North Carolina novelist Sarah Addison Allen brings the full flavor of her southern upbringing to bear on her fiction -- a captivating blend of fairy tale magic, heartwarming romance, and small-town sensibility.
Born and raised in Asheville, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Allen grew up with a love of books and an appreciation of good food (she credits her journalist father for the former and her mother, a fabulous cook, for the latter). In college, she majored in literature -- because, as she puts it, "I thought it was amazing that I could get a diploma just for reading fiction. It was like being able to major in eating chocolate."
After graduation in 1994, Allen began writing seriously. She sold a few stories and penned romances for Harlequin under the pen name Katie Gallagher; but her big break occurred in 2007 with the publication of her first mainstream novel, Garden Spells, a modern-day fairy tale about an enchanted apple tree and the family of North Carolina women who tend it. Booklist called Allen's accomplished debut "spellbindingly charming," and the novel became a BookSense pick and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection.
Since then, Allen has continued to serve heaping helpings of the fantastic and the familiar in fiction she describes as "Southern-fried magic realism." Clearly, it's a recipe readers are happy to eat up as fast as she can dish it out.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Allen:
"I love food. The comforting and sensual nature of food always seems to find its way into what I write. Garden Spells involves edible flowers. My book out in 2008 involves southern and rural candies. Book three, barbeque. But, you know what? I'm a horrible cook."
"In college I worked for a catalog company, taking orders over the phone. Occasionally celebrities would call in their own orders. My brush with celebrity? I took Bob Barker's order."
"I was a Star Wars fanatic when I was a kid. I have the closet full of memorabilia to prove it -- action figures, trading cards, comic books, notebooks with ‘Mrs. Mark Hamill' written all over the pages. I can't believe I just admitted that."
"While I was writing this, a hummingbird came to check out the trumpet vine outside my open window. I stopped typing and sat very still, mesmerized, my hands frozen on the keys, until it flew away. I looked back to my computer and ten minutes had passed in a flash."
"I love being a writer."
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In the summer of 2007, Sarah Addison Allen took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Every book I've ever read has influenced me in some way. Paddington Bear books and Beverly Cleary in elementary school. Nancy Drew and Judy Blume in middle school. The sci-fi fantasy of my teens. The endless stream of paperback romances I devoured as I got older. Studying world literature and major movements in college. Who I am, what I am, is the culmination of a lifetime of reading, a lifetime of stories. And there are still so many more books to read. I'm a work in progress.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
This is a tough one. I'll take a random sample from my keeper shelves:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- I first read this in ninth grade. At the time I didn't understand why my Literature teacher placed such emphasis on Atticus. We had to write entire essays about Atticus. I didn't care about Atticus. I thought my teacher missed the point and it was clearly a story about the kids. I read it again in my twenties and said, "Oh." I read this book at least once a year now.
Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day -- One of the best dogs I've ever owned was a funny, humble, cat-fearing Rottweiler, who was with me almost 11 years. The Carl series by Alexandra Day manages to capture the smart, kind side to these dogs. Sweet, funny stories told through beautiful illustrations.
I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell -- The lovely way this book portrays a southern childhood, with its light use of magic realism, resonates with me. I remember reading the last line of this book, then turning the book over to look at the title...and getting chills. Read it and you'll see what I mean.
Cinderman by Anne Stuart -- This book is out of print, but it's on my keeper shelf, all wavy and stiff from being dropped in the bathtub while I read it for the umpteenth time. It was a part of Harlequin American's More than Men series, a breakthrough for category romance at the time. It's so smart and smartly written, a wonderful romance with paranormal elements.
Beauty by Robin McKinley -- I'm such a sucker for a Beauty and the Beast story. This is probably my favorite retelling. The language just blows me away.
Persuasion by Jane Austen -- Of course I fell in love with this book for the romance, for the romantic notion of lovers reuniting. But I also found it interesting that, at 27, Anne had "lost her bloom." At the time I had this strange impression of everyone in the Regency period being prematurely gray.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys -- I read Jane Eyre as a teenager and was swept away. I thought the madwoman in the attic was only a plot device to break Jane and Mr. Rochester apart and then bring them back together. Wide Sargasso Sea humbled me. It taught me to consider the story that isn't being told.
The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald -- My dad introduced me to this series. I love the atmosphere, the retro feel to the stories, and the surprising sensitivity of hardened Travis McGee.
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward -- I remember reading this story as a child, and it remained vivid in my mind for years and years. I thought it was out of print until I walked into a bookstore one day and this book was set out with some others as part of an Easter promotion. I grabbed the book and hugged it. It was like seeing an old friend.
Second Nature by Alice Hoffman -- I was first introduced to magic realism while studying literature in college, and I was immediately captivated by this technique of blending the supernatural and unusual into everyday life. But it was always a very deep story that was told, always very literary. Years later, I discovered Alice Hoffman and everything changed for me. She took magic realism and made it accessible, she made it romantic. She made me want to write it.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, Roman Holiday, and Funny Face. Two words: Edith Head.
Spirited Away. I know I've watched this more than a dozen times. The fairy tale aspect enthralls, and so does the otherworldly beauty of the place.
Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and North and South. I love these for their excellent adaptations of the books, but mostly I love them for Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, and Richard Armitage, respectively.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
At any given time I'm listening to the Cory Branan, Leonna Naess, Eve 6, the King's Noyse, Sean Paul, Green Day, the BoDeans, Buddy Holly, Nowell Sing We Clear...the list goes on and on.
But I rarely listen to music while I write. I start typing the lyrics.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Books with quirky visuals. The Griffin and Sabine books. The Post Secret books. The Merchant of Marvels and the Peddler of Dreams. The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Amy Zoe Mason. Love, love, love these kinds of books. It's like getting an inside-out gift. You know what it is right away, then you open it up and find all the beautifully wrapped packaging inside.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
The thing most consistently on my desk as I write is a cat, a different one at different times of the day. I think I'm more a part of their ritual.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
All in all, it took about 12 years of writing to get where I am today.
There's an old hymn called "How Can I Keep from Singing?" That's what writing feels like to me. I went through a very long dry spell during which I wrote like a fiend but couldn't sell a thing. So I gave up and went back to school, determined to leave writing behind. But when writing is so much a part of who you are, how can you keep from writing? I lasted a semester. I started writing again and wrote Garden Spells.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't give up because of the dark days. Succeed in spite of them. The dark days make the bright days seem even brighter. So bright you can hardly stand it.
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