See my review of Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta, Picador, 2008, 9780330448291
What was the initial inspiration for Eat the Document?
I met Alger Hiss’ widow, Isabel Johnson. And I wondered about her marriage. If you were a spy, would you tell your wife? What would it be like to have a secret that lasts your whole life? How would the day to day feel, in very quotidian terms? Then I started reading about Lori Berenson, the woman who went to jail in Peru for helping the Tupac Amaru. I was interested in middle class American kids who were willing to lose everything for a cause. Those were the two early inspirations.
One thing I have come across is that many in my generation (Gen Y) write about, or are highly interested in the ’60s and ’70s (my own manuscript is set in 1970). I found this phenomenon echoed by Jason and his nostalgic musical interests. In my review I suggest ‘His interests could be symbolic for a generational nostalgia for an era that seemed to be more packed with emotion, action and participation.’ What do you think?
I think the cultural and political issues of late ’60s/early ’70s have not yet been resolved. We are still reeling, wondering what happened. In the US, you can see we keep fighting over all of it every election year. It was an unusually powerful cultural moment.
Even though many characters share the space, they all have great dimensionality. Besides Jason, I found Nash and Henry very engaging. Were any characters difficult to write? And did you feel any sense of loss once the novel was done?
It is always fascinating to hear which characters people liked or disliked. Readers seemed to have very strong (positive and negative) reactions to these characters. I did have a sense of loss when I finished, but I also had a sense of relief.
What would you hope a younger audience might get out of the novel (besides the fact that it’s a fantastic read)? What about those readers who were around in the protest era?
I hope younger people and older people think past the cliches of the ’60s/’70s. And I hope rebellion and protest are contemplated as part of a long and constant thread. I hope people see both the difficulty and the necessity of acts of resistance.
I mention in the review the ‘inescapable contradictions and complexities of consumerism’. There are things like the contradictory drug company, the ‘Allegecom’ community, and the ‘alternative’ shopping mall – all too familiar. Do you think it is difficult for youth in this environment (western consumer society) to be as ‘active’ as their parents’ generation was?
Absolutely. One of the things I was interested in was how the current cultural conditions make activism more difficult. Meaning in general is compromised. Yes, I think this has to do with corporate hegemony.
For those interested in reading more of your work, can you tell us a little about your first novel Lightning Field, and anything else you might be working on?
Lightning Field is about the language of consumerism. It is about Los Angeles and alienation. Adultery and loneliness. It is a very funny book.
Who are some writers you admire, and why?
Of living writers, the big ones are DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Joy Williams, Bret Easton Ellis, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, Joan Didion, Ian McEwan. So many others as well. I like funny, dark, unsentimental writers. I like writers with gorgeous, original sentences and I like writers with some real heart.
Of past writers, I love Joyce and Faulkner. Virginia Woolf and JD Salinger. And Nabokov.
Author image by Jessica Marx (New York Times). Thanks to Dana Spiotta.