Dana Spiotta II (BSS #408)

Dana Spiotta is most recently the author of Stone Arabia and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #28. This particular conversation was recorded before a packed audience at McNally Jackson on July 20, 2011. My thanks to Michele Filgate and Katie Monaghan for their help in organizing this event.

For additional details about Stone Arabia, please also see our 25,000 word roundtable discussion: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing dendrites with dandruff.

Author: Dana Spiotta

Subjects Discussed: Impostors within fiction, people with secret lives, double lives and triple lives, maintaining truth in fiction while avoiding obvious tricks, the role of the obstinate artist, work created to protect one’s self, avoiding obvious dichotomy, artists with exclusive audiences, familial obligation, relating to a character as a responder, the youthful longing in experiencing music, working in the dark while also being somewhat familiar with something, starting with a subject that you don’t really understand, enacting complexity, the frustration of reducing complexity through explanation, Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others,” the difficulty of being alive without leaving artifacts, being overwhelmed by information, taking in art as a full-time obligation, being saved by illusion, the Spiotta script style in Lightning Field and Stone Arabia, whether novelists should give up dialogue description, inventing memory techniques, keeping organizing principles coherent, shifting first-person and third-person to reflect consciousness, references to Stone Arabia, finding refuge in hyperarticulateness, memory and physical urgency, devotion and artistic evaluation, the pre-Facebook age, the appeal of selecting 2004 as a terrible year, commerce as a curating principle on the Internet, the illusion of endless amounts of information as liberation, retaining selfhood from a generational standpoint, Don DeLillo, and navigating influences.


Correspondent: I have noticed that all of your novels are guided by having some impostor who is at the center of the narrative. And I’m curious if that notion of an impostor being sort of a prism with which to view American society or American culture — what is up with that? I mean, we’re now in an age where, thanks to the Internet, which aids and abets thousands of Don Quixotes that unleash every second — I mean, this is something that Cervantes could never have even seen in the early 17th century. What motivates your interest in impostors? Especially in this. And maybe we can use this to talk about the lovely Nik Worth, who is a wonderful impostor!

Spiotta: Okay. I don’t really — I think the word that I would use instead of “impostor” is people that have secret lives maybe. It’s another way of putting it. And I do see that in all three books there are people with secret lives. I mean, Nik Worth, the character in this book, he’s not trying to make it a secret. Nobody’s really that interested. But he’s definitely an eccentric person and has a double life to a certain extent. One: he has a fictional career and his actual life. And they are somewhat at odds with each other. And then, in other ways, they overlap. I mean, clearly, it’s something I’m interested in. But I think to a certain extent, we all have these double lives and triple lives. And the part of me who writes novels is separate from the part of me who’s speaking today. So I think that it’s an exaggerated version of what we do all the time. And certainly the Internet is amplifying that, sure.

Correspondent: Yes. But characters who hide in plain sight.

Spiotta: Right.

Correspondent: I think that might be a better way to identify this common theme.

Spiotta: Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, is this really the role of the 21st century novelist? I hesitate to use a term like “postrealist.” But it is interesting that there is this balance between what is real and what is fake. You have Casa Real. You have The Fakes — the band name in this. So it’s very pronounced here. And I’m wondering if a novelist today is almost obligated to respond to this Pandora’s box, so to speak.

Spiotta: Sure. I mean, yeah, of course. I always feel that I have, as I said, this kind of doubleness, which is natural for me. And maybe that’s because I sit in a room and I make up people. And that’s kind of a strange thing to do. So I imagine everybody does this. And maybe that’s not true. But I sort of think of everyone as having multiple selves. And this is just a more amplified version.

Correspodnent: “Versions of Me” — one of the songs that Nik Worth is actually responsible for. Nik’s Chronicles — there is in this book a very lengthy multi-volume set where Nik Worth, this character, is fabricating selves of all sorts. You have critics. He’s writing critical reviews of his own work. He is doing parodies and pastiches of his family members. I’m curious because there’s a lot of specific artistic and musical references within Nik’s Chronicles and also your book. The fake Denise letter that Denise reads at the very beginning is almost a trick on Denise. How do you write something this true without it seeming like a trick for the reader? I mean, are you thinking more in terms of how Denise is feeling? Because Denise is responding to these Chronicles.

