Wednesday, August 12, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Ken Sparling

If you want to read Ken's work, contact him at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Getting a contract to do my first book with Knopf scared the shit out of me. It was like someone had called my bluff. But whether or not it changed my life -- I'm not sure I could answer that without living a parallel life where I never published a book. This really isn't a question that makes much sense to me. Not to say it's a bad question, but it makes me think, not of things in my life that changed after my first book, but what it means to say your life has changed. My life changes every day, but I don't quite know what the mechanics of that change are, beyond my own persistent efforts to make something worthwhile of my life when I have no clear idea what makes something worthwhile.

My most recent work (Book, to be published by Pedlar in April 2010) feels very different from my first. I love my first book the way I might love someone else's writing. I love my most recent work because I feel my own, new-found sense of patience, persistence, and other good things bleeding from the pores of the work. It feels like a payoff. It feels like I was fumbling around in the dark for the past 30-odd years and all of a sudden the light came on. It's a good feeling, because it makes me believe it was worth all the fumbling around.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I wrote stories, as I was asked to, in early grade school, they met with praise, and that praise made me happy, so I kept at it. I can read and appreciate poetry, and even try to make a poem once in a while, but I haven't tinkered with the mechanics of poetry all my life the way I have with the mechanics of story, so I don't feel like I could build a poem properly with any great success.

Non-fiction? -- you mean, like as in "Tell the truth?" Anyway, the whole fiction, non-fiction, poetry thing needs us writers to blur the defining images that separate the three.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Writing projects I guess for me would be framed in the form of books.There is no project until I believe there is going to be a book, and so far (until the thing I'm working on right now) there has never been a book in my future that didn't already mostly exist by the time I conceived it. So the project of making a book has snuck up on me eachtime. It seems to just come out of a sudden desire to have another book, coupled with having a bunch of writing that seems like good stuff. By the time I decide to make a book, I already have the book, more or less. Then I revise, which up until the last project, meant mostly throwing stuff out and rearranging passages and deciding on sections...

With this latest book, same thing, it snuck up on me. Suddenly I said, I'm going to make a book. Then I said, I'm going to make each section three pages long, give or take. It was summer and I had a week or so of holidays and I started shaping the sections, dropping pieces of writing in. I got all the material massed together in one big clump, then went through and broke it up into three-or-so-page sections, then, when I was at the end, I went back and worked and reworked each section. I've always been impatient at this stage of the game. If I couldn't get a section to work immediately, if it didn't already seem to work, I chucked it.

If I say I was more patient with the most recent book, it might be a bit misleading. But if you can understand tenaciousness as needing a strong measure of patience, I think you can see what I was feeling. It was exhillarating to stay with a passage until it yielded what I was looking for -- to stay with each passage until my looking for something, not knowing what I was looking for, suddenly yielded exactly what I was looking for.

Once my vacation was over, I just kept at it every chance I got. And when it was done, for the first time ever, I didn't feel like I'd had enough, I didn't feel like I never wanted to write another book again. I didn't feel like my blood had gone too thin to sustain me. I wanted to keep going and I did keep going and I'm working on another book now.

4 - Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I might have answered part of this question above, but you know, I think I'm an improviser. Improvising in thin air isn't easy, because you have no reference point, no underlying rhythm, no repeating refrain. What I do now is pull old pieces of writing out of drawers or file folders, start inputting them into the computer, and then allow my three characters who are in the work-in-progress to riff on them. Having all those old notes and bits of writing gives me some basis for improvising. It's like having a bunch of old tunes and trying to breath new life into them, the way a jazz player does.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Readings mostly freak me out till I get up there and start reading. If they go well, I'll come away telling you they are the best. If they go okay, I come away thinking I don't like doing them very much. The last few times I've read to people in sort of group settings, where I was the presenter and they were the audience, what I enjoyed was finding out that a piece was working. I could tell it was working by the way it came out -- not so much by the reaction of the audience, if there was any reaction. But by how the words came out of me.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Everything in my life is a way of exploring what matters. I won't ever find the answer, I know that, so I guess it's just an exploration. I just want to find out what it will feel like to be on the other side of some action I'm engaged in. Sometimes I feel like I'm surfing a wave that is the absolute essence of what matters, and sometimes I feel like I'm getting pummeled by a wave that is the absolute essence of everything that matters. In the first instance, I'm at one with what matters. In the second, I'm being fucked over by what matters -- without ever really understanding cleary what matters, in either the first or second instance. You can't get free of what matters, because you either are what matters, or you are being hurt by what matters. It's very baffling. Sometimes being baffled fills me with joy and sometimes it makes me feel desparate.

