Small Objects in a Grand Universe: A Conversation with Amber Sparks


Amber Sparks is the author of two collections of stories—The Unfinished World, which came out earlier this year, and May We Shed These Human Bodies—along with a chapbook, A Great Dark Sleep, which appeared as part of a criminally underrated anthology published by Roxane Gay’s Tiny Hardcore Press, Shut Up/Look Pretty. I’ve been a fan of Amber’s work for years, ever since coming across her work in places like PANK and >kill author. The stories in her most recent collection have been described by Publishers Weekly as “fantastical and sublime,” and by Kirkus as “stylish and deeply imagined.” The following interview was conducted by email.

First, I want to say what a beautiful book this is—expansive, sure-footed, adventurous, and curious. I mean that last not in the sense of quirky, but attuned and interested in the possibilities of the world around it. The cabinet of wonders that appears in the title story seemed to be an apt image for the collection overall: ideas made concrete, brought together to give a sense of the hugeness of the world.

You’ve mentioned before an appreciation for genre, and here it seems like the genre influences that dominate are historical fiction—stories like “Birds with Teeth,” about rival paleontologists, for example—and science fiction or fantasy stories, as in “The Janitor in Space” and “The Men and Women like Him.” I wonder if you could talk some about what attracts you to these two genres in particular. Do you see them operating in a similar space?

Thank you, Tadd! I am really really glad you liked it. (“Like” being a boring word at best, but . . . the best I can conjure at 10:00 on a snow day.) I was secretly hoping the cover would feature a cabinet of curiosities but I’m glad now of course that it’s not quite so on the nose.

I think in terms of genre, it’s simply a matter of whatever interests me at the moment. When I’m really fascinated by something, I want to write about it. And most probably, whatever fascinates me most tends to fit into those genre categories. I’m a huge history buff (probably half of what I read is nonfiction history) and so the weirder or more neglected parts of history tend to find their way into my fiction. And as far as science fiction or fantasy—I think a lot of what falls into those genre labels is based on concepts or ideas, yeah? And that’s definitely a common prompt for my stories, the old “what if?” I don’t necessarily think, hey, I’d love to write a science fiction story, or a fantastical story. But I will think, hey, I’d love to write something about a woman who uses time travel for the purposes of art—and I guess it ends up falling into that genre by way of being an impossible concept.

Is there something about impossible concepts that particularly attracts you, do you think?

Oh absolutely. It feels like a challenge—and also, perhaps, like a new way for the mind to bend. There’s nothing worse than reading a story or novel and feeling the wheels settle into certain tracks. When there are no tracks, it’s exhilarating and anything seems possible—the brain breathes in new ways. It’s what I feel alive to do, to think and write that way, not to get too hyperbolic about it.

Speaking of new—when we were emailing earlier, we talked some about ways that this book was different from May We Shed These Human Bodies. I wonder if you could talk some about that—any ways in which you approached the stories in this collection differently, and how that shows up in the finished book.

You know, I hope that the book is more polished than my first collection. Not that I feel like that collection is bad or inferior, but I think I’ve grown as a writer and I hope that paradoxically, although I spend more time on my stories now, they come off as more effortless. I feel like with the first collection you could just see, feel the effort that went into them—visible sweat and all that. And I hope all that sort of hides in the new collection, that you can’t see the strings, to use an overused metaphor. I realize that’s very much the opposite philosophy of some (and some of my favorite) writers: they prefer it raw, bleeding. And that can be wonderful. But I think I’ve learned that’s not my style. Perhaps because I think of myself less a writer and more a storyteller? And when one is telling a story, it has to be just so. Ragged ends destroy the effect, I think.

Aside from the spit and polish, I would also say the book is more deliberate in the stories chosen, that there’s I hope a certain feel to the collection. Some great stories I really love were excluded, by mutual agreement, by my editor and me—they just didn’t quite fit the feel of the rest of the book. It’s not quite a concept album, but I do hope it creates and suspends a certain atmosphere above one for the duration.

It does! It feels kind of like wandering a museum—an older museum, the sort of place where you’re never quite sure if the placards are telling the truth, and you know that there’s always the possibility that something impossible is around the corner. 

A lot of your characters are observers of various sorts, and there’s often a sort of moral tension between remaining an observer or acting—though it’s not always clear which is the better/more ethical choice. And thinking about that, I want to connect it in some way with your work in politics. Is that totally off? Does that make sense?

I LOVE those kinds of museums. We ran into so many like that when we were in England—just these weird dusty out of the way places that had uncertain and possibly false information embedded throughout. I’d say my characters live a lot in places like that. And actually, oddly, that fits with them being observers, I think, too. I think of my characters a lot of times as people who have been a little bit left behind by the present future tense. (Probably because that’s how I feel a lot of the time, too.) They live like dusty museum pieces, the kind fallen out of fashion. And so they have really interesting perspectives on things because they look at life almost through a warped, wavy piece of glass. Sometimes they can get at the truth of things better than someone in a more logical and connected position—and sometimes they’re so out of touch with reality that that’s interesting, too.

I don’t think politics has ever really consciously entered into it, but I suppose that like me, my characters veer between wild, desperate bouts of NEEDING TO ACT and long periods of relative hopelessness and inadequacy when it comes to life. I certainly feel like that more and more, the older I get and the longer I’m in Washington. Wow, that’s depressing, huh?

I’m interested in this phrase, “the present future tense.” Is that what we’re living now? And if so, how do fiction writers grapple with that?

