Read This: Inspiration, Joy, and Life in Patricia Leavy's SPARK

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One of the best books I’ve ever read, Patricia Leavy’s Spark is, you guessed it, a story that you can’t put down, so plan on staying up until you finish.

The novel shares an incredible story of difference, purpose, friendship, and collaboration during a life-changing seminar in Iceland. One of Leavy’s many talents is transporting her readers to a place–in Spark, it’s Iceland. She is adept at creating a book that captures both the essence of place, and of the humanity of the lived experience. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say this: READ THIS BOOK.

You’ll think about it for the rest of your life…it’s that good.

Read This: Inspiration, Joy, and Life in Patricia Leavy's SPARK

We were lucky enough to catch up with Leavy, and ask her about Spark, inspiration, using the book in the classroom, and more. Here’s what she had to say…

Read This: Inspiration, Joy, and Life in Patricia Leavy's SPARK

Please tell us about your new book, Spark...

Spark is a novel set in Iceland. 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—Live, 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 dumbfounded. As the characters unravel the meaning of the question, they are set on a journey of discovery that will transform their work, their biases, and themselves. 

Iceland's Blue Lagoon. From Read This: Inspiration, Joy, and Life in Patricia Leavy's SPARK

What inspired you to write this book?

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. It turned out to be a truly extraordinary experience. The seminar occurred at Schloss Leopoldskron, which is the castle where the outdoor shots of the house in The Sound of Music were filmed.  The five-day seminar was on the “Neuroscience of Art,” and the participants included neuroscientists, artists, and journalists from around the world. I learned about interdisciplinarity in ways I never could have otherwise. 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 world leaders 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 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. The timing was auspicious. My novels have all developed in some way out of insights gleaned from research or teaching, as well as personal experience. For years I was interested in writing a novel about the principles of the research process and critical thinking, but I never knew how to do it…and so I always tabled the idea. I figured out how to do it in Salzburg, but the stewing period proved important. Over the past few years as I watched what was happening in the United States, both before and after the last presidential election, I thought deeply about the importance of critical thinking and the need we have to learn to work together across differences and move beyond divisiveness for the greater good. Spark reflects those issues. 

It arose from real-world experiences... can you please share more about the inspiration?

When I was at the Salzburg Global Seminar, we were broken up into small working groups for part of our time. During those meetings, my group bickered endlessly. So even though I remember my time at this seminar as magical, during the lived experience it was also enormously frustrating, challenging, and anxiety-producing. I think we often appreciate things more with hindsight, and that was certainly the case for me. But between the lived experience and my reflections on it, I learned the value of working together across differences more than I had from any other experience. So I was inspired to write a novel not about how things were at the seminar, or how they typically are in academia or other arenas, but rather, I wrote about how things might be. Anything we can imagine becomes possible. 

The Icelandic setting is integrated into the plot. Can you talk about the importance of the setting?

The nature in Iceland is different than anything I’ve experienced in my travels. People often say it’s like being dropped onto another planet, and I have very much felt that way during my visits. There’s also a primacy to the role of nature—you can see how much a part of life it is. The characters went out on excursions, exploring popular sites and aspects of nature including the tectonic plates, the Blue Lagoon, and the Nootka Lupine, an incredible purple flower that covers much of the landscape part of the year. I used nature in order to build symbolism and metaphors into the narrative. For example, at the tectonic plates, Peyton sees human forms in the rocks and then tells the others. I did this to show an interconnection between the physical and human worlds. There is symbolism there. The scene also brings up questions about how people “see,” what we do and do not see, and how we influence each other in that process. Nature is very much a part of the content of the book and moving the characters forward on their journey.

Iceland's Nootka lupine. From Read This: Inspiration, Joy, and Life in Patricia Leavy's SPARK

As with all your fiction, Spark can be used in the classroom. How do you hope this book will help educators to share the importance of methods of qualitative research as well as more general principles of collaboration and critical thinking? What else can educators use this book to teach?

