Dana Spiotta is the author of the new novel Innocents and Others. Her other novels include Stone Arabia and Eat the Document. She teaches in the Syracuse University MFA program, and she lives in Syracuse, New York.
Q: Innocents and Others focuses on female friendship. Why did you decide to write about that topic, and how did you come up with your characters Meadow and Carrie?
A: I am interested in writing about nonromantic relationships, which are less addressed in fiction. In my previous book it was a sibling relationship, and in this one a life-long friendship between two women.
I like how a novel can track the ups and downs, the way how, over time, who has the upper hand changes and then changes again.
There is a line that Carrie says at one point:
“Unlike a marriage, which must be fulfilling and a goddamn mutual miracle, a friendship could be twisted and one-sided and make no sense at all, but if it had years and years behind it, the friendship could not be discarded. It was too late to change her devotion to Meadow, even if Carrie hardly ever felt it returned lately.”
I was curious about those kinds of connections. I value them, as there is nothing else quite like it.
Q: The novel is set in the film world; Meadow and Carrie are both filmmakers but their work is very different. Why did you choose that as the backdrop for the plot?
A: I love film, from the most obscure to the most commercial. But I am not a filmmaker, so that took some research. It came up from this voice I had, Meadow’s, that opened the book.
I had first thought of her as simply a film fan (and specifically of Orson Welles), but she soon became a maker herself. I am drawn to obsessive characters, and artists tend to be obsessive, so they come up in the work.
But I also pursued it because I was interested in images and how they dominate the cultural moment. We live in a time where we film everything, and we watch a lot of images. And I wanted to understand how that changes how we engage the world.
The other main character, Jelly, is distinctly not visual. She counts on hiding how she looks for her power and for making up an alternate identity. All of that seemed relevant to how we interact on the internet these days. So as I wrote, I started noticing lots of paradoxes related to film/video.
Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?
A: I don’t know, or I know in a vague way. I usually start with voices of characters. Along the lines of how E.M. Forster once described writing a novel, I find the action or incidents come out of the specific people I am imagining. I follow the consequences of their choices.
Only about two-thirds in do I start to see the shape and imagine how it all fits together. I write blindly. E.L. Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving at night: you see in the headlights what is in front of you but not beyond that. That is the first couple of years.
Then at a certain point I did know the ending, but I wasn’t sure how I would get there. It is a constant play between intuition/instinct and thinking about the structure. You want to be surprised, but the surprise must come from what you have put in motion, if that makes sense.
Q: How was this novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The original title was Gleaners, which everyone thought was too obscure. I came up with Innocents and Others, because it is a book that has morally compromised characters, characters that make big mistakes but are also well meaning on some level.
They seemed innocent of themselves, I thought, of understanding the consequences of their actions. Then when they do understand, when they get that clarity, they are no longer innocent, they are others. No longer innocent of themselves, which is not a bad thing at all.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Blindly starting what may be a new novel or not.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I wanted to make these women characters complex, like we all are, not sentimental versions of human beings. I find that so much more interesting.
I also wanted them to be wiser—less innocent, but deeper, better—by the end of the book, without it being a fake, feel-good thing. I want any bigger ideas of the book to be truly embedded in the very specific and intimate portraits of these women.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb