Unknown Caller

Louisiana State University (Yellow Shoe Fiction), 2016

Beginning with an aggravating phone call, a strange request, and the sudden disappearance of a mother and her daughter, Unknown Caller moves backwards in time and across several continents to tell a funny, moving, and genuinely surprising story about families, misunderstandings, secrets, falls from grace, and chances for redemption.

… Intricate characters and a deeply satisfying plot. I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

— Margot Livesey

Unknown Caller is an extraordinary and quite wonderful novel. Its suspense runs on the surprises wrought by very real characters who happen to be impossible people–I couldn’t stop reading. Vibrant and wildly perceptive, the book moves us to contemplate the shifting nature of what’s true.

—Joan Silber, Fools and Size of the World

We fans of Debra Spark’s work love her dearly for her rich characters, dazzlingly complex emotional landscapes, and gentle irony. I’m glad to say that all of these things are found in joyous abundance in Unknown Caller, which advances its human entanglements in the oblique way that a jigsaw puzzle comes together–a piece of blue sky here, a curl of a sail there–until, voila, we find ourselves holding the whole picture in our hands.

—Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies and Aracadia

Intricate, Pinteresque, and wholly compelling, Debra Spark’s new novel spans countries and decades, messes with time, and continues to upend everything you thought you knew about the characters. It’s masterful and I devoured it.

— Lily King, Euphoria and Father of the Rain

Debra Spark’s Unknown Caller is a pageant of mysteries: the breathless mystery of its page-turning narrative, the deeper mystery of the affections that connect her far-flung characters, and the abiding mystery of how this virtuosic author has infused her story with such an embarrassment of emotional riches. It’s the kind of book you’d rather be reading than doing whatever else you’re doing. I enjoyed it immensely.

—Steve Stern, The Pinch and The Book of Mischief

Unknown Caller is a kaleidoscopic, wide-ranging novel about the fragility and durability of family and the near impossibility of knowing the truth about even the people closest to us. Moving unpredictably across the decades, Debra Spark illuminates the secret histories of her characters with uncommon insight and compassion.

— Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers and Little Children

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Louisiana State University (Yellow Shoe Fiction), 2016

For as long Daniella has been married to Joel, someone has been calling at odd hours, and late at night. Daniella knows this caller to be Liesel, Joel’s first wife, a woman whose sudden departure a few months after their marriage devastated her husband. If Daniella picks up the phone, it is only to hand the receiver over to her husband. One day, Liesel calls to say she has decided to let Idzia, the seventeen-year-old daughter he has never met, visit their family for the summer.

Daniella and Joel prepare their young son for Idzia’s arrival, but when Joel goes to pick her up from the airport, Idzia isn’t there. Back at home, the phone calls stop and Joel, Daniella, and their son become haunted by the absence of two people who were never part of their lives to begin with.

Unknown Caller moves backward in time to uncover the details of Idzia and Liesel’s disappearance and the deeper puzzle of Liesel’s identity and why she abandoned a marriage for which she had seemed quite eager. Each chapter resolves the previous chapter’s mystery, while revealing another, larger riddle that must be deciphered. The result is a page-turner of a novel that ranges across continents to tell a funny, moving, and genuinely surprising story about families, misunderstandings, secrets, falls from grace, and chances for redemption.


“Just as you can never truly know everything about anyone — even those you hold most dear — you only think you know the who and why of Daniella, Joel, Liesel, and Idzia when you first meet them in Unknown Caller. In telling their stories, Debra Spark deftly demonstrates how shameful secrets, convenient lies of omission, and random coincidences can change lives forever. But every time you think, ‘Ah, now I see,’ the timeline dials back a notch and some new layer of backstory comes into view, revealing motivations you couldn’t have guessed at before. When I finished this book, I wanted to start over and see all the little clues I might have missed, but I was also jealous of my former self for getting to read it the first time.”

–Mary Laura Philpott, bookseller, Parnassus Books in Nashville.”

“An emotional and surprising story of a fractured family.