Spiotta: Right. So that’s an interesting question because, in the book, there are — well, in the Chornicles, one character is writing and pretending to be another character. And then you’re reading that. And how does that not seem sort of manipulative and silly? And I think that the key is that there has to be a genuine — you have to inhabit that character inhabiting that other character. And you have to make Nik pretty good at what he does.

Correspondent: Yes. He’s very good.

Spiotta: He has to sort of be a novelist. So it’s just an extra layer. And so in a way, it comments on the whole idea of the artifice of creating a novel and a character. But mostly, I think it’s really about his affection for his sister and his poking her at the same time. So, so much about this book — what I really wanted the book to be was anchored in the emotional reality of a family and a brother and sister as they age. And the decisions that they made about themselves when they were 25, what does that feel 25 years later? So you have someone who says, “I want to be an artist. And I’m going to be an artist no matter what. And I don’t care if anybody likes my work.” And that’s easy to say when you’re nineteen. But then 25 years later, what does that look like? What does it feel like? And then what does it feel like for the people around you? So Nik is a kind of dramatic version of that. And he has this other layer of this invented life that he does for his amusement and, I think, to keep his sanity to a certain extent. To give him — so he makes up his own audience. He makes up his own response. He’s in dialogue with himself. So I wanted to pull that out and always keep it anchored in the emotional truth of a brother and sister, and the family.

Correspondent: Is the family really the best way to anchor that emotional truth? I mean, this also concerns memory. This concerns context. This concerns fact vs. fiction. Did everything originate from the family? How did these little side quests come about?

Spiotta: Okay. So what I envisioned for the book was to have it to be very intimate and claustrophobic. And sort of distorted by emotion and subjectivity. And to be this intimate thing. And I think, to the extent that a family — all these things tie back. Because one of the concerns of the book is how do you retain yourself in the face of, let’s say, all these things that want to annihilate you. And not just the Internet or information and all the things that come at you, but also that you’re aging and you’re watching your parents age and you’re eventually going to die. And all the things that we all have to deal with. How do you retain your sense of self? And part of it is your memory. And part of it is the things that you’ve created to protect yourself. Like Nik has his retreat, which is his way of protecting himself. But then also it’s the people in your life, who tell you who you are to a certain extent. And that can trap you. But it also can save you. And it’s both things at once. And I’m always interested in things being both. More than one thing. Not either/or. But this and this. And I don’t think of this as being ambivalent. I think of it as feeling strongly about things in two ways.

Categories: Fiction

John Banville/Benjamin Black (BSS #407)

John Banville is most recently the author of The Infinities. Benjamin Black is most recently the author of A Death in Summer.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Doubting that his alter ego is the work of a craftsman.

Author: John Banville (aka Benjamin Black)

Subjects Discussed: Efforts to sandwich two men into one voice, why John Banville hates his own books and likes the Black books, the quest for perfection, the sentence as a working unit, Beckett’s “Fail better,” why perfection can’t be fun, how a phrase like “louring turrets” manages to sneak its way into a Benjamin Black novel, craftsmen vs. artists, typing out terrible Joyce pastiches as a teenager, mimicking previous texts, Banville’s early flirtations with commercial fiction, The Untouchable as prototypical Black, fictional ghettos, literary fiction as a ghetto, compartmentalizing fiction, Henry James being forgotten, the decline of Beckett’s reputation in recent years, Donald Westlake’s Memory, the Parker novels, Georges Simenon, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Ulysses as respective masterpieces, Joanna Kavenna’s recent New Yorker essay, thematic commitment, mystery and sociological ambitions, Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, why Banville and Black bifurcated, the origins of Christine Falls, reaching a mass audience, The Sea, The Book of Evidence being shortlisted for the Booker, the best “reviews” originating from regular people, the disastrous status of being a “writer’s writer,” Hay-on-Wye as a writer’s nightmare, ebooks, [21]


