Dana Spiotta looks delighted through the camera of the computer in her Syracuse, N.Y., home office. She loves the pink cherries and a white pear she can see blooming outside her window. They’re early this year—a reminder of all that’s living outside the houses in which we’ve been cooped up for so long.
Spiotta is immediately approachable, confessing that her own house is really in disarray. She says it’s in keeping with the state of being of a middle age woman who is worried about parents and kids, and coping with the daily surprises of menopause. “It is a lot,” the 55-year-old acknowledges, smiling. (She looks far younger, with her long brown hair and tortoiseshell glasses.) “I felt like the pandemic took away about 20% of my capacity at all times, so I had to let go of something that I couldn’t quite manage and say, ‘That’s really fine. Part of your brain isn’t working right now.’ ”
What’s left was enough to complete Spiotta’s latest novel, Wayward (Knopf, July). It’s a modern, poignant, and often funny story about a woman reckoning with midlife. The book is set in 2017, just after the election of Donald Trump. Samantha Raymond feels untethered: her mother is sick, her teenage daughter is pulling away, and, at 52, she finds herself repeatedly waking up in the middle of the night. All at once, she’s questioning everything. Her rebellion—she leaves her husband and teenage daughter behind in the suburbs of Syracuse and moves to a bungalow in the city to live simply and alone—raises plenty of questions.
With the book, Spiotta is exploring a number of weighty issues. What, exactly, gives life meaning and value? And what does it feel like to be a woman in a country going off the rails? Spiotta’s editor, Jordan Pavlin at Knopf, believes Wayward will be one of the summer’s most-discussed novels, calling it the author’s “finest work yet.”
Spiotta’s four previous novels—Innocents and Others (2016), Stone Arabia (2011), Eat the Document (2006), and Lightning Field (2001)—each received widespread critical acclaim and have been shortlisted for an array of literary prizes. She has also won a Creative Capital Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, the Premio Pivano, the Rome Prize in Literature, and the John Updike Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And she’s been nominated for a National Book Award twice and a National Book Critics Circle award.
But Spiotta writes to answer questions of her own. “In all my books, I’m interested in characters who are trying to change, or even just trying to see themselves with clarity, because I think change is so hard,” she explains. “The older you get, the harder it is to get over yourself, because you just have so much self. I think something dramatic sometimes needs to happen, and the book begins there. The character wonders, as she should, what has she done with all she has been given? Although it is not autobiographical, this book feels more personal and emotional because I wonder that, too.”
Spiotta lives with her husband and 17-year-old daughter within walking distance of Syracuse University, where she teaches creative writing in the MFA program. Like Sam, she wakes up in the middle of the night, but she decided not to fret about it. “I thought, well, some things are out of my control, so I’m going to just adjust. I can either lay in bed and spiral and worry, or I can go read or write something.”
When facing down the disappointments that so often descend in midlife, about choices not made and paths not taken, some people double down on their self-delusions instead of looking inward. “That may seem easier in the short term, but that’s not an honest life, and I don’t think it ends well,” Spiotta says. “No one looks back and says, ‘Oh, I asked myself too many questions about what I was doing.’ No—that’s what you need to do, even if it costs you something.”
Those questions loomed large in 2017, when the nation suddenly found itself reckoning with its own identity crisis. For Spiotta’s protagonist, that meant asking some foundational questions: “What to do now, and how to be now?” It’s no wonder Sam leaves her comfortable life on the outskirts of Syracuse to find answers in the underbelly of the city.
Spiotta grew up in California, which has featured in all of her previous books. “We’re shaped by the geography of where we live—everything from the weather to the architecture,” she says. “Living in Los Angeles shaped the characters I wrote about in a different way than the characters who are shaped by Upstate New York. There’s something about the imposing landscape in the west that changes your relationship to it. Here, it’s much gentler. It feels like a long-inhabited place.”
Remnants of that history play their own role in Wayward. For Spiotta, stories always begin with objects: she pins scrawled notes, good luck charms, talismans—details she wants to remember—to the cork wall above her desk. There are pictures of pottery, architectural plans. It’s chaotic. But as she takes them in, she keeps switching things out. “You can see things, and you can move them,” she says.
Then comes the story. “When I start, I don’t really know where I’m going,” Spiotta says. “I keep a notebook with notes and the questions I’m interested in. Then I usually get a character, and I just get the character to talk, either to other people or to themselves. Once I hear that voice, then I understand. I either need to have dialogue, or I need to have an internal monologue. But I need to hear that voice.”
By the end of the book, the fear in Sam’s voice about her ailing mother really highlights the anxiety about her own mortality. This is something Spiotta knows from experience: her own father died last year after a long illness. “The visceral aspect of not having control of your body—which you don’t—reminds you of all the other places you don’t have control,” she says. “You can’t actually make everything okay; it’s not within your power, and that is liberating. Part of the job of being alive is to figure out how to die.”
As she listens and writes, Spiotta keeps digging. “I do way more research than I need to,” she says, laughing. “I used to worry about being more efficient. Now, I think, ‘Why? What is velocity, and why is that the ultimate value of everything?’ The process is really messy, but it’s so fun—and you discover weird things that you can only get from just meandering through stuff.”
And those details add dimensions to Spiotta’s characters. They also give her the confidence to be more precise. “If you can just find the language to meet that moment, that’s the whole fun of writing, and the challenge,” she says. “You want something magical to happen, and that isn’t usually the straight line. It’s the weird line, and sometimes it’s the happenstance line.”
Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos has written for Forbes, Newsweek, and Working Mother.