F&M Stories

Bank Prize Winner on Nature's Poetic Details

Author Amber Sparks encouraged students to draw inspiration from unexpected sources during her Feb. 21 craft talk on “Fairy Tales as Inspiration.”

“As a writer, you really want to get used to looking at everything as a way to pilfer and steal,” Sparks said. She encouraged students to revisit the form and structure of fairy tales for inspiration for all kinds of writing—both fiction and nonfiction.

Sparks, author of the upcoming novel “Happy People Don’t Live Here” and four collections of short fiction, selected Emma Campbell as the winner of this year’s Jerome Irving Bank Memorial Short Story Prize. Junior Ella Peeples was the runner-up.

Campbell, a senior biology major with a minor in English, incorporated the natural world in her story “Anthology of the Animals,” in which a narrator reflects on her interactions with animals while struggling to process grief over a death in her family.

Learn more about Campbell’s approach to writing below.

What inspired you to write "Anthology of the Animals"?

The story follows a narrator who lives with her sister and her sister lost a baby after about a year. The narrator doesn’t know how to deal with the grief, and it doesn’t seem like she’s ever known how to deal with grief or discomfort. The story is about her learning how to figure out what she’s feeling and how to process it. She thinks about all these interactions with animals she’s had throughout her life and uses them as a medium to process what she’s feeling.

The idea came from a couple of different places. I don’t delete anything, so this started as scraps of old stories that I had, and then I had this idea of someone who was going through something and didn’t know how to talk to herself. The story kind of brought together a bunch of different things that I had written.

What does it look like when you sit down to write?

I’ve found that I need to be surrounded by noise. I need moments to be able to stop and watch something happening and then go back to what I’m doing. I have these planning documents that are way longer than the story itself and I just keep at it until something clicks. And then I write the entire thing in a couple sittings.

Do you edit as you go or write messy first drafts?

For this story, there was a draft because I didn’t know where I was going with it, so I rewrote the whole thing from the point of view of a different character. But I usually comb through and edit as I go, and then a little bit at the end.

What are some favorite books or authors who have influenced you?

I read a lot of short stories. Some of Stephen King’s books changed the structure of my sentences. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy changed my tone. There are two stories that I read in high school that made me want to write short stories. “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, and “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff—it’s a very psychological, plot-twisty short story.

What made you want to pursue both biology and English?

I started studying biology because I was angry that no one would tell me exactly why things were happening. If someone said, ‘The cell does this,’ it would frustrate me if they wouldn’t tell me why or how it happened. So I just kept studying it.

Biology is very poetic in a lot of ways. I think getting down to those details can be really beautiful and interesting. And I really do enjoy reading and writing about it. Also, I find that if I’m writing something, I have to be learning something at the same time.

What are your plans after graduation?

The dream is to write for a living, but I don’t know what form that’s going to take. I do enjoy writing in biology, so right now I’m looking at grant writing or scientific writing.

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