Amber Sparks is the author of the just-released short story collection The Unfinished World and Other Stories, out from Liveright. She’s also the author of a previous short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author of a hybrid novel, the Desert Places, with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish. She blogs sporadically and posts stuff sometimes on her website, ambernoellesparks.com, and wastes time generally on Twitter @ambernoelle. She currently lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, infant daughter, and two cats, though she originally hails from the upper Midwest.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Unfinished World. I always like to hear about how a book came into being. Many journeys have interesting twists. How was your experience?
Amber Sparks: It was definitely a typical experience for a short story writer, I think. Many editors liked the book; few wanted to touch a short story collection by a relatively unknown writer. So my agent and I stopped shopping it around and I wrote a novel instead. When we were shopping around that novel, one of the editors asked if she could see a short story collection (!!!) and that part, of course, is not typical. And she read it and loved it and thought the novel would make a much better novella (which it did) and I was so excited by her admiration for the work and willingness to take a chance on it that I said yes. And here we are! I hope to prove, as always, that people do want to read short stories, that there really is a market out there for the art form. Which IS an art form – and not just a stepping stone to a novel. (And of course, I’m working on a novel – but it’s a novel in stories, so!)
CS: Your book begins with a very touching dedication to your daughter. I know it’s early in the game, but do you see parenthood changing your work in any way? Not just your time at your desk but also your perspective on the world?
AS: Oh, certainly, yes. Time at the desk of course – there’s precious little of that now, with an infant, so I have to be really efficient when I sit down to write. But also, there are things I wrote that I cringe to read now that I’m a parent. There’s a story in the book, actually, that I don’t think I would have written now, or could have written now. I have a very hard time with casual violence on children, especially just to serve a plot point or shock. (This is true in film, too.) I think differently about the way I write children, their inner lives are much more present on the page, I think. Not that they were props before, exactly – but I never quite realized how much is going on in a kid’s head, even one so young as mine. It’s marvelous and funny and very interesting to write a separate, and very young little person.
CS: I thought the book was really wonderful. Your language and style, the risks you took—it made for a really pleasing read. I want to talk about science. I’m kind of a science geek—and I was drawn to the undercurrents of the worlds of science and math and history, realms we usually think of residing in the left brain. We encounter astronauts and taxidermists, time travelers and paleontologists—and your language itself has a very precise tone. Do you find yourself fascinated by the sciences? And if so, what do you see in them that lends itself to being used in your work?
AS: I would say not just the sciences, but all things fascinate me. I’m curious about almost everything, though certainly an expert in almost nothing. I think I would have done well as one of those wealthy gentleman scholars back in the day, just dabbling in this and that experiment or philosophical problem as they pleased. (Take note, rich patrons.) I know a lot of writers who’ll ask: how do you get the idea to write about these things, or how do you know what to research? And I don’t – I actually spend about half of my time reading nonfiction. Lots of history, some science, philosophy, all kinds of stuff. And if I come across something that sounds fascinating, I’ll look it up – and if I see that very little, especially fictional, has been written about it, I’ll just write it myself. It’s how I came to write Birds with Teeth, for example – I just couldn’t believe this incredibly bizarre and compelling story, this extraordinary rivalry, complete with dinosaur bones, had never been told with the richness the narrative deserved. In situations like that I almost feel compelled to write these things. It seems criminal to waste such perfect human stories.
CS: I’m fascinated by the use of unconventional structures. You have long stories like “The Cemetery of Lost Faces” that are told in a series of precisely rendered (and sometimes seemingly disjointed) snippets that coalesce to give us a story with a novel’s sweep. “The Logic of the Loaded Heart” reads like a series of world problems from a math text. Other stories are presented in lists (“Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting”) or as digressions on given topics (“The Process of Human Decay”). I’m wondering where in the process does structure come to you? Do you start with it as a kind of skeleton—or does it arise from the material as you’re wrestling it onto paper?
AS: You know, it’s really both. It takes me a very long time to write a story, and not because the act of writing is slow – I get on like a house on fire when I actually sit down to write. It takes a long time to figure out how to tell the story, which as you can tell is just as important to me as the story itself. I spend a lot of time in my own head, wrestling with the how. I like to think the forms are organic to the story, or at least complementary- that they grow out of the roots of the story like a strange new plant. For instance, Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting. I kept trying to write this story about a painter’s obsession, and his wife’s despair – and it just came out so boringly conventional, it felt like it had nothing new to say, no new insights or feelings. And finally one day I was in the airport and I don’t know why, but the TV was showing a Road Runner cartoon – probably an ad, but it got me thinking. I thought about futility, and perseverance, and Sisyphus, and the whole human condition and how it’s all sort of beautifully condensed and expressed in the actions of Wile E Coyote. And somehow that felt like the right form to tell my story about obsession and despair and futility and yes, modern art. And from there the story took very little time to actually write (though the editing process was of course, longer.) I won’t write a story if it doesn’t feel new and necessary – and often, form has a great deal to do with that. Themes are somewhat universal, but forms can twist them around, expose the underbelly and the tender, unsunkissed sides that normally don’t get light at all.
