Expanding the Possibilities of Story: AMBER SPARKS with John Madera
The Unfinished World and Other Stories
John Madera (Rail): Love and death, as themes, figure prominently throughout The Unfinished World and Other Stories, and they’re often threaded, knotted, or otherwise mangled together when they appear. Did you purposely set out to explore these themes, or did they come about more organically, or something else entirely?
Amber Sparks: I think both? Certainly they’re two subjects I think about more than any other. Or at least death. Love comes less overtly into my stories and more as a result of the death part, I suppose because I find myself spinning out solaces and reasons for being, even with the prospect of not-being hanging over us all the time. Even ghosts in my stories usually get to explore love as well. Every death story is a love story, to insufferably paraphrase one of my own stories.
Rail: Like May We Shed These Human Bodies (2012), your first collection, most of the fictions in The Unfinished World are very short, their length sometimes no more than a couple pages. Why do you gravitate toward this length? What would you say are its unique challenges and opportunities?
Sparks: I find great rewards in the short piece, though as of late I’ve been finding something worth exploring in longer pieces, too. But the shorter fiction will always be something of a passion with me because, perhaps paradoxically, I prefer to write in the epic vein. I find it much easier—and much less pompous or over-important—to write very epic fiction in a very short space. I think the compression tends to lend it something of a power, of a gravity, that would dissipate (for me) in a longer story. The longer pieces I write tend to be character sketches, tend to be tales—but the shorter the story, the more enormous and weighty the theme, I suspect. I think this is also true with the darker stuff I write. You can only get but so dark but so longer before the story collapses under its own grit. There’s a lot more light in the longer stories I write, like the novella, for instance.
Rail: The stories here run the fabulist fiction gamut. You explore myth, science fiction, legend, horror, the fairy tale, etc., upending their tropes, often subtextually critiquing them. And sometimes you comment directly on genre conventions. For instance, in “The Cemetery for Lost Faces” we find an argument about what constitutes a fairy tale, some characters arguing that the “happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.” What would you say motivates you to play with genre, to trespass their seeming borders? And how would you describe the “hungry darkness inside”?
Sparks: Honestly, most of it is a love for genre fiction, film, and television. The things that got me passionate about reading and writing, the things that I took the first story shapes and tropes from, were almost entirely genre: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, fairy tale. The first books I ever read were books of fairy tales my dad had from his own childhood. So I’ve been forming stories around these traditional structures and genre conventions forever, and playing with those conventions, upending them, for almost just as long. I wouldn’t say there’s an overt motivation beyond playfulness, between thinking always of ways to expand the possibilities of story. But I think if I’m being honest, feminism and an interest in outsider art, in fringe stories, probably also play a role, because there’s so much to be said about the role of women in these traditional stories and in stories outside of the traditional literary space.
Rail: Whether it’s the various disruptions of time and space in the narrative structure, or the placing of a familiar person in an unfamiliar situation or an unfamiliar person in a familiar situation, these stories surprise. What would you say are the ingredients to making something engagingly strange, disturbing, and/or surprising?
Sparks: That’s a great question, and I’m not actually sure. I know in my acting days, we learned that comedy is all about surprise, but not just jumping out from behind bushes. More the kind of surprise that delights, that confirms or confounds something you thought you knew. True surprise, I think, should do something other than simply startle. It should force your brain off the tracks, or at least I hope it does. As far as the strange and disturbing aspects of the pieces—I can’t blame that on any intention or anything except for my own weird brain. I sometimes want to hang a sign on my head: “Contents may not be for everyone.”
Rail: In contrast to May We Shed These Human Bodies, where the stories, on the level of style, often have the direct and largely unadorned beauty of fairy and folk tales, these stories feature more lyrical flourishes, a pronounced musicality in their sentences. Would you talk about this development?
Sparks: I’m really interested in this question because you’re the first person to point this out, and I think it’s rather true. I’m not sure about the reason—I could say something about being a more confident writer, or something about reading more varied writers. It might also be influences—during the time I was writing a lot of these stories, I was working on a book with Robert Kloss, and he tends toward a very ornate prose style, so I may have been moving more toward that. In any case, I need to think about this more—it’s fascinating how your writing can take on a life away from you.
Rail: Brian Evenson once described “influence” as “gaining control over the voices that fiction inflicts upon you, in bending the voices to your will,” suggesting that it’s primarily the one influenced rather than the “influencer” who is the primary actor. Besides Kloss, who were these writers you were reading while writing the stories in The Unfinished World? What did you do with these voices?’
Sparks: Oh, man, I was reading so many writers. Brian Evenson, actually! Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, Calvino, Matt Bell, Scott McClanahan, Roxane Gay, Erin Fitzgerald, Blake Butler, Sarah Rose Etter, Kelly Link, Andrea Kneeland, Jac Jemc, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lindsay Hunter, Karen Russell, Faulkner, McCarthy, Sasha Fletcher—it was such a long period of time, I read so many things during that time. But I try really hard to avoid fiction while I’m actively working on a story. I know damn well I’m borrowing, always, from the writers in the big library in my head. But I try to not to read a lot of one writer while I’m working on a particular piece unless I’m really looking for a deliberate influence, and I rarely am. There’s one writer who I’ll probably always be overtly trying to sound like, because I admire her voice more than any other under the sun, and that’s Diana Wynne Jones, a British children’s author. (I actually have a theory that that’s true for every writer—the one influence who’s more present than any other.) But of course I don’t want to sound just like anyone, so there’s that to wrestle with, too: intention versus subconscious versus overt influence.
