"Seventies Los Angeles is really not ever very far from my mind, for some weird reason," says author Dana Spiotta, a former Angeleno who now lives in upstate New York. "I just love '70s Los Angeles."
The city plays a big part in her latest novel, "Stone Arabia," which is generating the same kind of excitement that Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Visit From the Goon Squad" did last year. An exploration of creativity, fame (or non-fame), family, memory, the enthusiasms of youth and the dismays of middle age, "Stone Arabia" is also steeped in the vast distractions of our current moment.
Many contemporary novelists stick to stories of human emotion that could have been told in Shakespeare's time or Jane Austen's, but Spiotta looks instead to the handful of writers, such as Don DeLillo, who explore how technology and the quicksilver present put pressure on who we are. "There are things about being alive now that are very different," she says. "For me the novel is very good at describing those things. I like that impulse, to deal with the culture as a whole."
In "Stone Arabia," the character Denise is constantly being drawn into the temptations of cable television, with talking heads and news crawl, and the endless suck of the Internet. Spiotta calls these forces "annihilating" and "an assault" — by contrast, Denise's brother Nik has "found a way to resist, to be whole, to have his integrity." Nik's true vocation is his basement-tapes music, shared with a handful of fans. The roles they find themselves in, Spiotta explains, is due to the pressures of contemporary society — to be responsible, to be useful.
"Being a bohemian today is considered suspect," she says. "People think it's suspect and self-indulgent to make art, and I don't think that's true."
We're speaking at Ye Rustic Inn, a Los Angeles bar not unlike the fictional one Nik works in, and Spiotta smiles when Iggy Pop comes on the jukebox. "Some people think you should be busy making something that you can sell in the marketplace, and if nobody wants to buy it, it must be crap. And that's not true," she says. "There's lots of things that can't make it in the world that are worth making. There are lots of great artists who never make it, there are lots of great writers who don't get published — is it still worthwhile? Aren't we glad people are still doing it?"
That's where Nik comes in: Not only is he a private musician, but he's created a series of scrapbooks about his own fictional musical stardom that he calls "The Chronicles." Nik is partially based on a real person, Spiotta's stepfather — like Nik, he played in a couple of bands around L.A. and later invented a (less obsessive) scrapbook of imaginary achievements. It was his 1970s L.A. that Spiotta delved into for the book, taking research trips with him and driving together around the city to discover the landscape he knew.
Spiotta herself moved to Los Angeles in 1981, just in time for high school, before her parents divorced. The family had picked up and moved from one affluent, conservative suburb to another. Whether Connecticut or Northern California, "they all seemed the same to me," she says. "I felt like I didn't fit in." Like other children who moved a lot, she found solace in the radio and the library. "That was one of the reasons I became a writer — I never really had that many friends. I would read a lot, and listen to music. And that was my life."
Maybe Los Angeles features prominently in Spiotta's imagination because it was here that the world began to open up — where the music on the radio started to connect to people and places within reach. She's used the city as a setting in both of her previous novels — "Eat the Document," which was a 2006 National Book Award finalist, and "Lightning Field," an L.A. Times Best Book of the West in 2001.
Spiotta went to Columbia for two years, returned to L.A. and then moved to Seattle, where she worked in the record store Cellophane Square. "I'm not a cool person," she cautions. "I was never going to see the cool bands at the cool moment. It was always from afar." Eventually, like many writers, she wound up in New York City, where she waitressed and started working on the Quarterly, Gordon Lish's literary magazine.
In fact, Spiotta, now 45, waitressed all along to support her literary career — she and her husband own a small restaurant in Cherry Valley, N.Y. Only recently has she entered the literary slipstream, teaching writing at Syracuse University, receiving the prestigious Rome Prize and spending a year in Italy, writing. "I don't have a lot of skills, but one thing I can do is, I can compartmentalize. I can make that a little world that I can go back to," Spiotta says. "So I can be a waitress, or I can be a teacher, and then go and work on my book."
The distractions that her character Denise struggles with demonstrate how hard it is to achieve that intensity of concentration these days. In the contemporary moment, many have called into question the role of books printed on paper between two covers. "The novel is about, for me, sustained and organized looking," Spiotta says. "I do think that people have a hunger for a sustained engagement, that concentration that the book can offer."
In some ways, "Stone Arabia" seems poised to be a next-generation, multimedia e-book — it describes music, album covers, artwork, film dialogue. What if instead of reading about them someone with an iPad could watch or listen, have a fully interactive experience?
"I'm having [the reader] fill in so much," Spiotta says, explaining that she wants the person reading the novel to imagine Nik's visionary music and his detailed illustrations as part of the narrative, not clickable add-ons. "It isn't that it isn't interactive," she says. "It is interactive."
When she got home to New York, the question was still on her mind. "There is room for the reader, in fact it is required that the reader contemplate how the parts work together, why it stops where it does and what it means," she wrote in an email.
To be a novelist engaged with the contemporary moment — no matter how devoted to the possibilities of the traditional book — she's using email. She's got to be on the Internet, of course; you can even find her on Facebook.