This novel is a nonchronological tale of the interwoven lives of Liesel, who is vivacious yet irresponsible; Joel, her ex-husband, who is staunch yet critical; their daughter, Idzia, who is artistic yet wounded; and their many dear friends and romantic loves. Five years after she leaves Joel, Liesel begins semiregularly calling him in the middle of the night to request child support. He’s willing to send money if he’s allowed to be a part of Idzia’s life—a request to which Liesel cannot bear to agree. After many years of these nighttime disruptions and many attempts on Joel’s part for legal intervention, Liesel is spurred by her life-threatening illness to concede to a visit. But on the planned day, 17-year-old Idzia never arrives, and Joel is left waiting at the Boston airport. What follows is an exploration of why: what led to this moment and what came after. In vibrant prose, she describes Liesel’s life before she met Joel, when she was an entirely different person but no less unsatisfied; Joel’s impatience, which compelled Liesel to have an affair, causing their marriage to fall apart; and the no-less-imperfect relationships that came after. The story’s structure, jumping back and forth in time and place, allows these authentic, flawed characters to be fully fleshed out. Spark (Pretty Girl, 2012, etc.) offers nuggets of poignant wisdom, such as when a dear family friend explains to Idzia, in the most intense hour of her life, “At the moment, your resources for dealing with pain are unequal to your pain. The challenge, for the rest of your life, will be to change that.” Spark’s principal accomplishment, though, is the care she takes to create multidimensional characters who behave in unexpected, truthful ways. Their fullness and intricacy gracefully illustrate how every story has many versions, every memory many interpretations.

A book of candor and complexity that captures human relations with heart-rending accuracy.”

— Kirkus Review

“A+++ writing.”

— Liberty Hardy, “All the Books” podcast, Book Riot

“ a story that crosses decades and two marriages, and elegantly combines a family drama and a suspense thriller.”

— Book Page, “What We’re Reading”

“We all know, to paraphrase Whitman, that each of us contains multitudes. Without any contradiction, we are different versions of ourselves when we speak to our bosses, when we see a stranger fall on the sidewalk, when we’re in the dark whispering to a partner and when we answer a telemarketer during dinner. These variations trouble us more or less, but we—usually—recognize a continuity. We know what makes us us. And we usually assume, or hope, that other people see us as we see ourselves—at least the best of ourselves.

Many novels tackle the problem of the unknowable other. Some shift among points of view that leave us unsteady in what we think we know. Too often, these unstable perspectives can feel contrived rather than revealing something true about how people really live. Then, a novel comes along that not only thrills but questions everything we think we know about how we come across to others, who we are when we’re left alone and how well we can possibly know those closest to us. One that truly shows how varied our many selves can be, depending on what we allow to show.

While she’s published three previous novels and a collection of stories, I hadn’t heard of Debra Spark. In one of those moments of aimless searching online, the cover of Unknown Caller, her new novel published by Louisiana State University Press’s Yellow Shoe Fiction series*, jumped out at me and its premise lured me in: a man receives frequent late-night calls from his first wife, somewhere out in the world with the daughter he’s never been allowed to meet. The jarring, demanding calls dwindle until she breaks the silence with another middle-of-the-night demand from an undisclosed location: she wants to send their seventeen year old to him for the summer.

Joel had been married to Liesel for only five months, after which she fled without explanation. He had no idea she was pregnant until the first phone call five years later, demanding child support.

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. When the phone rings at 2:00 a.m. at their house, it is always her calling. From Geneva or Paris or London. They can never be sure where she’s taken up residence, only that the call will be long-distance and unpleasant.

When Idzia fails to show up at the airport and appears on no airline passenger list, Joel can’t contact her mother, and he’s not sure whether the whole proposal has been an elaborate hoax. He and his wife suffer a fresh wound at the absence of someone at the center of their lives whom they’ve never known. The calls cease.

Spark deftly shifts among perspectives and timeframes, from a farmhouse in Maine to a bakery in Paris, a run-down holiday motel in Barbados and a share-house and theater in London. She shows us, in sharp, page-turning prose, the ways that people’s perspectives shift and coalesce with time and absence, the ways new locations allow us to morph into the people we’d rather be, how easily we can slip out of ourselves if we’re willing to leave everything and everyone—even ourselves—behind.

