Monday, December 14, 2009

An Interview With Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks’s “If You Don’t Believe, They Go Away” appears in STORYGLOSSIA 37. Here, Amber takes a few moments to discuss imagination, monsters, fairy tales, believing and not believing, carrying the glow of childhood into adulthood, and forthcoming stories.

Anne Valente
: This story is absolutely beautiful. How did it come to be?

Amber Sparks: Thank you! Every once in a while I'll sit down to write something and it just twists and wriggles and slips away from me and sort of turns into something else altogether--and that was my experience with this story. It was going to be straight third person story about the relationship between an old man and a little girl, and then I found that I had little to no interest in the old man and a fascination with the little girl. This actually happens to me a lot with the kids in my stories. This time I found that my interest in the little girl was primarily an interest in her relationship with reality, or rather with imagination, and the story just grew out of that idea: that the most profound and sometimes troubled relationships can be had with an imaginary world.

AV: There is wonderful tension here between imagination and reality, between what is real and what isn't, and how those lines are blurred. Which is privileged in the world of the story? Which should be?

AS: I think here imagination is privileged, as I think it probably is in pretty much all of my stories. I definitely tried to blur those lines not just for the little girl, but for her entire family as well. And so I think imagination is privileged because it ends up being the catalyst for everything that follows. If the little girl were an unimaginative child, she'd probably never have talked to the old man in the first place, because she'd have been told in her DARE class or wherever (do they still have DARE?) not to talk to strangers and she'd never have questioned that. She'd never have interested the old man or been so precious to her family if she didn't have that imagination. And because the lines are blurred--at least I hope it comes across that way--you feel sorrier for the family than for the little girl, because they're the ones who've lost the most, ultimately. Not just a child, but that sense of play and wonder and magic that the little girl was the last link to. And with her goes excitement, too, because of the thrill and the danger inherent in the fairy tale. Things become very dull for her family without it.

That was one of the things I really wanted to emphasize in the story--the sense of danger that comes, or should come, with anything magical. There are the two sides of the coin; the wonder and the danger, the unknown. My favorite fairy tales and stories were always the ones where there was something terrifying in the abyss, a sense of the ominous and sometimes great sadness behind every fairy or spell. And where the danger was especially great for children because they believed. I grew up reading tales by Hans Christian Andersen, E. Nesbit, Roald Dahl, Natalie Babbitt, and later, writers like Isak Dinesen and Borges—and that's the kind of fairy tale I have in my head when I write about childhood.

AV: Childhood is well-handled in this story, for that fine line that exists in children between reality and imagination. Do adults lose that line? The adults here seem to, and the result is heartbreaking.

AS: Yes, I think most adults do lose that line. And so goes that sense of danger, but also the thrill at the unknown that accompanies it. And the fact does break my heart, constantly. I used to do improv comedy, and one of the first things you learn in improv is to start thinking like a kid again--because adults are too bound by what could or couldn't happen. Kids don't care. For kids, anything and everything is real and no possibilities have been lost yet, and that's both terrifying and wonderful and absolutely freeing.

I mean, when I was a kid, my brother and I were going to grow up and--after we were done being famous archeologists and maybe also astronauts--retire and run a turquoise and pink cafe, and drive a purple car, and live in a purple house with my husband Shaggy from Scooby Doo and my brother's girlfriends, New Cindy and Old Cindy, and our mutual best friend Be-Bo-Do-It. And there was no reason in the world we couldn't do those things. And that's what I love about kids--I find kids so charming and funny because their brains are a complete surprise, a living jumble sale. As soon as you start to lose that sense of the possible, you kind of cross that line.

But I try hard to stay in that world as much as possible; I love fantasy and fairy tales and sci-fi and magic realism and monster movies and in the very back of my head I'm always secretly thinking, there's still time. I could still crawl into a wardrobe and fall into a fantastical world with talking fauns. Or wake up in King Arthur's time. Or find a magic amulet. Or be kidnapped by the Snow Queen. You can see why I identify with the kids in my stories.

AV: In some ways, this story feels like the plight of writers everywhere, in believing in stories, and seeing what others might not understand. Was this something you considered while you wrote?

AS: Maybe not consciously, but I think this theme is more or less present in everything that I write. After all, I suppose writing is all about seeing something, understanding something others can't or won't. All writers are a little more like children, because they have to be willing to conjure up all the impossibilities. Well, at least the writers I care about reading.

AV: What are you currently working on? Any stories forthcoming that we can point readers to?

AS: Right now I'm actually working on a bunch of stories that I hope to turn into a book eventually--stories about imaginary figures, from tall tale, folk tale and legend. Not so much straight-up retellings, but stories about how weird they all are. Matchbook is actually publishing one of them in an upcoming issue, a story about Paul Bunyan called “The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Figures.” I've also got a bunch of stories coming up in really great publications in the next few months: JMWW, decomP, Wigleaf, Annalemma, mud luscious, Grist, and A capella Zoo, for instance. And I'm reading everything I can get my hands on. It's a really exciting time to be a reader, because there's so much terrific writing going on in the indie print and online community right now. I can't get enough of it.

Amber Sparks’s work has been published or is forthcoming in various publications, including Wigleaf, Annalemma, decomP, Mud Luscious, and Necessary Fiction. She lives in Washington, D.C., and can be found online at

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