In 'Stone Arabia,' Writing Life As You Wish You'd Lived It Dana Spiotta's third novel, Stone Arabia, is about an aging musician who never achieved the type of success he'd have liked. Rather than giving up, he chronicles an imaginary version of his life — as a successful rock star recording his career in a series of journals.
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In 'Arabia,' Writing Life As You Wish You'd Lived It

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In 'Arabia,' Writing Life As You Wish You'd Lived It

In 'Arabia,' Writing Life As You Wish You'd Lived It

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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TERRY GROSS, host: I picked up Dana Spiotta's novel, "Stone Arabia," after hearing our book critic Maureen Corrigan's review. She described it as a novel about responsibility, the responsibility artists have to there art and the responsibility family members have to take care of each other.

GROSS: The story is about a failed rock musician who is now a 50-year-old bartender. But he's never given up on his music. He's kept recording under the name of an alter ego he created and he's obsessively chronicled this alter ego's imaginary career, writing reviews, profiles and album liner notes. He collects all this in what he calls "The Chronicles." The only person he shares his music with is his sister, who also helps him take care of the practical matters in his life while he inhabits this imaginary world. She's also dealing with depression and their mother, who's losing her memory. Dana Spiotta's previous novel, "Eat the Document," was nominated for a National Book Award.

GROSS: Let's start with a reading from "Stone Arabia." Denise, the sister, is describing her brother Nik's "Chronicles."

DANA SPIOTTA: By 2004, Nik had 30-odd volumes of "The Chronicles," going back to 1978 officially; unofficially they were retrofitted back to 1973, with the rise of the Demonics. They were all written exclusively by him. They are the history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews. He made his "Chronicles" - scrapbooks, really - thick, clip-filled things. He wrote under many different aliases, from his fan club president to his nemesis a critic who started at Cream magazine and ended up writing for the Los Angeles Times. A man who follows and really hates his work. Nik had given him plenty of ink these past few years.

Nik's "Chronicles" adhered to the facts and then didn't. When Nik's dog died in real life, his dog died in "The Chronicles." But in "The Chronicles" he got a big funeral and a tribute album. Fans sent thousands of condolence cards. But it wasn't always clear what was conjured. The music for the tribute album for the dog actually exists, as does the cover art for it - a great black-and-white photo of Nik holding his dog with an intricate collage along the edge consisting of images of the great canines of history, from Toto to Lassie Rin Tin Tin Tin. But the fan letters didn't exist. In this way Nik chronicled his years in minute-but-twisted detail. The volumes were all there, a version of nearly every day of the past 30 years.

GROSS: Dana Spiotta, welcome to FRESH AIR. What interests you about the idea of actually producing the art - in this case, the music - and creating the album covers and then writing imaginary reviews and building a whole imaginary persona around it? So, you know, like Nik is really doing the art, but everything surrounding it that he's chronicling is fake. What interested you in that idea?

SPIOTTA: Well, I think what interests me about Nik is that he's able to find a way to be almost completely self-contained. He's providing his own audience - and it's even a critical audience. And I think in this way he's able to ignore the world as it ignores him. And I think it's a key to his survival to a certain extent. Of course he does have his sister and he does have a few other people who actually listen to his music.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people basically do their work that way.


GROSS: You know, like they write novels that aren't read or make music that nobody hears...


GROSS: ...but they don't necessarily write reviews of it and have a whole fake alter ego that they've created.

SPIOTTA: Yeah. It's true. I mean it's, my stepfather is the inspiration for this character, and he did this very thing. He had a sort of 30-year chronicle of his life as a fake rock star. And he did it mostly as a laugh but he kept it up pretty well. And what I found is that he's, it seems to help him not feel bitter or resentful about his not having an official career. So I think that the trick is to do this thing and then to not mind that you're doing it on your own and to actually revel in that if that is where you end up.

And as you say, there are many people who keep their novels and their paintings and their music going even if they haven't made it - in whatever that word means - that's very - that was really what I was interested in, is what that feels like 25 years down the road. It's easy to say that when you're 17, I'm going to keep going no matter what, but what is that like when you're 50? What does it feel like for the people around you? You know, what did it cost you and what did it save you from?

GROSS: Yeah. Now, in your stepfather's case.

SPIOTTA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I mean he has a website. I went on it.