Banville: People constantly tell me things about my books that I don’t know, that I wasn’t aware of doing. But of course I did them. But I try not to plan. I try not to make links. I try to let a certain seeming incoherence — I try to work in a process of seeming incoherence, trusting that my subconscious or unconscious or whatever it is or just the sentences themselves will make the connections, will make the sense. Art has to be organic. It has to grow of itself. You can plan a certain amount, but the greatest effects in a novel or a painting or a symphony or whatever will always be the bits where the artist lost control. I don’t mean that he lost control of his material, but lost control of what he was doing. You know, the moment where you let something happen is an extraordinary moment.

Correspondent: You suggested that you don’t do that now. Did you do that before?

Banville: Well, I thought — I imagined that I was working according to strict rules. I mean, my book Kepler is divided into — it’s a system that mirrors Kepler’s system of the universe in five perfect solid states between the orbits and the planets and their twenty sides. It was immensely complicated. That was a way of working then. It was useful for me. I couldn’t work like that now. I wouldn’t want to.

Correspondent: Was it the speed? Or the fact that things became too complex? Or that it felt truer and more original to not plan?

Banville: I just got older. And my work methods changed. I changed. I began to realize that I didn’t know everything about the world. You know, the old thing: the older you get, the older you realize how little you know. And that is true. And that’s a very good thing for an artist, I think. That humility before the material, before the world.

Correspondent: The degree to which you ensure that you don’t use the same phrase and the same word in a manuscript — especially on the Banville side. What do you do? Is this a part of the process as well? ‘Cause I’ve noticed that, especially when a ten cent word shows up in the Banville books, it has its one appearance very often from book to book to book. What do you do to ensure that you don’t repeat yourself?

Banville: I take great care. I mean, this is the process of writing. You know, it’s just — it’s what I do every day. I’ve been doing it for fifty years now. So to a certain extent, I come naturally to being careful. But I still find silly things. Especially when I’m doing public readings. Like “Oh God. Look, I used that word at the bottom of the page. At the bottom of the page.” One can never be — as we began by saying, perfectionism is not of this world.

Correspondent: What of distractions? I did read one interview with you where you claimed you were addicted to email. Every thirty seconds.

Banville: Oh god yeah. I’m absolutely addicted to email. It’s become part of the rhythm of writing now. Checking my email. It’s pathetic. My wife got me a postcard to stick on my wall. This is a guy staring at a blank screen. And just on the screen, you’ve got “You haven’t got any fucking emails.” (laughs)

Correspondent: I suppose Twitter or something like Google Plus would be out to lunch with you.

Banville: I can’t. I can’t.

Correspondent: Or Facebook for that matter.

Banville: I can’t possibly let myself to any of those. Emails are quite enough. Well, emails are like the postman coming to your door every thirty seconds. Thirty seconds is a bit much. But there is that sense when you’re sitting there and you’re staring vacantly. “Oh! I haven’t checked my emails in at least ten minutes!”

Correspondent: The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called this book “a brainy beach read.” How does that sit with you?

Banville: (despondently) Oh. Thanks very much.

Correspondent: Are you comfortable with the idea of “a brainy beach read” or “a beach read” for that matter? Is that the mark of a craftsman?

Banville: Oh yes, I would think so. That’s a compliment, I suppose. It will put people off, of course. But I wouldn’t, you know — you see, I have far more regard for the reading public than I think many publishers have and that many book reviewers have. People know what they want. If they want some piece of easy reading, they’ll buy that piece of easy reading. If they want something else, they’ll buy that. It will often be the same reader who will buy these at different times. So, yes, I’d love to think that people will take this book to the beach. I’d love to think that they’d take a Banville book to the beach. You know? It wouldn’t kill them.

