Interview: Ken Sparling

A BP online exclusive

By Brooke Ford


Ken Sparling, author of self-publishedHush Up and Listen Stinky Poo ButtFor Those Whom God Has Blessed With Fingers (Pedlar Press), an untitled novel (Pedlar), and Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall (Knopf, New York), is launching his new work of fiction, BOOK (Pedlar) this month. His work is often referred to as experimental anti-narrative pieces that push literary boundaries and confound the reader’s expectations of the very act of reading. And that’s just what he wants do to. Writing and the allure of self-publishing, for Sparling, is a process of creating and gaining control, just to relinquish it all over again. As part ofBroken Pencil‘s online author and artist interview series, Ken Sparling offers up an intimate look at what he’s been up to and his new book, BOOK.

Broken Pencil: What can readers expect from your new book, BOOK?

Ken Sparling: I hope BOOK belies all expectations, both for people who have never read anything by me, and for people who have. I hope BOOK sets up certain expectations in the opening lines, and then goes on to crush them. I hope that in the wake of their crushed expectations, readers experience a sort of resurrection of expectation. And I hope these resurrected expectations are subverted by the end ofBOOK. I hope that by the end of BOOK, readers can’t quite figure out what happened to them, but are glad it happened.

BP: This will be your third book with Pedlar Press, what has the writing and publishing experience been like for you with them, as opposed to self-publishing, which has been your style in the past?

KS: Pedlar Press takes care about what they do and who they do it with, so it makes a person feel a part of something special, or exceptional. Pedlar is a very nurturing press. Being so well taken care of can be a mixed blessing for someone like me, because I hunger so much to be taken care of, and giving in too much to that hunger can make me stupid and unadventurous.

Take this as an example: A couple weeks ago, me and my wife, Mary, went out to buy a sewing machine. We needed it to make a few copies of my handmade book,Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt. Mary thought she wouldn’t have to sew anymore copies of Hush Up after Artistically Declined Press made a paperback version of it. She went and got the tension on her sewing machine fixed, after years of cursing every time she went to sew something and her machine wouldn’t work right because of all the thick sheaths of paper she’d sewed on it. Making copies of Hush Uphad wrecked her machine. Since it looked like, even with the paperback version ofHush Up available, we would still be getting the odd request for the handmade version, we needed to get a cheap machine that could be dedicated to making it.

Last night, Mary used the new machine to sew up the signatures on a couple copies ofHush Up I was making for my friend, and, after dinner, I started sewing the signatures to the duct tape binding I use. My mom, who was over for dinner, was untangling and sorting bits of thread for me while I did the hand stitching.

Last week, the Friends of Toronto Public Library had their gigantic book sale at Toronto Reference Library, where I have my office, and I bought some old hardcover books for 25 cents each. Among them was a copy of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittlewith the corniest, most terrible, most beautiful images on the endpapers. I’ll use the cover of this book for one of the copies of Hush Up. When I go looking for books to highjack for Hush Up, this is what I look for: unexpected, corny, awful, beautiful endpapers. These are the sorts of adventurous collaborations I never would have had a chance to be part of if I’d never decided to make my own book. This, to me, is what self-publishing is all about.

BP: Your writing style and literary philosophy are pretty unique, in the sense that in your interviews, you emphasize a desire to have control over your work and a freedom to write what you want – could you reflect on the course your writing and career as an author has taken so far?

KS: That’s a good way of putting it: “a desire to have control over your work,” because it’s definitely a desire, in the sense that a desire stays a desire only so long as it isn’t satisfied. I have to admit, I felt like I made more of an effort to control – or maybe influence is a better word – the outcome of BOOK than I have for previous books. I went through BOOK a bunch of times, way more times than any book before. And I worked the material in a way I never have before. Before, I mostly abandoned parts that didn’t seem to work and didn’t do a lot of reworking. If I didn’t like it, I cut it out. The process I engaged in with BOOK seems like a paradox in a way, and it felt utterly counterintuitive for me, because going through BOOK over and over again and changing things, revising, moving things around, seemed like a manner of control, and I’m not interested in controlling the material in the sense that a conventional novelist might be. I had to force myself to do it, but I discovered somewhere along the way that by taking a certain posture toward what I was encountering in BOOK, the act of revising could become a form of abandoning control. I think I’m constantly exploring abandonment, how the terrible feeling of being abandoned can come to form the basis for something beautiful.

When it came time for Beth (Pedlar) to put BOOK into production, she asked me to give it a good proof. I have to admit, in the past, I’ve never given any of my books a good proof after they went into production, mostly because I’m afraid of what I’ll find. With BOOK, I was just as afraid, but I decided to proof it anyway, and I was blown away by what I found. I hadn’t looked at it in a while, and it managed to totally belie my expectations.

BP: Just to backtrack a little, you mentioned a desire to be taken care of, what does that mean for you?

KS: The desire to be taken care of is, in a way, a desire to give up control. It’s a pretty muddled up thing, really. I want my work to seem out of control in the sense that a real adventure puts you out of control, but I want to control the process that leads to this feeling of being out of control. I think that I want to put in place certain practices that invite chaos, and then wander about in the chaos I’ve created, looking for opportunities to hear more clearly, in the echo of that chaos, what’s inside me.

BP: What have you been reading these days, what’s been influencing you and your work?

KS: I just finished World Made by Hand, which I liked. It was recommended to me by the poet Linh Dinh, who I’ve also been reading. His poetry is monstrously beautiful. Another friend, and a great writer and poet, Susan Kernohan, suggested I read The Brain that Changes Itself and I’ve really been enjoying that one. j.a. tyler sent me a short piece of his writing called The Zoo: A Going which is beautiful. Brian Evensen’s Baby Legs. Jonathan Goldstein’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible. I’ve been reading New York Tyrant #7, which I somehow didn’t get and had to borrow off Julian Zadorozny (another great writer). I just finished a story in there by Rachel Glasser with an opening section that blew my mind. At the Friends book sale I was talking about, I got a book called I Am a Sensation from 1971 that’s full of really dated, badly reproduced black and white photos and psychedelic images that I love, and poems that are unbelievable. Check this out:

“God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.” — Worlds in the Making by Dunstan and Garlan.

Ken Sparling’s launch is Tuesday, May 11 at the Victory Café, 581 Markham Street, 7.30pm

You can contact Ken Sparling at [email protected]