Dana Spiotta explores the complexities of female friendship, the nature of seduction and the challenges of living as an artist in her dreamy and beautifully astute fourth novel, Innocents and Others. In the heady days of 1980s Los Angeles, childhood friends Meadow Mori and Carrie Wexler are both making strides as genre-defying filmmakers—of searing indie documentaries and mainstream women's comedies, respectively—while struggling to find the balance in their private lives. Meanwhile Amy, known on the phone as Nicole or Jelly, searches for belonging, intimacy and identity as an "unremarkable," aging woman who doesn't see her place in a city obsessed with the Hollywood ideal. When these three characters collide, pointed questions about the moral and social responsibilities of artists come bubbling to the surface.
We asked Spiotta a few questions about the irresistible magic of film, the constraints of the novel, pre-Internet "catfishing" and more.
You write very compellingly about the language of film in this novel. What do you find most striking about film as a medium?
Film is gloriously overwhelming, especially when you are in a theater in the dark in front of a huge screen. What can you do but put away your ordinary life and submit? The combination of images, music and long looks at giant human faces gets right into our dream life. It is so seductive; I find it irresistible. And I like how the storytelling happens in the editing: the juxtapositions, the analogies it draws between things by intercutting. But the novel is better—much better—at getting our interior life, our consciousness. When we watch a film, it interacts with our own thoughts and feelings. A novel can describe that experience, that interaction of a mind with a film, the experience of watching.
Innocents and Others is mostly set in LA in the 1980s, well beyond Hollywood’s Golden Age, but very singular and celebrated in its own way. What drew you to this era?
I think it is because I grew up in the 1980s, and I feel very sure of the cultural markers of that era. You remember your own childhood and adolescence more than other times in your life. I remember those days very well—and it was not a time of quality entertainment. Maybe because Reagan was president, it had a kind of reactionary tiredness to it. Seventies overindulgence followed by 80s cynicism. In any case, I am attracted to writing about the recent past because I think it enables us to understand the present better. It is just far away enough to be both familiar to us and estranged from us.
Jelly and Meadow share some of the allure and mystique of the classic film femme fatale, but they are both imbued with great power and humanity. What inspired you to shift this traditionally anti-feminist trope?
Interesting. Jelly is both a victim and a player of the idea of the seductive female. I think Meadow’s allure is more incidental. She has a lot of privilege, and she isn’t even aware of how others perceive her. I think all the women in the book push back at how value gets applied in a complicated and unfair way. At one point Meadow says to her best friend Carrie that “everything is so easy for you, an unbroken line.” Which could easily be said of Meadow. At another point, Jelly says to Meadow: “Some people—you for instance—are very lucky in this life.” By the end, Meadow does try to respond to that and to see herself more clearly.
Throughout the book, you touch on the power of the visual and oral traditions of storytelling and their abilities to seduce an audience. What did you discover about the intersections between these two modes and the written story during your writing process?
I love the constraints of the novel and how it uses language to create everything. The miracle of language (if it is precise and concrete) is that it can create in the mind all kinds of seductions, including sound and vision. I love how reading is interactive. My favorite novels leave room for the reader to put things together, to connect things. That is a deep level of engagement. And the novel is such a sustained and concentrated experience. At its best it is intimate and it resonates long after you finish the book. This book does make meaning in a cinematic way—connecting through the structure rather than using a lot of figurative language. I didn’t realize I was doing it in a self-conscious way. It just felt right as I was working.
Your portrayal of the long friendship between Meadow and Carrie, two women with similar creative passions but on divergent paths, is refreshingly honest. In an era when films rarely pass the Bechdel Test, was it important for you to make this a centerpiece of your narrative?
At some point I was aware that the three main characters were all women, and although that happened organically, I admit that I was pleased on some level. Maybe one of the things I was interested in was that Meadow and Carrie do not have “careers” in men. Their lives are not built around romance. Meadow’s “love story” in the beginning turns out to be her love for cinema. But how much happiness does that bring her? She needs people, not just art. All the characters want to connect, and want to love. Jelly is kind of a slave to the allure of romance (for many complicated reasons). But there is purity there too. Is one better than the others? I don’t know. I think sacrifices (and joys) lie in all directions.
How did you stumble upon the history of “phone phreaking,” a form of pre-Internet hacking?
I had read an obituary of one of the phreaks, and I thought it was so fascinating. So it has been an interest of mine long before I wrote this book. I am, I think, attracted to people who do subversive things. And sure, they did it for free phone calls, but also they did it because they could. They did it for the sheer joy of transgressing on a huge corporate entity. And the joy of outsmarting the system.
Nicole, or Jelly, seems to be loosely based on Miranda Grosvenor, a real-life woman who cold-called Hollywood industry types in the 80s. What was it about her that sparked your imagination?
A few years ago there were a bunch of “catfishing” stories on the Internet (people pretending to be someone else). It fascinated me because it was such a doomed pursuit. Eventually the person wants to meet you in real life and it will fall apart. I then remembered reading about Miranda and how she was a pre-internet version of that. She was apparently very seductive on the phone without actually being overtly sexual. So I wondered about that, what would that actually be like? Could I create someone who is convincingly seductive on the phone? And why would she do that? I became interested in the phone as a kind of outdated technology, so I turned her into a kind of phone fetishist. I made her partly blind and imagined her previous boyfriend as a phone hacker. But he loves the machine while she loves the thing the machine gives you: connection, a mysterious and very specific intimacy.
If Innocents and Others were adapted for film, who would be your ideal director?
I really like Nicole Holofcener and how her films deal with women and their friendships with other women. I loved Please Give.
Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
I do, but nothing I can talk about yet. (The embryonic novel has to be protected.)
Author photo by Jessica Marx.