Unknown Caller jolted me again and again as I ploughed through it, wanting nothing more than to be confined to my sofa until I finished. Then I spent many days inside the world of the novel, teasing out my feelings about the characters, experiencing a visceral pain at what they’d lost, putting new words in their mouths, giving them other chances to find a better way. I kept feeling their outrage, their confusion, their desire to be loved and understood. Spark rattled me even as she gave me one of my most pleasurable reads of the year.”

Coffee Break: Unknown Caller by Jennifer Levasseur

“In the Colby College professor Debra Spark’s “Unknown Caller,” a sharply hooked premise and well-conceived structure drive the considerable emotional suspense. Set partly in Maine, the novel tracks the fallout of a 2 a.m. phone call in which a doctor’s ex-wife informs him of the arrival by plane of the 17-year-old daughter he has never met.”

— New York Times Book Review


The Pretty Girl

Four Way Books, 2012


From Victorian toy theatres to a painting with a mysterious story behind it to a graphic novelist’s battle with the schizophrenia that causes her cartoon characters to march off the page, the novella and six stories in Debra Spark’s The Pretty Girl revolve around artists, artistry, and the magical—sometimes malicious—deceptions they create.

“The Pretty Girl ends exactly as it should (a rare feat), and yet I hated for the novella to be over. Spark is a writer both to admire and to enjoy. Among the pleasures: her sly wit, her deep affection for her characters, her mastery for dialogue, her curiosity about the world, her sheer invention, and the way she seems to effortlessly thread the strands of her stories together. This collection is wonderful company.”

— Jane Hamilton

“Reading this book, I felt the world I live in melt away. Each story is so different from the next, each character a little code to be cracked, each time period and geographical location completely convincing, each life thoroughly absorbing. A strange, illuminating, and compelling book. Like falling into a cloud.”

— Monica Wood

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Four Way Books, 2012

From Victorian toy theatres to a painting with a mysterious story behind it to a graphic novelist’s battle with the schizophrenia that causes her cartoon characters to march off the page, the novella and six stories in Debra Spark’s The Pretty Girl revolve around artists, artistry, and the magical—sometimes malicious—deceptions they create. With settings that traverse New York’s Lower East Side, Victorian London, Paris, and Switzerland, Spark’s stories twist and turn in mesmerizing ways as they reflect on the fictions we fabricate about and for friends, family, and strangers; in one story, a woman finds her life unexpectedly dramatized on the stage; in another, a couple’s reconnection with a family friend leads to a labyrinth of mysteries and miscommunications.

Spark’s imagination takes her tales to the most unexpected places. In one story, we meet “a tall man with the thin, awkward movements of an albino flamingo.” In another we encounter a character who works “part-time at the Museum of the Astonishing Mind.” In the tour-de-force “A Wedding Story,” we come across Simon Baal Shem, a charming five-inch rabbi who offers life advice in the form of Jewish stories. Spark combines such invention with a strong sense of her characters’ everyday lives, their attempts to make sense of relationships, jobs, and their own selves: “Her marriage, Dana sometimes felt, was an argument about the relative merits of what you did in the world versus how you lived in the world.”

Gritty and elusive, Spark’s stories work like the best magic tricks, seeming to defy the laws of reality even as they deftly extend and reinvigorate those laws. Readers who love magical realism, illusions, Jewish literature, and art, will be captivated by Spark’s wonderfully textured The Pretty Girl.


Click here to watch the trailer.


“Reading this book, I felt the world I live in melt away. Each story is so different from the next, each character a little code to be cracked, each time period and geographical location completely convincing, each life thoroughly absorbing. A strange, illuminating, and compelling book. Like falling into a cloud.”

