Dana Spiotta on Turning to James Joyce for Inspiration and the Power of Cultural Reckonings

The Author of Wayward in Conversation with Jane Ciabattari

I think of Dana Spiotta’s novels as paintings or films—figures in a landscape. A rock star wannabe brother and his complicated sister in Stone Arabia; Meadow Mori and her best friend Carrie Wexler, filmmakers raised on the fringes of Hollywood whose careers veer in different directions, in Innocents and Others. In her powerful new novel Wayward, Spiotta sets up Sam and her rebellious teenage daughter Ally, who gets her own narrative sections, against the cultural landscape of the aftermath of the 2016 election.

How does she settle on a shape? I asked Spiotta in our email exchange. “I like how Ali Smith writes about wider historical concerns, like Brexit, but does it on a hyper-local, intimate scale,” she answered.

“I have been drawn to that strategy myself for my last three books. In this novel, Trump’s election caused a national identity crisis, so it aggravates and magnifies Sam’s identity crisis. She wakes in the middle of the night because she has menopausal hot flashes, but also because it isn’t the time for sleep. Time to face what we are and what we want to be. It should keep us up at night. It should be felt in the body.”

In terms of form, she added, “once I had Sam’s voice as a character, I was drawn to hear her daughter’s voice. Sometimes in the book we get the same scenes twice, remembered by the mother and then the same scene remembered by the daughter. Then as the novel grew the city itself and its past have a time on stage, showing the reader things, even Sam’s body narrates one chapter while she is unconscious. The second half of the novel the form gets a little wilder. In my books, this tends to happen, the characters’ minds increasingly get placed in a larger, connected shape, as if the novel itself expresses a consciousness. I didn’t plan it that way, but it happened as I went deeper into it. And it feels very intuitive. Milan Kundera described it as listening to the novel as you write it. Or at least that is how I remember/misremember Kundera.”

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Jane Ciabattari: How has your past year of lockdown and upheaval been? How will this book launch compare to previous ones?

Dana Spiotta: I’m so grateful and relieved to have the vaccine. In April of 2020, I wondered if we would be in some version of lockdown forever. It doesn’t seem to be the case, and I am savoring everything I missed over the past year before it all becomes ordinary again. This past spring, I taught in-person and on Zoom at the same time. I have a lot of theories as to why Zoom is depressing. One thing that drives me insane is that awkward moment when you say goodbye and press the exit button, but you stay on for a second or two with a cringy little smile. So many awkward moments on Zoom.

As for book launch, it is strange not to be traveling for book events, which are still virtual this summer. But it is nice that people from all over can join events, and the chat can be kind of fun.

JC: This is your first novel set in Syracuse, where you’ve lived and taught. You layer Syracuse cultural history throughout. Sam is drawn to “unusual old structures,” like the abandoned AME Zion church, built 100 years ago to replace a structure dating to the 1840s, once a major stop on the Underground Railroad. What inspired you to use this setting? (And, as you point out, “Syracuse was the inspiration for the Emerald City.”)

DS: After Trump was elected, I had to revise my own thinking about American culture and what it was and has been. And a small run-down city seemed like a good way to explore those ideas. It could stand in for any small formerly prosperous American city. But to me, fiction works and has purchase on wider concerns, by anchoring itself in a very specific place, time, and people. I focused on 2017 in Syracuse and this eccentric middle-aged housewife. So much of the past of Syracuse is hidden in plain sight.

For example, the remnants of the 15th Ward, which was the thriving Black community that was torn down to build 1-81 and in the name of urban renewal. Eighty-one further segregated the city and created deep pockets of poverty. And Syracuse has a famously polluted lake and very long winters. But it is also beautiful, it has lovely parks, and with all its precipitation, the lushness of the spring here is breathtaking. Upstate New York, perhaps because of the Erie Canal, has an interesting history in the great 19th-century reform movements of abolition and women’s rights, but it also cultivated other interests: vegetarianism, temperance, spiritualism, cults, etc. I have always been fascinated by what Greil Marcus dubbed “old, weird America.” From the Burned Over district west of here, to the Shakers east of here, upstate New York has long had room for experiments in living and counterculture.

