the story behind the book

Debra Spark explores the mystery of marriage

david wilson for the boston globe

When starting to write her fourth novel, Debra Spark said, “I was thinking about these super-short marriages. I knew three stories — one belonging to my brother — and in all the cases, the stories were sort of amazing.” In the case of very brief marriages, she added, “You think, ‘Oh my god. How could you be so in love that you were ready to get married, and then so upset you were ready to get out of it, within a year?’ ”

In “Unknown Caller,” Spark introduces readers to a long-married couple whose lives are disrupted by fallout from the husband’s first marriage, then works backward in time to reveal events that led them to a crisis point. “Sometimes when you meet a person, you wonder, ‘What could possibly have happened in the past to bring you to this moment that you are now?’ ” Spark said. “My idea was that readers would get to the end of one section and wonder, ‘Whoa, what happens next?’ And my hope was the next section would answer that question, and then you’d go, ‘Wait a second’ — and then you’d have another question.”


Even long, happy marriages are a kind of mystery story, Spark added. “I think we’re all kind of unknowable to one another. Truly expressing yourself, showing yourself, I don’t know if we ultimately ever do,” she said. “I’m really interested in identity issues, and I feel like identity issues play out in an interesting way in marriages.”

As a fiction writer, peeling back those layers of both character and circumstance can lead to a kind of compassion. Spark said that was one of her goals. “Even if early on you’re like, ‘Oh I’m on this one person’s side’; by the end I want you not to be on anyone’s side, but everybody’s side.”


Spark will read 7 p.m. Thursday at Brookline Booksmith.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com