Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Debra Spark

Image is the book cover for DISCIPLINE by Debra Spark; title card for the new interview with Melissa Benton Barker.


Debra Spark’s new novel, Discipline, spans decades and a diverse cast of characters, from art-world insiders to houseless teenagers. While, on the surface, the novel is a literary mystery about a missing trio of valuable paintings, Spark also compels the reader to engage with the mysteries of the human heart, in particular the often fraught and infinitely variable attachments between parent and child. Discipline is rich with research, inhabiting many different worlds—high art, the corrupt “therapeutic” boarding school industry, and the world of the unhoused—as Spark brings together seemingly disparate threads in order to explore questions about what we owe each other. A page-turner joyfully inhabited by multiple first-person perspectives, Discipline is as much fun to read as it is thought-provoking. In the interview below, which has been lightly edited for clarity, Debra Spark generously shares her research and writing process with CRAFT.

—Melissa Benton Barker


Melissa Benton Barker: Discipline spans great lengths of time—close to a century—and addresses social issues ranging from houselessness to exploitative boarding schools to the world of art collecting. How did these seemingly disparate topics coalesce as you wrote this book?

Debra Spark: I actually was working, not very successfully, on a different book about Portland’s Preble Street soup kitchen, when a homeless man told me he’d been adopted by a famous painter’s daughter. Not long after, I learned about a young woman who had overdosed at the soup kitchen. She was both a ceramic artist and an alumna of Elan, an abusive therapeutic boarding school, which was only about fifteen miles from my house, though I’d never heard of it until a friend of the woman who died told me about it. These stories were adjacent to what I was already writing about and freed me to abandon the stalled nonfiction book for something I felt I could write. Perhaps that change is because the true stories, once converted into fiction, would allow me to touch on the haves and have-nots of Maine by engaging with a world I already know something about, as I am married to a painter. I also write for shelter magazines, so the true stories allowed me to use observations I had about class or simply traveling around Maine into what I had previously been researching.


MBB: Covering such a wide range of topics must have demanded considerable research. How did you approach the research for this book?

DS: In stages! Part of the research was for the failed book. The more downtrodden characters in the book are inspired by people I met through Preble Street. But I did go down quite a rabbit hole learning about Elan. Though the novel is completely fiction, I also researched the famous painter and his daughter for inspiration, and art appraisal and auctions for accuracy. I did what you might expect—book and internet research and many, many one-on-one interviews. Also, some in-person adventures. I went to the abandoned Elan buildings in Maine. I went to New York to the old Sotheby’s building and the Hotel Carlyle. (All my character’s observations about the Carlyle bar’s playful walls and lampshades are really my own.) I visited the Chelsea gallery where the last major show of the famous painter’s work had been hosted, and read the papers they had in storage. I went to Red Hook to see where the painter had lived as a boy.

One day, I called Sotheby’s and asked if there was anyone who had worked at the auction house long enough to know the previous location, given I wanted to imagine an auction there. A man came on the line and offered so much helpful information. Before we hung up, we wandered onto other topics and realized we’d met. He had officiated at the marriage of my college roommate. And another coincidence: The final Elan alumnus I spoke to started to tell me about a girl who he had wanted to ask out, when he was at Elan, and it turned out that girl was the woman who had overdosed in the soup kitchen.


MBB: The novel takes on the point of view of many different characters, some recurring, some singular, some central, others peripheral. As a writer, how did you manage this carousel of voices? Was it a challenge to take on so many different perspectives? Can you tell CRAFT’s readers a bit about how you work with voice?

DS: I am a little embarrassed to say all of my novels have multiple narrators and have chapters that (often) work as stand-alone short stories. I should probably try something different! That said, I enjoy similarly constructed books, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. On my part, I suspect the tendency is more about what I can’t do—sustain a long narrative from a single voice—than what I can do.


MBB: The parent-child relationship is one of the novel’s greatest themes. Specifically, the narrative asks what parents owe their children, and what are the consequences when these needs are unmet. You address this question in many ways, from the novel’s opening scene with Gracie, a contemporary mother who fears that her teenage son has run away; to Reggie, a foster child whose biological mother is unable to care for him; to Lisa, who seems to suffer from the impact of a parent who never truly sees her. Did this parent-child theme emerge as you were writing, or did you set out with this idea in mind?

