Amber Sparks is a writer with a huge imagination. Her stories are full, vast, weird: Paul Bunyan’s sadness and loneliness, nursing home geriatrics beset upon a children’s choir with ravenous hunger, even a series of what look to be genetically-related heart attacks, and the lone survivor, gripping fast to his own life, and that of his progeny. Whenever I read Amber Sparks I know that I will be continually surprised and delighted with each unexpected yet perfectly natural turn. Most of these stories can be found in her debut collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, published last year by Curbside Splendor. But she’s still at work, writing stories and novels, though, as I learned in our conversation, she came to prose via poetry, and her love of language is apparent in sentences like, “Lay your life out flat before us”; or “Sometimes there will be only a still-raw, feckless, fettered child left standing at the edge of the map, ready to push the human race into something uncharted and wild and new.” That child might just be Amber Sparks herself.
Jamie Iredell: Your stories seem to vacillate between realism and fantasy, or they are infused with fairytale-like qualities. Is there a particular “style” you’d say you’re going for?
Amber Sparks: I don’t think there’s a particular style I’m going for, ever—other than I guess what you might call language-y. I started out in poetry and language is still probably the most important thing to me when telling a story, so I’m always trying to elevate that, make it interesting, stretch it and deform it and make it something new to frame an old story. Because all stories are old stories, right? It’s just finding a new way of telling. I do tend to gravitate toward the fantastic, towards myth and fairy tale, I think partially because it’s what I know, what I grew up reading, and partially because it’s what I’m interested in—I’m not very interested in what can happen, most of the time, but rather what can’t—and I think partially because fairy tales, myths, these are the oldest stories, the stories that humans have been telling each other since the beginning of humans. And I like the idea of starting with the primeval, the basic building blocks, and then applying that framework to our modern lives and machines. I feel like then these stories do two things: say something about us now, and say something about us always, this weird young race that’s just hanging out all alone in this corner of the universe.
JI: So what’s your “process” like then? Have you read Gary Lutz’s essay “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”? When you’re thinking about language, do you tend to think sonically, or do you think of phrases or independent clauses as units of sound and sense? I read in an interview with Gary Lutz that he writes by putting one word down at a time, then agonizing over what word seems and sounds right to go next to that first word, either in front of it, or after it. I imagine it takes him a very long time to write a story. Do you work on the individual word on a sonic or language level like Lutz, or do you tend to think of sound units as phrases or clauses? Or do you draft a story, then in revision look carefully at your language and try to “stretch and deform it” as much as you can till you get it right?
AS: Almost entirely the second of those two. I get the draft on the page, concentrating on just getting it written rather than on language. Then in revision, it’s all about warping, changing, making the language more interesting, more poetic—and something that sounds right, too. I read everything I write aloud, and it has to sound good.
Good God, one word at a time? That’s crazy. It obviously works for Gary (I mean, really works), but I don’t think I could possibly make that work for me. For me it’s about sentences building into paragraphs—that’s the unit I’m working with, like little mini songs or poems. Some very short, some longer and more lyrical. I like a lot of variation—a lot of musicality in how the language builds and crescendos and fades and sometimes abruptly cuts to a close. Stories must be symphonies, for me. I like working on that level. Working with individual words to build would be like individual notes—it just would be too hard to see the whole, for me, at such a microscopic level.
JI: My favorite story in May We Shed These Human Bodies is “Cocoon.” It’s just fantastic. Not only is the story sound, good fun, and well-wrought on the language level, but it works for me in a macabre way that reminds me of early Stephen King. Do you have a favorite story or stories from MWSTHB? And for what reasons? Or do you love them all equally? Or are you simply sick of that book, and ready to focus all of your attention on your novel?
AS: Oh, hey, thank you! I love when people have favorite stories—it’s always super interesting to me, who likes what pieces. I like that piece because old people scare the shit out of me and also, zombies! I do have favorite stories—the title story, because it sort of started the entire book rolling. And I really like “Death and the People,” though I’m also kind of sick of it since I probably read it most frequently. I think maybe my personal favorites are “All The Imaginary People are Better at Life” and “When the Weather Changes You,” because they’re both about my favorite topic—the need for solitude in a world packed FULL FULL of people. I poured a lot of myself into those stories, in particular. I also really dig the last story, “Most of Them Would Follow Wandering Fires,” because I think it’s maybe the saddest and happiest piece in the whole book—all of the potential folded and unpacked and refolded again. It’s closest, in some ways, to what I want all of my stories to be about—the choices we have here on earth all existing simultaneously, like Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time. I want to be greedy with time in all the work I write—have my cake and eat it over and over again, you know?
I am a little sick of the book, yeah, in the same way I guess everyone gets sick of the book and moves to the next one. And yeah, my head is definitely in novel land. Or at least, it certainly should be.
