"The Thing Reeks of Hot Jazz": An Interview with Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author (with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish) of the novella The Desert Places.

Her story, "When They Shake What God Gave Them," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Amber Sparks talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about myth-making, black humor, and writing dreams.

Tell us about how you began writing "When They Shake What God Gave Them."

This particular story started with a phrase I couldn’t get out of my head. I read something somewhere that mentioned jazz babies, and I had just been reading about Lizzie Borden, and for some reason, the two phrases clumped themselves together in my head and were hilarious to me – the Lizzie Borden jazz babies. I loved that phrase. (Not least because of its musical sound.) And the story just sort of took off from there. It was all about matching the language to the time period – I hope the thing reeks of hot jazz.

Reading your story the first time through, I immediately had the feeling I was reading a modern-day myth. (This phenomenon, I think, has something to do, at least partially, with the omniscience of the narrator.) What have you intentionally done to cultivate this fable-like feeling in your fiction?

I’m not sure that I cultivate it, per se, but I think it probably invades almost everything I write because that sensibility, the myth-making, is such a huge and living part of my brain. I’ve read and breathed myth and fairy tale since I was very small, so I think I just tend to look at the world through that lens.

The narrative takes a sharp turn for the dark with the clause "they start making plans to kill their parents." This line was so surprising I had to laugh out loud a little. Can you talk about how much of a role a sense of humor played in the formation of this story? (What makes us find, or supply, humor in the most morbid, morose material?)

Black humor is the only kind for me – or at least, it appears to be the only kind I can write. It’s also my favorite – sad funny is such a different kind of funny - it’s visceral, wet, soaked through and heavy. I like happy funny, too, but it tends to disappear off the page and the mind immediately after the joke. Sad funny sticks. It stays, like wet sand. I found the humor here both in the extraordinary contradictions of that time period, and also in the timeless contradictions and madness of teenage girls.

The final paragraph of the story visits the previously unexplored territory of Cat's dreaming mind. What made you decide to end this tale with a scene set in a dream?

Dreams are tricky things, and as every writer knows, they’re dangerous to write about because the writer either makes them too symbolic or too boring. But I knew I wanted to end the scene with a murder, and a lot of ambiguity, and the only way to really do that is in a dream. In real life, a murder invites immediate and black and white consequences, and I wanted to leave it open what my characters could be capable of, leave them in their own ambivalence, you know?

What writing projects are you working on now?

I finished another short story collection earlier this year, and I’m just in the finishing stages of a novel I’ve been working on for a little over a year. I’m alternately despairing and exuberant over it, depending on when you ask. Today I’m feeling hopeful. I think I’m a short story writer at heart, so I feel a little out of my element most days.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

Oh, so much good stuff. Matt Bell’s wonderful book In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Joseph Bates’ Tomorrowland, Laura Van den Berg’s Isle of Youth, Gabriel Blackwell’s The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, Joseph Riippi’s Because, Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me, Karen Green’s Bough Down, Ravi Mangla’s Understudies, Jess Walter’s We Live in Water – plus this year I (finally) read Moby-Dick and Confidence Man, and Renata Adler’s Speedboat which if anyone is living in a bubble and still hasn’t read – get to it, clearly.