Dana Spiotta’s ‘Wayward’ takes on a topic not often discussed in novels, and here’s why

Dana Spiotta’s latest novel “Wayward” is set just four years ago, in 2017, but the author said the upheavals of 2020 alone were drastic enough to make that recent time seem like historical fiction.

“It was the pandemic and then the George Floyd murder and then the election,” she says by phone from Syracuse, New York. “I was very determined to make it just 2017 and true to that moment.”

Falling somewhere between drama and dark comedy, “Wayward” shows a family unraveling against the backdrop of gentrification and the incoming Trump administration.

“Of course, that speaks to us now. Where we are now is all about what happened in 2017,” she says, adding, “That’s why I think of it as historic fiction in a way, because it’s got a fixed moment in the past that speaks to this moment, I hope.”

“Wayward” is told from the perspective of mother and daughter, Sam and Ally. After impulsively buying a house, Sam realizes that she’s also ready to leave her husband. The split comes as a shock to both her husband and daughter. Ally, a teen who already has a strained relationship with her mom, essentially cuts ties.

Sections of the book alternating between Sam and Ally’s points of view highlight a very contemporary generation gap. Sam is liberal, keenly interested in architecture and involved in historic preservation. Ally joined a club for young entrepreneurs and is having an affair with an older man, a libertarian developer.

“It’s a dangerous time,” says Spiotta of Ally’s teenage rebellion. “My own memory of it and my own observations of it is that your brain is just as good as a brain gets, it’s just brilliant, right? Fast, top-notch, but you have zero experience.”

Meanwhile, Sam is going through menopause, something that’s still little discussed in pop culture. “It is a really strong reminder that time is passing,” says Spiotta. “I think it’s very different than the gradual falling off of hormones that men experience. You’re really made to face your mortality; you’re aging in this profound way and, also, nobody is talking about it.”

Spiotta recalls going through menopause, asking some older women about it and wondering why it isn’t discussed more. “I think it’s partially because it feels shameful to admit that you’re getting older in our culture, especially if you are a woman, which is ridiculous,” she says. “I wanted to talk about it quite elaborately in the book and make it visible.”

Central to the story is how the characters use technology and how that may or may not impact the communication breakdowns. Ally takes precautions to conceal messages on her phone regarding her secret relationship. When her mom tries to text her, Ally doesn’t respond.

“It’s so much a part of our lives that it would be weird for contemporary fiction to not have it be a part of it,” says Spiotta. “The challenge is how do you incorporate it in prose in a way that’s interesting?”

Spiotta made technology part of the action. “My way of handling it is thinking about how it feels in your consciousness, but also how it feels in your body when you’re holding the phone and swiping it,” she says. “We use our phones as abstract objects, but they’re not real objects in a way. We don’t think about how we handle them.”

So, she considered exactly how one would handle a phone in 2017. “Do you press it awake? Do you swipe it? Do you touch it?” she says. “Trying to get the right language to describe all of this body interaction that we do with our technology, I found it interesting.”

Although set in Syracuse, many of the characters’ quirks, as well as the issues they face, will resonate with Californians. “I grew up in California and I used to write a lot more about California,” says Spiotta, who is a professor at Syracuse University, “but I found the same eccentricity here, where there’s a lot of interesting corners where strange things happened in the past and little utopias were founded with all sorts of interesting history. So, I found it very compelling.”

Tucked within “Wayward” is some incredibly sly commentary about the United States in the late 2010s. Ally’s revelation about her developer boyfriend is also a statement about gentrification in American cities. Spiotta points out that a lot of the buildings mentioned in the story are real, vintage buildings that have been renovated and repurposed. Both Ally and Spiotta are wondering who really benefits from these kinds of projects.

And those buildings connect mother and daughter, even when they are estranged. “It’s depressing and that’s one of the things that bothers Sam is that it lines up with the progression of how she sees the country, that things are just so ugly and poorly made,” says Spiotta. “She sees these empty, beautiful buildings and thinking about where did we go wrong? Why didn’t we figure out better uses for these things? And, why don’t we still make these old things?”

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