There are at least as many ways to title a story as there are to write one. An author might conjure up a title that points to a story’s symbolic weight (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” say) while another might employ a seemingly benign phrase (“Family Furnishings”) only to have it churn and reverberate in the mind of a reader throughout the reading experience. And then there are the deceptively simple titles like Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” which, yes, is literally about a swimmer, but that doesn’t so much as hint at Neddy Merrill’s major troubles. Amber Sparks’s “The Janitor in Space” operates in this latter vein. Sure, the story’s about a janitor and, yes, this is a janitor who works in space, but if Cheever is really writing about social isolation, alcoholism, fear, and insecurity, then Sparks is not so much writing about cleaning up around the space station as she is writing about denial, loneliness, surviving trauma, and about the need to escape. We recently emailed Sparks to ask her about this lonely janitor, about her other work, and about the big press/small press divide.
Nate Brown: I love that in this story, the janitor herself can’t quite get far enough away from her history. She takes a job cleaning a space station where not only is she isolated from society down on Earth, but she’s even alone among the astronauts whom, we learn, she avoids. It’s at once a fantastic story in which our technology has advanced considerably and an entirely naturalistic story of one woman’s humdrum day to day. How’d you come to write it?
Amber Sparks: I feel like the story of everything I write is a long, cavernous, mazy sort of trail—you start off one place and end up in another altogether—and this story was no different. I usually know what I want to write about years before I do—it takes me so long to figure out the how. I really wanted to write about a particular person—about someone who had a difficult life, who was involved in a crime spree many years ago. But I didn’t feel right about it, because she’s still alive and living an intensely private life. She was working as a janitor for a while, that was really all I knew about her, and I didn’t want to speculate further out of respect for her and her family. So I sat on the story, the idea, until I finally realized I kept fixating on two things—her job (I’m always fascinated by jobs, and by work) and her intense, isolating privacy. I thought, where could you go that you could be so private, so alone, that no one would ever find you? And, of course, the farthest you could go was space. So I went from there. I was a little worried it would become silly, so I spent a lot of time getting the tone right, and was careful not to turn it into a sci-fi piece but to keep the focus squarely on my janitor, on her loneliness, her isolation.
NB: That’s interesting because, on the face of it, a reader might take one look at the title and read the first couple of lines and identify the story as sci-fi. But as I got into the piece, I found myself reading for her reactions to her loneliness and for those dense moments of flashback, not for the particulars of the world you’d invented, so I actually hadn’t really thought of where the piece fits in some broader system of categorization or, God forbid, “shelving.” That got me wondering: how often are you thinking of genre when you’re writing? Do you worry about how a piece will be received and categorized or are you just worried about what’s going to make it onto the page?
AS: This is a good question. It’s funny because I used to think about it all the time. I like to write stuff that tends toward sci-fi or toward fantasy or say, noir—and I’d always have to be really careful that I wasn’t going “too genre” because then serious magazines would turn the piece down. But I don’t worry about that too much anymore. I think there really has been a sea change in the literary world regarding genre snobbery, especially when it comes to younger writers. Younger writers have been raised on pop culture, on high/low, on the mashing of genres. So they don’t worry so much about if something is or could be perceived as genre—they publish what they like.
NB: Throughout, the reader gets glimpses of what motivated the janitor to flee Earth, but I got the sense that it wasn’t one single thing. It seems difficult in fiction of any length to know how much to reveal to the reader, and I’m wondering how you chose the really vivid, telling details that you did. There’s the gun that she drops like a snake, there’s the really ominous reference to the iron lungs used by Polio sufferers, presumably a thing she saw as a child. How do you know when to stop providing exposition or flashback? How much is too much? How much is too little?
