When I first started Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Stone Arabia, it called to mind Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, another exploration of rock and roll—its fascination, its inarticulate articulateness, its enigmatic pull. That’s how I was reading it for the book’s first few chapters, in which we are introduced to the story of Denise Kranis and her brother Nik Kranis, aka Nik Worth, a rock star in his own mind. Nik, a precocious artist for whom public success never has come, soldiers on stoically (or perhaps foolishly), making new music but also obsessively documenting a different, completely imaginary career in a fake archive he calls “The Chronicles.” It is one of Spiotta’s great achievements that Nik never comes across as pathetic—he is, in his way, a pure artist. But as I read Stone Arabia, it became clear that while Nik is at the center of the book, the real story is the story of the sister, Denise, Nik’s witness, interrogator, and genuine chronicler. Spiotta’s last novel, Eat The Document, was in large part about the painful tension between art and politics—the belittling effect of history, which can make art-making of any kind seem a frivolous self-indulgence. Far more than a rock-and-roll book, Stone Arabia is a meditation on what the poet Claudia Rankine describes as “solitude in the rapacious and media-driven assault on selfhood that is contemporary America.” Can we live meaningful lives without an audience? Does individualism matter anymore or has it become indistinguishable from narcissism? Art deals in nuance. To say that Stone Arabia is a ringing endorsement of the importance of art would be an exaggeration. It is a nuanced endorsement. It is a book that made me think and that ultimately broke my heart—in its portrait of Nik Worth, lost soul and true believer, it evoked for me Elliot Smith, Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, Townes Van Zandt, Alex Chilton, and even J.D. Salinger. I put it down feeling a yearning sadness that could only be assuaged by Big Star’s “The Ballad of El Goodo,” a song that seemed both an echo of and an inspiration for Spiotta’s defiant, haunting book. —Zachary Lazar
ZACHARY LAZAR: This book seems like it was fun to write at first and that the challenge then became how to make it difficult. What was your initial impulse with it? Did it change and if so, how?
DANA SPIOTTA: I thought it would be fun, and sometimes it was. Making up Nik’s chronicles was fun. I was drawn to the idea of writing about a family and keeping very close to the characters. But I found the intensity that came up hard to be inside every day. Being so close to one person’s consciousness can feel a little hermetic. I wanted it to be a closed system, distorted by subjectivity. As I was writing, the world outside the characters—the world of 2004—kept breaking in more and more. I think I am always interested in characters in a specific cultural context. The year 2004 was such a horrible year, the lowest I have ever felt about living in the US, so that was it. I started with the sister and brother, and I knew that the story would be told with their “documents.” Once I had 2004 as an organizing frame, and the idea of memory, a structure emerged.
ZL: You tell us in the author’s note that Nik’s character was inspired by your stepfather, Richard Frasca, aka John Denmar. How did you negotiate this with your stepfather? Was it difficult?
DS: It was easy. He is a remarkable person. Richard loves being the inspiration for the book. Richard has chronicled his imaginary famous life for forty years, so it seemed appropriate that his “biography” would be a novel. But Nik and Richard are finally not very similar. Nik became his own thing—some of me, some of Richard, some of my husband. What we call imaginary. Richard always understood it was a novel, and that I would make things up. I also borrowed/stole/vandalized some of Richard’s biographical details (with his permission): his age, the street he grew up on in LA, where he went to high school. When I lived in LA in the ’80s, things had already changed significantly from the time of Richard’s youth. Having him as a research source was a comfort to me. I could ask where someone would go see a movie in 1966. Where did the record stores used to be, and other details. We even took a trip to LA together to go over some of the locations I describe in the book.
ZL: Denise is written sometimes in third person, sometimes in first. I took this as a reflection of a fragmentation going on inside her that stems from her increasingly difficult relationship with Nik but also with the world outside her home—the world in particular as brought into her home via TV and the Internet. Can you talk about the switching pronouns?