I suppose I mean present future tense in the way that most people’s presents really take place largely in service of the future. And counterintuitively, that really closes possibilities, to my mind. Because our imaginations are quite limited and conventional and what we can see for ourselves in our short term future seems quite limited and bound by what we currently see and know and do. Thus the present future tense. I don’t mean to say that I don’t also think about the future, just like everybody else. But I spend a lot more time in the past, I suspect. Not mine, but history’s past.

Quite a few of these stories have an impressive scope in place and time, the sort of scope I think we tend to associate with novels more than short stories. But these all felt complete—they didn’t seem to be sketches for something larger, for example. What makes an idea particularly a short story idea for you? You’ve said elsewhere that you feel that novels, particularly long works, tend to be overvalued in our culture.

That’s definitely something that’s important to me—dispelling the notion that length has anything to do with scope. That a short piece can’t be as “epic” as a 700 page novel. You come at it differently, for sure—everything is much more compressed. It’s more about a series of impressions than a comprehensive catalogue of time and place and character. But I think it’s just as powerful an effect when a very big story is told in a very small space. It sort of . . . folds time and space and creates a vivid sense of being very small objects in a grand universe. People always assume, I think, that I just started with flash fiction because I couldn’t write anything longer. But I was writing long stories long before I wrote short ones, and I actually started with the shorter ones because of this very specific effect. To tell a powerful story in a slash, a stroke—there’s something very lightning-in-a-bottle about that, I think. I’ve always enjoyed the effect. So, paradoxically (to finally get around to your question), if it’s a very big subject, I tend to treat it in a very short fiction. The longer stories are for character. If there’s a particular character I’m very much wanting to explore better, or relationships I want to delve into, then that merits a longer piece. The smaller and more domestic the fictions, the longer the story.

Part of my problem with so many long novels is editing. They’re obviously long for the sake of being long. And I’m an insanely enthusiastic editor. I love my fictions to be a concise and tight and edited as possible. So it frustrates me when I can see a great novel hiding inside a good novel—which is, I’d say, about 80 percent of the big novels I read now. I suspect publishers leave them long or even pad them on purpose, because they know (apparently) that people want more bang for their buck if they’re paying for that big hardcover.

I’ve done whole workshops and craft talks on the epic in the small. Faberge egg and all that—it’s one of my favorite things to drone on about and it drives the conventionalists batty.

The title piece in this collection, “The Unfinished World,” is a novella. I wonder if you could talk some about the experience of writing a longer work, how it differed—assuming it did—from the short pieces.

The main novella actually started out as a novel! And my editor very astutely pointed out that it felt a lot more like (wait for it . . .) a great novella hiding inside a good novel. And because my stories really come from the editing, not from the writing, I had the best time working with my editing to slash and burn and slash and burn until the novella started to show through. And I think it’s so much stronger now. Of course, it’s a novella so some people will hate it no matter what. Basically, the criticism of a novella is usually “it’s too long and too short.” I honestly don’t know why people get so hung up on length, anyway. Just make the story as long as it needs to be. Isn’t that the writer’s job?

You say that your stories mostly come from editing. Could you talk about that some? What’s your process like? Do you have a daily routine or anything like that? I always find myself getting hung up on whether I’m doing enough each day, but also never really being sure how to tell.

For me, everything really does come out in the editing, yeah. The first rough draft is always just a “get it on paper” thing, the rough idea, the shape of the thing, the random ideas that come to mind. Then once it’s more or less on the page, I start hacking away and adding and changing and rewriting. I add voice, too, style, in revision. It doesn’t really come out in the first draft, or only in the barest way. It’s very deliberate, the style, and it’s almost like I’m taking something someone else wrote and making it mine. I realize it’s kind of a weird way to go about it. I don’t have any kind of formal education in writing so that’s probably quite backwards, and I’m sure there’s a better way, but I’m a stubborn bastard by now about my process.

You know, I hate “write every day.” I hate that pressure. I’m sure it works wonderfully for some people—I know it does—but for me, with a full-time job and a kid, it’s just a recipe for failure and self-hatred. Instead, I write when I have time to write, when I’m really inspired or motivated to. I don’t worry about a desk—I don’t even own one—I just write wherever I happen to be. I know it’s very unromantic but I write a lot on my phone’s notes app. I own stacks of Moleskines and they gather dust—I just always have my phone on me, and I know I can send the note directly to my computer without having to type it up again so it’s a huge incentive to do so. I never really was much into writing longhand, other than in my lame faux-beatnik period in college, scribbling poetry in notebooks. I have terrible handwriting, anyway.

I’ve never been able to write in a Moleskine—it feels too formal, too serious. I tend to go with cheap, smallish spiral bound notebooks from Walgreens or wherever, but old receipts often end up getting used a lot too.

I do a lot of receipts, too. Scraps of paper just laying around.

Who are you reading now? Anyone you’re particularly excited about? And are there writers you go back to, again and again?

Yes! My editor had me sent an ARC of the new Lydia Millet, which is wonderful, and I’m reading a book on Sir Thomas Browne that Rob Kloss and his wife Karissa gave me for Christmas, and a huge collection of Alice Notley. And I just finished Brian Evenson’s short story collection, Collapse of Horses, which was really great. I go back to Kelly Link—I feel like I’m never not reading a Kelly Link story. Matt Bell, same thing. Nabokov, Calvino, always rereading those guys. Faulkner. I mean to reread all of Faulkner this year. Virginia Woolf—I just reread her stuff a couple of years ago and I feel like I might need to read The Waves again before I dive into this novel project I’m working on. Oh! And I’m reading Mary Beard’s book on Ancient Rome, SPQR. It’s fantastic. I’m always reading at least one history book.

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