JI: I like that you say that your “head is in novel land.” Whenever I’m writing a book I feel I have to really live inside that book for a long time. I think about it when I’m exercising, or when I have idle moments, like sitting in my car at a red light. I dream scenes or simply images around the setting or what I envision of the characters of the book, etcetera. Because of this I tend to work more slowly than perhaps some other writers. How do you get into “novel land”? And how quickly do you work? Do you expect it will take a good bit yet to finish your novel?
AS: I’m absolutely like that—I’ve always got the novel somewhere in my head. I don’t know if it’s like this for you, but for me it’s kind of problematic because everything that’s interesting, I’m like, oooh, that needs to go in the novel! And obviously that’s terrible. There are way too many things in this novel right now—I have to either stop listening to that voice in my head, or else I have to stop reading/watching/being alive on the planet. I tend to work in spurts, during which time I work incredibly quickly. I’m like the exact opposite of the slow and steady writer—you know the advice about “write every day?” Does NOT work for me. I cannot. I THINK about the novel everyday. But the days when I write are sometimes quite far apart—and when I do, I’m on fire. It’s usually because I’ve finished working out the problem in my head of how I need to write about something, and once it’s solved, BOOM. Twenty pages fly by in a day. Is it like that for you?
JI: I work very much the same as you, although when in my normal routine (i.e., at home, with no distractions like family in town and what not) I do tend to write everyday. It’s not always thousands of words everyday, sometimes as few as a hundred. Realistically, though, since I have a two-year-old, I have family rolling into town about every other month, and it’s hard to work with that. I do a lot of writing in my head, down to actual sentences. And it’s hard to write consistently during the school year, because I have to put on my professor hat.
So, your novel-in-progress: How far along are you, would you say? And, without this being a spoiler, what can you tell us about what seems to be a new world, newer at least than our current one, based on Oliver’s “Cabinet of Curiosities”? And what can you tell us about Set?
AS: Do you know Mo Yan? He writes his entire novels in his head before he puts them down on paper, which is just amazing today. I mean, I have the shape of the novel in my head, but not the novel itself. I’m pretty erratic, too, because of work—I have a very demanding job which sometimes gets particularly crazy, sometimes a little less so—and during the crazy times (like now, actually) I probably won’t write for five, six weeks. I know, people will probably be horrified by that. But like, the last thing I want to do after an insane ten hour day is go home and write. But I think about the novel. All the time. Then when things get less crazy, I start writing again, like a house on fire.
Oh, goodness. It’s always so hard to talk about your novel, right? I mean, the elevator speech doesn’t exist yet or anything. Well, I can say it takes place in the 1920s, primarily, and Set himself is the seventh son of a seventh son, which sounds very metal as I type it out. He’s the youngest in his family, and he believes himself to be utterly ordinary. But of course he can’t be really, right? Really, though, it’s a family drama. And it’s about love, and passion, and sacrifice, and obsession. Also there might be Norse gods. And that’s all that I’ll say about that.
JI: Do you prefer writing short stories to novels? Have you written novels prior to this one? You know, as like apprentice novels?
AS: Ha, yes, I infinitely prefer writing short stories. I mean, I started writing poetry and flash, and only gradually and lately have been writing long short stories. It makes me very nervous, the long form. I’m an insane perfectionist, and it’s so much easier to make everything as close to perfect as possible when the form is short. I’m also the kind of person who makes lists of everything, and gets great satisfaction in crossing things off said lists. So it’s just hard to keep a project like a novel open, and going, and going… I did write a couple of novels before—once in undergrad, so that doesn’t count, and once when I was thirteen and so that doesn’t count either, though it was probably much better than the undergrad one. And then last year I aborted a novel about halfway through—it was a one of those embarrassingly ambitious things that I think everyone has to attempt once and then laugh about. I was, yes, attempting to retell the story of Ulysses but instead of Troy it was France during WWI. It was…not very good.
JI: Do you still write poetry?
AS: I haven’t for a while—I do every once in a while, though. Actually, after this novel, I’d like to go back to it for a minute—I have a very ambitious project in my head involving poetry and collage and found objects and light boxes and I’m thinking I might do something like that, to sort of travel on the other side of my brain for a while.
JI: So, then, speaking of the poetic: tell us about the INCIDENT WITH THE BEE AND THE BIRD that you recently posted about on Facebook.
AS: Oh my lord. I don’t know if this is poetic, really, so much as that I was wearing my bee perfume today. (It’s called Honey and the Moon and it smells like honey.) But yes, a giant bumblebee fell on my head while I was outside eating my lunch, and before I even had time to freak out, this tiny little bird swooped in and plucked it from my head. Expertly, I might add—it didn’t even hurt.
I mean, that’s weird, right? But things like that happen to me all the time. I think that’s why I’m a writer. What else can you do with information like that? It’s useless except in fiction.
In This Issue:
Photo Source: The Collagist