CS: I thought many of the pieces had to do with beauty and its inevitable decay. Do you feel that as well—or am I off base here?
AS: Oh absolutely. Every great poem about beauty, about love of beauty, is really about death, no? Is really about decay. Back up to Shakespeare’s “forty winters will besiege thy brow” (and by the way, I’m nearly there) and on back forever. The opposite side of the coin of beauty is always decay, which of course is why beauty is compared poetically to fleeting things, to flowers and summer and things that pass and fade. And decay is just death, which is something I never ever stop thinking about. My poor parents – they find that incredibly depressing. But it’s not depressing to me! It reminds me to appreciate beauty – to appreciate the summer before the inevitable collapse into cold. And of course, beauty is such an interesting subject, too, because it’s subjective and subject to change and a subject for so much heated discussion. (I hope to try to write about that as much, too, for instance, the price of bought beauty in Things You Should Know about Cassandra Dee.) It’s fraught with emotive peril. It catches us up in who we are or would like to be. So it’s a universal topic and one that can’t possible help but be reflective of ourselves and our society.
CS: The language throughout is beautiful—lyrical yet also crisp. You give us these wide, distant, clear views—then you rack the focus and bring us in close to a character with details that are often unique and stunning. Do you find yourself thinking a lot about creating this kind of stance—or does it come naturally?
AS: First of all, thank you! I don’t think a lot about that, to be honest – I think probably it comes about because I am sort of first and foremost a failed painter. I wanted to be an artist before I ever wanted to write, but I just have no talent for visual art. And so instead I wrote, but I’ve always been very interested in visual art and have studied it rather intensely, and I think or hope that my writing does tend to reflect that. We are a visual society, I think, and our insights and perceptions are formed by seeing, and the juxtapositions that creates. And that doesn’t mean writing “and then she looked at her long, medium-brown hair and her smooth, 128 pound frame in the mirror” or that kind of bullshit writing. It means actual visual impressions, flashes. Painting doesn’t describe (good painting, I mean.) It captures. It flashes. And that’s what good writing should do, too, I think.
CS: I also like to ask folks about their process. Are you a planner? A sometimes-planner? Or do you just sit down and see where your pen takes you?
AS: I have always been a chaotic human being, and that includes planning, which just doesn’t happen. I’ve always bristled at the suggestion that to be a good writer, one should write every day—I know that works well for some, but not for others, and certainly not for me. If I’m not feeling it, it’s not going to come out. I’ve never been able to say, “I’m going to sit down and write at 4:00 pm until 6:00 pm and see what happens.” Because what happens will most likely be screwing around on Facebook for two hours, bored of my own lack of inspiration. I’ll go for months without writing, then spend hours every day for a week. I’m just not a workhorse writer—I need to have something to say, and need to say it very badly.
Now that said, I have an infant daughter now. And that sort of changes everything. I fear that I may have to become at least a little more of a planner, because if inspiration strikes and I’m in charge of this small person, there’s nothing I can really do to answer inspiration’s call. So I suppose I may need to find a happy medium, though I’ve yet to know if that will really work for me or not. I hope so!
CS: Was it always writing or nothing at all with you? If not, what else called you?
AS: Oh lord no. It was everything under the sun. I’ve been an actor, a musician, a philosophy major (sorry again, Mom and Dad). I wanted to be a history prof or a filmmaker, and then later wanted to be a politician. (Hahahahaha.) I wanted, briefly, to specialize in Arthur and Romance languages. I wanted to be an FBI criminal profiler (and I mean in college, where I quickly failed out of statistics and decided psychology was not for me.) In short, I have wanted to do everything under the sun but be a writer. I always wrote, though—since about four years old I was always writing something. I just, for whatever reason, never thought it was a thing one could say one did— that it was like driving ATVs or something, a fun hobby that you did nights and weekends up at the cabin.
CS: What’s next?
AS: Well, I’m working on a novel, as the cliché goes. Actually two sort of novels. One is a retelling of a very famous book, and the other is a novel in stories, which is probably more my speed. I’m also working on putting together a book of essays, and writing a book of poetry about medieval women saints and seers. And all of this, of course, around the whole raising a needy infant thing, so it’s going rather slowly at the moment.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.