Correspondent: Near the end of The Infinities, you have your wily narrator say, “Dogs are living creatures. Do not speak to me of their good sense.” And in 2009, you wrote about your Labrador for The Guardian. “How is one to write about a family pet without plunging feet-first into a slough of bilge and bathos?” I’m wondering if dogs represent an aspect of our lives, an aspect of living, that to some degree is almost incompatible with words. Is bathos one of those human qualities that sometimes fells John Banville, but that Benjamin Black may be able to pick up some sense of fluidity?

Banville: Well, I think dogs are extraordinary creatures. I mean, animals are, it seems to me, one of the great tragedies of the modern age is that we’ve almost lost contact with the animal world. We treat them as if we are masters of the universe, as if they’re just autonomous. Descartes, of course, has a lot to answer in that regard. Animals, to me, are endlessly fascinating. My wife has a dog at the moment. I think it’s the most magical creature I’ve come across in a long time. A big goofy dog. It came from a long line of dogs who worked on farms. He can’t believe his luck to be in the lap of luxury in our house. Clever, silly, funny, playful. I mean, don’t get me started on dogs. They’re wonderful creatures. But in the wider aspect, people often talk of me as being a postmodernist writer, which is nonsense. Although I think that’s a term that’s falling out of use now — thank god! Because it doesn’t really mean anything. But if I were to describe myself as anything, I would be post-humanist. In that I do not see humans as the center of the universe. My characters are characters that are landscapes. And the world that I create — that Banville creates and that even Black creates — is just as important as the people inhabiting it. This is a hard thing to accept, but it’s true for me. The world, for me, is a living object. And we happen to be viruses on it. The most successful virus the world has ever known. And, of course, a miraculously gifted virus. Look at the things we’ve done. For every Hitler, there’s a Beethoven. We have done miraculous things. But we’re still not as far away from the animals as we’d like to think we are. There’s this notion, which is latent in our minds, that at some point in the evolutionary scale, we took us through a skip. We took a step upwards that separated us from the animals. That we are now sort of demigods. And this is simply not the case. We are fantastically complicated, fantastically intelligent, fantastically inventive animals. And we should keep that in mind.

Correspondent: Can words capture all the complexities of this Cartesian dilemma? This animal-human dilemma?

Banville: Words can only suggest. They can’t capture. You know, in a way, all writing is a kind of conjuring trick. You’re setting up a world that looks like, as I said earlier, feels like, tastes like the real world. But it’s not. So it’s all to do with suggestion. And of course the power of suggestion depends on the artistic gifts of the writer.

Correspondent: What about the potential for manipulating the reader? Is this something that you try to avoid? You would rather suggest than manipulate?

Banville: I have no sense of reader whatever. I write entirely for myself. Then when it’s finished, it becomes the reader’s. But when I’m doing it, it’s for me. And I believe the same is true of all writers, whatever they say. You cannot write with a reader in mind. Unless you’re writing a textbook or a completely formulaic crime novel or something. But if you’ve got any self-respect and you’re a real writer, you write for yourself. And then the miracle is that other people find in your work things that seem absolutely personal to them. Which is a very strange process.

Categories: Fiction

Jesús Ángel García (BSS #406)

Jesús Ángel García appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #406. He is most recently the author of badbadbad.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping not to confuse his relationship pursuits with his research ones.

