Debra Spark is author of the novels Coconuts for the Saint, The Ghost of Bridgetown and Good for the Jews. She edited the best-selling anthology Twenty Under Thirty: Best Stories by America’s New Young Writers. Her popular lectures on writing are collected in Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction.
Spark’s recent release is a fiction collection titled The Pretty Girl: Novella and Stories. I had the pleasure to speak to her on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer. Spark currently teaches at Colby College in Maine.
Doug Holder: In your new collection The Pretty Girl: Novella and Stories you have many references to Jewish culture, literature, etc…. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Debra Spark: I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, but much of my family is originally from the New York City area. I had a secular Jewish background. As a friend told me once about himself: “ I am so secular I am Baptist.”(Laugh) But we were very culturally Jewish—we celebrated the holidays, etc…
DH: Your protagonist Andrea, in your title novella in the collection The Pretty Girl, has made a study of her elderly aunt Rose. Rose is a resident of the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and as we learn had a tumultuous as well as colorful past. I found that through my interviews of people I learn about myself. Do you think Andrea was trying to learn about herself?
DS: I wasn’t thinking that. She is really interested in her aunt, and this aunt is someone she loves. She is curious about what her young life had been like. She is passionate about her inquiry because she loves her, and perhaps she sees things in her aunt that she perhaps doesn’t have in her own life. I mean Andrea is not a pretty woman. She was concerned with her weight and her sense of her physical self. When her aunt was young she was pretty. Andrea wanted to know what it was to live a life as an attractive woman.
DH: In Rose’s NYC apartment there is a painting titled “The Pretty Girl” We later learn that it is Rose herself as a young girl. And the painting was by a man who she had an affair with, and shared a traumatic event. It must be a constant reminder to Rose of this trauma, but to the outside world this painting of a young woman with an enigmatic smile must have been a mystery. Why would Rose want to be constantly reminded of this tragic part of her life by the painting? And is a painting a good literary device?
DS: It reminds her of the early part of her life. When she was being painted she was the object of great devotion and love; even though that became perverted because of things that happened afterwards. A painting is a good literary device. A self-portrait always has a story behind it.
DH: So often young people never think of the elderly as once having vibrant, creative, and sexual lives. Andrea seems more aware than most.
DS: Yes I agree. Rose is a fictional version of my aunt Ethel. I always thought that she was much more interesting—much more vibrant—much more fun that the average person her age.
DH: Do you go by the old adage: write what you know?
DS: Lorri Moore told me that the relationship between the autobiography and the actual work is a little like the relationship with the ingredients in the kitchen cupboard and the cake. So although everything I write about is made from aspects of my life, I don’t think it is recognizable. I mean when you eat a cake, you don’t say “Ah, I got some baking soda here.” So that is how it is with my books. It is all of me. It is all parts of me. None of it is directly me. I don’t like that an old adage you mentioned. I think if you don’t know something before you sit down to write; then make an effort to learn about it.
DH: You teach writing at Colby College in Maine and elsewhere. How do you introduce seminal writing students to creative writing?
DS: I always start off the semester by telling the students within every writer there are two writers. The writer who wants to write and the writer who wants to prevent the writer from writing. So there is the person who has good ideas and wants to get them down, and then there is the censor—the person who wants to edit. I learned this from one of my teachers the writer John Hershey. As a teacher I can’t teach you to have imagination, but I can teach character, plot, grammar, that type of thing. If I am a good teacher I can get students to access their imagination. I try to get these two writers in balance.
DH: What was it like for you starting out as a writer?
DS: I went to college and graduate school. I had a lot of early luck. When I came back to Cambridge, Mass. in my early 20’s, I was adjuncting and doing freelance editing. I had a lot of writer friends and there was always something to go to: readings, etc… It was quite a lot of fun. My life now is different. I am middle-aged and I have a child. I have a hard time getting my own writing done. Even back then I did have a hard time finding time, come to think of it. It is hard for me to balance work, motherhood and art. I do things when I can.
I did a lot of book reviewing early on. I tell my students to do this although the world is different now. But it is good to have your name out there. There are now a lot of online opportunities.
DH: If your child said he wanted to be a writer what would you say?
DS: I would be worried. It is hard to make a life as a writer. Obviously I would support him if he really wanted it. It seems like a bigger challenge than it was 20 years ago. The true answer is that I would want him to do what he really wants to.