Amber Sparks is the author of The Unfinished World and Other Stories, and the just-released And I Do Not Forgive You: Revenges and Other Stories, both from Liveright. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, Granta, The Cut, The Paris Review, and others. You can find her most days at @ambernoelle. You can read more about her new book here.
Curtis Smith: I really loved And I Do Not Forgive You. Let’s start with a big-picture question. This is a story collection—and all the pieces were wonderful on their own—but after finishing the book, I felt a wholeness to it, a vibe that went beyond just language and tone. Perhaps what I was feeling was a host of perspectives of what it’s like to be a woman in the modern (and mythical!) world. Did you put the book together with a larger vision in mind than just offering a group of stories?
Amber Sparks: I did – it was important to do just what you suggest – to offer the perspective of what it’s like to be a woman. I wanted all the pieces to be from the perspective of women, and there are only two exceptions to that, I think, but those pieces are still largely about women. And I wanted to offer a version of transformation, of disappearing, that didn’t equate those things with weakness, but with power.
CS: I dug the stories that read like fables or fairy tales. I found myself thinking of the Fractured Fairy Tale segments from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle series—but with a more biting and feminist bent. I think the fable/fairy tale structure is really pleasing—it can offer a unique perspective and sweep of events and time—but as I was reading them, I was thinking that while the story comes off the page so easily, I’ll bet they’re pretty hard to write, especially the control of pace and tone. Do you find this? Or does this form come easily to you? I also loved how you weave in modern and humanizing threads—we have Zeus texting and reporters in the background of a palace uprising. Are these bits part of the story from the beginning—or do you find yourself coming back to the piece and braiding them in later?
AS: You know, I do find fairy tales easier to write than a lot of other forms. I think in part it’s because they’re in my DNA – I’ve been reading them since I was a small small child, since I could first read, and even before then my mother was telling me fairy stories. So they just flow from me in a way other forms do not. The modern bits come at the same time as the story itself, actually! To me, these stories are truly the kind you reweave and retell, they’re malleable. So of course they come with modern flavors now! Or that’s the weird way I see it.
CS: Can we take a look at the second and third paragraphs of the first story, “Mildly Unhappy, with Moments of Joy”? In these paragraphs, you use a series of telling details to construct a history between the two main characters. First, I’d like to ask how such a passage comes to you—do you just start thinking and then walk into this sweep of time and details where one leads to another? Or does it come to you in fits and starts over the course of many drafts? And while we’re on these paragraphs, let me ask how you handle passages like this where we’re exploring histories and backstories. I tend to stress in such places—it’s like there’s a timer in my head and I’m always anxious to move on—but you strike such a nice balance between moving forward and stepping back. Do you think about this as you write? If so, do you have any rules for yourself as far as forward momentum and the necessity to provide backstory?
AS: I think those paragraphs came very quickly on the heels of one another in this case. When I write a “here’s what happened” story, I tend to write them very quickly and then go back and edit the hell out of them. Oh and backstory! It’s so funny – I think it was Matt Bell who read one of my stories and told me (in all seriousness) how much he loved that I’d written an entire story in backstory somehow, the exact opposite of show don’t tell. I love to tell! Telling is what storytellers DO, and I never stress about how much backstory there is – it’s as much as there needs to be.
CS: There’s a lot of humor here—but it’s often a barbed humor, tinged with sadness and horror—and I’m wondering how difficult it is to handle all these different vibes, especially when we see them all in one story. Humor is so hard, especially in this day and age.
AS: It’s very funny (haha) because I will write a story and I won’t even realize it’s funny until I’m reading it and people laugh! But I do also try to be funny most of the time. I come out of comedy and improv, and it’s very rare for me to write something deadly serious. Almost everything is funny in some small way, and I try to reflect that in my stories. But it’s also sad, and that’s the other piece of the funny, almost always. I mean, we’re all going to die, and that’s so funny and so sad that it seems hard for any other emotions to exist alongside them.
CS: When I started reading, I thought your epigraphs were cool. Then when I returned to them later, I understood how they resonated. Can you tell us how and when you found these quotes and how they spoke to you? I also got a kick out of the subtitle—“stories and other revenges.”
AS: Oh I’m glad you dug them! I imagine a lot of authors do this, but I save quotes that I’d love to use for epigraphs someday, and both these were saved in my little notebook. They seemed two sides of the coin – the anger and the sadness – that’s in a lot of this book.
The stories and other revenges was something I came up with last minute, and it just sort of stuck. I’d been calling these stories “my little revenges” as I was writing them, and so it felt nice to sell them that way, too.
AS: The artist was amazing! She and Liveright dreamed it up, and I was just lucky enough to get to look at it and declare it awesome.
CS: Another thing I liked was how current this felt—I think writing in the moment about the moment is really difficult. Do you find this challenging? If so, how do you overcome those obstacles?
AS: I think it was easier than it sounds, because most of the stories actually don’t take place in the moment at all! They’re historical, or parables, or futuristic. So I can write about now without writing about now, if that makes sense.
CS: A number of stories utilized some interesting structures. There are fables and fairy tales. There’s a list story, a story written in one-paragraph segments, and a few with titled sections. When do these different structures come to you? At the start? Or sometimes are you deep into a piece and realize it would be better served by a different shape? What are the criteria you use for determining if a different structure would work better than a more traditional one?
AS: I actually can’t start writing a piece until I know exactly what form it’s going to take. If I can’t find the form, it’s just all wrong and I know it from the get-go. I can’t explain it logically, which seems silly because so many of the structures themselves are logical, but truly it’s a gut instinct.
CS: There’s a good variation between the points of view you use. Is your point of view pretty set from the beginning of your work on a piece? Or do you find yourself playing around with it, sometimes changing it (and perhaps then changing it back)? Do you have any rule of thumb as to what constitutes a first-person versus a third-person piece?
AS: I definitely play around with POV. I think if it’s a more fairy-tale, storytelling sort of thing, then it’s usually third person. It’s often first person if it’s more contemporary, or a close third-person – something where you can get more voice-y.
CS: What’s next?
AS: A novel! And a non-fiction book, too. But I don’t want to say more for fear of jinxing it.
Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).