Born and bred in Asheville, North Carolina, Sarah Addison Allen grew up with a mother who knew how to turn out a seriously delicious meal and a musician father. It was no wonder that she, too, was bitten by the creativity bug or that food became a central part of her storytelling. Her first mainstream fiction novel, Garden Spells, “a quirky book of Southern-fried magical realism” was wildly successful. Here are just a few of her reviews:
…Spellbindingly charming, Allen’s impressively accomplished debut novel will bewitch fans of Alice Hoffman and Laura Esquivel, as her entrancing brand of magic realism nimbly blends the evanescent desires of hopeless romantics with the inherent wariness of those who have been hurt once too often.
Booklist (Starred review) – Carol Haggas
With enough grassroots buzz, Allen’s mainstream debut…could become a best seller…It’s refreshing to find a Southern novel that doesn’t depend on folksy humor or stereotypes but instead on the imaginative use of magical realism. Just buy it, read it, and recommend it to others.
Library Journal (Starred review) – Rebecca Kelm
…The blending of horticultural folklore, the supernatural and a big dollop of Southern flavor should find favor with a wide swath of readers.
We’re thrilled Sarah took time out of her busy schedule to discuss her novel and her process with WU. Enjoy!
Interview with Sarah Addison Allen: Part 1
Q: Your debut novel, Garden Spells, was released in 2007. Please tell us about your journey to publication. Did you always want to be an author? What about this concept grabbed you? And how did you progress from concept to published work?
SAA: Despite a lifelong love of writing, I didn’t always want to be a writer. When I was a kid, my most fervent hope was to become a trash man when I grew up. I would daydream about it.
But I gave up on my dream of waste management and decided to pursue writing as a career when I graduated from college. I wrote for about 12 years, sold a few small things, but then I went through a very long dry spell during which I wrote like a fiend, trying to follow what was hot in the market, and couldn’t sell a thing. That’s when I decided to write the story I wanted to write, not the story I thought would mostly likely get published. I followed my voice, not the market. I wrote Garden Spells. And that’s when my big break occurred.
Occasionally, though, I still daydream about how fun it would be to ride on the back of a garbage truck.
Q: You mentioned chasing the market for a while. What did you learn about this approach while you were doing it? Do you think it can ever be successful?
SAA: I think following the market works, to a degree, for versatile writers who have a practical approach to what they do. But even the most versatile of writers know the value of finding your niche.
For me, writing is personal and a highly emotional investment. If I don’t feel what I write, it doesn’t work. When I was trying to follow the market, I was writing things I didn’t care about, just to try to get published. And it probably showed.
Q: For those who might not have read your books yet, how would you describe your writing style and genre?
SAA: I call my books Southern-fried magical realism. But, at the heart of the books, they are love stories.
Q: With a prophetic apple tree intent on shoving knowledge down your throat, and characters who can alter your life with a meal, gift, well-placed sock or haircut, Garden Spells possesses more than a dash of magical realism. Are you a fan of the genre, of books like Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate? Who or what inspired you along the way?
SAA: I am a big fan of magical realism. My favorites in this genre continue to be the first I ever read, in college. I think the newness, the way this literary device opened a whole new world for me when I discovered it, made these titles unforgettable, like first loves: The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chapppell, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquirel, A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters by Julian Barnes.
Q: Were you a lit major? Were there any defining moments in college that helped you find your writerly way?
SAA: My B.A. is in Literature, but it was my college experience as a whole that helped me as a writer. The reading requirements of my Lit classes were, of course, integral. But I also learned a great deal about grammar from French classes, and newswriting classes taught me about getting down to the bones of a story.
Q: You drew from a wide range of points of view in Garden Spells; I counted ten. Was it difficult juggling so many voices? What tricks, if any, did you employ to keep them straight? How did you decide when it was right to use one person’s POV over another’s?
SAA: I had no idea I had so many POVs in Garden Spells until someone pointed it out to me after Garden Spells was published. I was floored. But, I wrote what felt best for the story. It’s not a structured process for me at all. In hindsight, I think the reason the book ended up with so many POVs is because the town itself is a character, and the townspeople are facets of that character.
Q: Did any of the characters or their stories give you trouble? If so, how did you handle that?
SAA: All my characters give me trouble at first. I always pick an unruly bunch. But it’s just a matter of getting to know them. They’re like friendships. They take time. Again, it’s about trusting the process.
Q: How do you work? At home, in an office? In a coffee shop? With a computer or a pad of paper? What does a typical writing day (or week!) look like for you?
SAA: I have a home office, and I work almost exclusively at a computer. My typical writing day consists of large chunks of time lost to procrastination and daydreaming. But the closer I get to a deadline, the more hours I spend in front of the computer. Just this past Sunday, trying to finish up my next book, my butt was parked at my desk for fourteen hours.
Q: Tell us more about your writing process. How do you write and revise? What do you love about your process? What do you wish you could change or improve upon?
SAA: My writing process is very organic. I start with an idea. I have the general story arc and the cast. But then I sit down to write and things change. New characters appear, some disappear. And the big elements of magic in both books — the prophetic apple tree in Garden Spells and the books that appear on their own in The Sugar Queen, weren’t in the stories until I started writing. I was actually surprised by them. Making it up as I go along is one of the best parts of writing. But it’s also one of the most frustrating parts. It’s an insecure feeling, not knowing what’s going to happen. But I’ve learned to trust the process.
Q: As a pantser at heart myself, I can relate to your process. Do you find that the real story magic comes in the editing? Does the story continue to evolve for you even beyond the first draft? Do you have any particular approach to editing your work?
SAA: The story I end up with is never exactly the story I set out to tell, so much of the editing process happens while actually writing the book. Then, when I finish with the draft, I usually go back and edit again as a whole.
Come back next Friday for part two of my interview with Sarah Addison Allen, when she reveals what she wishes she’d understood long ago about the business, her latest novel and more!