Some of the writers published in the first issue are fellow members of online writers’ group, Scribophile, as is Brian Lewis, Spark’s editor-in-chief. I was delighted when they agreed to talk to me about the anthology and their work.
I asked Brian about his decision to allow submissions from all genres rather than focusing on one in particular:
BL: You'd be surprised just how controversial this decision was. Everyone from distributors to reviewers to potential contributors kept asking, "But ... what's the genre?" When I said there wasn't one, the consistent response was, "Well, that will never work."
Even so, I steadfastly I refused to set a genre or even a theme for the first volume, instead encouraging submission of high-quality stories of any length, subject, or format. I wanted the quality of the writing and storytelling to be the defining characteristic of Spark. Not the topic.
CJ: I’m glad you did, Brian, because that was the number one reason I enjoyed the first issue so much. I loved the fact that there was speculative fiction alongside a western story, alongside a mystery story, etc. Did you purposefully try to get as much of a genre spread as possible or did it just turn out that way from the submissions you received?
BL: It just turned out that way—and far better than I had ever dared hope. Despite my insistence that I wanted "quality, not genre" and the brave public face I put on about my decision, I was terrified that they were right and it wouldn't work.
So, not only am I very pleased with the variety that resulted from my refusal to declare a genre for Spark: A Creative Anthology, but I'm relieved that my conviction to go with my original instincts paid off. I totally admit that it was a gamble, but the amazing writers who submitted to Spark turned out to be the ace up my sleeve.
CJ: I have to say, I wouldn’t like to play cards with you with a poker face like that. The gamble definitely paid off, judging by the quality of the writing within Spark.
The very first story in the eBook version of Spark's first volume is the short but suspenseful Five Hundred by D. Laserbeam. I have it on good authority that Brian purposefully pulled that story to the beginning for the eBook version because he felt using it as a preview would hook readers into buying a copy. I asked D. Laserbeam how he felt about that.
DL: I was definitely excited to see my story first. It made me feel like Brian had a lot of faith in it, which was nice. And now I'm officially in an Amazon preview. It's like I'm a real author or something...
CJ: I can see why he chose the story; it certainly impressed me enough to buy a copy. Now, I know you like to write flash fiction, and you managed to pack a lot of story into the word count for Five Hundred. What is it about writing flash fiction that appeals to you?
DL: I see flash fiction as a challenge. Novels are incredibly hard to write because they require much more time and consistency. Flash fiction, to me, is difficult for the opposite reason. As you said, you need to pack a lot into very little space. Every word you use should count for something. I wouldn't say that I write or revise with that in mind, necessarily; it's more that I write in intense spurts, rather than well-thought-out spans. I guess I'm a sprinter, not a marathon runner.
CJ: Well your story is certainly a good example of quality over quantity. However, in Spark the longer stories are also quality. George Wells' poignant story, Last Rites, brought a lump to my throat as I read. What inspired you to write this story, George?
GW: The first inspiration came from a discussion of story prompts. Somebody suggested, "Write the story of your own death in first person." I answered, "Oh, I'll write the hell out of that."
As it grew in my mind, a couple of things influenced the story and tone. I was talking with a therapist friend of mine a few years back, and I told him that my biggest fear was dying alone. The part about my father dying alone and my mother finding him is true. My friend answered, "If you are a man of faith, you must know that you are never alone."
I'm Catholic, coming into it late in the game, at thirty-three years old, so I have a little bit of residual agnosticism. That's where the refusal of Last Rites comes in, and why I end up receiving them anyway.
CJ: I understand that you have become a regular contributor to Spark, George, with stories in the next two issues to come. Without giving spoilers, can you tell me what readers can look forward to?
GW: Volume II will feature my short story Patron Saints of the Lowland, inspired by two things I saw here in Mexico. First, a woman on the bus cradling a plaster statue of a saint. She was holding it like you would a sleeping baby and caressing its cheek. The other part came from a trip to a friend's house, in the most horrid little town outside of the city, which is famous for being over the top in its celebration of the Holy Days. I put the two together and asked myself a lot of "why" and "what if" questions.
Volume III will have a reprint of To the River, which was previously in Shadow Road Quarterly, and requested by Brian Lewis for reprint.
I hope to continue contributing to Spark, and have a few ideas for future volumes. Brian Lewis is great at encouraging emerging writers and working with us personally on small changes to make the work shine, as is the staff at Shadow Road. It more than makes up for the automated rejections I've received from the few other places I've submitted to.
