Syracuse University Magazine

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Dana Spiotta

Culture of Possibility

Between the time when Dana Spiotta published her second novel and won the Rome Prize in Literature and spent a year at the American Academy in Rome, she and her husband ran a restaurant near Cooperstown, New York. Business was great during the summer months, but the winters were a struggle—a time of “watching the money disappear,” she says. Fortunately, Spiotta had something to fall back on. “The running joke was that I was the only person who used her writing career to support her waitress career,” she says. “But I learned a lot from waitressing. You are almost invisible. You get to engage with a lot of different people in this almost ritual way—you’re always talking about food. But it’s intimate, too, watching people enjoy dinner. It’s very human and basic. You can think about people and how interesting they are and how specific they are. And I think it helped me as a writer. It was a great way of experiencing a wide variety of humans, from a weird angle—which I liked.”

Now a College of Arts and Sciences faculty member in the M.F.A. Creative Writing Program, Spiotta finds her work is nurtured by teaching, by her relationships with colleagues and students, and by being part of a community of writers at one of the most renowned programs in the country. “Being a working artist who also teaches in a university has been an amazingly good development. It forces you to think about what you do in your own practice, in a way that helps students and also helps you,” she says. “Being around the other faculty members is very inspiring, because they all manage to do what people think is very tricky, which is to do your own work while you’re teaching. A big part of the program is just seeing other people do this thing that you want to do. The students think, ‘Oh, here are writers, and we all have to teach and we all write.’ And so it kind of creates a culture of possibility for them.”

Spiotta is the author of four novels, all published by Scribner: Lightning Field (2001); Eat the Document (2006), which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award and a recipient of the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Stone Arabia (2011), a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in fiction; and Innocents and Others (2016). “Each book has taken me five years to write. I like to try to immerse myself in something and find out everything about it,” says Spiotta, who was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008 and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in 2009. “When you’re writing and it’s going really well, the self falls away and you feel more connected to the larger world. You lose track of yourself in a way. And there’s something very helpful about that in terms of how to be a person, for me.”

As she begins thinking about her next book, she reflects on the process of writing fiction, which, as she tells her students, “never gets easier if you’re doing it right.” She likens it to getting married. “You have to fall in love enough to commit to it, and then to be there when the hard parts come and it is no longer lovable,” she says. “We’re talking about a form of artistry—something that’s always going to be ripped from the most urgent part of yourself. That’s very hard to do without being around other people who think that’s important.”     —Amy Speach

Photo by Steve Sartori