Kerry Sparks is a co-author of MY NAME IS PABST: Baby Names for Nonconformist, Indie, Geeky, DIY, Hipster, and Alterna-Parents of Every Kind and a literary agent at Levine Greenberg Literary Agency.
Kerry grew up in rural Oregon and moved to Los Angeles soon after graduating high school. I first met Kerry in 2002 at a clothing store we both worked at on La Brea Boulevard. Even then, she was a self proclaimed baby name enthusiast. So, all these years later, it is no surprise to me that her first published book is all about baby names.
She currently lives in New York City with her husband and will soon be welcoming their first child into the world.
Here is my recent interview with Kerry:
Monica Johnson: So since I know you, I’m privy to the fact that you have been fascinated with baby names for a long time. When do you first remember being interested in baby names?
Kerry Sparks: I can remember spending hours combing through the baby name books in the back corner of the mall bookstore as teenager, but I think I really turned into a baby name junkie in 7th grade when I met my friend Katie and we bonded over our joint love of baby names and irrational fear of sharks. Her obsession with baby names matched mine and we’ve been exchanging name lists for almost twenty years now.
MJ: Did you ever think you’re interest in baby names would turn profitable?
KS: No, it never occurred to me that I would write a baby name book. Much less that a publisher would want to pay me to publish it! But when the opportunity presented itself, it suddenly made perfect sense and those years of unofficial research really paid off.
MJ: You wrote this book with another person, Miek Bruno, who lives in Berlin. Can you describe the process of how the two of you co-wrote this book?
KS: Lots and lots of emailing and Skyping! We would email ideas back and forth and each take a stab at writing certain chapters first and then the other one would spruce it up and add some names. Once the book sold to Random House, Miek came to New York for a few months so we did get to do some in-person writing, but primarily we would just send ideas back and forth and once the format was established, we would just plug in the text.
MJ: How did you get the idea for the book?
KS: Miek and I work at the same company so one day our boss (who is the world’s proudest grandpa in the world) emailed everyone at the agency to announce that his grandson got five new fish over the weekend and enjoyed naming them. The kid had picked a few normal names and few wacky ones and soon Miek and I broke off the email chain and started talking about what we had named our pets as kids. It became clear from there that we both had a interest in names and we started thinking that someone should write a baby name book focused on truly unique names.
Since we both work in publishing, our initial question when we think something is cool is always, “Yes, but is this a book?” And in this case, we decided that it was. We thought about pitching it to one of our humor authors to write and went back and forth with some ideas but it became clear that with my baby name obsession and Miek’s total knowledge on all things cool, we might be able to write the book ourselves. And so we got to work on a proposal.
MJ: What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?
KS: I think the biggest challenge was striking the right balance of humor and practicality. The book is very tongue and cheek. On the one hand, we are poking fun at all the crazy names out there and clearly there are some joke names in the book that won’t likely ever be used on a human; but on the other hand, we are pointing out that if you start thinking about names in a different way you might find something totally unique that still feels like a “real” name. We wanted it to be something that people could laugh at but also something they could actually use to name their baby.
MJ: What did you learn about yourself from the process of writing this book?
KS: I learned that it’s really tough to put yourself out there creatively even when it is for a half-joking baby name book. We got plenty of good reviews when the book hit shelves but also go our fair share of critics and I was surprised at how tough it was to read that first bad review. Working in book publishing as an agent, I’m someone who deals with rejection on a daily basis, but it’s definitely harder when it’s in regards to your personal work versus that of a client. And I also really learned what it feels like to be on the other side of the table as an author rather than an agent. It can be nerve-wracking for sure! I think being an author definitely helped me become a better agent, which was a great learning experience.
MJ: Anything you would do differently?
KS: We did write the book very quickly (about three months for a first draft) so of course you always feel like if you had more time, you could do more with it, but I’m not sure that is ever actually the case. So, no big regrets or things I’d change and I’m pretty happy how it turned out.
MJ: You’re about to have a baby girl. I know you have some names picked out. Would you say the names would be considered hipster baby names?
KS: Well the funny thing about the word “hipster” is that no one wants to claim it. We all want to be able to make fun of or be annoyed at hipsters while still enjoying our craft beer, artisanal cheese, and free indie rock concert in the park. In fact, it was a big question when we were working on the subtitle of the book if we should even include the word hipster as it has such a negative and possibly dated connotation to it.
So, of course my instinct is to say the name I have picked out is not hipster at all but instead totally classy and unique and perfectly captures the inevitable one-of-a-kindness of my offspring…but of course that right there would prove it’s a hipster name! Perhaps the very most hipster thing about the name is that I’m super secretive about sharing it before the little lady is born and that I have an irrational fear that the world will “steal” my name (this in fact is a very, very common fear among the I’m-not-a-hipster-but-I-sort-of-am-parent).
MJ: Working in the book publishing world, what advice would you offer to someone who is hoping to get their book published?
KS: Publishing is a tough racket and definitely requires a very thick skin, but at its core it is an industry built by people who love words, who love books, and who want to bring books they love to readers everywhere. I would say the first step is to write a really good book (sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people gloss over this step) and to stick with it. It can be a really slow process to query agents and then if you have an agent, for your agent to sell the book to a publisher, but I have found my clients primarily through our online unsolicited submissions stack, so it’s very possible for this to happen. And the other advice I’d offer is to read everything you can get your hands on. Anytime I meet someone who says they don’t read but they want to be a writer, I immediately know they aren’t the real deal.
Monica leads educational classes for children and tours for adults at the rooftop farm. She loves sharing what she knows about urban agriculture, while she continues to learn herself. She writes about all things food. Current writing projects include a series on urban agriculture in NYC, a guide book for NYC, and a historical account of her family’s farm in Missouri. To connect with Monica visit her website: www.monicamarvels.com.