—Monica Wood

The Pretty Girl ends exactly as it should (a rare feat), and yet I hated for the novella to be over. Spark is a writer both to admire and to enjoy. Among the pleasures: her sly wit, her deep affection for her characters, her mastery for dialogue, her curiosity about the world, her sheer invention, and the way she seems to effortlessly thread the strands of her stories together. This collection is wonderful company.”

—Jane Hamilton

“Spark’s imaginative collection of stories (after the novel Good for the Jews) offers quirky surprises at every turn, as ordinary characters transcend their mundane lives. In the titular novella, “The Pretty Girl,” Midwesterner Andrea feels a special bond to her Great Aunt Rose and a painting, hanging in her aunt’s Spartan New York apartment, of a “laughing, young woman with two raspberry-colored gloves,” who seemed to say to her beholder, “Oh, you silly. Go away.” Like Spark’s other characters, Andrea is charmingly plain, making her fascination with the alluring painting (which Andrea calls “The Pretty Girl”) and her reticent aunt an engaging narrative force. In the wake of Rose’s death, Andrea discovers the source of the painting, and the story of a great love and its surprising consequences come to light. In “Conservation,” a young man destined for stardom at a news network returns home years later as a disturbing enigma in dress and attitude, unsettling the tranquility of former friends. And in the surreal “A Wedding Story,” socially inept 20-something Rachel Rubinstein finds a tiny, sagacious rabbi in an old chocolate egg discovered among her deceased grandmother’s effects—”‘Shalom,’ he called, half in warning, so she wouldn’t bite further.” The numerous shifting realities and transformations in these stories might devolve in the hands of a lesser writer, but Spark’s controlled craft keeps the narrative tight and the pages turning.”

—Publishers Weekly


Four Way Books announces the publication of The Pretty Girl, the fourth work of fiction by Debra Spark. Publicity measures include readings, conference & festival appearances, and radio appearances. For information, contact Four Way Books.

Good for the Jews

University of Michigan Press, 2009

Winner of the Michigan Literary Fiction Award

Debra Spark’s humor crackles in her third novel, a smart and sexy story set in Madison, Wisconsin and concerning family and friends who clash over an anti-Semitic mystery, office politics, and romantic relationships.

“Spark is at her sly, funny, and cutting best in her third novel, a clever and affecting variation on the biblical story of Esther.”

— Booklist

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University of Michigan Press, 2009

Good for the Jews is a smart, funny, sexy novel set in Madison, Wisconsin, during the Bush administration. Part mystery and part stranger-comes-to town story, Good for the Jews is loosely based on the Biblical book of Esther. Like Esther, Debra Spark’s characters deal with anti-Semitism and the way that powerful men—and the women who love them—negotiate bureaucracies.

At the core of this story of right and wrong are young, attractive Ellen Hirschorn and her older cousin Mose, a high school teacher who thinks he knows, in fact, what is “good for the Jews”—and for Ellen, too. Their stories intertwine with those of the school superintendent, his ex-wife and son, and a new principal. Workplace treachery, the bonds of family, coming of age, and romantic relationships all take center stage as the characters negotiate the fallout from a puzzling fire.


“Commercial publishing seems to be in a completely topsy-turvy state. Here is a smart, sprightly, sex-drenched, and neatly plotted novel about Midwestern high-school administration politics that’s certainly as entertaining as the latest Tom Perrotta novel about small-town East Coast life. It’s got a beautiful twenty-five year old inexperienced Jewish woman as its main character, steamy sexual situations, a broad swathe of serious political concerns about mid-sized city bigotry and the dangers of know-nothing bureaucracies.

And it comes to us from a Midwestern university press, having won its 2009 “Literary Fiction” Award.

From its provocative title onward, the novel moves steadily along, with a layering in of situations with credible and often compelling characters, evolving in ways reminiscent of books as good as George Eliot’s Middlemarch and never averting its eyes from the betrayals and hypocrisy that make life in any town, particularly small Midwestern cities such as Madison, Wisconsin where it’s set, grist for the gossip mills and the focus of serious attention for anyone interested in contemporary American mores.

