Short-Form Interview with Dorothy Spears
by Odette Heideman
(illustration by Kendra Allenby)
Epiphany: On the scale of fiction vs non-fiction it appears your body of work is weighted more in the latter. Do you prefer writing one to the other? If non-fiction, is there a particular sub-category that you prefer?
I prefer writing non-fiction, specifically memoir, or personal essay, for the simple reason that it’s where I find deepest well of language. Decades ago, I used to paint and draw and I always felt most comfortable working from life. The challenge of connecting my observations to language—even if that language was conveyed through color on a paintbrush, or a penciled line—has always focused me. That’s how I find my voice. It’s not that I have no imagination—although that may be true—but for me the best words tend to swarm around memories that are grounded in actual life.
What are you working on now? Fiction? Non-fiction? Art reviews?
I am just finishing a book called Front Desk Girl, about coming-of-age as a receptionist at the world-famous Leo Castelli art gallery. The piece published in Epiphany, “Labor Day Weekend,” is a chapter from Front Desk Girl.
Your memoir, “Labor Day Weekend,” blurs the line of non-fiction—like the best memoirs, it is raw and revealing. Did you approach the material as one might a story of fiction? Since the story takes place several decades ago, is there some comfort in being able to hold the subject matter at arm’s length?
I was a comparative literature major in college and have been reading fiction all my life. I read Susan Minot’s Monkeys when it came out in the eighties and felt something like an electrical jolt. The stories she was telling in fiction reminded me of incidents in my family and my then-husband, Vance’s family. I remember thinking, Maybe I do have something to write about!
A few years later, drinking at the Odeon after a party celebrating the publication of his first book of stories, Seduction Theory, I started telling my friend, Tom Beller, about weekends at Vance’s family’s beach house. He said, “Wait ten years. Then write this.” I waited… twenty-five years. In the end, I think holding the material at arm’s length was less of a factor than getting divorced. I approached “Labor Day Weekend” as fiction in the beginning, but I kept glossing over the really hard parts, because I was married. What I was writing felt close to the truth, but also frustratingly, negated the same truth. Fiction became a place to hide. I wanted my stories to bear witness.
The rich atmospheric writing of “Labor Day Weekend” is unsparing in its view of a marriage and its complicated histories and components. When did you begin working on “Labor Day Weekend”? Were you keeping some sort of notes or diary contemporaneously?
The hardest part of memoir writing for me is not remembering what happened, but finding words for how I felt about it at the time. I’ve kept a journal most of my life, and there’s a sweet spot, often, where diary and memory seem to amplify each other. It’s a real excavation, and there are often layers upon layers of exchange between what’s written on the page of, say, one of my diaries, and the ever-sharpening inner world triggered by a given memory. And sometimes the process of elucidation goes too far, and what’s left has no mystery, and I have to dial it back, or take it in a different direction. But I always want what I write to be as honest as I can make it and as accurate.
How was the process of writing it? The material as you present it in the memoir is unsettling for the reader, even though you managed to counterbalance it with the undramatic narration. How was it to write? Did the pages flow easily?
The voices of Vance and my close family members will always remain alive and kicking inside me. I attempted to write “Labor Day Weekend” I don’t know how many times in a variety forms, including fiction, and maybe even as a play. People assume that having a really vivid memory is great for writing memoir, but it also can be hard to find your way into the drama without getting overwhelmed by the many different ways the story can go, or without becoming distracted by the plethora of minutely-recalled details. I am constantly resisting moments of “wow, I remember that; I should keep it,” and it can feel like cutting off your own arm limiting the details only to what drives the narrative. The rawness often comes, ironically, from cutting. And the undramatic narration prevents me from dancing around, or deviating from, the more difficult, elusive truth.
Did you find the act of writing cathartic?
For me, the act of writing for me has always been a process of making sense. I read every Nancy Drew as a child. My mother used to laugh, “Dorothy, you always need to get to the bottom of everything!” It was practically an accusation! When I began to write journalism—I wrote art-related features and profiles for the New York Times for ten years, and for art magazines and other newspapers long before that—it was always the piecing together of narratives that drove me. Writing for me is a lot like being a detective, or maybe in the CIA.
Are there any parts of the memoir you have left out of the final draft? Did you have any outside readers giving you feedback as you wrote it or did you just carry on?
My dear friend, and former high school roommate, Gwen Strauss, who is not only a writer, but also the director of the Dora Maar Artist and Writer’s Residency in Ménerbes, France, read “Labor Day Weekend” in one of its earliest drafts. I think she was struck, like you, by the rawness of it, and its sense of atmosphere. But she has been a part of my life since I was fifteen, so she also remembers my many afflictions.
As the writing reveals much about the characters of your then husband and rather insensitive mother-in-law, how was that for you and your family once it was published? Have you maintained ties with them?
My ex-husband and I are in many ways closer now than we were when we were married. I told him about the memoir, and said I’d be happy to change his name, and he said I didn’t need to. “It was all so long ago,” was how he put it. He also said, “It’s your story, and you need to tell it,” and apologized for what he’d put me through. We were having lunch together, and his eyes welled up. I can’t tell you how touched I was. His mother is deceased, but over lunch that day he acknowledged that she’d put us both through quite a lot, and regretted that he was so caught up at the time in trying to please her, that he didn’t try to stop her.
The fact that it’s a coming-of-age story not only for yourself, but also for Vance, did you feel any responsibility to him in writing it? What was your thinking as you were writing it? Was there a change once you had your final draft?
I felt, and continue to feel tremendous responsibility for Vance, which is why it’s so important to me that my account is accurate, factually and emotionally. My thinking as I was writing was that I kept hearing things these people said, and what they said reminded me of other things and took me places.
As we are coming up on Labor Day, 2019, do you think back to this emotional roller coaster weekend when it rolls around every year?
What an interesting question! After my marriage broke up, for a dozen or so years, Labor Day was a weekend of transition, packing up my sons’ and partner, Alexis Rockman’s belongings, and leaving our summer rental in Sag Harbor in time to avoid the traffic back on the Long Island Expressway. Usually we would leave Saturday, and spend Labor Day celebrating in the quiet of the city, maybe barbecuing in the evening. Alexis is a visual artist, so we are not on a conventional nine-to-five, Monday through Friday schedule. We both love our work, and we work pretty much every day, so Labor Day has become a bit of an afterthought.
This Labor Day, however, my older son, who lives and works in the DC area, is coming home for the first time since Christmas, and my younger son lives and works in New York, so I am hoping we will all be together, cooking and eating and enjoying each other.
What are you reading?
I finished The Parisian, a novel by Isabella Hammad earlier this summer, which I truly loved, because it elucidated for me the predicament of Palestinians through characters that were humorously and affectionately drawn, and through language that varied from direct and simple to utterly stunning. The story, really a saga, spanned multiple generations, and felt deeply original and necessary.
I am now listening to Middlemarch on Audible, the classic novel by George Eliot, which seems to be making clear that marriage and self-actualization, for women, anyway, has long been, and may forever be, a subject of great complexity—and a conundrum.
Dorothy Spears’s features and profiles appear frequently in the New York Times. A regular contributor to Art In America, she is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). She worked her way from front desk girl to curator and sales rep from 1986-90 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. She lives and works in New York.