A BARRELHOUSE INTERVIEW WITH AMBER SPARKS
In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week, writer Amber Sparks, author of The Unfinished World and May We Shed These Human Bodies, shares her answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece? Give us some context: how old were you?
It was a poem called "On Profanity." I was 29, I think - about ten years ago. Long enough ago that I was still writing poetry! It was published in Lumberyard Magazine, which was this really beautiful poetry zine.
How long had you been writing and submitting?
Oh, ages. Well, writing. I've been writing since I was little, and writing seriously since I was in my early twenties. I'd been submitting all throughout college, but I did give up writing and submitting for about five years after that. I'd only just started writing and submitting again when this poem was accepted.
How many times had the piece been rejected?
None! It was the first time I'd submitted it, which was not usually the case with my stuff.
Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I got the email that Lumberyard wanted to publish my poem, and it felt like spam. I was like, wait, this can't be real - publications don't actually respond to you, especially in this positive, personal manner. I responded all super casual because I didn't quite believe it was real and I didn't want to look like a fool. What that tells you about my worldview, I'm not sure. I think I had accepted at this point that I would never be published - and here was this magazine that published real, actual poets! I must have thought it was a phishing scam.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped?
Maybe not getting the actual acceptance, since it felt so casual and weirdly anti-climatic. Like, I don't know if I thought trumpets would sound or what, but it wasn't like that at all. But seeing a poem of mine for the first time in print - in a really beautiful magazine - that was more overwhelming than I thought it would be. I bought like twenty copies. I gave them out to everybody. People must have thought I was crazy.
Are they still around?
No, sadly. I'm not sure what happened to them - the website doesn't exist anymore. I still have my copies, though!
Are you still proud of that piece?
I am! I think it's a pretty good poem. One of the only pretty good poems I've written. I was able to get in a detail about how Mao thought brushing your teeth made you weak. And some stuff about medieval peasants. And a lot of swearing. Also, there's a reason I'm a short story writer, ha.
Have you re-read it recently?
I just did, before answering your questions. I hadn't, for a long time before that. I don't like to read my old stuff - it's usually horribly embarrassing. Especially old poetry.
Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
I'd tell myself, it doesn't really matter where you publish. Don't get so hung up on prestige or fancy magazines or anything like that. It's more important to look for places that publish the kind of work you love to read, and to make a lot of friends - to be part of a solid community that you can reach out to, who can help you know where to publish and who's looking for stuff and what magazines are perfect for your writing. Also, don't be afraid to keep writing "genre" stories. Don't listen to the publications who say they won't publish flying vampire tales. And don't submit there, either - they won't publish you and they don't deserve you, anyway.
Amber Sparks is the author of The Unfinished World and May We Shed These Human Bodies, and her fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives in Washington, DC.