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Asheville Author Rachael Sparks Didn't Wait for Publishers or Agents to Take Impressive First Step

Bren Photography

Write about what you know about. It’s a time-tested path countless writers have traveled to bestselling books and films. So when Rachael Sparks took her first turn at genre fiction, her subject was obvious.

“There was a story that came out that, by 2050, 10 million people would die from resistant infections,” Sparks said. “It just gave me a lot of fertile ground to think about what it would be like in that world, to be a survivor in that world.”

Sparks is a microbiologist who works as a copywriter and marketer in the field of human tissue transplants and infectious diseases. She has also worked with families who have just lost loved ones, helping them through the process of tissue donation.

Her debut novel is called “Resistant.” It’s about a woman whose blood holds the cure to solving a global epidemic. She’s on the run from government researchers after her blood while navigating a fraught relationship with her father.

Sparks is signing copies of “Resistant” at 6pm Jan. 31 at Malaprop’s Books in Asheville.

“I’d always loved sci-fi that was really grounded in hard science, not fantasy but rather Michael Crichton-esque stories,” she said. “But I always wanted more fiction available to me that involved both family stories and stories about love and adventures, and there really weren’t authors I could find that were writing like that, so I wrote what I wanted to read.”

But it’s Sparks’ personal story that should encourage every would-be novelist. She didn’t follow a template for writing or structuring her book and she didn’t seek an agent or publisher. Instead, with a supportive husband and a 2-year-old daughter to factor in, Sparks invested about $25,000 of her own money, first for the services of a hybrid publisher to edit, design and print her book, and then for a publicist to market it.

“Oh, it’s terrifying—I have a daughter. It’s scary. But I have confidence in myself and I’d saved that money for things I wanted to do with my life,” Sparks said. “It’s kinda rather like deciding you want to get a PhD. That’s a risk. You hope that leads to a career. It costs a lot of money. Or if you want to pursue any other career. It’s like any other kind of investment, to reach the credibility level that would get you a job.”

Sparks grew up with a single mother in Waco, Tex., shuttled later in life between Austin and San Antonio, and moved to Asheville in 2015 with her husband and toddler daughter. Writing a book moved from one of those someday goals into an active pursuit when her husband made a bet over which of the two of them would finish their passion project first. Nine months later, Sparks finished her manuscript.

“I felt like this was my first book, that I would have a lot more and I kinda wanted to roll the dice on myself and make a bet that my book was good enough to get recognized without going the traditional publishing route,” she said.

Writing wasn’t a breeze. Sparks needed to update her knowledge in the rapidly evolving science of infectious disease. She also had to translate complex science for a mainstream readership.

But Sparks has had rare validation for an essentially self-published author. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called her book “smart and alarmingly relevant,” and “Resistant” racked up sales of 1,500 physical copies during its first six weeks on bookshelves.

Sparks plans shopping a sequel to traditional publishers and has already finished writing a book outside this series.  

What I really wanted to do was to become a better writer, and the only way to do it was to keep working at it,” she said. “After working in a startup where you know that any month around the corner could be the failure of the company, lends itself to this overall urgency and a sense of if I pull those boots on high enough, I can do this myself.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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