DS: It all came out of formal necessity. Most of the book is her journal “counter chronicle” and in the first person. It gets interrupted by third-person descriptions of her, things that have to be outside of the journal. She quotes sections of Nik’s chronicles, which are largely in third person, because he is pretending his chronicles aren’t a journal. Then there are letters—fake and real—that are in first person, as well as video transcripts and blog entries. When Denise finishes her counter chronicle, we go back to third person. But I keep the third person very close to Denise, and we still get snatches of her interior monologue, which I put in italics. Then there is the flashback at the very end—a reverie of sorts. A vivid memory, which I wanted to feel immediate, and I felt I had to end with Denise’s consciousness. So I use first person, present tense for this little coda (which you could argue is just an extended interior monologue, but I think it is more like a direct channeling of the past). Each switch has a reason behind it, but most of it is in the first person, and even the third-person parts are never all that far from her consciousness. Denise negotiating the world through her thoughts is a big part of what the book is about, her concern with the accuracy and usefulness of language and memory. Describing it makes it sound very complicated (and most anything is complicated if you really try to describe it), but I think/hope when you read the novel it feels pretty natural, however self-conscious and weird. I struggled to find the best approach to get the effect I was after. Every novel is also about how to write a novel, isn’t it?
ZL: The book’s title, Stone Arabia, is the name of an Amish village in upstate New York. Toward the end of the book, Denise goes there to seek out someone she’s seen on TV, an Amish woman whose daughter has disappeared and is probably dead. You develop this very unlikely but I think apt parallel between the Amish and Nik and Denise. The connection has to do with isolation, I think, as well as something more complicated that has to do with the way Nik, Denise, and the Amish relate to mass media and contemporary culture. Can you talk about this a little?
DS: I thought of Stone Arabia as the place where people disappear. Denise responds to this woman because she lost her daughter, and Denise has lost her brother. I wanted Denise to break into the world, and that seemed to be the instance in which she might reasonably be able to respond. I didn’t think of the Amish as being comparable to Nik and Denise, but now that you mention it, they all live at the margins of the culture. And Denise longs to shed some of the burdens of modern life. But mostly I was thinking the missing person connects them as human beings, or at least that is what Denise blindly intuits. I wanted to make sure it didn’t actually become a reciprocal connection. It is a crucial gesture for Denise, but it is also kind of a failure. She still can’t really escape herself, but it is good that she tries. I like the name, Stone Arabia, and the actual village in Montgomery County, NY. It is an austere, beautiful place.
ZL: I remember when I read Eat The Document feeling a very strong sense of anguish coming not just from the text but from you, the writer, about the relationship between art and politics. That book seemed to have a righteous indignation about the way our culture had devolved since the 1960s. It gave no easy answers. Stone Arabia revisits some of this anguish or anger, but it also feels like a warmer book, more nostalgic, more interested in the consolations (and not just the alienations) of family. I wonder if you could talk about the difference between the last two books.
DS: I think that is right—the consolations of family, as well as the burdens of family. It feels warmer because Denise is openly emotional. In Eat the Document, Mary is, out of necessity, closed down. Almost cold. When I finished that book, Mary’s numbness had worn me out. I wanted to write someone who feels things. Denise feels everything. Denise is deranged with emotion. I felt oppressed by Mary’s distance, and as a writer I longed for something intimate and emotional and expressive. But the odd thing is that emotional intensity also became oppressive to me. I think that is what I do. Write into something that fascinates me, and then stop when I can’t take it anymore. It starts out as almost conceptual, and then it gets deeper and more discomforting as I actually write. Part of the challenge (and pleasure) in making this book came from stretching something as far as I could, not stopping until it was distorted but still hard felt.
