A Conversation With Debra Spark

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.