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In New Novel, A Woman Goes "Wayward" In A Mid-Life Crisis Sparked By 2016's Election


Samantha Raymond is going through the mids, waking up in the middle of the night in her middle age in the mid-sized city of Syracuse, N.Y., and wondering about motherhood, marriage, daughterhood, family, arts and crafts, human mortality, and after an election that confuses and alarms her, the state of America.

"Wayward" is the new novel from Dana Spiotta, the National Book Award finalist who teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse. She joins us from there. Thanks so much for being with us.

DANA SPIOTTA: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: We meet a house on the first page of the novel. What does Sam see in that house?

SPIOTTA: Well, she sees that it has beauty but that it's also a bit of a ruin. And so maybe that speaks to something about her own state as she finds herself in perimenopause, unable to sleep and having hot flashes (laughter).

SIMON: Does she really want to leave her family, her husband and Ally, her daughter - teenage daughter, for a house?

SPIOTTA: Well, I think she does fall in love with the house. And I think when she's on the drive home, she realizes she needs to leave her husband. I don't think she intends to leave her daughter. She thinks her daughter's going to come with her. But that isn't what happens.

SIMON: Yeah. How does the 2016 election set off events in Sam's mind? And is it too convenient to blame it on that?

SPIOTTA: Yeah. I mean, I think her husband suspects that's what it is because she was so upset by the election. It's a complicated question that she's trying to figure out. But she needs some time alone to have some clarity about who she is in midlife. I think she's not very happy with who she is.

And the election - one, I think it makes her feel a kind of sense of the misogyny in the culture that she knew was there but didn't really feel as viscerally until that and all the other problems in the culture that she knew about but hadn't really been doing much about. So I think she feels somewhat implicated in it as well as angry about it. And I think that's part of what her midlife crisis is about.

SIMON: She signs up for a lot of groups online, gathering - CNY Crones. Tell us, please, about the Hardcore Hags, Harridans...

SPIOTTA: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...And Harpies.

SPIOTTA: Well, I think one thing I was really thinking about with this character was I didn't want her to be a cliche midlife woman who was sad about losing her looks and her youth. So she embraces a group of women that are sort of proudly middle age and not afraid to confront their own aging. And I think she's more concerned with looking forward to her - what's to come, with her mother dying and her...

SIMON: Yeah.

SPIOTTA: ...Daughter growing up and leaving her. And I think those are bigger concerns for her than whether she has an ugly chin or something like that.

SIMON: Yeah - her daughter growing up and living her and also learning about romance in not a wise way. Is that a good way to put it?

SPIOTTA: Yeah. It's - I was thinking about myself at 17 and how your brain is so peak. You're so - you're as smart as you'll ever be at 17. But you also have no experience. So it's a very dangerous time. You don't know about the world, but you think you do. And so that's Ally. She's very smart but also very inexperienced, which is a dangerous place to be.

SIMON: You have some, I think it's safe to say, comic fun...

SPIOTTA: (Laughter).

SIMON: ..With some of these groups, don't you?

SPIOTTA: Yeah. Yeah. That's true. It's a lot of - there's a lot of, especially in the beginning of the book, a lot of satire of, I think, those Facebook groups and also some of the self-improvement with bodybuilding and a little bit with developers and Silicon Valley and libertarians. Yeah, a lot of stuff that comes in for it (laughter).

SIMON: And that term disrupter...


SIMON: ...As a matter of fact.

SPIOTTA: Yes, right. Yeah. A lot of the language that Silicon Valley tech dudes use, yeah.

SIMON: I've got to ask you about my favorite line in the book.

SPIOTTA: (Laughter) OK.

SIMON: (Reading) She switched off the podcast and listened to NPR.

SPIOTTA: (Laughter).

SIMON: (Reading) Then she turned that off...

SPIOTTA: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...And listened to the sounds of the road as she drove. I don't mean to put you on the spot, but was that during our show?

SPIOTTA: It absolutely wasn't. It was...

SIMON: (Laughter).

SPIOTTA: ...Definitely not.


SIMON: Tell me it was during Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

SPIOTTA: I think it was. Yeah.

SIMON: Oh, OK. All right.

SPIOTTA: (Laughter).

SIMON: All right. Sorry, Peter. I hope I don't leave myself open for criticism...

SPIOTTA: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...With this. In a novel that's filled with interesting, compelling, fascinating women, I got to tell you, I really like Matt...

SPIOTTA: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...The estranged husband.

SPIOTTA: He's very patient (laughter).

SIMON: Well, and he loves and respects Sam and wants to support her in all ways.

SPIOTTA: He doesn't quite believe that she's serious in her leaving him, which is - you can either find that charming or not, I think (laughter). But she thinks she's changing her life in these dramatic ways. But she she backslides a lot. She still...

SIMON: Yeah.

SPIOTTA: ...Takes money from Matt. She still sleeps with Matt. She's not really detaching completely. It's not really about Matt. It's really about her trying to see herself with clarity.

SIMON: Obviously, not to give away anything at the end, but I found myself worried about Sam.

SPIOTTA: (Laughter). I think she's at peace with the terms that we all have to face about our lives, that they are finite and that there is a way that you have to accept yourself by letting go of yourself.

SIMON: Dana Spiotta - her novel, "Wayward" - thank you so much for being with us.

SPIOTTA: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.