This past year has been Dana Spiotta’s annus mirabilis, her wonder year as a writer. For five years, she had been living in relative obscurity in the small town of Cherry Valley, New York, northeast of Cooperstown. Early in 2006, Spiotta published her novel Eat the Document, which quickly came to the attention of the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani. Five years earlier, Kakutani had reviewed Spiotta’s first novel, Lightning Field, and praised the author as, “a writer with an unerring ear for how people talk and try and cope today.” Yet the praise her first book received couldn’t match Kakutani’s exuberance over Eat the Document. Spiotta’s “stunning new novel,” the Times critic proclaimed, possessed “the staccato ferocity of a Joan Didion essay and the historical resonance and razzle-dazzle language of a Don DeLillo novel.” The book tells the story a fugitive Vietnam-era radical who has been living underground for three decades and her teenage son who has become suspicious of his mother’s past. The parallels of living a secret life were apt for Spiotta—not long after the review, the Times sent a reporter in search of the 40-year-old author, and found her running a restaurant with her husband in the Otsego County countryside. “If people don’t like my books, I can always say I’m a waiter,” Spiotta said at the time, but there has been little need for that. In October, Eat the Document was a finalist for the National Book Award. “The novel beautifully anatomizes American disenfranchisement and anomie, without succumbing to either,” the judge’s citation noted. The book went on to make year-end best-of lists across the country, and its author was declared, “a major American writer,” a verdict underscored when Spiotta was chosen for a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. Artist Elizabeth Dubben, herself from Cherry Valley, interviewed Spiotta for Chronogram early in May.
Elizabeth Dubben: We’ve known each other for five years, but until last year I didn’t know you as a writer, but as a friend who ran the Rose & Kettle Restaurant. What was it like living in artistic anonymity in Cherry Valley?
Dana Spiotta: I’ve always had my mornings for my writing. I have worked in restaurants most of my life, so my mornings were free. I don’t talk about my work until it is done. I think this privacy has always helped me take chances. I have the freedom to attempt things that might not pan out. So it worked very well for me to do my work in a kind of solitary, secret fashion. In a small town like Cherry Valley, people seem to have respect for artists. At the least, they have a history of tolerating artists.
How has life changed after this amazing year you’ve had?
It is pretty much the same, except people ask more about my work. In a way, it is nice. I don’t have to explain my tendency to be solitary. They understand I am working. The only downside is I feel slightly more exposed. I am actually a little shy. Also, I work slowly, so if people ask about my new work, I feel a little pressure. But if you publish successfully, you have to accept a certain amount of publicity. Most people have been very kind and supportive.
I just keep working. After I finished my first novel [Lightning Field, 2001], I imagined I would publish work throughout my life. I never assumed that would mean I could make a living at it. I still don’t assume I will make a living at it. But I will always write, no matter what. So my interior life hasn’t changed much at all, really.
But there are the benefits to success, of course.
I have a little more money, and so I have more time for writing. Which is wonderful. And I have a little more credibility. If relatives come and visit and I say I’m working, they don’t roll their eyes as much as they used to. But I have more obligations as well. Nonfiction writing and other things people ask of you, like readings and social events. I have more writer friends. I love having more writer friends. Through e-mail, I feel I have a writing community.
How did you get interested in the subject matter of Eat The Document? How much of your personal history comes into play in the book?