I’m fascinated by the research process. It’s all about following our curiosity to learn about that which interests us. Despite this, research is often dreaded and feared by students. My hope was that by putting some of the principles of the research process into a novel, students would enjoy learning. As the group in the book tries to figure out the meaning of the question they’ve been given, they engage in activities like problem formulation, literature reviews, creating concept maps, data transcription, and analysis. Of course none of these terms are used, but the content is there. The book also has lessons beyond research. For example, Spark is designed to teach critical thinking and the process of the characters trying to unravel the meaning of the question is, hopefully, mirrored by readers as they engage with the story and try to figure out the ending. There’s other food for thought in the book too, from messages about challenging stereotypes and biases, relevant in many social science and education courses, to a subtext about intersectionality. I envision the book being used as a springboard for reflection and discussion in a wide range of social science and education courses, including introductory classes, social problems, and research methods. I could also see it being used as a university-wide freshman reading book. In some ways, the experience of the characters arriving at the seminar mirrors the experience of arriving at college. Just like the characters, new students can feel both excited and overwhelmed; they may have anxiety about measuring up, meeting new people from different backgrounds, and ultimately learning about themselves and the world. There are positive messages in the book for students. I see Spark as a good fit for many kinds of courses. It’s meant to sensitize students to the research process, the principles of collaboration, critical thinking, and transdisciplinarity. It’s the kind of book that students are apt to enjoy reading, and to make it classroom friendly I’ve included discussion questions as well as research and writing activities. I can envision lively class discussions. Individual educators can also read it for pleasure…and perhaps a little inspiration.

Tectonic plates in Iceland. From Read This: Inspiration, Joy, and Life in Patricia Leavy's SPARK

What does Spark offer for the general reader?

My hope is that it’s a fun and engaging read for anyone. There’s a female protagonist, like with all of my novels, but it’s intended for anyone who enjoys fiction. So far, readers have been generously emailing me to tell me that they couldn’t put it down and that it lingered with them after reading it. Of course, that’s what any novelist hopes for. I think readers looking for an adventure novel of sorts or just looking for inspiration and something hopeful will enjoy it. In some ways, it’s a novel about reigniting the spark buried in each of us and reimaging our personal and professional lives. With all of the divisiveness we see in the world these days, people may see it as a reminder that different people and different perspectives can live together harmoniously. The characters offer a roadmap toward something more respectful and hopeful than what we see in politics or on social media. People who enjoy travel or novels set in different settings may appreciate it, as well. I tried to transport readers to the magic of Iceland. 

What's up next for you?

I’ve finished 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. It’s a really fun book that takes place in Los Angeles as Tash, the protagonist, and two new female characters are trying to “make it” in their chosen creative industries. There’s a strong subtext about the pop culture we make and consume, with a special tribute to 80s pop culture. Again, the timing is auspicious, because although I’ve known the story for years, there’s a subtext that’s especially relevant in the Me Too era. While it’s a sequel, it’s written in such a way that it can absolutely be read as a stand-alone novel. We haven’t decided an official release date, but likely fall 2019 or winter 2020. I have a few other projects in the hopper, but I’m trying to keep them quiet for now.

 Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Thanks so much for the chat. I want to thank the entire team at Guilford Press as well. Spark is the first novel they’ve ever published, and to say I’m honored is an understatement. From editorial to production to art design to sales and marketing, they’ve done an incredible job. I’m extremely grateful they believed in Spark enough to go in an entirely new direction. Guilford Press is happy to offer Wandering Educator readers a discount on Spark. Use promo code 7FSPARK for 20% off & free shipping in the US/Canada.

People can also sign up to receive e-alerts from Guilford about my books, which include special discount offers. Anyone interested can enter their email here.

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Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published more than 25 books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction and 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. She is most widely known for her work advancing arts-based research and pioneering the social fictions concept and book series. Patricia has received numerous book awards as well as 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 the State University of New York-New Paltz established the annual “Patricia Leavy Award for Art and Social Justice.” Her website is 

Spark is also available at amazon, but check above for our special discount PLUS free shipping!


All photos courtesy and copyright Patricia Leavy