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The role of the person is to put themself into the world in everythingthey do to find out how being out there confluences with the others who are out there. My aim in everything I do in my life is to get way the fuck out there among a few others who are trying to get out there, too, beyond the place most people seem to stop. The role of the writer is no different than the role of any other human being. Get out there in the world and forget yourself as much as you can till one day you step back into self-consciousness and find yourself dead.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

The only editor I've ever totally loved working with on an ongoingbasis is me. Well, maybe Gordon Lish, but he didn't have as much time for me as I have for myself! Gordon taught me to be ruthless and percipitous and fast, furious.

Anyway, it isn't the process of working with an editor that determines the character of the relationship, it's the editor. I haven't met many editors who can make themselves essential. The only way to do that is to get carnal with the work you're editing, fuck with it, cross things out, move things around, maybe even add things in.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I honestly can't think of anything. When I think of being advised, I think of people I admire, and most of them never gave me advise. Unless you think of advise as a form of motion. Alan Blum, my professor at York, spoke beautifully, stood on his toes to emphasize a point, smoke deloquently, but I never came away with a clear understanding of the words of what he was saying, just the music of his poetry and motion in the class. The advice was there: you don't have to understand to be moved; or maybe even: you can't understand what moves you.

A journalist who was a writer-in-residence at Richmond Hill Public Library when I was a teenager did a line edit on a story I wrote that seemed to advise me in a good way. My cat sometimes seems to be giving me good advice.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

My writing routine is to check my watch when I get to work and I have my coffee made and I'm ready to start work and if I have some time till I'm supposed to start work, I pull out some old files and start riffing.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Well, I usually only have 10 or 20 minutes at a time, so the chances of getting stalled are pretty slim. Sometimes I can't even get started, by which I mean, I'll start inputting something from some notes and I'll just go on inputting what's there and nothing will arise out of it in the form of improv. It doesn't much matter. I just start my library work and try again the next day.

12 - What do you really want?

I want people to respect the work I do, take it seriously, wonder about it, try living with it for a while, before giving up on me.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I'd say that for me books come from words. Words pile up against each other and I do what I can to direct the form these piles of words take. This is to preface the idea that I seem to like wind and weather and the steam from horse's breath in the cold a lot, but I don't think I'd say nature influences my work, I just think that words like clouds and steam and wind sound so good piled against certain other words, for example: "Clouds flew across the sky like steam torn from a horses muzzle." Which is close to some words I used in my latest, soon-to-be-published book.

Music, though, I would say, directly inspires me. I listen to music all day at work, on my way to work on my bike, on my way home... I like to believe the rhythm, tone, cadence, timing, etc. of my writing are more important than anything like story, character, etc. I love the mystery in Bach's prelude to his first cello suite. I totally don't get how he chose each next note, but however he did it, it works. There's so much music that functions like that for me. I don't get how the thing managed to get created and performed as it did. And there is some music that I hate because it seems so obvious how and why it developed the way it did.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Almost everybody who gets published in New York Tyrant. Blake Butler. Julian Zadorozny... people in that magazine are trying to make something that matters.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I'd like to learn a challenging arrangement of a Bach piece on classical guitar.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Making music.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Early affirmation of my ability to write well. I started telling people I was going to be a writer when I was in Grade 4. There was no turning back once I'd opened my big mouth.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Season one of Ghost Whisperer -- not really a film, I guess, but Il oved it. Much better than this season, which has been pretty disappointing.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a novel, that, if it pans out the way I'm envisioning,will be the first book I've done that focusses on two or three characters and stays focussed that way.

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