Author Q&A: Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which has received praise from The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and the Paris Review, among others. She is also the author of a previous short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, as well as the co-author of a hybrid novella with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish, titled The Desert Places. She’s written numerous short stories and essays which have been featured in various publications and across the web—find them here at ambernoellesparks.com, and say hi on Twitter @ambernoelle.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Amber Sparks

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

What started your writing career? Was there a certain event or person that guided you toward your own literary path?

I don’t think there was any one person—I’ve always written, for as long as I could read. I would read everything I could get my hands on, including backs of cereal boxes and TV Guide. And then once I’d read everything, I had no choice but to make up my own stories.

You have published several short story collections, with the most recent being The Unfinished World and Other Stories. What can you tell us about the publication process?

Ha, that you never ever step in the same river twice. It involves a lot of patience, a lot of rejection, and a lot of waiting.

Speaking of the publishing industry, do you have any cautionary tales that you’d like to share?

Not necessarily from my own experience, which has been largely positive. But I’d tell new writers this: don’t ever pay to be published, and don’t ever agree to a book without a contract.

What is your favorite story from The Unfinished World and Other Stories? Why is it your favorite?

That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child! But I do feel partial to the title story, in large part because it started its life as a 300-page novel, so I got to know those characters very, very well. I was sorry to leave them, and I often think about them.

I’d like to ask you about “The Janitor in Space,” a short story from The Unfinished World. The story is filled with hope and despair, and at the end, we’re left reflecting on the possibility of new beginnings. What would you say inspired this story?

I was actually inspired by a true crime story—I won’t say which one, though. I started writing it, and then I realized the person I was writing about was now a very private person and not a public figure at all, so she didn’t really seem fair game as story fodder. So I changed a lot of things about her story—which was very sad and poignant—and set it in space because, hey, no way could she think it was about her then, right?

What themes do you like to explore in your work? Have they changed over time? In what ways do you think your writing has evolved?

I don’t know that it’s preference so much as habit, but I seem to come back to family, rivalry, war, revenge, death, and doomed love over and over again. And that hasn’t really changed. I suppose that’s because those are more or less universal themes. When someone asks me if I ever get tired of writing about death, that’s very confusing. I mean, how could I? It’s the most universal thing in the world. And the scariest. And the most mysterious. Why not keep writing about it?

Speaking of writing, what would you say is the most important element for crafting a story, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?

I don’t know that there’s just one, but I think figuring out the way you tell your stories—whatever that thing is that makes you unique—is awfully important, and the earlier you can figure that out, the better off your work will be for it.

You have a great list of literary heroes on your website. Can you tell us your top three and how they have influenced you?

That’s just about impossible, but I can give you the number one—that’s easy. Nabokov. I’ve been reading and rereading him for many years, and he’s hands down the biggest influence on my work. The way he weaves time and language together is just remarkable, and it’s magical, and I hope to get the knack of it someday. The second biggest influence is Odysseus, though I don’t have Homer up there—it’s the story of all stories. I reread it every year. I get something new from it every time. It’s a miracle.

Do you have any tips for combating writer’s block?

If I’m working on a problem in a story or a novel, I like to read outside of whatever genre I’m writing in. Usually I read poetry, because language can almost always jump start my imagination. I also love prompts and constraints, and writing exercises. I’m honestly not sure if I’ve ever had writer’s block per se—there are just always so many interesting things to write about and interesting ways to write them.

Similarly, what guidance might you give to fledgling writers?

That very boring but very important advice: keep reading, keep writing, keep submitting, keep rolling with the rejections. And have a few friends (who you trust to be honest) that you can send stuff to from time to time. Don’t ever sit in a vacuum with your work. Be curious about the world. Read lots of nonfiction in all fields. Travel if you can afford it. Read a lot of travel books, if not. Read new writers, not just the classics. Know what’s happening in the literary world today.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

Oh goodness, it doesn’t feel like so much to me! But in terms of craft, I just want to be a better and better writer. I’ll be forty next year and I don’t want to peak then—I’ve got so much more writing to do. I’d like to publish a novel and perhaps a poetry collection. Maybe write a play.

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