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Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Amber Sparks

Interview by Hananah Zaheer (Read the Story) September 16, 2019

Amber Sparks

Art by Paul Bilger

First let me say how much I enjoyed the way this story subverts the idea of what a story is and points directly at the interaction between words and reader starting from the title itself. Naturally, my question is: What do you think makes a story a story?

Thank you! I have no idea what makes a story a story, but I’m extremely interested in that question and I feel like I’m always asking myself that in my work. I always tell new writers that a story has to have either: interesting characters, an interesting plot, or an interesting setting. It does not have to have all three, or even two of those, to my mind. I think about reading letters to advice columnists – there’s a story right there! Or overhearing a conversation—that’s a story. If you don’t believe setting can be a story, real Invisible Cities. So to me, I’m always trying to examine what makes a story a story while telling a story. The language interrogates the story, and often the reader.

This story creates the idea of a utopia in negatives. Can you talk about your intent in choosing this way of telling and what effect you were looking to achieve?

I was on the garbage Internet and feeling like garbage as a result, so I started writing this piece to sooth myself. It wasn’t going to turn into anything; it was just a writing exercise. And then I realized that I could write a utopia (yes, good word!) through taking all the horrible things and twisting them. And then I realized I could turn it into a story by making it move from the general to the specific, and back again.

The voice in this piece is strong. Can you talk about why you chose the second person and also whether you have a favorite point of view and why?

I initially started writing this in second person because I was maybe going to turn it into a Twitter thread or something and so the “you” made sense. And then when I turned it into a story, the “you” still made sense because the narrator is so obviously traumatized that she’s distancing herself from the things that have happened to her; she’s dissociated them into an other, a “you.” I don’t truly have a favorite POV—I use them all when the story calls for them—but I think I probably use third person more than any other, because I love me some back story, and you can’t really get that with first or second person. Second person, by the way, has such a bad rap, but I don’t know why. There are certainly terrible stories written in second person—but there have to be way more terrible stories written in first and third POV. For me, second person POV tends to be the only voice that works in certain pieces, like this one.

Do you think things are really that terrible? Do writers have a responsibility to tackle the social and terrible in their work?

I mean, I do, yes—Trump is destroying the country and his ilk are destroying the planet, and that’s pretty terrible. I absolutely think writers have a responsibility to do this; I just wrote an ecohorror story, for example, because I was tired of avoiding climate change in my work. I think it’s less about writers being propaganda voices, and more about writers being honest. Climate change is so firmly part of the world and worryscape of Millennials and Gen Z that it feels dishonest to never touch it in contemporary fiction, for example. And if all the characters in your books happen to be wealthy white people, then you’re not being honest about structural racism and the struggles people of color have in this country. To never touch the social and terrible means you’re basically upholding the status quo, in a way. It doesn’t make you a bad writer or bad person, but in times like these, I prefer to be on the side of good. Well, I’m chaotic good, but still good.

I am fascinated by the goddess Innana from the Sumerian mythology. Which goddess in which mythology do you relate to or admire most and why?

Oh so many, but I think my favorite has always been Bastet, the Egyptian goddess. She could be very domestic and kind, but she had various names and guises, including The Lady of Slaughter and The Lady of Dread, and she was an avenger, a feline defender of the innocent and avenger of the wronged. She was kind of like an early Catwoman.

About the Author

Amber Sparks is the author of The Unfinished World and Other Stories as well as And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories & Other Revenges. Her short fiction and essays appear all over the internet and in a few print publications, too. She’s at @ambernoelle in internet life, and in Washington, DC, IRL.

About the Interviewer

Hananah Zaheer

Hananah is a writer, editor, improvisor and photographer. She serves as a Fiction Editor for Los Angeles Review, and as senior editor for SAAG: a dissident literary anthology—a project that seeks to not only lay claim to revolutionary ideas and avant-garde traditions, but to make space for radical and experimental South Asian art and writing in the literary world. She is the founder of the Dubai Literary Salon, an international prose-reading series.

She is the author of Lovebirds (Bull City Press, 2021). Other writing has appeared or is forthcoming in places such as Kenyon Review, Best Small Fictions 2021, Waxwing, AGNI, Pithead Chapel, Smokelong (Pushcart nomination), Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, South West Review, Alaska Quarterly Review (with a Notable Story mention in Best American Short Stories 2019) and Michigan Quarterly Review, where she won the Lawrence Foundation Prize for Fiction. She was awarded a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Fiction at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference for 2019, was a finalist for the Smoke Long Fellowship 2019, the Doris Betts’ Fiction prize 2014 and a recipient of residencies and fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Rivendell Writers’ Colony and the Ragdale Foundation. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart prize.

You can find her at www.hananahzaheer.com or on Twitter @hananahzaheer

About the Artist

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly. 

This interview appeared in Issue Sixty-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Five
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SmokeLong Fitness--The Community Workshop

Next Date to Join: January 1!

On September 1, SmokeLong launched a workshop environment/community christened SmokeLong Fitness. This asynchronous community workshop is happening right now on our dedicated workshop site. If you choose to join us, you will work in a small group of around 10-12 participants to give and receive feedback. Each Monday, you will receive a new writing task (one writing task each week) designed by the senior editor team of SmokeLong. The core workshop is asynchronous, so you can take part from anywhere at anytime. We are excited about creating a supportive, consistent and structured environment for flash writers to work on their craft in a community.