SPIOTTA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there's excerpts of - there's four songs, four or five songs on it. He actually plays the music on it. I don't know if the other band members are real people or whether he plays all the parts.

SPIOTTA: No, they are. They're real people. Yeah, I exaggerated his - my character is more fantastical than Richard is. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now, in your novel, Nik, who has his alter ego as a rock star, also writes in the voice of his sister in "The Chronicles" and - because she is a part of his life, so he writes her part.

SPIOTTA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And she's somebody who used to be very beautiful when she was young and now in her late 40s she's still very attractive. She had wanted to be an actress but didn't succeed. But, unlike Nik, who develops this imaginary world to keep performing in, she just kind of gives up acting. And what he writes in her voice in "The Chronicles" is: Nik's art was his life and I don't know what that means about a life. I have always resisted artistic impulses of any kind. I always believed that if you weren't good, what right did you have to do it?

And I think that's such a fundamental question. If you're not exceptionally talented at something but it gives you pleasure - like, if you're not good at playing guitar is it okay to play anyways? If you can't really sing well, is it okay to take singing lessons and sing and devote time to it, knowing that you're never really going to be very good. Was this a question you ever had to ask yourself? You seem very good at writing, so I don't know that you...


GROSS: ...needed to ask yourself about that.

SPIOTTA: Well, I have had had the experience of being a very bad actor.

GROSS: Really?


SPIOTTA: Yes, I did try acting when I was in high school and I was terrible at it. So I definitely have had the experience of being bad at artistic endeavor. And one of the things I avoided talking about in the book a little bit was how good Nik really is at what he does. I mean I think his "Chronicles" are certainly impressive, but is his music or not? I mean there's so much subjectivity these aesthetic questions and certainly whether you make it in the world doesn't mean, you know, that good people who are very good at producing music still don't make it and so on, as we all know. So I think that if everyone was secretly an artist, that would be a great thing, I guess is my short answer.

GROSS: So whereas Nik has, you know, created this whole imaginary life around his art, and he's chronicled every detail of it, his sister Denise is afraid she is losing her memory, that she's in the opposite position, that her past is just kind of vanishing - her real past is kind of vanishing. And she thinks maybe she has such bad recall because she threw out too much. Maybe she should've kept more souvenirs from the past. Or maybe she should've had some kind of accounting and not just got rid of everything so quickly. So you've created two very different ways of being kind of uncomfortable in the world.


GROSS: One which is like tossing things out, not keeping a record and forgetting. And the other is, you know, just like chronicling every detail, even the imaginary things.

SPIOTTA: Yeah. Well, this is something that became the central concern of the book, which is memory and sort of how - and identity and how these things interact. So I think for the character of Denise, her mother is losing her memory and her brother is creating a fake past, and it's putting her in a precarious position in terms of who she is. I think, you know, your family corroborates your memories, and you have the sense that when someone you love is losing their memory, that you're sort of - that affects you. You start to feel you're not sure who you are because one of your, the people who can corroborate your past is gone.

GROSS: It's so true.


SPIOTTA: So I thought...

GROSS: Excuse me.

SPIOTTA: ...this became - this is how it all started to tie together to me. It sort of happened organically that of course Nik's destabilization by making up his own past, he's sort of controlling this thing which none of us really can control. We may as well make up chronicles because if you're not - if you and I both experience something, really what we have is what we agree upon. And, you know, there's this phenomenon now that they're called reconsolidation of memory, where they now say that when we remember things, we are actually revising them each time we remember them. We we're bringing in things we saw on TV, were bringing in new information, so were constantly creating this narrative of our own past, which is not fixed, which is constantly changing. So in a sense, you know, all of these things become very slippery. And this gets very tied in, I think, with her own sense of mortality, that her life itself is slipping away, which it feels like when you get to be that age, you know, my age.


GROSS: Which is?

SPIOTTA: Forty-five. She's a little older, but, yeah.

GROSS: I often times call my brother or my very oldest friend in the world and say, did this happen?


GROSS: You know, or what do you remember about this? 'Cause I kind of slightly remember it but I have no idea what actually happened. Do you? And between the two of us we can maybe construct it. Do you have somebody to do that with?

SPIOTTA: Yeah. Well, my brother. I have a little brother. And it's disturbing, though, Howell subjected these things are, because we really do have a small patch that overlaps these radically different stories of what happened. Yeah, it's very strange.