CJ: As someone who’s received a whole lot of those automated rejections, I have to agree: finding an editor willing to offer that kind of encouragement and support is teriffic, and it shows in the quality of the anthology. I keep coming back to quality, but—next to the diversity—the quality of writing impressed me the most.
Katie Stephens’ story Faceless is a very moving look at life from the point of view of someone who is suffering. I was impressed by the all the different emotions you managed to portray, as well as showing different faces of humanity; cruelty, indifference, compassion, empathy, it’s all there. What made you choose that particular character?
KS: Faceless is a flash fiction piece I wrote for my Circus anthology project. The entire premise is to take a look into the lives of circus performers, beyond the glitter of what the public perceives. Each story delves into the flaws and strengths of the characters, humanizing them. The story of the actual Elephant Man is fascinating and heart-breaking. I wanted to bring his story to life.
CJ: You certainly did bring him to life, Katie, and made me as a reader feel for him as a person. I know this is not your first publication, where were you published before? And how did it feel to be a part of Spark’s debut?
KS: I have another story, Final Letters, published in the Summer 2012 issue of Mused, both online and in print. This is not a Circus story; it's about two children who read letters from their mother at her funeral, and their reactions to her final thoughts of them.
I'm excited and thrilled to be a part of the first-ever edition of Spark, and want to thank Brian Lewis and the staff readers for allowing me this opportunity. Being able to watch Spark's progress, from the glimmer of an idea until the delivery of the first volume, has been a process of enlightenment for me and I admit, quite a bit of pride in Brian's work and dedication.
CJ: I’ll have to check that story out, it sounds like something I would enjoy.
Those who know me well, know that I have a fondness for the strong female character, especially ones who are still very much female, so I absolutely loved Della from Alexis A. Hunter’s By the Gun. She has such strength and yet the reader never loses sight of the fact that she's a young woman. Is that something you purposefully set out to do, Alexis, or did she just come out that way?
AH: I'm glad you loved Della—I loved Della, too! From the beginning, I did intend for Della to be a strong character, really the 'brains of the operation'. I wanted her to clash with Colton as she tries to order him around. He desperately needs someone to order him around—though he doesn't want to admit it—and she needs a way out of her current situation, so throwing these two together really created a lot of fun bickering that naturally arises when you have two strong willed people who need each other thrust into a situation like the one they face.
CJ: I hear there is a sequel to By the Gun, to be published in the next volume of Spark. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens to Della and Colton next. Can you give us a teaser about what to expect, without giving too much away?
AH: The sequel, "The Shadow Attached to His Name", is a story about fighting to manage a man who is often too vain, proud and foolish to listen, and trying to decide, ultimately, if it's worth it in the end—all while trying to save his hide from yet another run-in with the law. I'm very excited about continuing the story in Spark: A Creative Anthology Volume II, and I hope readers will enjoy the next step for Della and Colton.
CJ: Finally, Brian, What kind of feedback have you received so far? And what do you have in store for readers of Spark next?
BL: The feedback has been very positive, even from people who didn't care for a few of the pieces. With this hodge-podge of styles and genres, I knew that even the best outcome would leave every reader with at least one thing they didn't like. The flip side is that the things each reader likes are different, and, so far, everyone has come away with more things they like about the anthology than dislike.
I'm still waiting for an honest negative review. I'm sure it's out there, and I'd love to see the insights it provides.
As for what's next: the submission window for our second volume closes in just a few days. We have accepted and confirmed submissions from a couple of brand-new writers, from established authors like Brandon Tietz, and—we're especially excited about this one—a solicited reprint from Robert J. Sawyer, with his personal permission.
We also have several pieces accepted for Volume III—we really are planning that far ahead! I'm eager to see what adding themed writing contests does for the content; the theme for our next contest is intended to match the cover art for Volume III with a writing prompt of Impresión del perfil de una mujer, the ink painting by Rodney Artiles we'll be featuring.
CJ: Excellent! It definitely looks like this anthology is going to be one that readers look forward to, and that writers aspire to be published in. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to answer my questions, and for making Spark: A Creative Anthology such an enjoyable read. I’ll definitely be looking out for the next volume. For anyone interested, Spark: A Creative Anthology is available on Kindle for the rest of the month for $2.99. For twenty-three great pieces of fiction and poetry, it is a steal. And writers, check out that contest. I hear it’s going to have some great prizes.