We’re happy to talk with Debra Spark, the recipient of many awards including the John Zacharis/Ploughshares award for best first book, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Bunting Institute fellowship from RadcliffeCollege. Debra teaches at Colby College and Warren Wilson College. She has edited the anthology “20 Under 30,” published various short fiction and articles in places such as “Equire,” “Ploughshares,” “Narrative,” “AGNI,” “The New York Times,” and “The San Francisco Chronicle.” Her books include “Coconuts for the Saint,” “The Ghost of Bridgetown,” “Good for the Jews,” and the well-received book on writing, “Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing.” We very much look forward to her newest book, “The Pretty Girl.”
YARN: We love that you’ve published a book of essays about the writing process, “Curious Attractions.” What other books about writing have you read and enjoyed, especially good ones for aspiring writers?
YARN: You’ve written guest blogs, you have an active website, and your new book features a trailer. How did you like blogging? Do you feel that electronic forms of outreach are now required extensions of your profession? How do they compare, in your experience, with giving live book readings?
DS: I don’t know how I like blogging! I’ve just started. I wrote some pieces this week, but I haven’t had the experience of posting the blogs and seeing if I get a response. Unless you are a well-known writer, I do feel like you need to try this new form of electronic outreach now, but I don’t like the constant “pimping” of yourself. It seems embarrassing to me. Sort of in bad taste, and yet I am doing it. Live readings are so varied. I have had the experience of preparing for a reading and having no one show up. Also the experience of having a crowd. As a younger woman, I went to a lot of readings and really enjoyed them. Now that I have a child and more demanding job, it’s hard for me to get to them, even if it is a friend reading. It is also true that I don’t buy books because of a blog I’ve read or a reading I went to. I buy them because a friend recommended the book, or I read an interesting review, or I heard about the book on one of the podcasts I listen to.
YARN: You write in many genres, including magazine pieces on home design, travel, and food. Does your writing process change from genre to genre? Do you outline, draft, revise?
DS: I never outline. I do draft and revise, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction. I interview people, and I take a lot of notes when I am doing a magazine piece. I tend, after I’ve written, to go back through the notes, making sure I included everything important. The same is true when I am writing a lecture about writing. I take a lot of notes, before I get going. With stories, I just write. With my novels, I have notes, but they are more in the order of timelines or things that I don’t want to forget as I move forward.
YARN: Your books take place in a variety of settings, from “Coconuts for the Saint” in Puerto Rico, “The Ghost of Bridgetown” in Barbados, and “Good for the Jews” in Madison, Wisconsin! What draws you to these locales, and how do you keep the details authentic?
DS: There’s a different answer for each place. My grandfather took my family to Puerto Rico two times when I was a girl, and he did a lot of business on the island. When I was in college, I was really drawn to magical realist fiction. Puerto Rico had seemed magical to me as a girl, so it made sense to set my story there. But I was probably also influenced by the fact that the magical realist fiction that I was reading was set in Latin and South American. Puerto Rico wasn’t in Latin or South America, but it was as close as my experience got me. With Barbados, my grandfather was also influential. He told me a story about a man parachuting into an anniversary party for his parents, only the parachute never opened. He said to me, “You should write this story, and you should set it in Barbados, and here is why.” I can’t even remember what the reason was, but he sent me on a trip to Barbados, so I could do research. As for Madison, I wanted “Good for the Jews” to take place in a liberal town. Madison is quite liberal, and I knew a lot about it, having lived there for two years in my early twenties. For all the novels, I did a lot of research. I visited the places—I even went back to Madison—and I took a lot of notes. In the case of Puerto Rico and Barbados, I also used relevant books, in order to get the details right.
YARN: Your new book, “Pretty Girl,” is a novella and collected stories. You have a reputation for being a master of short fiction. At YARN, we’re ardent fans of the short form. Can you tell us what draws you to short fiction?
DS: I like reading stories, and in college and graduate school, it seems that is where you start—with writing stories.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
DS: Yes! Is there a writer who doesn’t get stuck? The best advice I have is to write a lousy draft. Don’t even try to do a good job. In fact, make it your assignment to do a bad job. That way, you’ll get something down on paper. Then wait some time—well, if you have some time! Go back to the draft, and you’ll probably find something worth building on. Also, I advise taking notes about what you want to write on, if you’re writing a paper or essay. Another idea: say you had to do something like write what you think about a book you’ve read for class. Instead of doing a paper, imagine writing a letter to your closest friend, someone you speak to frankly and regularly. Start your paper by writing, “Dear Bess, I read this book, and it is really kind of amazing. At first, I thought maybe the characters were a little cliché, because it starts with this sort of blue blood man, who has pretty retrograde ideas about life, but when I got into it, I realized that ….” (I am describing a book that I am reading now.) If you write a letter, instead of a paper, you will write what you really think, in the language you really think in. Then you can go back, neaten up the prose, cut out the salutation and the “Love, Debra,” and you’ll have your paper. Or at least a version with which to work.
YARN: That is an awesome suggestion, Debra! Students, take note! And thanks again for answering our questions. Good luck with “The Pretty Girl.”
In addition to the books mentioned above, Debra Spark has also written for Esquire, Ploughshares, The New York Times, Food and Wine, Yankee, Down East, The Washington Post, Maine Home + Design and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other places. She has been the recipient of several awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Bunting Institute fellowship from Radcliffe College, and the John Zacharis/Ploughshares award for best first book. She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives with her husband and son in North Yarmouth, Maine.