GROSS: Now, to write this book, because you're writing part of in Nik's voice, and Nik is writing in the voice of various music critics, you had to learn to write like various music critics, and you have to liner notes and obituaries and reviews. So what kind of reading did you do to get down the different languages that you would need to impersonate the voices that you wanted to?

SPIOTTA: I love this question. That was really so much fun. I do like to do a lot of research. I did read a lot of Lester Bangs and I read Greil Marcus and I read a lot of old Creem magazines. You remember Creem magazines in the '70s?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SPIOTTA: And when I was growing up I read a lot of New Musical Express and Melody Maker. But that's a sort of more British style. I really wanted American. So I was trying to get what Nik would have read because he has all these kind of rock-and-roll tropes of his head that had to be for this time period. And then he has these little weird kicks. He makes up quotes for people. You know, he makes up a quote from Gloria Steinem or he makes up a quote from Karl Popper. And because Nik is a, you know, he's a self-taught guy, working-class guy from Los Angeles, he's very smart, I could do whatever I wanted, really, and that's the joy that Nik takes, is that he can do whatever he wants. And so through him I got to do whatever I wanted. So in some weird way I kind of became like Nik Worth for a moment and I see it's so great not to have to worry about being derivative or...


SPIOTTA: ...or stealing things from people or getting it wrong. It was really fun.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Spiotta and we're talking about her new novel, which is called "Stone Arabia." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Spiotta. She is the author of the novel "Eat the Document" and the new novel "Stone Arabia." And it's about a man who is approaching 50 who never made it as a rock musician. But after he becomes a bartender and gives up a professional music career, he still keeps making records. But around these records he creates record jackets, record reviews. He creates a whole biography of this persona that he's created for himself under another name. And this persona actually makes the music but everything else is fake, the reviews, the album covers, and he calls this whole fake documentation "The Chronicles."

Did you ever want to be a musician or a musician's girlfriend?


SPIOTTA: Well, I am a musician's wife, so...

GROSS: Oh, are you...


SPIOTTA: My husband is a musician. He cooks and he's a chef but he also, he makes basement recordings. So many people in my life make basement recordings, so I feel very lucky, I'm surrounded by very creative people. But he makes records and then tries to get them out in the world and he plays out with his band. And, you know, these days with the music industry it's not like someone's going to discover you and sign you. I mean you sort of have to make your own records and put them out there and try to get a following. So...

GROSS: Go ahead and give them a plug. What's his name? What's the name of his band?

SPIOTTA: His name is Clement Coleman and his band is the Methodist Bells and they're terrific.

GROSS: Okay.


SPIOTTA: Thank you.

GROSS: Since your novel is inspired in part by your stepfather who created a musical persona for himself, should we end with one of his recordings from his website?

SPIOTTA: Oh, sure.


GROSS: I was thinking of "By School"(ph).

SPIOTTA: Oh, "By School," "By School" is a great one.

GROSS: Yeah. Do with anything about this?

SPIOTTA: This is a - my stepfather's band made this record. Village made this record, is the name of the band, and I believe it's from 1979.

GROSS: Now, should we maybe segue from - give the whole family a plug here.


GROSS: 'Cause everybody I think at this point is curious. Should we maybe segue from your stepfather's recording to your husband's, one of your husband's recordings?

SPIOTTA: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah? Okay. Dana's Spiotta, thank you so much.

SPIOTTA: Thank you so much, Terry. This is really fun.


VILLAGE: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Got my guitar all night. (Unintelligible) all night. Playing again (unintelligible). Boys will be boys. Girls will be girls. Hang on baby (unintelligible) world. You are rocking out of high school. I don't want to go to your school. You don't want to go to my school. But you're rocking out of my school. Oh, oh no. Oh, oh no. I'm just a broken hero of the Hollywood scene (unintelligible). And I've been selling you a fact of life and you've been listening to (unintelligible), 'cause you are rocking out of high school. I don't want to go to your school. You don't want to go to my school. But you're rocking out of high school.


METHODIST BELLS: (Singing) On our way to shopping town I've got to stop and look around, check my phone. Walk along the riverside I feel so cold but still I'm so alone. Everyone...

GROSS: We just heard Dana Spiotta's stepfather, Richard Frasca, and his band Village, and after that we heard her husband, Clement Coleman, and his band, the Methodist Bells. You can read an excerpt of Dana Spiotta's novel, "Stone Arabia," on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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