“For a small city,” Spark writes, “Madison offered a lot, anchored as it was by the university and the State Capitol building. Still, it might have been another country: the doughy citizens at the farmer’s market who hawked their wares, promising cheese curds so fresh they squeaked…And then there were the fish boils—a barroom treat, fish smothered in sticks of melted butter. Out in the suburbs, towns were dotted with ugly statues of ‘wee people.’ Little elves or trolls….”

For San Francisco born and raised high school history teacher Mose Sheinbaum, the older cousin of Ellen Hirschorn, that (for a while, at least) virginal main character, living in the Midwest is like living abroad. But it’s not until Mose’s reckless but successful teaching style leads him into a confrontation with a hard-nosed high school principal that the Jewish educator finds himself in foreign trouble. Which is complicated, and eventually brought to a boil, without sticks of melted butter, by ingenue Ellen’s romantic involvement with the Superintendent of Schools, Alex Decker, a man (almost) completely separated from his wife—who happens to be Ellen’s boss at the local art center. Ellen is three years out of college, with a desire for marriage and children, living in a world of fluid sexual values.

“All Things Considered”

—Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune and NPR

“Spark is at her sly, funny, and cutting best in her third novel, a clever and affecting variation on the Biblical story of Esther. The setting is Madison, Wisconsin, a liberal heartland stronghold not without its dark side. Mose Sheinbaum loves his work as an American history teacher at a high school for struggling students, and the students love him. A real mensch, he raised his young cousins, Ellen and her sisters, after their parents perished in a car crash and after he lost his wife. Ellen has become a rare and splendid creature, a beautiful, 25-year-old virgin, but Mose is being targeted by the new principal. Is it because he’s Jewish?

Who is sending him hate mail? Can Ellen help, now that she’s engaged to the superintendent of schools? With agile dialogue, escalating weirdness and menace, and tricky questions of lust, love, fear, stereotyping, and hate underlying each hilarious, caustic, and unnerving scene, Spark’s canny novel of outsiders and insiders unveils many hard truths about the enigmas of the self and others in relationships both private and public.”

— Booklist

“In her third novel, Spark (Coconuts for the Saint) holds a modern mirror to the book of Esther with a cast of characters from mid-2000 Wisconsin. Barring the Biblical suggestion of the title, the novel is a study of human qualities and the interrelationships of those who identify with Jewish culture rather than religion. A virgin three years out of college, Ellen Hirschorn is an unobservant Jew to whom Alex (18 years her senior) is attracted. He has ended his marriage to modern woman Valerie, director of the Center for Artistic Exchange. Alex is also the superintendent of the school where Ellen’s much older cousin Mose, an old-school history teacher, works. The story gets interesting with the arrival of school principal Hyman, who tries to fire Mose, and Hyman’s strange wife, Martha. Hyman is a racist in general and an anti-Semite in particular. Over the course of the story, a dress ends a marriage, swastikas are revealed on the soles of a pair of boots and couples, well, couple. Spark’s prose is tight, funny, insightful and occasionally heartbreaking as it probes the current education system, the arts and society’s ills.”

—Publisher’s Weekly

Ghost of Bridgetown

Graywolf Press, 2001

In Debra Spark’s second novel, Charlotte Lewin navigates the heat of Barbados—jewel-encrusted menorah in hand—and tries not to upset the delicate relations between the island’s Jews and non-Jews.

“A page turner—a break in the often artful yet sluggishly paced ranks of literary fiction.”

— Newsday

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Graywolf Press, 2001

When Charlotte Lewin’s grandfather offers to send her to Barbados on a special mission, he believes he is sending her on a much-needed vacation, following the death of Charlotte’s sister. The mission seems simple enough: to return a long-forgotten, jewel-encrusted menorah to its rightful owner on the island. However, Charlotte soon finds herself navigating her way through unsettling racial tensions—between white Jews, black Jews, and the native community.

In the oppressive Barbados heat where the body can’t hide its own discomfort, Charlotte ends up sitting side-by-side at a bar with the ghost of Bridgetown himself. And when the startling ramifications of a bizarre parachuting accident threaten to unravel the precarious peace, it is Charlotte who struggles to find the answers. Her emotional entanglement with the people of the island leads to a search, not just to find a home for the menorah, but also for her own place in the world.


