How Dana Spiotta Created the New Great American Novel

Spiotta sees potential and conflict in the rusty edges of Syracuse, the inspiration for the complicated, yet inherently good, characters in her fourth critically acclaimed fiction Innocents and Others. As a creative writing professor at SU, Spiotta continues the legacy of literary giants like George Saunders and Mary Karr who also got their breaks in Syracuse.

Words by Kait Hobson | Images by Drew Osumi

Dana Spiotta walks across the black-and-white checkered tiles of the ‘50s-era Market Diner in Northern Syracuse. She slides into a faux-leather booth with her back to the wall-to-wall mural that paints the diner’s aspirations: Marilyn Monroe bites a nail while ordering from a beaming waitress. A blue-and-orange SU football poster cheers “Go Syracuse.” A silver train bullets through a green meadow outside a painted window. As cars roar past on I-81 and waves ripple across Onondaga Lake (formerly the most polluted lake in the U.S.) the Market Diner sustains the optimism of the 1950s.

This diner, which sits at the intersection of the megamall Destiny USA, the William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center, and the CNY Regional Farmers Market, is a favorite Upstate haunt for Spiotta, 50, an award-winning author and professor in Syracuse University’s creative writing program. It manages to capture Syracuse’s potential and its long-lost, Rust Belt glory, the twin characteristics that inform the city’s identity. Spiotta revels in this tension, this duality, and recreates it in the characters she builds in her fourth novel, Innocents and Others, released March 2016. Her three previous critically acclaimed fiction works won her the National Book Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her growing reputation does not yet match writing-program colleagues George Saunders, master of short-form fiction, or Mary Karr, lighting bolt to the memoir genre. However, she has been compared to Joan Didion, Joy Williams, and her mentor, Don DeLillo.

The diner, much like the characters she creates, sits dislocated in time. Spiotta plays with time and space to force the truth out of her characters. Her recent novel tells the story of two friends, Carrie and Meadow, who grew up together in Los Angeles. Their friendship stayed strong while each woman took a different path: Carrie became a comedy queen; Meadow, a thought-provoking documentarian. While waiting to order lunch, Spiotta questions how her characters, referenced like close friends, develop by the novel’s end. But she could just as easily be talking about herself. “To have clarity is a challenge as a human being because we’re designed to keep ourselves from ourselves,” she says. “We rationalize our behavior to protect ourselves from being responsible or experiencing the consequences of what we’ve done or haven’t done. There’s a kind of moral imagination in the book about when you reach middle age. Looking at your life and wondering if you are the person you thought you were.”

Spiotta’s speaking voice lands on the ear with a deep warmth. She talks extremely fast, cupping her coffee mug. She pulls her straight brown hair away from her face, behind an ear, and then pulls it back out again. She speaks the way she writes, creating an eloquent and rhythmic tumult of words. In her latest novel, Spiotta employed outdated technology to highlight themes such as vulnerability, friendship, and love. Jelly, the subject of one of Meadow’s documentaries, telephones important Hollywood executives to seduce them, not sexually, but through the sensual act of listening. “We both want connection, and we also feel invaded by connection,” Spiotta says.

Thick, black, rimmed glasses shield her eyes, two ovals complementing her square jawline. Without her glasses, she admits, she doesn’t feel like herself. She believes she can expose more of herself if she dislocates something from her own biography. “If I’m writing about a 15-year-old boy,” Spiotta says, “I can pour a lot of my own experience in him and shape it by this imaginary work that I’m doing. In some weird way, that feels easier than trying to describe myself. I need that dislocation or that estrangement from my own experience to be very honest.” Saunders echoes that sentiment. “With Dana’s work, what a reader feels is what a master of structure she is, and the way she makes structure work to produce beautiful meaning,” he says in an email. “So an alert reader will feel her doing what all artists do: use facets of her experience to make a beautiful artistic object.”

