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Stories

The mysteries of the West, meeting with Data Spiotta

Don DeLillo says that in literary terms, the twenty-first century starts with it. Some present it as the heiress of the legendary Joan Didion. Others say she has, in four books, reinvented the American novel. And yet, his name remains confidential. Who is Dana Spiotta? Why are his novels so precious? And why is she so discreet? Meet at her house, in snowy weather.

Published on 01.12.2019

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She lives in a writer’s house fantasy in the city of Syracuse, not far from the Canadian border. Continuing in this direction, she mime with a gesture of the arm to the left, the neighborhood becomes really easy. On the other side, you will find immigrants. And even further, an African-American community “quite poor and entrenched”. But here, she notes, looking out, where the snow threatens to fall at any moment, it’s still “America 50s”: large houses stretching three or four floors, proudly displaying woodwork verandas, cars perfectly parked in the driveway and old trees that we believe would come with their squirrels. The interior is to match. There is a large fireplace on the ground floor for long winter evenings; at the top, an office to write and work. Books and magazines are piling up, and it’s hard to find a free spot on the walls, where overlapping, taped or pinned, family photos, old political posters or the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog, the mythical publication of the counter-cultural America of the 70s. Not so long ago, the place was also crowded with a collection of “princess phones”, as they were once called these elongated phones that one wedged between the shoulder and the ear, prelude to whole nights spent delivering and gathering confidences while playing with the spiral cord of the handset.

“ Talking on the phone is a much better way to communicate than to send messages.”

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This is not fetishism: the old phones, their sensuality, the physical relationship that we had with them, the power they gave us, are at the heart of Innocents & Others, the new book by Dana Spiotta. For this novel, the American writer was inspired by the incredible story of Miranda Grosvenor, the name of this mysterious young woman who managed, during the 70s and 80s, to enter the life of eminent members of the show business -Billy Joel, Robert De Niro, Richard Gere, Quincy Jones … – without ever doing anything other than dialing their phone number, and talking to them. None of them had met her beforehand. But none of them hung up. All fell under his spell. All begged her to call back. All began to wait for his phone calls as dating. Everyone was dying to see her. Some even thought of leaving their lives and starting a new one with her. She told them mysterious and seductive stories. She told them she was young, rich, beautiful. In fact, Miranda Grosvenor’s name was Whitney Walton and she was working as a social worker in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She died in 2016, alone and far from Hollywood, years after her subterfuge was exposed by an article from Vanity Fair and her fans were heartbroken.

How did she choose her correspondents? How did she manage to hang them? Was his role playing a criminal sham? Was she guilty of manipulation? Harassment? Was it just an innocent comedy? Or a kind of artistic performance? These are some of the questions raised by Les Innocents & Les Autres, in which Miranda Grosvenor is disguised as a fictional character named Jelly. The author herself is no stranger to the subject. When she was 19 years old and at university, at a time when number recognition did not exist, the phones gave anyone the opportunity to enter your life without knocking, Dana Spiotta, one night was awakened by a curious phone call. “It was a man on the phone, and the discussion was immediately intimate, as if he knew me,” she says. Except that I did not know this person. Because I was asleep, it took me a while to do it. And then, I felt so … violated in my intimacy, even though he had not said anything vulgar – he just woke me up and he was talking to a girl. And at the same time, I did not want to admit it, but it was a little sexy. “Today, Dana Spiotta does just like everyone else: she picks up as little as possible. “I hate that,” she said. I prefer to send text messages or emails. Talking on the phone is a much better way to communicate than to send messages. It’s more private, it’s an immediate interaction. But maybe that’s exactly what we’re wary of now. “

Chapter 1

From Francis Ford Coppola to grunge years

Dana Spiotta is a strange case. Few people read his books (Lightning Field, Eat the Document, Stone Arabia and now Innocents & Others), but his fan club is arguably the most prestigious in the world. There is Lena Dunham, who claims to be able to stop everything when a new Spiotta novel comes out. There is Thurston Moore, the legend of Sonic Youth. There is Rachel Kushner, the other great writer of her generation, whose latest novel, The Mars Club, won the Medici Foreign Prize. And there is, at the top, the godfather Don DeLillo. Sign that does not deceive, the author of Cosmopolis and Outremonde agrees to get out of his usual muteness to evoke the one that is often presented as his “heiress”. He does this by faxing a machine-typed document entitled “About Dana Spiotta”. First sentence: “When I read Lightning Field, his first book, I asked myself the question that I always ask myself: is it a serious job?” Back to the line and second sentence: “Lightning Field is a serious, funny and contemporary work. In literary terms, the twenty-first century begins here: “That is to say? Everyone praises the way the writer manages to demonstrate how our intimate lives are defined by the technological, sociological and economic developments of our time. “Dana is one of the few authors today who manages to go beyond her personal case to talk about the mechanics of the world – politics, culture, history,” summarizes Rachel Kushner. And she does it so precisely, so smart, so virtuous, that her latest novel would almost want to create a section “Literature”, simply for the pleasure of writing such a silly phrase as “book of the year”. But let us remember.