AS: That’s something I struggle with always, because I tend to err on the “too little” side and I’m not trying to intentionally obscure story or background, but it happens if I’m not careful. Especially since I was writing a real person here (or at least, something based on a real person) I wanted to be extra sure not to include too many specifics, like when or where. But at the same time, a story isn’t real, doesn’t come alive, unless you offer very specific details. I tend to think of my stories as a series of snapshots, where details matter rather more to the emotional fabric of the piece than does, say, exposition or character arc. I wanted readers here to get the sense of the janitor’s background as being very recognizable, while at the same time, twisted in a way that the average Midwestern childhood would not have been.
NB: I like that snapshot metaphor because, really, that’s how this story seems to operate: the accumulated details coalesce and together they communicate a hefty emotional subtext. Is it fair to say that you’re more interested in those individual details—in crafting those, in getting them just so—than you are in, say, the broad strokes of a story like exposition or character or, hell, plot?
AS: Yes! Ha, in fact, I’d say I’m almost totally uninterested in plot most of the time. If I could just write character sketches all day, I would. That’s why I write. I’m so fascinated with people and what they are and what they think they are. My favorite books are usually the ones that people complain about, saying, “but nothing HAPPENS.” I’m like, sweet, what is this book, send it my way! But, of course, character is revealed through action and action is plot, so it’s not to say you don’t need something to happen in a story, even if it’s entirely interior. I just reread Mrs. Dalloway for the millionth time and I’m always struck by how little actually happens in the novel, and yet how much epic scope it has, how many revelations, how much drama. It’s a marvel. I suppose that kind of book is what I aspire to write.
NB: You’ve put out two books with Curbside Splendor, an incredibly respected Chicago publisher that seems to take bigger risks than you might see at larger, commercial houses. There’s been much made of the rise of the indie presses and the revival of the indie bookstore, and I’m wondering what this all looks like from an author’s perspective. Can you talk about publishing The Desert Places, which you co-authored with Robert Kloss and that was illustrated by Matt Kish, and May We Shed These Human Bodies? And how does “The Janitor in Space” compare with earlier works of yours?
AS: Curbside is wonderful, aren’t they? There’s really nothing more discouraging than being a short story writer (well, okay, being a poet, probably) because you hear all these things about “the year of the story” and how short stories are all the rage, but of course the writers of these think pieces are looking at two, three, maybe four big collections—and every other writer gets to hear the “well, we think the collection is grand, but we just can’t sell short stories” thing. Even small presses do it. And I get why, but it’s such a downer. And when I sent the collection to Curbside, those guys didn’t say a word about it being a story collection. They were like, we love this, and so it follows that readers will love it too. There’s such a level of integrity there. I mean, these guys were willing to publish a hybrid illustrated experimental novella, which honestly was a huge surprise. I sent it to them mostly out of politeness—and because I knew they’d dig it—but I never dreamed they’d publish it! But the nice thing is that they’re levelheaded, and they know how to run a business. They want to sell books. And as an author, you want to sell books. A press just thinking your stuff is swell, but not really knowing how to sell it—that’s going to be a bad fit for both parties. And I won’t lie—there are small presses out there who just plain don’t know how to sell books. They’re sort of stuck in the past, I think. But there are also a growing number of small indie presses who are willing to do what it takes to get their titles out there, who get the internet and online publicity and how to sell a book to different audiences, how to do the festival circuit and hook authors up with the right people and get distribution and make books that are beautiful and that will fly off the shelves (relatively speaking, of course), and Curbside is definitely one of those presses. I feel really lucky to have hooked up with them right at the beginning.
“The Janitor in Space” is actually kind of throwback, in a way—it’s funny. I started off writing flash fiction (well, technically I started as a poet, then moved to flash) and lately I’ve been writing much longer stories, and I just finished writing a novel, so “The Janitor in Space” was a bit of a surprise in that I thought it was going to be longer and I realized it absolutely shouldn’t be. The idea of the compressed life in a series of snapshots—maybe that’s a sort of compromise between my flash and my longer stuff, huh? The timeline is a lifetime long, but compressed into a series of moments toward the end of a life.
Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and the co-author (with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish) of the hybrid novel The Desert Places. You can find her most days @ambernoelle and some days at ambernoellesparks.com.