Rail: Unproductive doubt and uncertainty are among the many enemies of art-making, among other things. Would you talk about the space, conditions, or whatever that made you a more confident writer?
Sparks: I could trot out that old hoary gem about getting older and not giving a crap, but also (oddly), I think I’m more confident because I do care more. Or I should say, I’m more professional about the whole thing. Until I started thinking of myself as a writer, which took some outside validation, I’m a little ashamed to say, I probably didn’t put as much care into my work because I didn’t feel it truly deserved it—or that I did. There’s something about being paid for your work, and having it get noticed, that makes you work all the harder and believe in it all the more, I think.
Rail: In “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” “Birds with Teeth,” “The Men and Women Like Him,” we respectively find the following recurrences of an image:
“Clarence and Louise are trapping death in amber. They are learning how to make time stop.”
“She tried to move but the wall of water returned, it hurt, it scalded, and she was trapped like a fly in amber as it hardened, as it cooled and cracked.”
“It’s hard to be the fly trapped in amber.”
I couldn’t help but see them as intriguing examples of a kind of authorial insertion. Your thoughts?
Sparks: Okay, this made me laugh. Maybe with just a little bit of embarrassment at using the same dang metaphor three times in the book, with my name, no less. I’ve always liked the idea of amber, of something fluid that stops dead, amber as the very literal and metaphorical representation of time. I hope it has nothing to do with my own name, or I’d be worried about my ego. I think it’s just coincidence, though of course the common wisdom holds there’s no such thing, right?
Rail: “The Unfinished World,” the collection’s longest work, comprises shorter, linked sections, each one featuring lines inventorying an item from one of the story’s character’s cabinet of curiosities. Would you talk about how this work came about? What was your thinking behind using the inventory placards as headings and/or as a structuring device?
Sparks: I had originally written most of the novel (which was a novel at the time) when I started fiddling with the structure and pulling it apart. It had been a very linear piece, and when I destabilized it, I pulled timelines and stories away from each other, I found it needed a structure of some kind, something to anchor it. And I kept going back to the cabinet of curiosities that Oliver loves so much—Oliver is the keeper of stories in the novella, the keeper of histories, and so it made sense that his way of keeping would frame the entire piece. It also helped create a remove, I think, which I’m always trying to do with my fiction. I consider myself a storyteller rather than a writer, and this created a voice for the teller, in a sense, a way of telling.
Rail: You take great care in your titles, many of them stand-alone evocations. Would you share your thoughts about titles, why they’re so critical to the making and completion of your fiction? I recall you informally polling your friends on social media about the book’s proposed titles. What were some of the other options? And why did you finally settle on The Unfinished World?
Sparks: Yes, titles are extremely important—they almost always come early in the story’s development, because I find it hard to think about a story without the title. It seems to lack a sense of coherence otherwise. I’m not sure why—it’s possibly because I come at stories through a poetic process or lens, and all the writing has to be just so. Nothing wasted or tossed out there—including the title. No placeholders. The title of the book was tough—I had lots of other ideas, including a phrase from the novella, “Yes, Wonderful Things,” and a title from a story that we took out because it didn’t work thematically, “We Destroy the Moon.” But “The Unfinished World” is, of course, the name of the novella, and my editor thought it was perfect for the collection—simple, and reflective of the collection as a whole as well as the singular piece. I agreed, and there we were, after much overthinking on my part. Can you tell titles are important to me, now that I’ve written a small essay on them? [Laughter]
Rail: Relatedly, would you talk about how you view social media in relation to your own writing?
Sparks: As a barrier to it? Just kidding, sort of, though lord knows it is a terrible distraction. It’s a blessing and a curse. I’ve discovered so much wonderful writing that’s hugely influenced my own through things people post on Facebook. And many writers post great craft discussions as well. But it’s also a sinkhole so I try to be careful not to linger too long there. Instagram is really wonderful. I’ve always tried to do lots of ekphrastic writing so it’s been a terrific source of inspiration, so much of the art and images there. I just wrote an essay about it, actually—I consider Instagram to be the new cabinet of curiosities, in many ways. I’m not made for Twitter—my brain just doesn’t work in that way—and it’s just an unpleasant experience to be there that it doesn’t even distract me. It’s like being at a very crowded party trying to talk to the three people you know who are really distracted by something else. Not my thing. I will say, also, that social media and the internet more broadly allowed me to be a storyteller, a writer that got published and read. It opened up all kinds of door that print never did, and I found a community of like-minded writers there. So I’m grateful for that.
Rail: The Unfinished World is also your longest published work. Is there a novel in the works? If so, what would you say it’s about? Any other projects-in-progress?
Sparks: Yes! There is a novel in the works, as well as an essay collection and a poetry project. I don’t want to say too much about the novel but I’ll say it’s set in the 70s, which is practically contemporary for me, and it’s promising to be doomy and romantic and sad and you know, about death and love. And also efficiency experts.
JOHN MADERA’s fiction and criticism has appeared in many print and online venues. He edits Big Other and lives in New York City.