We were thrilled to interview Amber Sparks, whose second short story collection, The Unfinished World, came out from Liveright last month. It follows her debut May We Shed These Human Bodies, out from Curbside Splendor. Sparks’s short works are exquisitely crafted and entirely unique. One story in this latest collection is about houses for corpses that were actually built above ground, complete with quarters for guards to keep watch in case the dead reawoke. (Who knew these once existed?) Another story focuses heavily on taxidermy. There is one about hunting werewolves, one about a resurrected Lancelot, one set in a space station. Most of the stories are quite short, conveyed in dense and dazzling prose. We are proud to give you a glimpse into the creation of this beautiful collection.
First of all, let me just say how much I enjoyed your collection The Unfinished World. The subjects of your stories are just so awesome and varied. I know you must get this question a lot, but I have to ask: Where do your ideas for stories come from?
I’d love to say they come from my wildly adventurous life, but they come almost entirely from my reading experience. I’m a voracious reader and I read everything, especially history, fairy tales, literary fiction. I read something and if it seems to me it needs a different perspective, a different way of telling it, then I try to figure out what that different way of telling might be, and go for it.
Your collection contains a novella that is set in the early 1900s. You include major historical events like World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic. But you also have great fun with early twentieth century culture: when your characters are introduced to moving pictures or the work of Picasso, the reader also feels like she is discovering these things for the first time. My question is twofold. First: what was the research process for this novella like? And second: how did the research inform your writing?
So you can see right there how the answer to one plays into the other. History! I’m obsessed with the early twentieth century and particularly World War I and its aftermath. I knew that the novella was about, among other things, the hard juxtaposition between the old and the new. There’s the amazing Onion headline about the Titanic, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg,” which is one of the best things ever written because it’s clever and a perfect truism at the same time. The research was pretty immense, for this densely packed little story. I read lots of stuff about the time period, particularly researching a lot of the events and subjects I knew I wanted to write about, like the Armory show you mention, or documentary film making, or Arctic exploration during the twenties. Most of the novella is pretty true/accurate, especially by my usually liberal standards, though I take some liberties here, too. A lot of the writing also did come out of the research—I’d read about something that sounded interesting, and if it fit I’d write about that, too. The entire character of Lana Volcana came from my reading about Pola Negri for another project entirely, which is kind of how I roll.
Your work has been compared to that of Karen Russell and Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter. On your website, you list writers like Italo Calvino, Phillip K. Dick, Woolf, and Borges as heroes. My question is: what writers have had the most direct and powerful influence on your work?
Kelly Link is a pretty direct influence, for sure—I’m constantly in awe of what she does, how much actual, feral magic she manages to get on a page. I’m trying, always, for that. Matt Bell and Roxane Gay are two contemporary fiction writers who have had a huge influence on me in terms of style in particular—Matt has this very big and luscious sense of language, and Roxane a cool, elegant way of saying, and both are some of the most stylish writers I know and I’m sure that filters down into what I do all the time. Nabokov has probably had the most direct influence in terms of both subject matter, tone, and style—I would give anything to write a novel like Ada or Ardor or Pale Fire. I doubt whether anybody knows this writer, sadly, but Diana Wynne Jones, a fantasy and YA author, has had a huge influence on me, both in how I write fantasy and also how I write children—plus she’s hilarious and since I’ve been reading her since I was a little girl, I’m sure I’ve picked up her style of humor a bit—a very dry and British sense of humor. Same with E. Nesbit, actually, another children’s author. I read a lot of Brits as a kid and I always admired the very restrained humor in those books. It seemed so much funnier, smarter and more KNOWING than the rather exuberant American children’s books I read—and also perhaps not condescending to the kids in the same way American YA books often seemed to be. (At least, back then.)
You have been very successful building your career as a short story writer, in a literary environment that (in my opinion) still puts a lot of pressure on emerging writers to establish themselves with a debut novel. What was it like to make a career as a writer of short stories? Did you ever feel any pressure to publish a longer work early on?
Well, ha, I definitely do not have a career as a short story writer, if by career you mean I make a living at it! But certainly I consider myself a short story writer first and foremost. I don’t know why—it’s just the format I feel the most comfortable in, possibly because I started out in poetry, so perhaps novels just seemed too daunting? But it’s more than that—I also truly love short stories. I love the economy and the way it forces writers to make every sentence great. There’s no wastage, especially not in a very short fiction. I have often felt pressure to write a novel (and I’m writing one now, actually, not because of the pressure but just because I want to see if I can!) and I’m sure every short story writer has encountered the same. The market demands novels, or so we are told. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, though. Or at least not when it comes to the literary fiction audience.
Something that I think is remarkable about your collection is that, while very “literary,” the stories could fall into so many different genres, if I can use that word. Some are science fiction, others are historical fiction, others are fairy tales, etc. And yet they work wonderfully together. When you are writing a story, are you thinking about what genre or tradition it is a part of? Are you aware of the ways in which your stories are playing with certain traditions?
I’m almost never thinking at all about genre, though I read and write in all genres. I just write whatever seems fun or whatever I’m thinking about/obsessed with, and the style it demands is the story, too. I do love playing with tradition, though, particularly in regards to fairy tales, myth, and other traditional tales. I love turning those on their heads and seeing what it says about us.
What is your next project?
Well, I’m working on an essay collection, a novel, and a book of poetry, and starting to work on some new short stories as well. But I also have a baby and a full time job, so all these things in slow motion, if you will.
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser