Monday, April 30, 2012

My First Time: Debra Spark

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Debra Spark, author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception, which has just been published by Four Way Books.  She is also the author of the novels Coconuts for the Saint, The Ghost of Bridgetown and Good for the Jews.  She edited the best-selling anthology 20 Under 30: Best Stories By America's New Young Writers.  Her popular lectures on writing are collected in Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction WritingSpark has also written for Esquire, Ploughshares, The New York Times, Food and Wine, Yankee, The Washington Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other places.  She has been the recipient of several awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Bunting Institute fellowship from Radcliffe College, and the John Zacharis/Ploughshares award for best first book.  She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.  Visit her website here.

My First Story Publication

 When women sit around and share the stories of their children’s births, I always think that I got off easy.  Week-long labors?  Vows to off your husband?  Pain, the sort of pain the dead know all too well, but the living largely experience only if they’ve passed a kidney stone?  Nope.  I have the least traumatic birth story there is.  To wit:  an emergency C-section.  I’d been told I needed to have one if my water broke.  One second I was standing in the bathroom, thinking, “Wow.  This is weird,” as bizarre fluid flushed itself out of my body.  Two hours later, I had me a baby.  Of course, a C-section hurts, but I think it hurts a lot more if you’ve labored for 14 hours before you get one.  I never even had a contraction.  Just surgery (ouch!), distress in the lower tract (uck!), and I was up and about.

So it was with my first story publication.  I got really, really lucky.  Pain, minimal.  And then I had me a baby.

I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right after college.  Back then, in preparation for the weekly workshop, the office staff Xeroxed the student stories that were to be discussed.  Then those stories were placed on a shelf outside the Workshop’s administrative offices, so students could read the work before class.  When it was time for me to have my first story discussed, I was sick with nerves.  I was convinced I was an admissions mistake and that soon someone would discover the error.  Even though others confessed they had the same fear, I was not comforted.  My anxiety was so high that I actually considered stealing the copies of my story off the shelf.  What would happen then?  Would I drop out of school?  I hadn’t thought beyond theft.  Everyone else in my workshop class was so accomplished!  One man had a book already accepted for publication.  Another women had just had a story in Playboy.  Several others were publishing in women’s magazines or literary journals.  I’d never published anything, not even in my college literary magazine.

My workshop teacher was Rust Hills, then the long-time fiction editor of Esquire.  I understood, from the older students, that Hills was a big deal.  I would have thought so anyway simply by virtue of his title and the fact that he was my teacher, but they impressed upon me the importance of his books and anthologies as well.  One of his books had the subtitle “Revelations of a Fussy Man.”  Hills knew all the literary lights, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and had strong opinions.  A fussy man indeed, but not in a prim way.  More in a hard-drinking Esquire man of the 1950s way.

People routinely had a drink before their workshop.  The experience was deemed to be so terrible that fortification was needed.  People didn’t drink alone though.  Two people were discussed at each class session, so those two normally bought each other a drink.  When my time came, I went with a student of whom I was already intimidated.  She was quite beautiful, and I supposed dozens of men were in love with her.  She smoked a lot and clicked her retro purse shut in a way that struck me as Hollywood glamorous.  She was a good writer, but things did not go well for her story when we got to class.  But then they hadn’t gone well for anyone so far.  In general, Hills was dismissive of our class’s efforts.  Later, in the semester, a man would actually start to weep when his story was discussed.

The tenor of the class changed, though, when it was time for my story.  For the first time, a student got praise in class.  Hills spoke of my story in completely glowing terms.  My classmates’ didn’t feel as he did, but I think they modulated their criticism in light of his opinions.  When class was over, I left the room--it is amazing I got through the doorway, my head having swollen to the size of a beach ball--and I thought I heard Hills say something about buying my story for Esquire.

But that couldn’t be right.  I must have misheard.

There was always a gathering at the bar after the workshop, and though I was not at all a drinker in those days, I remember getting a little drunk, and then going home to read the student comments on my story.  One man had written, “Rust is going to buy your story for Esquire.”  So maybe I hadn’t misheard?  But surely I would know if an offer had been made?  I called my parents, thrilled by what I suspected, but wasn’t quite sure was happening.

It turned out I wasn’t confused. Rust did want to buy my story for the magazine.  And more than that, he wanted to buy it for the summer fiction issue, which meant my name would appear on the cover of the magazine alongside the names of the other writers who had stories in the issue: John Updike, Ann Beattie, Jayne Anne Phillips, Kurt Vonnegut, Peter Matthieson, William Styron, Robert Stone, and Alice Walker.

Talk about getting out of the starting gate fast.

And there was more.

Bruce Davidson, a photographer whom I had always greatly admired was slated to take pictures of all the authors, so he flew out to Iowa and spent a day with me.  Later, while in New York seeing family, I went to the offices of Esquire and met Tom Jenks, the magazine’s associate fiction editor.  At the time, I had the idea of putting together an anthology of short stories by writers under thirty.  I asked if he had any names he could suggest.  He did, and he also had a name for an agent whom he thought should represent me.  Some months later, Tom moved from Esquire to Scribner’s, and he called my agent to ask if he could publish my anthology.

So my first story publication quickly became my first book publication.

I was 24 when the book came out.  I had one of the best agents in New York.  The New Yorker actually wrote me back then and asked me to submit work.  When I did send stories, I got long detailed responses.  Editors called my agent, asking for a novel from me.

Only I didn’t know how to write.

That story I wrote for Esquire was the first story I ever really completed.  I had all the attention a writer could want, and no polished work to offer up.  I knew that as an older woman I would regret the fact that I couldn’t take advantage of all the interest.  And now that I am 49, I am right.  The New Yorker certainly isn’t ringing me up now!  Only what could I have done?  I wasn’t ready for the attention.  Still, if I hadn’t had the attention, I wouldn’t have had the career that I have had, since I did manage to go from the early success to literary magazine publications and a fellowship.  Later to teaching jobs and a first novel, though that first novel had to wait till I was in my early 30s.  Now I am about to publish my sixth book, a story collection called The Pretty Girl.  So perhaps my first publication was “too” big, in a manner of speaking, but it was what set me on my way.

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