“Spark (Coconuts for the Saint, 1994) sets a vacationing Jewish woman’s journey toward self-discovery within the much larger context of social, political, and economic relations between Jews and blacks on the island of Barbados.

Charlotte Lewin’s grandfather sends her to Barbados with an antique menorah stored for years in his temple outside Boston. Charlotte’s supposed mission is to decide whether the menorah belongs to Bridgetown’s Jewish congregation or to the Bajan Institute, a museum devoted to native culture, which claims the menorah was crafted by a now-famous slave artisan. Her real mission, though, is to recover from the trauma of her sister’s death six months ago. After an awkward, talky introductory chapter, Spark juggles Charlotte’s narrative with that of Wayne Deare—an MIT graduate student who crossed paths with Charlotte in the Boston hospital where her sister died, then returned to Barbados to nurse his dying father. He now has a part-time job at the Bajan Institute, where his current assignment is to get possession of the menorah. Wayne’s conflicted thoughts and feelings are endearing, while Charlotte remains a stilted, self-conscious creation who seems like the author’s stand-in. Her first night in Barbados, Charlotte falls for a handsome young man the islanders believe is a “duppy” (a ghost not unlike the dybbuk of Jewish lore), but who is merely the ever-wandering son of the Lazars, leaders of the Jewish congregation. Meanwhile, Wayne and his brother have been hired by younger son Josh Lazar to parachute into a group as part of an anniversary celebration. When Josh’s parachute doesn’t open, Wayne’s brother is unfairly charged with murder. Tensions between Jews and blacks flare, and the menorah becomes a political football representing a fascinatingly ambiguous situation. Unfortunately, while she portrays the black community in all its complexity, Spark’s depiction of island Jews seldom rises above stereotype.

An ambitious, intermittently successful attempt to merge political musing, character study, and metaphor-studded ghost story.”

— Kirkus Review

“What begins as something of a ghost story, a shaggy-menorah story, winds up being a profound meditation on human hauntedness, the inevitability of ghostliness and grief. This is a beautiful, wise, and enormously moving novel.”

—David Shields

“A page turner—a break in the often artful yet sluggishly paced ranks of literary fiction.”


“A startlingly original work.”

—Multicultural Review

“Spark cleverly combines humor, mystery, and penetrating cultural insight.”


“An unsettling and mysterious journey into racial tension and conflict…”

—Caribbean Travel and Life

“Identity politics, however, is only part of the mixture that makes Spark’s novel so intriguing. As the plot thickens, so do the number of ‘ghosts’—not only the ‘duppies’ of local legend but also those that have fastened around Charlotte’s heart. Letting go of these ghosts is Charlotte’s task and ultimately her fate.”

—The Washington Post

“The acclaimed author of Coconuts for the Saints (1994) and editor of the short story collection 20 Under 30, Spark has written a multi-layered mystery, replete with creepy middle-aged men, scary letters and suicide notes, a mysterious death and rumors of a handsome young ghost who floats through the sweltering city of Bridgetown, Barbados, bedding women as he goes along. But that’s not all. Spark tackles race relations between Jews—black and white—and the native population in Barbados, all the while plumbing the weird, otherworldly feelings of grief and loss familiar to anyone who’s lost a loved one. If it sounds like too much for one novel, it’s not. The tangle of themes and narratives makes for a deep, thoughtful book that feels light, a joyous read shrouded in sadness.”

—New York Newsday

Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing

University of Michigan Press, 2005

In this collection of nine entertaining and instructive essays, Spark pursues key questions that face both aspiring and accomplished fiction writers.

“[Spark’s] lines of inquiry are significant. Her observations about craft are fluent. And her ability to both analyze fiction and respect its mystery makes for a suitably frank and bemused perspective…”

— Booklist

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University of Michigan Press, 2005

Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing is a book about what makes fiction work. In nine entertaining and instructive essays, novelist and master teacher Debra Spark pursues key questions that face both aspiring and accomplished writers, including: How does a writer find inspiration? What makes a story’s closing line resonate? How can a writer “get” style? Where should an author “stand” in relation to his or her characters?

