Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

April 30, 2012 by

A Conversation With Debra Spark

Debra Spark is a bit of a fabulist—her stories skirt the tantalizing territory between what’s real and what’s imagined. In this new collection, The Pretty Girl, Spark’s imagination creates a group of stories that are wholly off beat. She talks to Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, about where she gets her inspiration, her attraction to the visual arts and her fascination—and occasional frustration—with toy theaters:

In your linked short stories you create radically different characters, settings and even time periods in each of your stories. Can you say more about this decision?

I wrote these stories over a very long period of time, so that may be part of the answer. I actually think of the stories as connected, despite the variety, since many of them circle around the theme of art and deception.

You have written both novels and stories; do you have a preferred form?

I think I like novels better, since with a novel you only have to think up a new idea every few years, but with stories you have to do it ever few months!

The freshness and originality of your dialogue is really notable. Do you have any interest in writing a play or any other dramatic form?

Thank you. I love the theater, and I would love to write a play at some point, but I just don’t think I have the skills. I frequently go to the theater here in Portland, Maine, and whenever I do, I am newly amazed. Often when I know a play’s conceit in advance, I try to imagine how things will unfold, before I actually see the play. Invariably, what is to come is far richer than what I am able to imagine.

Two of the pieces in here—”The Pretty Girl” and “Conservation”—deal with the visual arts. Is that a particular interest of yours?

I am married to a painter, and I have spent much of my life in the company of artists—writers, painters, photographers, graphic novelists, playwrights, actors, etc. There’s an artist friend or casual acquaintance behind almost all of the stories in my book. For instance, I have a friend who used to direct an art workshop for developmentally disabled adults and that informed my story “Conservation.” On a plane, I once met a woman who took photographs for luggage catalogs, and that influenced part of “I Should Let You Go.” Two of my writer-friends had serious breakdowns when they were in their twenties. After they were hospitalized, they were both forbidden to write. The curious proscription influenced “Lady of the Wild Beasts.”

Set in London in 1862, “The Revived Art of the Toy Theater” is such an unusual story; what’s its origin?

Thirteen years ago, when I was pregnant, I took a trip to the Southwest. In Santa Fe, I went to a folklore museum, where I saw an exhibit of toy theaters, which are essentially miniature versions of real theater stages. Several countries have a tradition of toy theaters. There’s the Kindertheater in Austria, El Teatro de Los Ninos in Spain, the Papiertheater in Germany, and so on. I was taken with the English tradition, perhaps because the Santa Fe exhibit noted that toy theaters were all the rage for Victorian boys. Boys, not girls. This struck me. (Robert Louis Stevenson was an enthusiast.)

To play with the theaters, Victorian children purchased the equivalent of paper dolls, which they cut out, colored, and then manipulated on the toy theater stage. As I read more about toy theaters, I thought of the many hours I spent setting up my Barbie house when I was a girl. I remember that when it was time to start playing Barbie, I would always get irritated. When I made Barbie’s “pad,” I had a lot of stories in my head. But the story that came out during play was always dissatisfying to me. In some ways, this seemed to me a metaphor for writing, for how your dreams for something never quite equal what you are able to produce.

Toy theaters can be quite magical and beautiful, but to me they also suggested frustrated imaginative potential. As I started to do research, I found that there were many bizarre (and sometimes nefarious) characters associated with the production of Victorian toy theaters. I saw, too, that the intersection of art and business was as problematic in those days, as it is in our own. So all of this came together to produce the story.

In A Wedding Story, a woman discovers a tiny rabbi inside of a desiccated chocolate egg and the rabbi becomes her companion and ultimately her guardian angel. At the end, you give a nod to Martin Buber. Can you say more about that connection?

Yes. Just before I wrote my story, I was listening to Martin Buber’s Legends of the Baal Shem Tov and reading Adin Steinsaltz’s Beggars and Prayers. The stories in both books embody spiritual ideas in a complicated way. Each story has a literal truth, which is clear enough, and a metaphorical truth, which is religious and must be ferreted out. I wondered if a contemporary story could work in the same way. I’m not sure that it can, and if it can, I’m probably not the writer to do it. Still, I thought I’d tiptoe around the possibility by borrowing from the masters. So, in my story, the tiny rabbi tells several tales, and they are all drawn from stories that Buber attributes to the Baal Shem Tov.