I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.

February 1, 2018: Debra Spark

The Writer’s Chronicle introduced me to Debra Spark. The old Writer’s Chronicle–oversized and newsprinty, remember? Debra’s essays told stories about her, were visual, and used examples from books I had actually read. I underlined and underlined and then tore them out and added them to my ever-growing stack on how to write.

Then, late in 2016, I was in a bookstore and noticed Unknown Caller. A new novel by Debra Spark. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I read any of her fiction?

I opened the book to the first sentence:

It is two in the morning when the phone rings.

I kept reading of course. But then, three short paragraphs later, Debra undercuts the drama that trails middle-of-the-night phone calls–and surprises me by making the novel all the more interesting.

In normal families, a late-night call means only one thing: tragedy. A drunken mishap. A car crash. A heart finally giving out. Maybe a decapitation or a roadside bomb, the twenty-first-century offering, as it does, an escalating range of horrors.

But the Pearlmans are not a normal family.

Debra’s writing is alive with details so attached to our lives, I often wonder how she’s able to extricate them and get them on the page.

Oh, Daniella is a child of her generation, as who is not? Ever ready with a therapeutic pop lyric to help her understand the events of the moment, then ready to critique her own shallowness. Is there nothing more going on in her head than the Rolling Stones? Apparently not, for while she waits for Joel to return with the girl, she sings (in her head, her inner voice is perfect, her outer reliably out of tune), “You can’t always get what you wa-aaant. You can’t always get what you wa-aant.”

And notice the tone–that ability to be outside the narrator but also inside in the same moment, so that the writing doesn’t feel judgmental or superior and also allows room for breath. We are Daniella and we can see her.

After Unknown Caller, I read Good for the Jews, which begins with a prologue. I’m not a fan of prologues. But I scanned ahead, and this one was short. Four sentences in, I’d forgotten I was reading a prologue.

Smoke at the horizon. A lone tendril corkscrewing up. Probably a brush fire. That’s what Alex Decker usually thought, when he saw smoke.

Chapter One delivers an outstanding first sentence, which, as you continue reading, works to cohere and unify the novel.

As far back as Ellen could remember, she’d been told there were two categories of things in the world: what was good for the Jews and what wasn’t.

Debra’s mother makes frequent appearances in Debra’s writing. I won’t go into the fiction, but you will find her in the craft essays and also in Debra’s articles on homes.

At some point during the planning of my wedding, about the time when dresses and hairstyles and such were being discussed, I balked. All this to-do. It wasn’t my thing. I said to my mother, “I don’t really want to be the focus of attention.”

“But you’re the bride,” she observed.

Well, true enough.
Given my own way of thinking, I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I called up real-estate developer Tim Harrington to arrange an interview. My task: write a profile of this man responsible for beautiful residences, upscale restaurants, a major health and fitness center, and multiple luxury-hotel properties in the Kennebunks.

“The thing is,” Harrington said, amiably enough, “I don’t want this article to be all about me.”
But, I thought, and flashed on my mother, it’s a profile of you.

Debra lives in Maine and is the author of five books of fiction–so I still have more to discover–including her recently reissued first novel, Coconuts for the Saint, which was the winner of the John Zacharis/Ploughshares first book award. You can find some of her craft essays  in her collection, Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing. Her short work has appeared in all the cool places, and she is a senior writer for Maine Home+Design. I don’t know how she finds the time, but she is also a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

When Debra was only twenty-three, she edited the anthology 20 Under 30, featuring stories by Ann Patchett and Lorrie Moore, among others. At the end of her introduction she wrote that with the anthology finished, she was left without a project.

So, 60 Over 70? It’s something to consider. It will be a hefty collection, I imagine–all those stories in one volume, after all; so much life to weigh in.

Perhaps Debra could find time for this too.

Come back on FEBRUARY 1st to read how DEBRA SPARK spends her days.