Author: Jesús Ángel García

Subjects Discussed: Whether Mr. Garcia has a real name and a criminal record, deflecting charges of narcissism and wish fulfillment, unreliable orgasmic narration, flings and sex parties, the furry culture, whether badbadbad is a misleading title, Hubert Selby, the reader’s judgment, the problems with nonjudgmental sex, the openness of metropolitan cities, Irvine Welsh’s Filth, de Sade, whether Mary Gaitskill’s fiction is erotic, presenting a protagonist with moral challenges, the movie Superbad, writing loving fisting scenes, the grandfatherly nature of slideshow presentations, Jeanette Winterson, people who tweet your appearance at a party, anti-human technology as a form of pornography, chat sessions in novels, inventing a fictitious online service for a novel, JPEG commentary, the creation of non-existent technology, satire vs. a point of reflection, people who feel more satisfaction taking photos at an event rather than attending an event, Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others,”, branches of Christianity, restaurants that insist they have the “world’s greatest ________,” Garcia’s Catholic background, Kyle Minor, preachers-turned-artists, all-purpose denominations, Bob Jones University, interviewing people on OKCupid, the interactivity of sexuality, Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, contending with readers who desire certain resolutions, changing scenes based on people’s reactions, competing with rapid changes in technology, the skeezee feel of now, using the tech language, atavistic versions of the Internet, convincing a church to be a webmaster, whether or not touring for two months straight sells books, tour blog entries at Electric Literature, Kevin Smokler impressions, 50/50 deals with publishers, Kindle deals, special editions with condoms, performance vacations, the “hurry up and wait” nature of the publishing industry, authors who put out a new book every year, Blake Butler, Richard Powers, socializing and stamina, finding authentic connections in a culture that you criticize, stealing babies as a form of author promotion, responding to reviews with death metal, and people who show up at readings who aren’t interested in buying books.


Correspondent: The question I have, first and foremost, is: Is Jesús — is that your real name?

Garcia: Well, I don’t know if I’m allowed to answer that.

Correspondent: Is Green a surname that you have gone by? Do you have a criminal record? What’s the deal here?

Garcia: All I’ll say is that the author of the novel and the protagonist of the novel are not the same people.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, some might call this — a reader who doesn’t know you might suggest that this is narcissism or wish fulfillment. Because this JAG in the novel has lots of sex.

Garcia: Does he really though?

Correspondent: Well…

Garcia: I mean, if you look at the kind of sexual encounters. He has a lot of sexual encounters. I don’t know if he has a lot of sex. You know? Or does he have a lot of intimacy?

Correspondent: Well, he certainly gets lucky. In some sense.

Garcia: (laughs) Does he get lucky?

Correspondent: Unless you’re talking about unreliable narration.

Garcia: Well…

Correspondent: Unreliable orgasmic narration. Meaning that all of the times that he blows, he’s not necessarily blowing. Is that what you’re suggesting?

Garcia: Well, you know, I think if you go through it and you track the sex after his relationship with the Shannon fling — which I think is kind of a romantic thing — after that, he doesn’t really get fulfilled. His job is to service women.

Correspondent: Yes!

Garcia: And he does that in a selfless way. But the question is always at what cost to himself? And if you actually look at it — if you’re talking about, if certain amount of gratification comes from, you know, sexual connection, I don’t think he has much connection after the Shannon character. So I wouldn’t say he’s getting lucky. I would say he’s…he’s…uh….

Correspondent: He hasn’t actually altered his existence in order to enjoy these superficial moments.

Garcia: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think he’s way more — I’m not sure. I just don’t think that he’s got satisfaction there. Whereas myself, personally in the relationships that I’ve had in my life, I’m not like him. Because I’ve actually had a lot of long-term relationships. And usually they’re much more about intimacy than kind of fling stuff. However, I did do some research to prepare for this book after I had…

Correspondent: Yeah. I was going to ask. Did you sleep with anybody?

Garcia: I had recently…

Correspondent: Positions?

Garcia: I was in love. I was in a long-term relationship. Eight years or so. It ended. I was single, basically for the first time since like freshman year in high school, with the exception of a dry spell in sophomore year. I had a lot of back-to-back monogamous relationships.

Correspondent: Yes.

Garcia: Relatively monogamous relationships. And then I was single. And then I was like, “Oh wow.” So I dated. And I never even used that term before. I started dating. And I was doing these online social network dating sites. And I was just trying to be super-open to what anybody was interested in. Just to kind of see what would come back and what kind of situations I would get into with me.

Correspondent: I see.

Garcia: So that was a lot of the research for the book. I could tell you everything in the book. And 99% of everything in the book is either true to fact from personal experience.

