Small Press Book Review contributor Taylor Breslin interviewed Amber Sparks, Robert Kloss, and Matt Kish about their collaborative work The Desert Places. Here’s how it went:

Amber Sparks

How did The Desert Places come to be? How did you approach a collaborative work differently than working alone?

Rob and I had been talking about collaborating on something for a while, and this idea of a monster kept coming up. In my head it was this sort of sloughing off of man's corruption, and in Rob's head it was this more primitive being, a force much older than man, and I think we sort of both realized - why couldn't it be both? Why couldn't evil evolve just like any animal organism? And it sort of took off from there. 
Working collaboratively was very different - and good for me, I think. Everyone should try it, because I think it forces you out of your comfort zone, your go-to themes, your specific rhythms, and it throws you off balance. It makes you reach for something totally new. The way we approached it was that one of us would write a piece, and the other would totally rewrite it, and then the other would totally rewrite it again. It's almost like we were both writing ourselves out of the work, rather than into it, which I think really makes it both truly collaborative and also weirdly absent of us in a way.  It was also kind of gleefully fun to abandon parts of our own style, and to attack and kill each other's darlings. I kept changing Rob's signature POV, and he kept slashing and burning all my corny jokes and puns. It was the rare situation in which you get to edit not based on the needs of the manuscript, but just based purely on your own selfish interest. 

How did you get in the mindset of writing evil as a character? Was it difficult to find that distinct voice?

I think that was the easiest part. Evil changes, grows, even multiples, during the course of the book, so it just came very intuitively based on whatever period in history we were writing about. And neither Rob nor I have particularly "modern" voices - I think we're both throwbacks, in some way, to less contemporary styles of writing - so the monster didn't have any sort of drearily Twilight-like sensibilities or anything. It doesn't sparkle or live in Seattle or fall in love with thin human teens. It may live and move in the future, and be aware of pop songs and slang in a vague way, but it's formal in a much more ancient, primal way, I would hope. It is never, ever human.

You often seem concerned with myth in your writing, as well as death. How did you come to write about the origins and nature of evil? How did your previous works inform this one?

Ha, true, true. I have always been immensely interested in the human condition on an epic scale, and also in beginnings and endings - and nothing tells those stories, and humanity's attempts to explain them, better than myth. And I think, not to be too pessimistic, but that the story of humanity is the story of evil - not that we are inherently evil, but that there has always been, in all myth and legend, the yin and yang of good and evil. And I was very interested, in this case, in evil as understood by ancient cultures - as a necessary force that exists to create balance in the universe. And what the sudden and unnatural growth of human evil might do to encourage or thwart such a force.

Robert Kloss

How did The Desert Places come to be? How did you approach a collaborative work differently than working alone?

Desert Places either began when I began seeing the monster or when Amber suggested we collaborate.
I try to write something that belongs to me, to my particular way of thinking and seeing. This book belongs to us both, but in a way it belongs to neither of us. We wrote in our separate corners, but we revised to muddy the idea of authorship. I killed elements that Amber found essential, and she did the same to my stories. And that attitude is quite divorced from my usual philosophy.

How did you get in the mindset of writing evil as a character? Was it difficult to find that distinct voice?

I came to the task with the mindset. I sat before the computer every morning and there it was. I had the voice inside of me.

The PANK review of How the Days of Love and Diptheria said you write like you have a fever. The review excerpt on your page for The Alligators of Abraham describes it as a "fever dream." I can see that same quality in The Desert Places, something almost hallucinatory. How do you think this quality relates to your writing style? Do you feel like all three works are connected in some way?

A fever is one way of entering into a different kind of perception, and witnessing a work of art is another. So my goal as a writer is to teach myself a new kind of perception, to bring about the fever and to go into it, and to write a work in such a way that submerges the reader in that perception.

One work follows into the next, and each work should teach the artist a new way of perceiving, or extend the prior learned perceptions. So Desert Places does that, in a way, but less dramatically, because my influence is ultimately only a third of the total.

In The Alligators of Abraham, you worked within the timeline of American history, creating an alternate history. The Desert Places is also a sort of alternate history. What draws you to that type of story?

Those books are just other ways of seeing the past. That’s the past I believe in or want to believe. The flame I hold my hand to. I’ve heard people say they’ve looked up elements of Alligators to see if they actually happened—which seems reasonable enough. My grandmother, however, did not read with Google at her side. She took the events of the story as historical fact, and she was absolutely fascinated, as you might imagine. And that taught me something valuable about witnessing a work of art, you know; I now prefer my grandmother’s method. 

Well, writing about the past is another way of writing about what we call the present. I try to bring about a kind of overlap of events, in a way. It’s just a way of forcing a different way of perceiving. I want to see different things. I want to see in different ways. I want to believe in aspects of reality that the recognizable and contemporary world fights me from believing in. I think it has something to do with Google maps and satellites peering into every cover where once the corners held mystery, and also the way everything is so well lit. We don’t understand darkness any longer. The way darkness once looked, the way it sounded. The absolute darkness had a way of shaping belief that we have lost. So I try to imagine a world that retains that darkness.

Matt Kish

How did you get involved with The Desert Places? 