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Some biographical references, instead: Dana Spiotta was born in 1966 in New Jersey, before moving to Los Angeles, then living in New York, Seattle, New York and finally Syracuse, which makes her say that she is “everywhere”. His father, who was in class with Francis Ford Coppola, took a time heading for Zoetrope, the movie studios created by the director of Apocalypse Now. Then something went wrong, the cinema “destroyed” her family and in adolescence, Dana Spiotta, suddenly poor and declassed, decided that she preferred to become Joan Didion rather than Sofia Coppola. “When I was little, I wrote a lot of little scripts and wanted to become a filmmaker, but discovering the film industry disgusted me,” she says. I realized that I did not want to have to ask people for money to do my stuff. I just wanted to do my thing. When you write a book, you do not have to wait for someone to say yes.

“And above all, I like the pictures,
but I like the sentences even more.”

The entry into the literary world will be done – what else? – through the phone. In the 90s, Spiotta, who is a student and lives in a squat in the bohemian-depressive Seattle of the grunge years, calls with a friend at the number listed on the back of the literary magazine The Quarterly. A few weeks later, here they are in New York. Gordon Lish, the head of the magazine, Raymond Carver’s legendary publisher, hired the two young women. Part of the compensation is to be able to take a free course at Lish. In this new world filled with students, writers and intellectuals bursting with talent and confidence, Dana Spiotta sees herself as “the little news, naive, who did not speak much, but absorbed enormously”. Like so many other pale and literary young people around the world, she works for a living in bars and restaurants. But unlike the usual practice, it does not perish at all on the “great novel” it is completing. “It was just my private project,” she says. She says “private”, but it sounds like “secret”. Moreover, she soon uses the word: “At the time, nobody knew that I was writing. It was very important that it be secret.”

Chapter 2

Lost in "this world of likes"

Years later, here’s where we are: Dana Spiotta’s friend has returned to Seattle, where she now works for Amazon, the giant who turned the old alternative city into a start-up paradise; Spiotta dropped out of the restaurant, lives with her pen and runs a well-known writing studio at Syracuse University. The turning point dates from the publication of Eat the Document, his second novel, in 2006. “The New York Times then wrote an article about me saying that I was a waitress, and then people started to talk to me. to say, ‘Oh, we’ve seen the New York Times!’ It’s a little off my cover, “she smiles. However, the secret remained one of the great reasons for his books. By secret, we must understand: the underground links that unite people to objects, works, other people. But also: everything that goes below the radar of America mainstream. Together with the adventures of Jelly / Miranda Grosvernor, The Innocents & the Others tells the story of two other women named Carrie and Meadow. The friendship they make in high school around underground cinema, the feeling of being two against the rest of the world, then the way, become filmmakers – one of comedies, the other of avant-garde documentaries – they enter into competition, disappoint themselves, move away, continue to love each other despite everything, or to pretend to love each other anyway. When reading their adventures, new questions arise: what is friendship? What is art? For what and for whom are we creating? How far is it okay to go to defend one’s convictions?

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Spiotta’s previous book, Stone Arabia, asked about the same questions, through music, this time. It staged a character, Nick, which is not forbidden to think that he represents, with the inevitable Richard Katz of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, one of the most accomplished rock musician figures in literature. He too was an old post-punk glory. But unlike Franzen’s hero, Spiotta’s had chosen to withdraw from the world. Nicked home, Nick continued to release records for anyone, while writing pastiche articles about his life and work, which he kept quietly hidden for after his death. Depending on his tastes and age, readers could think of Alex Chilton from Big Star, Jack Lee from the Nerves, Epic Soundtracks from Swell Maps, Mark Hollis from Talk Talk and Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices. In any case, he was a little right: Dana Spiotta, who spent part of his adolescence collecting rare editions of obscure groups, does not hide his love for the “cult” figures that punctuate the history of pop culture. “Today, my 15-year-old daughter loves K-pop BTS and what she wants is everyone loves her,” she says. I think this is one of the functions of the Internet, Instagram, Twitter: it is important that there are more and more fans, that the community of fans is huge. My daughter wants to be part of this world of likes. I grew up before social networks. We were much more isolated. And we wanted the opposite: the more confidential a group was, the more valuable it was. When Replacements or REM started making magazine covers, I was shot.”

The first mistake would be to take these references for curious geeks passions and their spread for a snobbish more. Because for Spiotta, who expresses himself like a train launched at high speed, forming long sentences punctuated by laughter, “what we like, what speaks to us artistically, touches what we are , to our identity. And not in a performative way, even if it’s part of it, in the sense that we pretend to love things to show off, to create an image of oneself. It’s a little different from that, it’s deeper. What moves you really has something to do with who you are, in a hidden way. You have to be very careful. And sometimes come back. The films we loved at 17, the films we loved at 27 years old. Getting back to it is a way of measuring how you have changed. The films themselves are the same. “Another mistake would be to be afraid to enter the books of the author because we are strangers to the references that mark them. According to novelist George Saunders, who brought Dana Spiotta to Syracuse University and whose last book, Lincoln to the Bardo, received in 2017 the Man Booker Prize, one of the highest American literary distinctions, the challenge is elsewhere. In fact, by focusing on these underground figures, Dana Spiotta would do nothing but write the great modern American novel. “His books focus on a few characters that seem a little strange in their obsessions, but in which I hear-as Walt Whitman said-‘America singing,'” he explains. But still? “The United States is a country that is not made of a dominant culture, but an addition of exploded cultures. The people who came to live here are the products of a multitude of different cultures. When they arrived, they gave birth to a multitude of subcultures, and this tradition has continued ever since. Dana understood this: in America, everyone creates or adheres to their own subculture, and that’s how we define ourselves. ”

(By Stéphane Regy, for the magazine Society)