Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Patricia Leavy on her Ground-Breaking Novel Spark

We sat down with Dr. Leavy to learn all about her new novel, Spark.  Here’s the interview!

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published twenty-six books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, a rare feat by any author. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. She is also the creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill-Sense, the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, and a blogger for The Creativity Post and other outlets.

Patricia has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, the National Art Education Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” In 2018, she was honored by the National Women’s Hall of Fame and SUNY-New Paltz established the annual “Patricia Leavy Award for Art and Social Justice.” Patricia’s latest novel, Spark, is her most courageous work yet. This adventure novel, a fun read for anyone, is also intended to sensitize students to the research process and critical thinking. Patricia is a long-time supporter of Mental Fitness, Inc, and a blogger for We Are the Real Deal and we’ve spoken with her several times over the years. We recently had a chance to chat about her incredible new novel.

Congratulations on Spark! It’s a fantastic book and not surprisingly it’s receiving high-praise. Reviews have called it “a page turner,” “clever,” “captivating,” and more. One reviewer even said, “If I ran the world, I would make this book required reading.”

Thank you so much. It was a challenging project and I’m incredibly grateful for the warm reception. I’ve honestly never been more excited to share a book. It’s just so special to me.

It’s quite timely too. Many of the reviews note that the book is an antidote to the political divisiveness that permeates the country.

Although I had the idea to write the book a few years ago, the writing process was influenced by what I’ve witnessed the past couple of years. It seems like people no longer care about issues and problems, only flying their party colors. Nothing will get solved that way. We’ve lost sight of what matters. We don’t seem to know how to communicate compassionately and respectfully across differences and to try to create solutions to our problems. So while Spark was not intended as a response to the current political landscape, I’m glad that readers are seeing it that way. The book operates on a couple of levels. I hope it inspires people to think about how we might start working together.

Please describe Spark.

It’s a novel. I think of it as an adventure of sorts where you go on a transformational journey with the characters. The protagonist is sociology professor Peyton Wilde. She’s grown complacent, much like the students at the idyllic liberal arts college where she teaches. One day an invitation arrives. She has been selected as one of forty-nine individuals to participate in an all-expense paid five-day seminar in Iceland. Participants, billed as some of the greatest thinkers of our time, will be charged with answering one question. Peyton arrives at Crystal Manor and is placed in a group with six other participants— Liev an arrogant neuroscientist, Ariana an emerging neuroscientist, Dietrich an acclaimed philosopher, Harper a free-spirited dance teacher, Ronnie an enthusiastic collage artist, and Milton, a retired farmer. Peyton is assigned the role of scribe— the one solely responsible for the group’s final report— and her anxiety starts to simmer. When the participants hear the question they are to answer, they are dumfounded. As the characters unravel the meaning of the question, they are set on a journey that is bigger than any of them.

Spark is unlike anything you’ve written before. How did you get the idea?

 A few years ago I was one of fifty people invited to participate in a seminar on the neuroscience of creativity hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. Receiving that invitation was like getting the golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It was an extraordinary experience. The seminar occurred at the actual Sound of Music house in Salzburg, a magnificent castle, where we were treated to incredible food, musical performances, and more. The participants were a mix of neuroscientists, artists, and journalists from around the world. It was such a unique and bonding experience. I learned about interdisciplinarity in ways I never could have otherwise and I also made professional connections and friends. We still keep in touch on a list serve and in other ways. Being selected to participate in this seminar was a privilege and honor beyond words. Many of us felt deep gratitude. With that, came a sense of responsibility to be of use while we were there. I’ll never forget touring the castle and being told its history. It is a place where both presidents and Nazis have slept. We took the privilege of being there seriously. Over the course of the week the idea for Spark developed. After the seminar I spent some time in Vienna and wrote the entire outline. I put it in a drawer to allow it to stew. When I had finished other projects and felt the time was right, I began writing.

You dedicated Spark to your fellow Salzburg Global Seminar participants, writing, “Life is much sweeter knowing there are superheroes in the world.”

When the seminar began, we were just a group of strangers from different cultures and fields, dropped into an extraordinary setting, and unsure what would unfold. As someone quite shy, I was nervous at first. But as we got to know each other, and as each person presented his/her/their work, it felt like one-by-one they were revealing superpowers. Another participant compared it to the X-men. We all felt that way. At the end of the week it was truly hard to leave knowing we’d likely never all be together again. I was comforted knowing these incredibly brilliant, talented, and special souls were out in the world, doing good. I smile whenever I think about them and the brief but unforgettable time we shared.

You are known for your work in arts-based research methodologies which involve researchers in various disciplines using the arts in their research studies. You’ve written some of the leading textbooks on how to conduct research, including your bestselling Guilford titles Research Design and Method Meets Art. You’ve also written several successful novels based on original interview research. In Spark, all of this work aligns. Do you feel like this novel was always where you were heading or perhaps that it’s your penultimate statement?