JC: You open Wayward with a house on Highland Street: “It was a run-down, abandoned Arts and Crafts cottage in a neglected, once-vibrant neighborhood in the city of Syracuse.” When did you first create this image? (Is it based on a real house?) Was it early in the writing of the novel? What drew you to this house?

DS: The house is inspired by a real house. It is about four blocks west of my house. I walk by it a lot, and I became very curious about it. It is boarded up and in terrible shape, but it is on the historic register, and the architect who built it is real too, Ward Wellington Ward. I had this idea of a woman who impulsively signs a contract to buy a house (this one last sold for 44k—many rough houses in Syracuse can be bought for cheap). The Arts and Crafts movement interested me because it was popular during Syracuse’s prosperous years, and the idealism in the movement ties into my own interest in esthetics and how architecture and urban planning shapes how you live, even who you are. I do circle back to identity, a recurring concern in all my books.

JC: Sam, your primary narrator, decides to leave her husband Matt after making an offer on the house on Highland Street. She tells her husband, “I have to leave this house. I’m sorry.” As if she were leaving the house in the suburbs instead of him. How does her impulsive choice of this house compel her to try another version of her life at midlife?

DS: Only when she drives home to her house in the suburbs does she realize she is going to leave her husband and renounce her previous life. I wrote to discover why she was blowing up her comfortable, not unhappy life. The answer is complicated. The answer led me to invent this character, Sam, who in midlife is questioning what she has done with all she has been given. On a political level, her previous blithe complacency she now understands as complicity. In her family, she feels ill-prepared for what is to come: her daughter growing up and away, her mother dying, and her own aging body. As she says, something has to change.

After Trump was elected, I had to revise my own thinking about American culture and what it was and has been.

But it starts with this particular moment when she found this particular house in this particular place. In the end, the book becomes a kind of love story about letting go of the hard grip one has on your mother and daughter and your own life and making peace with that. Maturity is maybe about realizing you can’t control everything, starting with your own body. There is liberation in not being the center of everything. Maybe she will finally have room for doing some good in the world as her ego fades.

JC: Another house is also central to the story you’re telling. Sam works three days a week at The Clara Loomis House, a historic site, once home of “an obscure compromised figure.” She has “historic-house envy,” preferring to be affiliated with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and other more heroic figures. Her actions in Victorian times give you the opportunity to question them through a contemporary lens. Is the morally ambiguous Loomis based on a real character?

DS: Loomis is imaginary. She is morally compromised, but she starts out very innocent and idealist. Late in the novel, we learn that after her sister dies in childbirth, she runs away to the Oneida Community, a very real and successful 19th-century Perfectionist Christian commune near Syracuse. They were very progressive in some ways—they practiced a kind of bible communism with no private property and complex marriage in which everyone was married to everyone. They practiced birth control and liberated sex from procreation. Very sex-positive in some ways. Women were allowed to cut their hair, wear bloomer pants, and do a variety of fulfilling jobs. But it also had very problematic ideas.

It was founded by a powerful male figure, John Humphrey Noyes. He had a creepy eugenics theory that only the most godly should procreate, and that people could be cultivated like plants for optimal spirituality. So guess who was the most godly? Noyes, of course, so you can see where some of this leads. Women could choose to say no to sex with someone, but would that be likely if Noyes asked? It spoke to me in our current cultural conversation about power, consent, and women. I wrote her as a kind of John Keene-style counter-narrative: what if we imagined what it was like to be one of Oneida’s young women? It was really interesting to make fun of her compromises in the first half of the book and then regard her more compassionately in the second half.

JC: You structure your novels often as collages of web pages, film scripts, blog posts, narrative chapters, news reports, and interviews, in keeping with whatever the latest digital innovations are. In Wayward you have a section of Syracuse archives, texts between Sam and Ally, texts, online news reports, social media, and a thread in which Sam connects after election night with a series of online groups, beginning with the Syracuse offshoot of a national movement called WWW (Women Won’t Wilt), and then to women attending open-mic comedy nights and using various new-tech devices to deal with midlife. Ally uses an etymology app based on Etymonline and all the high school screen options of 2017. How do you track the “new” elements that have entered our daily lives since 2016?

