Interview: Amber Sparks and "The Unfinished World"

Way, way back, when Curbside Splendor was a fledgling, indie press without national distribution and just a couple of people pouring their whole, whole hearts into publishing (well, we suppose not that much has changed), we released Amber Sparks' highly-regarded short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies. This month, Amber's second story collection, The Unfinished World, will be released by Liveright/W.W. Norton, and we couldn't be happier for her. 

CS intern Caro Macon talked with Amber last week about the writing process, independent publishing, and her everyday world of Washington D.C. 

Caro Macon: Your writing has been described as eclectic, whimsical, imaginative, and miraculous. Many of your reviewers were swept into a dreamlike state. Amidst the love of fantasy in your fiction, what grounds your stories in a personal way? 

Amber Sparks: I suppose that although the stories are intended, often, to feel like dreams, the characters themselves I try to make rounded out and fully realized. There are some stories, it’s true, where I’m specifically writing archetype—like with fairytales and fables. But I think those have a sturdiness of their own due to the long oral history and tradition established there. These stories are workhorses, I hope, doing the long work of traditional storytelling.

CM: Because of the fairytale nature of your stories, I am dying to know if a particular story you heard as a child influences you now. 

AS: Many stories—Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Arabian Nights (many of the stories, especially "Ali Baba" and the Cave), the Oresteia, Odysseus—but I suppose the one that’s always been most interesting to me is the story of the Wild Swans. I’ve written probably eight or nine versions of that, going back to when I was five or six years old. I’m not exactly sure what I find most interesting, most endlessly fascinating—but I suspect it’s the way the main character, a woman, is rendered mute and subject to men on all sides. Heroes, villains—it doesn’t matter, her fate depends on men and she’s a largely passive plaything. This time, I bumped up the role of the witch, made her truly powerful in a way she isn’t, necessarily, in the original tale. I’m fascinated with the idea of agency in medieval or older fairy tales of women being an “evil” quality. Good women are passive; they are saved—bad women are agents of their own destruction. In part I played with the idea of modernity in the story because I wanted to look at how many medieval ways we still have of telling women’s stories, even in a wholly modern age.

CM: How do you approach the actual task of writing? Do you wait to be inspired or are you more habitual?

AS: Well, I used to be incredibly lax—wait for inspiration, write all weekend or all night long, and then not for a week or a month. But I just had a baby earlier this year, so all that is out the window. Everything I do—including writing—has to be incredibly focused and compressed and habitual. And that is HARD for me. So I’m slowly working on it. I wouldn’t say I’ve got the hang of it yet. I suppose no parents of infants really do—or toddlers, or young kids—now I’m just depressing myself.

CM: Are there any writing rituals you follow or do you tend to play the process by ear?

AS: No rituals at all. I write on my phone, I write on the Metro in notebooks, I write on receipts—I’m a very disorganized organized person and my writing absolutely reflects that. Not necessarily by ear but certainly by whatever comes to hand.

CM: Are you partial to any of the stories you’ve written? I hate make you pick a favorite, but which story of yours resonates the most right now?

AS: Oh, that’s not fair! Ha, I’ll give a weasel answer—it’s the one I’m working on now. 

CM: What were the publication processes like at Curbside Splendor and Liveright/Norton? How were they different in terms of submitting work and getting an offer?  

AS: With Curbside, I didn’t have an agent, and a particularly wonderful person I know at Curbside reached out to me because they were just starting up, and he knew I’d had a short story collection in my pocket for a while. I had to submit it and go through review, of course, like everybody else, but thank god, because Curbside was exactly the right home for that book. With Liveright, it was the same thing. I had an agent submitting this time, and my editor at Liveright had just started, so she hadn’t seen the collection yet and asked for it. And it was, again, exactly the right home at the right time. I don’t believe in fate necessarily but I do believe in wearing out the world sometimes. 

CM: Where is your favorite place to write in D.C.? What other local businesses or locations do you love and would like to share with other artists? 

AS: Well, right now, it’s probably my apartment, ha, because I don’t get out much anymore to write. But I love Tryst for writing. And for books, Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks and Upshur St—we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to world-class bookstores in DC. 

CM: I’m curious about your choice to publish through independent press. Did you ever consider diving into mainstream publishing? 

AS: OH, sure, I mean, I’d publish anywhere that was a good fit. But indie has always sort of worked because I do tend to write more experimental, genre-bending stuff, and mainstream publishing has not always looked kindly upon that type of work. I feel at home here. 

CM: Who are your crushes in the independent literary scene? 

AS: I have way too many to list here—but certainly the work of Matt Bell and Lindsay Hunter and Robert Kloss and Erin Fitzgerald and Blake Butler and Sarah Rose Etter and Lauren Becker and Steve Himmer and Robert Lopez and Amelia Gray and Joanna Ruocco and Andrea Kneeland and Porochista Khakpour and Laura van den Berg and Kelly Link and Lincoln Michel and Rion Amilcar Scott and Danez Smith and Natalie Diaz and Sasha Fletcher and… I mean I could go on and on and on and on and on and on and this is unfair because I’ll think of ten more as soon as I send this so I should probably stop.

CM: Of course you must also have mainstream crushes. Who are they?

AS: Does Roxane Gay count as mainstream? She’s sort of all things, right? That’s what’s so great about her. George Saunders. Tracy Smith. Ben Marcus. James Baldwin. Zora Neale Hurston. Dorothy Parker. Wallace Stevens. 

CM: This is an e-interview, but I really wish I could have taken you out for tea, coffee, beer. What would you have ordered?

AS: Well, normally beer, but I’m feeling under the weather so I’d probably order some kind of tea with too much honey in it and dump it all down the bathroom drain while I was pretending to pee. I hate things that are too sweet.

Publication Details
Pages: 240
ISBN: 978-1631490903
Price: $15.95
Publisher: Liveright
Release Year: 2016