.

VS: How did you come across this concept of phone-phreaking? As a person who knows almost nothing about technology, and hasn’t the faintest idea about what the fuck a phone is even doing when I’m talking on it—do we fail to think too much about how such phenomena occur, precisely because they don’t feel like phenomena anymore?—the concept feels so richly rendered here, completely believable and factual, and I felt the research behind the narrative in the very best way—I knew that some research work had to have been undertaken in order to communicate the nuances of this practice, but I never felt from you, the writer, anything like an authorial intrusiveness, a desire to demonstrate all you’d learned about the subject.

DS: I am not really interested in technical things, but I am interested in people who love and know technical things. Many years ago I had read an obituary of a man called Joybubbles. He was a blind phone phreaker who had perfect pitch. He could hack in the phone system by whistling into the phone. He had such an interesting life. (He later joined Up with People, which is a weird corporate-funded, cult-like singing organization that was too weird for fiction, honestly. I wish I could have put it in the book, but it didn’t have a reason to be in there. A fascinating documentary about the group is called Smile ‘Til It Hurts.) But Joybubbles had trouble relating to people, and he found the phone a huge comfort from an early age. I read everything I could about him, and the book Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley really explained the technical aspects of phreaking to me, as well as many stories about various phreaks. I sent the book’s phone phreak sections to a real phone phreaker (someone I met at Tin House, actually!), because I knew I was reaching into complicated stuff that I could get wrong. Mostly I rely on the knowledge of others, and I only learn what I need to inhabit the character with confidence. I like gear heads, but I am not one. My ambivalence about technology is clear, but I am no Luddite. I am fascinated by tracing the way a technology shapes us, and I like being as precise as I can about that. The experience of it, on the body and on the mind, and how it feels to use. Having said that, I do collect old crap, like old phones. Heavy Bakelite ones from the 40s, plastic Trimline ones from the 70s, new wave sleek phones from the 80s. I like the thinginess of technology, and if it is obsolete, I have even more feeling for it. I went to the Lumiere museum in Lyon, France. They have a huge collection of old movie cameras, movie projectors, and movie machines. So beautiful! Some of the machines they let you touch. And the body mixing with the machine tells you so much about who we used to be and what mattered to us.  

VS: In many ways, I think of Innocents and Others as a novel of the senses, and the language you use to subvert and complicate the reader’s senses—our understanding of our senses— is astonishing: making us think of phone static as “audio wallpaper,” for example. Or, later in the novel, the narrator remarks, “It is true that the isolation of sounds on a blank screen can deceive, that anything isolated in a sense-depriving way can feel odd or wrong no matter the content. And suggesting what a sound is makes you hear the sound.” Even later, and perhaps my favorite example: “There is some weird dynamic that happens when people laugh—like a usually suppressed secret about the silliness of the world is being blurted out, and you need someone to share it with you. You need someone to hear your laughter for it to work right.” I don’t even know if there’s a question here so much as there is just a declared admiration on my behalf. I think as writers, or at least as the writer I am, I don’t have a ton of difficulty tunneling into a character’s brain and displaying, with the best language I can gather, what is to be found there, but it’s something else entirely to write the senses—it’s phenomenological in a way, because we’re reading about hearing, reading about seeing. If I were to bend this more decisively into a question, I suppose I’d ask if there were/are any writers you look to who you feel accomplish this well, who might have been instructive to you? But really, just feel free to comment on anything, or nothing—punt if you like!

Dana Spiotta Author Photo by Jessica Marx 20152

DS: This is very nice to hear, and your description of how some of the writing works on you is wonderfully gratifying. Jelly is written very on-the-body, and partly this is because she has such a paradoxical sensuality/carnality. She enjoys her senses, and yet she enjoys them through becoming almost disembodied. She has a kind of fetish for the phone, which comes out of not wanting to be seen. So a lot of that sense sensitivity was specific to her character. More generally, I think as writers we are always trying to see with our own eyes (a version of the Modernist dictum to “make it new”). We are working for truth or clarity, which means not falling back on cliché or tired ideas about the world. This happens at every level from the sentence to the ideas in the sentence to the form of the book. The challenge—to use a cliché—is to see familiar things with an estrangement that enables us to see them with precision rather than just dully “reading” them or pointing to the given idea of them. So for me, and for many writers, that means breaking things down and applying language to it. This is what Gordon Lish called “writing it out.” I work on this with my students sometimes. I have them take an action they are very familiar with, say, hitting a billiard ball with a cue stick or brushing their teeth or lighting a cigarette. I get them to break it down, write it out, and be as precise and concrete as possible. Somewhere in this exercise is something that will surprise you. A detail that cracks it all open, something you didn’t realize before trying to write it out. Another creative writing exercise I do with little kids—third graders—is called Martian Mission. The student goes outside and pretends to be from Mars. She is on a mission to record what she discovers—record exactly. But the rule (or restraint) is that she can’t use the usual names for things because she is from another world. She can’t say “car” or “tree.” She has to describe what a thing looks like, sounds like, feels like. How it moves in the world, and what purpose it has from what can be observed about it. Writing in a novel is more inflected than that, more directed by character and narrative needs. But it is a kind of noticing, nonetheless. Noticing for a purpose.