DS: Yes, it absolutely emerged along the way. I thought I had finished the novel, but some plot lines that now seem essential to the book weren’t there originally—like Gracie’s son running away. Now, the running away is so important that the book’s cover image is of a boy running away. In the final version of the novel, Gracie is in a happy marriage, having had a failed marriage, but in an earlier version, there was no second husband, and the emphasis was less on the parent-child relationship than on her anger about the marriage, but the marital details distracted from the central story. I always knew I wanted the plot lines to interconnect, but it took me a while to realize something that should have been obvious to me, which is that the narrative lines needed to thematically connect and parallel each other, as well as braid together.


MBB: Lisa is a central character who is revealed to the reader through the perspective of others. We see her first through her mother’s eyes, later through her driver, Ranger, and then her foster son, Reggie. We even see her through the eyes of the closest person this novel has to an antagonist, DP. Despite the novel taking on multiple perspectives, the reader is never allowed inside Lisa’s point of view. How did you decide whose eyes the reader would see this world through?

DS: Oh, that’s a great question. Do you know that Flaubert quote, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”? It’s Flaubert saying he’s his character, even though he’s clearly not a provincial French housewife, but presumably he got in her head, because he understood her desires. He likely had her desires, in his own way. I could say the same about all the characters in this book—I am them—save Lisa. She is very much a collage version of two curious women (both writers) who I knew in my twenties, both of whom were charitable, friendly, deeply private, likely anorexic, and peculiarly dressed. They seemed to combine, but in a mismatched way, various female identities. I perceived them both to be performative and secretive, which struck me as strange. So I suspect the answer is that I could be interested in Lisa as a character (as I was interested in those two women), but not really fully imagine her interior life.

From a craft perspective, I also think there is a narrative advantage in obscuring certain points of view. In Elizabeth Strout’s novel Amy and Isabelle, so much of the tension depends on you not knowing the exact thoughts of a male teacher who sexually engages with a student. Because his point of view is hidden, the narrative has to do the work of revealing what is going on. You get everything in dramatic action rather than in interior thought.


MBB: On a superficial level, Discipline could be described as a mystery novel, as the plot unfolds around the “Morrison Triplets,” a valuable trio of paintings that goes missing partway through the book. Yet the novel is less about “whodunit” and more about the mysteries of human relationships. How are these characters connected? What causes attachment to form and dissipate, wax and wane? What do we owe one another? As a writer, how did you balance the tangible and emotional mysteries of this novel?

DS: I might not have a great answer for this one, though I love this question too. I always want to be entertaining, but I have an emotional reason for why I am writing, of course. When I was writing this book, I was dwelling on hurts, mistakes, bonds that fracture and dissolve, as well as the bonds that last, so maybe that is my answer!


MBB: Discipline is intricately layered with a complex plot. Did you know where you were going when you began writing the book? What twists and turns did you take as a writer? What did you work out as you went along? What advice would you give a beginning writer about crafting a complex plot?

DS: I definitely figure out the plot lines and details as I go. Big chunks of this book got tossed out. Just not necessary or too wordy. But I have to write the pages to realize the pages don’t belong. I also often learn something while I am writing that changes what I am doing. For instance, Dara Horn’s great novel The World to Come is inspired by a real life theft at the Jewish Museum in New York. She told me an anecdote about the fate of the real painting—or the fate based on what a stranger told her—and the story so fascinated me, I used a version of it in my book. Of course, once I do have a draft, I absolutely have charts and calendars to help me keep track of what happened when and how old characters are in a given scene.

Everyone has such different writing habits, it’s hard to offer advice. Some writers work from an outline, and that process works for them. John Irving once wrote that you should know the whole story before you set pen to paper. And yet E. L. Doctorow has a famous line, which I have heard quoted in different ways but is basically, “Writing is like driving at night: You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I am definitely in the Doctorow camp. I think beginning writers might be comforted to know that they don’t have to outline or figure everything out in advance. They can just go.


MELISSA BENTON BARKER is an associate coeditor of the flash fiction section at CRAFT. Melissa’s writing appears in Lammergeier, Five South, Tiny Molecules, and Best Small Fictions. She lives in Ohio with her family.

DEBRA SPARK is the author of four novels, two collections of short stories, and two books of essays on fiction writing. In addition to Discipline, her most recent books are the novel Unknown Caller and the essay collection And Then Something Happened. With Deborah Joy Corey, she coedited Breaking Bread, a book of food essays by Maine writers to raise funds for a hunger nonprofit. She has been the recipient of several awards including Maine’s 2017 READ ME series, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Bunting Institute fellowship from Radcliffe College, a Wisconsin Institute fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Michigan Literary Fiction Award, and the John Zacharis/Ploughshares Award for best first book. A graduate of Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.