Hybrid Interview: Amber Sparks
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. —CRAFT
Essay by J. A. Tyler •
Sure, 2019 gave us Greta Gerwig’s powerful Little Women and the heroine Rey dominating galactic folks in the final chapter of the Star Wars saga, but we’ve yet to see pay equalized between genders or the final waves following Harvey Weinstein’s trials for more than eighty counts of rape, criminal sex acts, sex abuse, and sexual misconduct. This is the era we’re living in, where strong female protagonists are still pretty hard to come by and often stuck in thin, predictable tropes, where financial equality between men and women in nearly every sector remains wildly unbalanced, and where the #MeToo movement that began so many years ago is still patiently waiting to bear all of its righteous fruit.
Enter Amber Sparks and her latest book, And I Do Not Forgive You.
This brilliant and unadulterated collection, subtitled “Stories and Other Revenges,” is dedicated with the single sentence “This one’s for the ladies” and closed in the acknowledgements with these lines: “And finally, thank you to my daughter, Isadora. This book would not exist without you. I wrote it for you, and for all the daughters, and for all the mothers of daughters, and for all the mothers of mothers of daughters; thank you for carrying the world.”
There is no mistaking Sparks’s aim.
Now we are forgotten. We’ve faded in the sky, and no men remember us. They tell our stories the way they’ve never happened, and though the women can sense that something is wrong, the feeling is too vague for resolution. The halo of lights from the city and the haze from the cars keep us almost hidden from human view. (from “You Won’t Believe What Really Happened to the Sabine Women”)
Throughout these twenty-two stories, women are the heroes, women are the characters who stay grounded, women are the characters who don’t flee the scene, who take the conflicts head-on and with gusto, who spend their energy righting this ship. The intensity from each protagonist is energizing and awesome, but what truly slays about Sparks’s stories is how she tackles these issues while retaining the love and humor, exposing every injustice, every important inequity, every worthwhile battle, without losing the magic.
The wife thought the husband lacked spirit. He would hunch silent over his breakfast in the mornings, hands pale and cold as his cereal, his hair the color of cubicles. They married because the wife thought she could open him up, pull out wild Irish weather. But when she tried she found a map of Cleveland instead. Her days grew long and endless as parades. (from “When the Husband Grew Wings”)
Where are the men in this collection? They exist but only in the worst possible circumstances. They are, in order of appearance: divorced, gone, dead, a deadbeat, a criminal, a rapist, murdered, Zeus though not in a good way, an awful king, a thief, a feral boy, bearded men afraid of transgender identities, men who never come back, drunk, and, lastly, afraid of the magic around them. These men aren’t necessarily the enemies, though they are often the problem, almost always the obstacle, and in each story, are overruled by women finally and honestly speaking up.
Some claimed, of course, that this was the whole point. Revenge as a story, attack as an art form. A wholly new and novel act. (from “A Wholly New and Novel Act, with Monsters”)
Sparks’s stories are short and cutting, stabbing at the heart of each matter, fighting within realistic and fantastical settings alike, and always with power and panache. These are stories that right hook with their titles and uppercut with their last lines. And I Do Not Forgive You is for the ladies, for the mothers and daughters, though men could learn an enormous amount from these stories too, how Sparks brings women to the forefront and lets them expand, sets them free to exact all the justice we’re still waiting on in 2020.
The third person she met was herself. Welcome, she said to herself, and she smiled. (from “A Place for Hiding Precious Things”)
J. A. Tyler: It’s wonderful to be able to talk with you about this new collection of stories! Your work is taut, both in terms of language and narrative, and I’m thrilled to chat about it. Here’s the first thing I really want to know: This is your third story collection, and it’s brilliant and we’re going to talk about it a bunch, but I’m curious, is there a novel in your future?
Amber Sparks: Hi, J. A.! Thrilled to talk with you about this. I love talking craft more than anything. And a qualified yes, there is a novel. It’s in-progress, certainly, but I say qualified because I’ve written and scrapped three other novels so we’ll see how this one goes.
JAT: Were the previous novels completed and then scrapped, or did they stall out somewhere in the middle? And can you give us any little peek, a tip-of-the-hat as to this work-in-progress?
AS: Most were scrapped, and the last one was finished and actually became the novella in my previous collection! The new novel involves a sanitarium and a con artist and that’s all I’ll say about that.