I do feel like everything I’ve done prepared me to write this book and that it was a natural extension of my work. Throughout my career I’ve published research methods textbooks designed to teach the research process. At the same time, as a proponent of arts-based research and a novelist, I’ve seen firsthand the power of art and fiction to teach. I can see now in hindsight, writing a novel about the research process itself was a place I needed to take my work. It also had to work simply as a piece of art, to better make the point. So Spark had to be a novel that anyone could read as a novel, for pleasure. That was the challenge. I wanted to write a novel about the research process and interdisciplinarity, that students could learn from. At the same time, I wanted to write an engaging and fun novel that general readers could enjoy without even realizing it’s also about research methods.

Academia is often criticized for being out of touch. There’s a conception of researchers in highly specialized fields isolated in ivory towers. You’ve spoken about this before. Is this book a reaction to what many people hate about academia?

[Laughs]. There’s no hate. This book represents hope and hope is grounded in love. You could say most earnestly that Spark is a love letter to academia.

You use symbolism and metaphors extremely well and they seem integral to moving the plot forward and developing the book’s themes. Please explain some of your writing choices? 

Thank you. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach this book, trying and scrapping ideas. It was tricky figuring out the structure and style, and of course you hope by the time it reaches readers that it flows easily while also offering substance. This book is meant, in part, to take on the topic of critical thinking. The content and structure had to promote critical thinking, you see, so the process of reading the book reinforces its messages. Metaphors, symbolism, and other literary tools force readers to work for it a bit and thus promote critical thinking. Their meaning is layered, unfolds, and builds. Sometimes you’re creating innuendo through a metaphor. I conceptualized writing this book kind of like how an architect might design a mansion. There are rooms everyone uses, like the kitchen or family room. Then there are guest rooms, maybe someone is in them or maybe they’re empty. Then there are the doors and secret passageways, and you don’t quite know where they lead, but they give the place its charm. That’s how I think about metaphors and symbolism.

The Icelandic landscape had a recurring role in the novel and was used to create some of the symbolism and metaphors. For example, the faces the protagonist sees in the rock formations at the tectonic plates is a powerful example of symbolism. Is that correct?

Yes, and thank you. I was already writing Spark when my husband and I visited Iceland for the first time. I knew right away I needed to set the book there and now I can’t imagine it anywhere else. The nature in Iceland is truly spectacular but there’s also a primacy to it—you can see how much a part of life it is. So I put the characters out on excursions, exploring a few popular sites. In each instance the landscape provides the basis for metaphors or symbolism. The example you mentioned at the tectonic plates is important. I don’t want to give too much away but for me, when Peyton sees the human forms in the rocks and then tells others, a couple of things are happening. First, we’re seeing an interconnection between the physical and human worlds. There is symbolism there. Second, it brings up questions about how people “see,” what we do and do not see, and how we influence each other in that process. So the scenes in which nature is present, she’s really present, not just as a backdrop but as a part of the content of the book and moving the characters forward on their journey.

What about language and word choice? I feel like if I read the book a few times I’ll pick up on something new each time.  

Thank you. I always love when a book or any piece of art reveals hidden secrets over time, so there’s always more to go back to. In Spark, one of the ways I built themes with word choices was through repetition. When the same language is used in different contexts it challenges our assumptions around how we assign meaning, or it can simply create a set of light posts for readers that ‘hey, this is coming up again, there must be a reason.’

I don’t want to give anything away but could you offer an example from the book?

The word ping-pong pops up several times. It’s used to denote indecision, arguing, laughter, fun, and teamwork in different spots in the book. There are no accidents when you write fiction, it’s such a meticulous craft. Even though you hope it flows naturally, every word is weighted with intention.

Let’s talk about some of the characters. Peyton Wilde is the protagonist. Is she based on you?

Well, we do share things in common so I can see how people might think that. The truth is that she is partly based on me but is also very much her own person. As for what we share in common, I’m a sociologist, living in New England, where I was also a professor for many years. And I also received an out-of-the-blue, once-in-a-lifetime invitation to participate in a seminar in an extraordinary European setting. Peyton also suffers from anxiety, and that’s something I relate to, especially when it comes to public speaking. Those bare bone details come from me. But her life is also quite different from mine as is her experience at the seminar. She lives on her own and keeps to herself which is very different from me. In terms of her emotional core, her dream that life is big was stifled somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and mine never was. So I relate to her, but she isn’t quite me.

Peyton is placed in a group with six other characters— Liev a neuroscientist, Ariana another neuroscientist, Dietrich a philosopher, Harper a dance teacher, Ronnie a collage artist, and Milton, a farmer. How did you come up with that mix?

Well, there are certain points of view and experiences each of the characters bring to the group, which is central to the plot. So that’s their core and I built each character around their perspective. Each one represents kinds of people you find both inside and outside of academia and so in that way they’re archetypes. I’ve met many people who fit within each of these archetypes. Since most of the novel evolves around the characters interacting as a group, I had to think about how the different perspectives at the core of each character would translate into the way they interact with others to make sure the dialogue would go where it needed to go.