Born in 1966 in New Jersey, Spiotta lived in seven different suburbs before her father found permanent work in California when she was in eighth grade. All of her books feature scenes in Los Angeles. “I feel like that’s home,” Spiotta says. “Actually, no. No place is really home.” She believes that a person’s environment molds their personas. “I think they’re shaped by the house they live in and so much of my writing is about the technology they use. If you take a person and put them in another time period, in another context, who they are changes.” She’s precise about dislocating her characters, using themes such as film, music, art, money, and outmoded technology to decontextualize them. Mary Karr, in a press release, said that what “Don DeLillo did for rock ‘n’ roll with Great Jones Street, Spiotta does for film with Innocents and Others.”

The waitress returns and Spiotta orders the Utica greens — every time. She calls this leafy, bread-infused comfort food an enduring symbol of a less ruinous central New York, certainly a more cultured place, than the one Spiotta currently lives in. Still though, she loves upstate New York. “I like winter. I like desolate. I like ruins, and Syracuse is so beautiful. There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of poverty and that’s the hard part about living in Syracuse,” she says.

Potential hides behind the flaws of this Rust Belt city, just like the imperfections of her characters, people who are complicated but inherently good. Defamiliarizing and dislocating her novels allows Spiotta to see beyond the assumed, clichéd ideas to expose the truth. Jolynn Parker, a former SU English professor and a book-club member with Spiotta says, “I see Innocents and Others as a book that asks its readers to think deeply about representation — both the ways they consume representations, and the way they are always implicated in the act of representation. It asks us to question the nature of ‘truth,’ and what counts as ‘real.’”

Freeing the characters from their natural settings allows the reader to see things for what they are, and more importantly, what their potential is. Saunders described Spiotta’s treatment of character and setting to New York Times Magazine: “Her gaze is very smart and witty,” Saunders says. “But doesn’t have any of that empty, snarky irony you sometimes see in writing about contemporary culture, that sense that America is rotten, past its prime, capable of nothing good. On the contrary, I think her main stance is that most difficult one: She who praises.’’

That New York Times Magazine article also credits Spiotta with creating “a new kind of great American novel.” This new great American novelist spends a considerable amount of time in diners, a beaming symbol of Americanism. Spiotta worked in restaurants to cover rent when writing her first novel Lightning Field. She and now ex-husband Clem opened a restaurant in the all-American baseball village of Cooperstown, New York. It didn’t bring in much money. “I would always make this joke that I was the only person in the world who had her writing career supporting her waitressing career,” she laughs. She became pregnant with her daughter Agnes at 37, while in the middle of writing Eat the Document. With a husband, restaurant, and baby to take care of, the stakes of being a writer grew higher, and after writing Stone Arabia in 2011, she started teaching at SU. Clem ran the restaurant in Cooperstown while Agnes and Spiotta commuted from Syracuse on the weekends. “Surprise, surprise. The marriage didn’t last,” she says, with a slightly sad smile.

She has since settled down in a new house in the north Syracuse Sedgwick neighborhood with her daughter and boyfriend. She calls no place home, but she has lived in New York State the longest. First in New York City, where she attended Columbia University, for two years, before dropping out during her sophomore year when her parents went bankrupt and their marriage “imploded.” She returned to the West Coast to study labor history and creative writing at Evergreen State College in Washington. Her boyfriend, Jonathan Dee, a visiting writer at SU, calls Innocents and Others her “best book yet.” But he also believes all of her books demonstrate her talent. “The fact she’s getting so much attention is the world catching up to the great work she’s been doing all along,” Dee says. “She’s having, or is about to have, her moment; but it’s about all four books not just this one.”

After lunch, she’s going to help a student who also resembles the state of the diner — he’s one credit hour short of graduation. “How lame is that?” Spiotta laughs. He’s the most recent recipient of Spiotta’s empathy — meeting him in the spare time she doesn’t have, due to all of her book events, to conduct an independent study so that he can graduate on time. The student, Forrest Florsheim, attended Spiotta’s book reading last week. “I was blown away,” he says. “Listening to her read was one of those moments that ends too soon.”