Street Talk

Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author of the upcoming hybrid text The Desert Places, with Robert Kloss and illustrated by Matt Kish.

"Finding the Worn Places": An interview with Amber Sparks


Braddock Avenue Books: How would you describe the style that you’ve found your way to in May We Shed These Human Bodies? Allegorical? Fabulist? There seems to be an imaginative license in these stories that doesn’t shy away from any scenario.

Amber Sparks: You know, I have no real idea how to describe my own style, which I suppose is terrible. I suppose perhaps pointillist? Even the realist stories are really made up of many smaller, slightly unconnected bits, which I rather hope makes them feel a little off.

BAB: Certain preoccupations seem to emerge from among these thirty stories: science, science fiction—even meteorology, such as in “When the Weather Changes You,” a story in which characters make important life decisions in reaction to changes in the climate.

Sparks:  This stems from the problem I have of being terribly interested in everything, and not very knowledgeable about any of it. I’m forced, through sheer ignorance, to do a ton of research and then make the rest of it up. Some time ago I learned that I could call these imperfect histories “stories” and also have an excuse to do all the research on whatever struck my fancy at the same time. For instance, “When the Weather Changes You” came into being when I heard an NPR report in a cab on the way to the airport about what would happen if all of Yellowstone went up in a great volcanic explosion. (Which is, apparently, entirely possible.) But then I supposed that we would all just turn the heat up and wear parkas, and that wouldn’t be particularly interesting. So I thought instead, I’d set the story in a civilized time, when a period of intense cold really would be an incredible hardship and ecological disaster for the inhabitants of the continent. My god, all of this sounds so self-indulgent, but what else am I going to do with the obsessions in my head?

BAB: At the same time, interestingly, mythology, superstition, and the very constructs of individual imaginations also figure importantly in your stories.  One of our favorite examples is from “All Imaginary People are Better at Life,” where Ruby compares herself unfavorably to Caleb, her carefully created imaginary friend.

Sparks: I have always, always been very interested in mythology and fairy tales. In fact, I began writing because I (supposed at the time) had read all the fairy tales out there to read, and I wanted to make my own. I was also kind of a lonely kid, and I definitely had imaginary friends and worlds that were very important and elaborately constructed. I grew up on Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queen, on Diana Wynne Jones’s books about other worlds and dimensions, and the stories of King Arthur, and I was probably way too old when I realized these things didn’t really exist. I think I sort of refused to believe it, and I continue to sort of half believe, because you know, the line between imagination and reality is really very faint and unimportant, after all. Finding the worn places between is so much more interesting, especially in writing. I write what I like to read is, I guess, the very short answer to that question.

BAB: Some writers dismiss children as “fictional furniture”—things to decorate an imaginary world but little more—because of their supposed general lack of culpability.  Children, however, are all over May We Shed These Human Bodies. And certainly the children in your stories, such as those in “If You Don’t Believe, They Go Away,” “Feral Children: A Collective History,” and “Never-Never,” often operate a bit differently than “typical” children.

Sparks: Again, I think a lot of this stems from my childhood reading habits. In the books I read, by E. Nesbit, Roald Dahl, Wynne-Jones—the children were heroes, the fullest individuals, the most fully-realized characters. The children were the real people. And children ARE real people. I love children, not for being child-like, but for being open to everything and completely honest and engaged with and curious about the world in a way most adults have lost. That’s what “Never-Never” is all about, really. I find it’s so refreshing to write from a child’s perspective, because of this openness, this inquisitiveness. And I also think children are absolutely culpable. They’re not little innocents. They can be quite complex and even quite wicked, just like adults. And “Never-Never” is about that, too.

BAB: Considering the thematic breadth of these stories, would you describe the writers who have influenced May We Shed These Human Bodies?

Sparks:  Jesus, so many I couldn’t possibly say them all—every time I open up and eat a book, it respawns and takes root somewhere in my writing. But certainly Dinesen, certainly Nabokov, certainly Woolf, certainly Borges and Calvino and Beckett. Lorrie Moore. Diana Wynne Jones. E. Nesbit. Barthelme. Kafka. Ashbery. Mo Yan. Hopkins. Stevens. Emily Dickinson. And visual artists too, especially Mark Rothko and Louise Bourgeois and John Piper. I’m more and more influenced by painters and artists when it comes to writing—this new book is probably more influenced by visual art than by anything I’ve read recently. Although, like attempts to pin down influence, that’s probably true and not true.