The dialogue is outstanding, as it always is in your novels. As a reader you can clearly see who each character is and how they relate to each other.

Thank you. I love writing dialogue, especially when the characters are clearly defined, to me at least, but also multidimensional. It was challenging in this book because I was writing conversations between seven characters. I’ve never written anything with so many primary characters before. It was a learning process.

Do you have a favorite character?

I guess I’m fond of all of them. That’s what happens when you write a novel, the characters become like close friends, and you feel for each of them, even those that are quite frustrating in some ways. It also depends on what you mean by favorite. If I was picking a friend in real life it would be Ronnie. I admire her exuberance and I think we’d get on well. If I was picking a colleague, it would be Ariana. She’s brilliant and everyone learns from her. As an author, I’d pick Liev. I’m proud of the way that character was written.

It’s interesting you mentioned Liev since his relationship with Peyton is somewhat adversarial. What I loved was that Liev had more than one side to his personality, like all of the characters, and as a reader I kept learning more.  

People are never just one thing and what we see in public doesn’t always reveal someone’s private, backstage self. As a novelist I think a part of my job is to create multidimensional characters, even if at first they seem easily pegged.

That makes me think about Ariana, one of the other characters in Peyton’s group. What would you like to say about her?

I don’t want to give too much away but I think she’s an important character, in part because of how others treat her, often obliviously. It’s one thing to take an arrogant white guy like Liev, but it’s quite another to take women like Peyton and Ronnie. What do they see about Ariana’s experience and what do they fail to see? How are they complicit? That was something I needed to explore. We all have biases and blind spots that need to be interrogated. Beyond that I would say that Ariana is smart as anything and I’d like her on my team in any area of life.

In addition to the Icelandic landscape, you have wonderful descriptions of food. Is there a significance, beyond that food is often a part of our travel experiences?

Given that the characters are all staying at this castle together, meal and snack times provided an opportunity to move the plot forward and show them in conversation. I also think food is something that can bring people together. In one scene I specifically had them served a family-style meal to evoke the sense of family sitting around a table together. Families often disagree and bicker about all kinds of things, yet they may still come together at meal times. The idea of breaking bread was important to me.

You’re the creator and editor for the award-winning Social Fictions series with Brill/Sense. To date, you’ve published your own novels in that series. Why the move to Guilford Press, where historically you’ve published nonfiction methods texts?

I believe that every project needs the right home. Some authors work exclusively with one publisher but I’ve never done that. For many years I have happily worked with three publishing houses. With Spark, I always wanted to work with Guilford. While it’s a novel that can be read by anyone, because I also envision it being used in college classes, including research methods classes where it could be used alongside my text Research Design, Guilford was the right home. Guilford has both academic and trade divisions so I knew they were set up to handle the challenge of publishing a novel, although this is their first. I’m extremely grateful they were willing to take a chance on it; it’s so different than what they typically publish. They’re truly a world-class team from every angle: editorial, art design, marketing, sales, and production. The sales and marketing team has taken a special interest in this book and I’m enormously grateful for their time and enthusiasm. They are such a talented bunch it blows my mind. It was an honor to do this book with Guilford. I view this entire experience as one of the greatest privileges of my life. But you also asked about the Social Fictions series with Brill/Sense, which I’m still very invested in. I’m extremely proud of that series and will continue to support it with my own novels. In fact I’ve signed two contracts for projects in the series.

Any details on the two contracts you have with Brill/Sense or what else is next for you?

I’m in the midst of writing a sequel to my novel Blue. I’ve known the next story since the day I finished so it’s been brewing a long time. I wanted to push myself as a writer by tackling Spark first, but now I’m deep into the follow-up to Blue. It’s been an absolute joy, like visiting old friends you haven’t seen in a while. It’s a really fun book, I think, with a pop candy element, and the ending is the ending I’ve always longed to read or write. While it’s a sequel, it’s written in such a way that it can absolutely be read as a stand-alone novel, too. The other project is something special for readers of my work— something that completes a work for me, but it’s too early to share details.

Anything you’d like to add about Spark?

I truly love this book. Writing it was a magical experience and I hope it leaves readers with a little of that magic inside of them. Especially these days when it seems harder and harder to believe in good things and to envision differently positioned people coming together for the greater good, I hope this book provides a little spark of inspiration about what that might look like. I guess I’d also come back to the opening words of the book, which are:

a spark exists

within, between, among

and within that spark,

entire worlds of possibility


I hope when people read it they return to those words to ignite and nourish their own spark. 

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One Response to “Patricia Leavy on her Ground-Breaking Novel Spark”
  1. Dian says:

    Just reading this interview was enough to offer hope from the current feelings of divisiveness being experienced.

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