While the book will have immediate appeal for students of writing, it will also be of interest to general readers for its in-depth reading of contemporary fiction and for its take on important issues of the day: Should writers try to be more uplifting? How is emotion best conveyed in fiction? Why are serious writers in North America wedded to the realist tradition?

Spark brings her keen critical eye to Curious Attractions, discussing a broad range of authors from multiple genres and generations.

A collection of essays in the belles-lettres tradition, Curious Attractions offers lively and instructive discussions of craft flavored with autobiographical reflections and commentary on world events. Throughout, Spark’s voice is warm, articulate and engaging as it provides valuable insights to readers and writers alike.


“Spark is so adept at avoiding the typical pitfalls of this genre, she could write a book about writing a book on fiction writing.”

— Time Out Chicago

“Erudite and entertaining.”

—Fore Word

“One of the many loaded questions Spark poses is, Why is there so little ‘happy fiction’? Readers may ask, how much fun can a book about writing fiction be? The answer: a whole lot with Spark as your guide. An adventurous novelist and an experienced teacher, she takes a personal, anecdotal approach to the challenge of creating fiction, lacing her illuminating essays with provocative quotes from writers as varied as Raymond Carver and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Spark writes about where stories come from, why openings and closings are so difficult to pull off, what we mean by style, the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, and how magic realism fares in North America. Her lines of inquiry are significant. Her observations about craft are fluent. And her ability to both analyze fiction and respect its mystery makes for a suitably frank and bemused perspective backed by unabashed wonder at the workings of the imagination and the undeniable power of literature. Spark’s canny essays are a pleasure for readers and writers alike.”


“Spark (creative writing, Colby College) has both novice and experienced writers in mind as she works through key questions about fiction writing. Drawing on decades of teaching and writing experience, she tackles such universal topics for writers as inspiration, getting in and getting out of a work, style, emotion, realism and its constant presence in North American writing, the short novel, fabulism, detachment and involvement, and the nearly overwhelming urge to create propaganda, be it for one’s politics or one’s need to make everyone cheerful, even if it hurts. The result is not only a guide to thinking about writing, but also a commentary upon professionalism, taking responsibility, and growing up.”

—Book News

Coconuts for the Saint

Faber and Faber (hardcover), 1994
Avon (paperback), 1996
Engine Books, 2016

Winner of the John C. Zacharis First Book Award
Barnes & Noble BookSense Selection

Debra Spark’s recently reissued debut novel opens on the doorstep of a bakery on a blue street in Puerto Rico, where Maria Elena faints…only to be revived by sweet morsels of wedding cake.

“Eloquent and enchanting… a delightful novel…reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende.”

— The Boston Book Review

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Faber and Faber (hardcover), 1994
Avon (paperback), 1996
Engine Books, 2016

On the doorstep of a bakery on a blue street in Puerto Rico, Maria Elena faints. Revived by sweet morsels of wedding cake, she falls headlong into the lives of Sandrofo Cordero Lucero and his identical triplet daughters. Sandrofo came to the island from America ten years before to start a new life. A widower, he has not taken a lover since, and Maria Elena resolves to find out why. But her questions to Sandrofo are met with silence, and her insatiable curiosity about his past threatens the family’s elaborately constructed identity. InCoconuts for the Saint, Debra Spark has written an enchanting, astonishingly beautiful novel about memory, love, the mysteries of fate, and the very nature of self.