Correspondent: Or observational experience?

Garcia: Or stuff I’d read or things people told me.

Correspondent: Oh, okay. People told you. But not observing. You didn’t go to any orgies.

Garcia: Man…I’m not really an orgy guy. Except there was actually — there was this one time that was kind of influential on my thinking on this book. It didn’t end up being in the book. But I think that the idea was there. There was this party I went to. And they had these people who were doing like the furry thing?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Garcia: And they were dressed up. And it was the first time I’d kind of experienced this in person. I was like, “Oh. What’s this? This is really unusual.” And there was this girl there — or woman there — and all these guys were like kind of foaming on her and touching her and caressing her. And all this stuff. And it wasn’t an orgy, per se. But it was like this — and there were two of them. Two of these women. And it was like this kind of female worship thing. It was pretty fascinating. And it was also around this role-play furry culture that was there. So that was very unusual. But that’s not really my thing personally. And neither is it JAG’s thing. JAG’s thing is not mine personally, though it does come out of definitely some past ideas of this idea of like wanting to — wanting to, you know, be with individuals. Wanting to be there for people who need you to be there. But then what does that do for you if you’re not getting any reciprocation?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Garcia: And then you know…

Correspondent: This may explain — I mean, I was I must confess that I was a little disappointed.

Garcia: (laughs)

Correspondent: JAG starts off as this…

Garcia: That’s because you’re a pervert.

Correspondent: No, no, no. I am a pervert. And I have gone to sex parties in a previous life. But JAG — he starts off being this sort of working-class kind of guy. And he is willing to go to just about any strange thing at the very beginning. Or so it seems. And so I’m thinking, “Oh wow. This guy’s going to be really intense.” And then he becomes Mr. Nice Guy. And I was like, “Well, wait a minute. This is a little bit, kind of betraying its promise.” And then we have near the end a very dark and twisted moment. So I’m curious how you developed this modulation in tone for JAG. Whether that kind of oscillation was there in the early draft. How did this come about?

Garcia: Well…I have a question for you, Bat. The tone that you get from the beginning. Like right from the start? To me, he kind of seems broken and naive at the beginning.

Correspondent: He is broken and naive at the beginning. But I also get the sense that he’s going to try to find himself by all these pure escapades. And then he proves to be — well, instead of pushing himself to the limit, the big surprise is that he actually ends up being something of a nice guy.

Garcia: But — yeah, yeah, yeah, you know I think — because I think — well, so, okay, so what’s the question? (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, the question I have is — for JAG, that modulation in tone where he sort of becomes increasingly, where he moves into this ethical core, where he has to violate this ethical core; this whole move towards violence — was that tonal arc there in place from the very beginning? How did you work on this?

Garcia: I think — Structurally.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Garcia: No, I think it was. That’s what I think is fascinating. Let’s see. I think that you figured what the book was — badbadbad — thinking that premise…

Correspondent: Oh yeah. I was thinking Bad Bad Bad.

Garcia: You got hit. See, I can do that. See, there’s an expectation.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, you named the book badbadbad.

Garcia: Right. But for me, badbadbad is a question. It’s like…

Correspondent: There was no question mark in the title! (laughs)

Garcia: It’s implied. It’s postmodern.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Garcia: I feel like it’s a question. It’s like: What is bad? Who is bad? What does that mean? Whose bad behavior? What is right and wrong? What is sexual morality? Is there such a thing as sexual morality? Self-destruction. Who are we from the outside to judge other people’s actions as self-destructive even if they appear that way — if it has some kind of redeeming value for them? So for me, that’s where the badness comes in. It’s not necessarily — there’s a little of “Ooo, he’s doing bad things.” But it’s not. To me, that’s not really the badness.

Correspondent: I mean, when you repeat “bad” three times.

Garcia: Right.

Correspondent: There’s a certain expectation. A certain sort of assumption that “Oh, this guy’s going to go into Hubert Selby territory.” Or something like that.

(Image: Timothy Faust)

Categories: Fiction