VS: Early in the novel, Jelly thinks, “But that was such a ridiculous idea, as if any human experience couldn’t be bridged. How to build the bridge? You talk about it and find the things you understand in it. The piece of your own experience in the other. That’s the bridge, she thought.” This idea struck me, during my second read, as an especially interesting thing to consider as so many bridges come to be built in the novel—bridges between people, between former and present selves, between concepts—and I wondered if you think there’s any truth in Jelly’s proposition? Is it naive and optimistic, or is there really always a possibility to make contact with one another across human experience? It was just so interesting to have it at the back of my mind—this idea of what is bridgeable or unbridgeable—as I read through again, thinking of the ways in which the intimacy between Carrie and Meadow, the foundation of their friendship, begins to erode. And for Meadow, especially, as gaps that seem to her unbridgeable begin to open up in her perception of herself as a filmmaker. The kind of agency she gets as an artist—namely, absolute power not only to design and arrange the context under which the film is shot, but then in the editing process endless possibilities of revision, rearrangement—she simply cannot get in her real life, and this seems a point of friction—unbridgeable friction—for her, even more so as her career advances. The one thing she doesn’t have as an artist—which is something she doesn’t have a person, either—is the power of arranging interpretation—of oneself, of one’s work, of one’s intentions.

DS: This is all so interesting and deep, Vincent. Better than anything I can say about it. You are noticing a lot of deep connections, and it leads me to this idea of collaboration between the reader and writer. The responsive reader does work to connect and interpret, and that act of reading animates the book. Thank you—one of the great things about studying writing is how much it makes your own reading experiences deeper. At the very least I feel that I have become a better reader as I work to become a better writer, do you know what I mean?

As for what Jelly says about what is “bridgeable” or not, I don’t know. On some level, we must as writers believe that all people are bridgeable. That we can find something in our own experiences and observations to enable us to empathize with the characters we write. To inhabit people who are not exactly like us. But of course, we also understand the limits of that, and the deep loneliness that is the human condition. These bridges are impossible in some ways. It is another version of the lie to tell the truth, maybe, that comes out of fiction. I really can’t go beyond my own experience—one must have some humility about what we imagine we can know about other people. At best it is a convincing facsimile. And yet that stretching toward other people is good and worth doing. It both enlarges and erases self, at least for a moment. And when I read good fiction, I feel a bridge to the inner lives of other people, which is consoling. As DFW so often pointed out, we read to feel less alone. I think we write to feel less alone too, which is funny because writing requires so many hours alone.

VS: There’s also some very interesting meditations throughout the novel about truth, or so-called truth. Well, about lying really—namely, people resisting the idea that what they are doing is lying. In her essay that opens the novel, Meadow says, “A lie of invention, a lie about yourself, should not be called a lie. It needs a different word. It is maybe a fabule, a kind of wish-story, something almost true, a mist of the possible where nothing was yet there. With elements both stolen and invented—which is to say, invented.” And later we get Jelly justifying her disguised identity in her phone affair with Jack by saying, “She left gaps, and Jack filled them in. The contours were collaboration, built of his desires and her invitation. She didn’t think of these as lies. He assumed things; she just didn’t correct them.” And then of course hovering over all of this—in a novel very concerned with documentation, the eye of the camera—I’m thinking about photographic and filmic theory, in which one can find many arguments that the camera itself is a liar. What were you trying to tease out about this in the novel?

DS: I think you delineate these questions very well. For me, writing fiction is about curiosity, discovery, and interrogation. What emerged organically from writing Innocents and Others was this question of a lie (or fiction) to tell the truth. As a fiction writer, it is a paradox I am familiar with. But it is a very different sort of fiction when other people don’t know it is fiction. I mean ethically. So Jelly’s fictive collaborations are only known to be fictive collaborations to her. And Meadow gets her subjects to willingly expose themselves on camera (and it seems hard to resist that kind of attention), yet she has more power than they realize. She gets to edit and shape it, of course, which is everything. So it feels real—documentary real—but it always has a point of view, as you say.