“The Boston-based editor of Twenty Under Thirty reveals her own promise with this magical first novel, centered around a set of identical girl triplets and their mysterious father, who tries to lose himself in sunny Puerto Rico. In 1968 Sandrofo Cordero Lucero leaves Brooklyn with his three five-year-old daughters, hoping for a new, safe, anonymous life in the Caribbean. Having inherited a small San Juan bakery from his wife, who died in childbirth, Sandrofo promptly learns a baker’s skills and spends the next ten years kneading dough and baking wedding cakes while his daughters serve a motley crew of customers over the counter. The three Lucero sisters–Tata, a dramatic actress-to-be; Melone, the smart one; and Beatriz, a sensitive girl who refuses to speak–are too obsessed with the town’s daily scandals and intrigues to wonder why their quiet, handsome father refuses to seek a girlfriend and never talks about his past. Their complacency is challenged when 35-year-old Maria Elena Pico, an employee at a local art gallery, falls in love with Sandrofo and begins to question his daughters about their prePuerto Rican life. The girls realize they know almost nothing about their early history, and this discovery prompts them to explore their own emerging personalities and discover who they have become. Meanwhile, Maria Elena persists in digging into Sandrofo’s origins, playing 20 Questions with her lover and finally consulting a local psychic. Her persistence and Sandrofo’s refusal to own up to his duplicity eventually bring disaster to his family. In the end, Maria Elena and the girls learn that it is the love they share, more than who they happen to be, that provides home and security for them all. A captivating, sweetly lyrical tale by an up-and-coming talent. (First serial to Agni, the Boston Globe, and Epoch).”

— Kirkus Review

“Eloquent and enchanting… a delightful novel… reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Spark has combined an acute sense of place with a suspenseful plot… and with characters that are emotionally believable and realistic.”

—The Boston Book Review

“A gorgeous novel… as richly imaginative, wildly sensual and wisely unsettling as they come. Real world magic.”

—Washington Post Book World

“Debra Spark’s first novel reveals a Proustian longing for what was. Spark’s Puerto Rico is an island of lost loves, of romantic hopes, and of secrets withheld–all of which beckon like a tray of sweets behind the bakery window.”

—Kathryn Harrison

“Debra Spark is an extremely intelligent and imaginative writer. Her long-awaited first novel is graceful and ambitious—storytelling at its best.”

—Lorrie Moore

“Debra Spark writes like some pixilated offspring of a secret liaison between J.D. Salinger and Isabel Allende. Coconuts for the Saint is an elixir constituted of equal parts grace, wild humor, exquisite tenderness, and ferocious heart. One taste is sufficient to leave the head reeling from its chorus of voice, the mind wide-open and convinced of miracles.”

—Steve Stern

“An excellent debut novel that examines the nature of love, the power of family and the inexorable pull of the past… Spark uses her intricate, multilayered structure to deliver a myriad of entertaining scenes and marvelous insights.”

—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

20 Under 30

Scribner Paper Fiction,1986
Reissued with a new introduction, 1996

At just 23-years-old, Debra Spark edited this anthology of early stories by David Leavitt, Lorrie Moore, Susan Minot, Ann Patchett, Bret Lott, and many more.

“The after-effect of this anthology is good goose bumps.”

— Carolyn Chute

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Scribner Paper Fiction,1986
Reissued with a new introduction, 1996

Debra Spark was just 23-years-old when she edited 20 Under 30. The best-selling anthology introduced the voices of a new generation of writers whom Bob Shacochis called “the master storytellers of the 21st century.” 20 Under 30 stands as a record of their early efforts, a vital document that reveals why they would soon ascend to the highest ranks in contemporary fiction writing.

20 Under 30 collects the early work of David Leavitt, Lorrie Moore, Leigh Allison, Mona Simpson, Susan Minot, Ann Patchett, David Updike, Kate Wheeler, Bret Lott, Emily Listfield, and many more.

The new edition, re-issued ten years after the original, includes a preface by Spark, providing a look back at her experience compiling this groundbreaking collection.


“It is heartening to see talented literary apprentices learning their craft and producing spellbinding stories. We should be hearing from the writers in this excellent collection for a long time to come.”

—The New York Times Book Review

20 Under 30 should be patented—it’s that full of miraculous invention, incantation, and heartfelt reality.”

—Jayne Anne Phillips

“The after-effect of this anthology is good goose bumps.”

—Carolyn Chute