JAT: Sounds intriguing and wonderful. Thanks for giving us a tiny taste! Obviously, you like working with short stories, and you’re tremendously skilled at it. What comforts do you find in the short story form?
AS: Well, thanks! I do worry about never being able to write a proper novel because I’m a short-story writer at heart. I don’t think it’s “comforts” so much as the opposite: challenge. Each story can use entirely new forms, create new worlds, push boundaries in different ways that are fun and playful and that I don’t think exhaust the reader in the same way that a novel might.
JAT: Well said, and speaking of, the stories in this collection run the gamut from the realistic to the fantastic. How do you write across such an expanse? Is it simply a matter of only working on one story at a time, so the landscapes don’t smear into each other, or is there another way you go about writing from such varied contexts in each story?
AS: I think it’s that my collections are never actually written as a collection. The stories are all written at different times, very much their own thing, and each is usually inspired by a completely different experience or piece of art or history. Sometimes that requires realism, and sometimes the fantastic. I’m very easily bored, so I rarely write the same kind of thing twice.
JAT: Yet the collection is held together by the powerful, vocal women who inhabit every story. You dedicate this book “for the ladies” and also thank your daughter in the acknowledgments. What do you want the daughters, the mothers of daughters, the mothers of mothers of daughters, to take from the stories here?
AS: For a long time, I’ve avoided writing anything explicitly feminist—or even about women only—because even me, raging feminist that I am, had absorbed the notion so thoroughly that a wide audience won’t read about angry women. But after #MeToo, and Trump, and after my daughter was born, I truly started to not give a fuck, and every story I wrote was expressing that anger and frustration and rage in some way. I started to write these little revenges, mostly for myself, honestly, and then I published some, and people seemed to really like them, to need them, maybe, and so I kept writing them. It seemed to be all I could do in response to Trump for a while, honestly.
I hope that women can find some catharsis, some release—and some recognition and sense of freedom in that recognition. It’s too lofty to say the goal is to release women’s stories like balloons, but I’d like to do that nonetheless, and encourage other women to do the same.
JAT: That attitude is both awesome and important, and it gives the collection a genuinely effective power. The men in these stories though, they don’t fare well, to say the least. What do you hope happens when men read this book?
AS: I hope they’re terrified. Just kidding! I hope that men will be just as excited to read this book as women, because they care about women’s stories too. The kind of men that don’t fare well in this book, well, I hope most men would be rooting for their demises, too. Most of the men I know and love would, I think, find just as much catharsis in the downfall of these jerks as women do.
JAT: Ha! Absolutely! Well put.
Sometimes I have trouble with story collections because I love the long haul of a novel—not 1,000 pages necessarily, but the act of living within a longer work—so if a reader is tentative with short stories, which piece do you think would sell them the best on this collection?
AS: There are actually several longer stories in the collection—I felt like I was writing volumes this time compared to my usual output! I think probably “Everyone’s a Winner at Meadow Park” because it’s the longest story and also in some ways the most conventional in the telling, if not in the subject matter.
JAT: That one would be a great starting place for readers! How about other short-story writers? Who are some folks you admire the most in the craft of short fiction, both past and present?
AS: Oh gosh, there are so many. Past, I love Borges, Karen Blixen (Isak Dineson), Lucia Berlin, Calvino, Lispector, to name a few; present, Kelly Link, Rion Amilcar Scott, Sofia Samatar, Joy Williams, Laura van den Berg, Jac Jemc, Claire Vaye Watkins, Carmen Maria Machado… there are way too many to name.
JAT: Alright, an even tougher question then: Give us one short story you return to again and again, because it just houses so much or does so much to bolster and fill you as a writer…
AS: That’s easy! Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals.” It’s so good, so deceptive and sneaky and it just draws you in and then it eats you—and I’m forever trying to figure out how she does that.
JAT: Awesome. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me about And I Do Not Forgive You. I hope everyone who hasn’t already bought one does so immediately!
AS: Thank you!
AMBER SPARKS is the author of several short story collections, including The Unfinished World and Other Stories, And I Do Not Forgive You (Liveright, 2020). Her essays and fiction can be found widely in print and online, in places like The Paris Review, NYMag, Granta, and Tin House.
J. A. TYLER is the author of The Zoo, a Going (Dzanc Books) and has fiction in Fairy Tale Review, Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, and Denver Quarterly among others. More at jasonalantyler.com or on Twitter @J_A_Tyler.