An Interview with Helen Lewis


Amy Souza: How did you find out about SPARK?

Helen Lewis: I heard about SPARK from our mutual friend, Melissa Pasanen. Melissa and I met in New Zealand, where I was living at the time, and where she and her family were spending a seven-month sabbatical. The first time I took part in SPARK was in August 2009, and my partner was Jim Doran. I had such a positive experience that I decided to do it again. I’ve taken part in most rounds since then, always as a writer and sometimes as a visual artist, too (I’m an amateur photographer). So far I’ve worked with sixteen different people: eight visual artists, six writers and two musicians.

Amy: Has SPARK changed your creative process?

Helen: You know, the creative process has always been a complete mystery to me. Every time I engage with creativity, it feels like I’m hacking my way through virgin jungle. There’s no familiar path to follow. I can’t even begin to tell you what my ‘normal’ approach is to writing or to creating an image, because it varies so much each time. However, I do know that sleep is an important part of the creative process for me, and that I usually work better if I bottle things up until they’re bursting to find an escape route.

‘Untitled’, created in response to ‘Winchelsea’ by David Ord, SPARK 14, December 2011

Amy: How do you feel about working under a 10-day deadline?

Helen: I’m used to working to tight deadlines in my day job (I’m an educational author), but I still find it scary. A deadline is a commitment, and commitment, when you get right down to it, is a frightening thing. Fear brings out the flight or fight response, and my aim is to adopt the fight response and use it to energise the work I produce. Having said all that, I did miss the SPARK deadline once. Luckily, my partner also needed a couple more days to finish his response piece, so I didn’t feel as if I’d let him down.

Amy: Has SPARK moved you in any unexpected directions?

Helen: Yes, it has. I usually write poetry, but most of my SPARK responses have been short stories. I interpret this as my muse’s way of being perverse. Got a tight deadline? Better write something looooong. I almost always end up writing a piece that I can only just shoehorn into SPARK’s word limit. I’ve also noticed a difference in tone between my SPARK writing and my usual work. Most of my day-to-day writing is light and frivolous, whereas most of my SPARK responses come from The Dark Side. Maybe it’s something to do with all the fear that’s churning around inside me when I’m working to a deadline.

‘The girl with kaleidoscope eyes’, created in response to ‘Mortlake Terrace’ by Quentin Paquette, SPARK 10, October 2010

Amy: How do you feel about showing work online that hasn’t had much time to gestate?

Helen: I feel totally split-brained about it. The left side of my brain is paralysed with fear about putting anything out there that isn’t perfect in every way. If it could have its way, it would have an infinite amount of time to tweak and polish work before showing it to anybody. The right side of my brain is like my two-year-old self, who would flash her belly button at people and guffaw with laughter. It’s not self-conscious at all, and it’s up for anything. I usually wait until the left side of my brain is asleep before I post my work to the SPARK website.

Amy: What do you get out of the project?

Helen: Because I write for a living, I like to spend my leisure time exercising different parts of my brain; consequently, I don’t spend as much time writing fiction and poetry as I used to. SPARK gives me the incentive I need to write something creative. As far as my photography is concerned, attempting to create an image I’ve got in my mind can be very frustrating, because my artistic and technical skills lag way behind my imagination. In trying to bridge the gap, I’ve learned lots of photographic techniques that I would probably never have explored otherwise. Most importantly, SPARK offers me the opportunity to connect with other tortured souls creative people.

‘Where air and water meet’, created in response to ‘Inspiration’ by Lisa Eldridge, SPARK 8, May 2010

Amy: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Helen: Yes, I’d like to thank all my SPARK partners for the inspiration they’ve given me: Jim Doran, Tamara Danoyan, Cheryl Liebovitz, Edite Haberman, Norma Tennis, Frank Gibson, Sukia, Pharoah Bolding, Brian Eugenio Herrera, Lisa Eldridge, Quentin Paquette, Donna Gagnon Pugh, David Ord, Hildie S. Block, John Lewis and Kelly Newton. I’d also like to thank you, Amy, for all the love and hard work you’ve put into creating SPARK and keeping it going and growing over the years. Congratulations on reaching the milestone of one thousand responses. Here’s to the next thousand!