DS: In order to write about the present, or in this case, the very recent past, I had to incorporate prose versions of technology. We all engage all the time even if, like Sam, you are mostly offline. She still has a smartphone and texts. She listens to podcasts. She posts Yelp comments. The cultural moment we are in—the time since the country crossed over and Trump was elected—was and is shaped more by digital engagement than in-person engagement.

But beyond depicting tech in the novel, I like having prose replicate the mosaic, the fragments, that make up the human marks on the world. I like white space and a variety of formats. It is closer to how I experience the world. I like how John Dos Passos used newspaper headlines and how James Joyce used ads and song lyrics. The little paper flyers that appear in this novel were inspired by the “crumpled throwaway” that said Elijah is Coming in Ulysses and floats down the Liffey through the book. So against digital tech, there is really outdated tech: paper flyers, letters, a journal entry, a pamphlet, a cabinet of curiosities. They relate the past to the present in form as well as content. We are always trying to connect, trying to curate and aggregate the world.

JC: What were the challenges of writing about a historic period in “real-time?”

DS: History moves fast and things become obsolete instantly. So writing 2017 is writing a historical novel. I did the same recent-past move in Stone Arabia, and I guess I feel an affinity with things just in the rearview for some reason. I wrote the novel before the pandemic, before the George Floyd summer, before the election of 2020, and the “Big Lie” insurrection.  But a lot of where we are now comes out of the rupture of 2016, the undeniable exposure of how broken we still are as a country, which had been apparent already, but many of us were clueless and shocked at the actual election of Trump. That shock seems naïve to me now, as does the idea that it was some kind of one-off mistake. I hope that examining the experience of that time speaks to this time in an interesting way. We haven’t come out of that shabby era yet, including the influence of the hyper-aggrieved Donald Trump and his minions, but I do think the activism around police violence against Black people as well as the Me Too movement and the increasing visibility of gender nonconformity has led to profound changes from where we were after Trump was first elected.

JC: Sam seems to have a reckoning, a “coming of middle age” acceptance of the ongoing aging process in the course of the novel. Do you see facing up to mortality as one of the effects of this time we’re living in?

I like having prose replicate the mosaic, the fragments, that make up the human marks on the world.

DS: If you are at all self-aware (and not all of us are), I think facing up to mortality is one of the prime features of midlife no matter what time you live in. It is the cliché of the midlife crisis. But I think in Sam’s case, her sense of mortality is focused on the loss of her mother and daughter. She is solipsistic, wavering between self-loathing and self-pity, but she doesn’t necessarily mind that her body is aging and moving toward its end. She avoids the cliché of the midlife woman mourning the loss of beauty, which is a trope about women that I find tiresome. It is losing the people she loves that is unbearable. She wants to go back to her daughter’s childhood when everything was simpler and easier. She’d like to stop time there.

Her crisis is aggravated by her menopause, her insomnia, and her sense that America is a more brutal place than she realized.  She wonders why she is so ill prepared, and she questions if she is a good mother, a good daughter, a good citizen. She can be both funny and sad: she is judgmental about other women, overbearing to her daughter and she has serious road rage. She thinks she wants to renounce her privilege like Dorothy Day, wants to become a desert mother, a saint, but she still takes money from her husband, still sleeps with him, she still has her liberal vanities. But she is trying to see herself with clarity, trying to do better, I’ll give her that. And in the end, she ends up in a different, more humble but more mature place.

JC: What are you working on now?

DS: I am writing an environmental opera about the Newtown Creek in Greenpoint. It will be performed on boats. I am collaborating with two amazing people: a composer, Kurt Rhode, and an artist, Marie Lorenz. They came up with the idea and invited me to write it. I have no idea what I am doing, but it is exciting. Newtown Creek is another evocative ruin, so I find it compelling.

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Wayward

Wayward: A Novel is available from Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Dana Spiotta.

Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari, author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire, is a regular contributor to BBC Culture. She is a former National Book Critics Circle president (and current NBCC vice president/awards and events), and a member of the Writers Grotto. Her reviews, interviews and cultural criticism have appeared in NPR, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, Bookforum, Paris Review, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.





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