VS: There’s even more photographic/filmic theory that situates the camera and its operator as voyeurs of a certain kind, an idea I think is definitely under the microscope in the text of Innocents and Others. Meadow goes so far as to say, of documenting another, “It was a kind of ambush, no matter how consensual, no matter how willing.” Which echoes Sontag’s famous line, “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” And I had all of this hovering around me when I got to the moment when Meadow tells Deke, “Filming you is how I see you.” It sounds and feels true—it sounds and feels honest—but then again, it’s in the context of her directing Deke for a film. I think this moment embodies what you do so well—this complex layering that does not allow the reader an easy or absolute understanding. The reader is asked, is demanded, to acknowledge and hold multiplicities of meaning—and to acknowledge that the multiplicities might not be contradictory, but in fact might serve to bring us closer to the truest version of what was meant.

DS: Exactly—like many writers, when I try to be precise about something, it reveals itself to contain multiplicities. And I find that a very energetic space for fiction writing. Not that everything is a paradox or contains contradictions. But certainly a lot of human behavior has to be understood that way. The book is very concerned with seeing, both in the literal sense of seeing what is to be seen and in the figurative sense of clarity. Meadow strives to see, but she has difficulty seeing herself (and her actions) clearly. Like most of us, she is filled with life-long rationalizations, vanities, and delusions. I think what sets her apart is that she wants—and tries—to do better. To have clarity about who she is and what she does. Which paralyzes her for a time. She is humbled, and I find people are at their most human when they experience that kind of self-doubt.

VS: I’ve formed my own instinctual threads between the content of the novel and its title, but I’d be interested to hear you talk about what you perceive or intend the resonance between them to be? Kevin Brockmeier has this great line about titles where he says, “I think of the title as the target toward which I shoot the arrow of the story.” And I thought, Yes, that’s exactly what’s happening here, but not in a way I could necessarily find the words for.

DS: The title came late. The working title was Gleaners. My editor came up with “Innocents” and I added the “and Others.” Several people have asked me who are the Innocents and who are the Others in the book? And the answer is that everyone is both. Or maybe everyone is both. I have to qualify everything, and I think that is why I am attracted to the expansiveness of the novel form.

VS: Without giving anything away, I did want to ask one final question—fittingly, about the ending. I don’t think I’m spoiling it very much at all when I say that someone surprising gets the last word in the novel; it’s with the perspective of someone who isn’t Carrie, Meadow, or Jelly that we leave Innocents and Others. Was this something you always intended, or was it a surprise to you to find yourself writing it and realizing it was where the book would end? It was such a rewarding readerly moment for me. I positively loved that decision, and I think in the hands of a lesser writer it could’ve let a lot of the air out of the novel. Instead, the opposite occurs here.

DS: Thank you, and yes, I knew that was a risk. I took a lot of risks with this novel, because what is the point of doing something artistic without taking some risks? I knew as I was writing the second half that I would end with this person. I wasn’t sure why or how I could get there. As I wrote the fourth part, I gave everyone a satisfying glimpse—Meadow and Carrie, Jack and Jelly. Two beats (as I said early, the end had a strong rhythm for me as I wrote it). Then a rising/escalating beat, a slightly higher resister, in which Meadow gets this vision of a sublime film, which surprised me. Something hopeful (or hopeless) about what art can do. And that was the bridge—her sublime, almost abstract vision, which of course needs a person, a mind noticing it. This could be the subject or the artist, I think. The final beat came in this vision of one person, and it felt as if the book itself was speaking now. There is a different narrative perspective there, with flickers of omniscience. It is a confession of sorts, but it is not filmed. A private confession, a cinema of the mind. Which is really what a novel is when you think about it.


Dana Spiotta is the author of four novels: INNOCENTS AND OTHERS (2016); STONE ARABIA (2011), which was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in fiction; EAT THE DOCUMENT (2006), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a recipient of the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and LIGHTNING FIELD (2001). Spiotta was a Guggenheim Fellow, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow, and won the 2008-9 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. She lives in Syracuse with her daughter Agnes and teaches in the Syracuse University MFA program.

Vincent Scarpa is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas and managing editor of The Austin Review.