ZL: Toward the end of the novel, Denise sees on TV the siege of a school in Beslan by Chechen terrorists and the ensuing violence and death of hundreds of hostages, many of them children. It is the last in a series of “breaking moments”—events or phenomena from the Internet or TV that, despite their remoteness, threaten Denise’s sanity. After watching this Beslan incident, she concludes: “She couldn’t do this anymore. It cost her too much.” This gets at a more or less daily battle that I have with myself about consuming the news. On the one hand, following the news seems to do nothing in any real political sense while costing me energy, time, and optimism that I need for my own little life. On the other hand, to retreat from the news seems to me solipsistic, childish, irresponsible. Denise does retreat. The book ends with her escaping into the consolation of the most indie of indie rock retreats, Nik’s tiny studio, where he has made his private masterpieces (or quasi-masterpieces). You write: “It smells of incense and pot and cigarettes. But the place is actually quite orderly and neat. Nik is not a slob. Every surface is covered, but it looks good, it all works and creates a little world.” Could you talk about the “little world”? About the difference between consolation and retreat? The private world versus the public, or political, world?
DS: Nik certainly has retreated to a “world within the world.” Has he found an escape or a form of resistance? Or both? It has to be conflicted and fraught. Denise’s memory/reverie of 1972 at the end is part of her consolation. She has her memory of her family, her childhood innocence, and her life. But the memory at the end also contains abandonment by Nik, and by her mother, so it is a mini version of what happens when they are adults. She ends up alone, in his studio. Even when we have people we love in our lives, we are truly alone. Nothing new here—this has been a subtext of pretty much every novel ever written. We have to make the most of the fleeting connections we get—family, but also art and music and words. We take comfort where we can get it. The characters in Stone Arabia are not political activists like the characters in Eat the Document. But they meet the meanness of the world and respond in their own way. I was acutely aware of how much not having money causes them to suffer, and just how inhospitable contemporary America is to people who pursue artistic endeavors. Nik is a bohemian, and he is middle aged, and we have no place for people like that. The same choices at twenty-five appear quite different at age fifty. Nik was supposed to give it up, but he didn’t. So he is kind of amazing, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a destructive narcissist. I see Nik and Denise as resisters in their way; they are each trying to remain human against the odds.
ZL: I like your writing because you are steely but also susceptible to the charms of nostalgia. In Eat the Document, you have this amazing scene in which one of the protagonists, Mary Whittaker, dances in a bar with Brian Wilson. Here, in Stone Arabia, you close with Denise having a reverie about rock and roll in her adolescence, what it felt like and what it meant. When Denise confesses in the book’s last line, “I want it so bad,” I understood that what she wanted was not just a return to her youth but to a kind of communion with other people’s souls, a feeling of transcendence. Spinal Tap aside, I still feel that rock and roll offers this, at least sometimes, in the same way that literature does. In Eat the Document, Mary’s son Jason feels just this feeling but it is shadowed by the doubt that he is in fact alone, physically isolated, while he’s having this feeling of “communion.” Have your feelings about this transaction changed?
DS: That is true, it does end on this tiny glimpse of transcendence. I don’t know—I think if you feel transcendence, you shouldn’t be too picky about how you got there, you know? I say that, but then I love to interrogate these things, I admit it. Still, music, books, movies, inventing freaky imaginary worlds—whatever gets you through the night. Jason’s obsessions were partly about genuine joy, but they were also partly neurotic, a way to avoid his own life. Just like Nik. I guess I don’t think of it as only one way or another. It can be many things at once and usually is. I wanted that last moment to acknowledge my/her inescapable ambivalence and complications, but also to express the desire just under it. What appears as ambivalence—which does not mean a lack of feeling but rather regarding or seeing things in more than one way—in my books almost always has a kind of deep longing underneath it, if that makes sense. Another way of saying this is that the closer you try to get to something, and the more you try to close in on it with specific language, the stranger and more complicated it becomes.
Zachary Lazar’s latest novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, is just out from Little Brown.
This interview originally appeared in The Rat’s Nest (TLR Summer 2011)