The first “book” I ever “wrote” was a story I dictated to my brother when I was four or five. The protagonist was a bad little girl who played with matches and set her hair on fire. I illustrated the text with heavily frowning stick figures consumed by red and orange crayoned flames. My mom still has this masterpiece stored away somewhere.
Clearly, I’ve had a thing for fire for quite some time, but I found my way into Spark through my interest in siblings.
My brother and I have a good relationship, but as a child I idolized him in the typical hero worship of an older sibling by a younger sibling. As an adult, my thoughts took a darker turn, and I asked myself what would happen if that worship came from a deeper place of dependence. What if one child was raised to believe the other was special—a miracle? What if the idolized sibling grew up to do something unspeakably terrible? What sort of connection—and guilt—would the younger sibling feel?
For years I turned these questions over. They were at the back of my mind while I went to grad school and wrote another novel (I think of it as my practice novel; it will never see the light of day). Gradually, Andrea and Delphie took shape. I knew Delphie had to commit a crime, but I didn’t want him to be a cold-blooded murderer. Instead I saw him as having a dangerous vulnerability, a fatal flaw. Pyromania seemed perfect.
As I did research into pyromania, I found the disorder relatable, an example of common human experience taken to an extreme. On a primal level, we’re drawn to fire—it’s an important tool, and we find it beautiful and comforting, even though it can kill us. We’ve all had moments when our desires contradict what we know is right and our impulses become difficult to control. Sometimes following those impulses leads to positive outcomes; more often we end up hurting others and ourselves.
I started writing Spark in 2009, while I was living on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Walking is an integral part of my writing process; whenever I get stuck, or just need to get away from my computer for a while, I hit the pavement. Before Spark I almost always wrote about the place I grew up: Ohio. But as I wandered Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, and Park Slope, these places became the backdrop for Andrea and Delphie’s story. I wanted to bring New York out on the page, to show its kindness and cruelty. In many ways, the book is a love letter to the city that has taken me in.
These three components—sibling hero worship, pyromania, and New York City, especially Brooklyn—were the sparks that set off Spark. However, looking back at my first creative impulses, I wonder if the inspiration was there, in some form, all along.