Robert Kloss first approached me about it, asking if I would be interested. I had been lucky enough to work on the cover and some interior illustrations for his earlier novel The Alligators of Abraham and that book hit me so hard and affected me so deeply that I knew I would work with Robert on anything, for any reason, any time he asked. I was very drawn to the way he builds his sentences, with all the metal and rust and blood and decay and smoke and ash. It had been far too long since I had read something that I could really feel slashing me open slowly like that. It was an incredibly powerful experience, and although he didn't tell me much at the time about The Desert Places, what little he shared about the nature of the book and the way in which it had been conceived and created by both he and Amber was all I needed to know to immediately agree to be a part of it.

At what point in the book's creation did you start working on the illustrations?

The text was complete at the point when I came on board, so I was able to read the entire book over and over again, to really immerse myself completely in its poison while my ideas formed. In a sense, it was a kind of dream project for an illustrator because no one - neither Robert nor Amber nor anyone from Curbside Splendor - told me what to do. At all. I was more or less free to explore the text, respond to it, create a vision of it, in any way I wanted. No one asked for a specific number of illustrations or mandated a certain kind of aesthetic or anything like that. The entire experience was quite strange in that sense because it was just the text and me, sort of circling one another in these very dark places in my head, ripping pieces of each other out until something even more horrific could be assembled from the remains.

How did you arrive at the subject matter and style of your illustrations, given that the book is about the nature and history of evil?

I have always been drawn to the mythic, and both Robert and Amber work with that in very clear and specific ways. That is part of why their writing has such a visceral impact on me, and seems to fire these visions in my mind almost effortlessly. For better or worse, I tend to get very impatient and irritated with a lot of introspection and character or dialogue driven writing. I have always felt that if I wanted that kind of thing, I would just spend every weekend at some hipster bar listening to 30-somethings talk about their lives. When it comes to writing that I see visions of, that I want to illustrate, I need the kind of lunatic ambition that something like The Desert Places exemplifies. That ambition, that fearlessness, and the freedom that was given to me combined in some very strange ways so these illustrations of mine were drawn from some very personal places. It was as if Robert and Amber had given me this black mass of text, saying something like "Here, this is what we think the history of evil is like. Now show us what you think." And I started there.

I had just completed 100 illustrations for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and I had spent nearly 8 months thinking about that book and its ideas constantly. That black river flowed very naturally into The Desert Places and I found a lot of common ground between the two books as well as some stark differences. My illustrations were direct, personal, violent, visceral responses to Robert's and Amber's writing. Every element of my art is connected directly to their ideas. Genocide, lynchings, plague, war, conquest, rape, oppression, corruption, futility, and the endless hopelessness of these infections erupted almost uncontrollably from me. These pieces are actually far more personal than my Heart of Darkness pieces in that I can recognize myself in them, and I look at them with a mingled sense of awe and absolute revulsion at what I had a hand in bringing into the world. Which is honestly what I had hoped for. This is not an easy book. Not to read, and not to look at. Which is one of the reasons why it is so important.

With Moby Dick in Pictures, you were working in conversation with one of the cornerstones of American literature. How was it different working with a piece of new fiction?

The way I read tends to surprise a lot of people in that, whether the reading results in a visual exploration of a novel or not, it is entirely, obsessively and maybe even arrogantly personal. While reading Melville, or Conrad, or any author for that matter, I never once thought much about things like their place in the canon, their historical importance, their lives or even their personalities. Reading for me is an intensely personal experience, a relationship between me and the book. Maybe that's disrespectful, I don't really know and I don't really care. It's been very interesting for me to form a kind of tenuous friendship with Robert and, later on, Amber, both of whom I have exchanged a few emails with but never met. But while working on these illustrations a concern about what they would think of the art never arose. I can't work that way, and I don't think any artist could. Or should. There is enough of my art easily available for viewing online that anyone asking me to work with them should have a very good idea of what I do. These images are the way I respond to the books and what they say to me. They are often as much about me as they are about the book itself. It took me a long time to understand that, and even longer to come to peace with it. I suppose that in working with a dead author, especially an author like Melville whose writings have been explored and interpreted by dozens of artists over the decades, there is no real chance of rejection by the writer which would seem to alleviate some of that burden, if it existed for me. But I can honestly say that I never concerned myself with that kind of rejection with The Desert Places. I did what I had to do. I did the only thing I could do with the art, and that was to make it absolutely real and to not compromise on anything. When the journey is complete and the work is done, I do always hope that it will be met with a positive reaction, especially from the author. I feel incredibly fortunate to be have been able to work with Robert twice now because I feel like in some ways he and I are both mining the same vein of ideas, just in different ways. It seems that way with Amber as well. Even better, both of the writers were very enthusiastic about my involvement and seemed to indicate that they felt these illustrations provided a different but equally powerful window on the ideas in the book. And it's exactly that kind of response that I hope for. They welcomed me aboard as an illustrator and when the work was done made me feel in a very genuine way like a third partner and an equal collaborator. I can see that kind of thing fundamentally changing how I work in the future, especially if I have an opportunity to partner with a writer early on in the process of creating a book, but it's still too early for me to know if I will get that chance. I'd love to work with Robert again, basically on anything, and Amber's writing has really made a huge impact on me in unexpected ways too.

Purchase The Desert Places HERE.

Read Taylor’s accompanying review HERE.
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