Message From The Author
The Magic Touch
SARAH ADDISON ALLEN ON BOOKS, BARBECUE AND BAKING
By Stephanie Klose
The southern-flavored magical realism that fans love in Sarah Addison Allen's fiction came about almost ... by magic.
When she was writing Garden Spells (Bantam, 2007), her mainstream debut, it was "intended as straightforward women's fiction," but then a magical apple tree made its way into her manuscript and, as Allen explains, "the story took on a life of its own, and my life hasn't been the same since."
After that initial success, Allen made a conscious decision to include magical elements in her subsequent books, at least in part because as a self-described reader-based writer, what Allen likes to write is firmly grounded in what she likes to read. Magic is a "natural part of my voice and imagination -- that's where my mind goes."
Part of the appeal is the sense of discovery for readers. Magical realism, a literary subgenre in which magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic setting, is, she says, "like cracking open a geode," in the sense that initially a story that looks everyday and familiar, like an ordinary rock, reveals a hidden and sparkling center.
In her newest book, this month's The Girl Who Chased the Moon, 17-year-old Emily Benedict goes to Mullaby, N.C., after the loss of her mother and moves in with the grandfather she never knew. In his home, Emily discovers that the wallpaper changes to suit her mood and unexplained lights -- a ghost? -- dance outside at midnight. She also uncovers another side of her mother when she learns that the activist who raised her was the town's most spoiled princess and played a part in a local tragedy. Her mother's best friend, Julia Winterson, lives next door and takes Emily under her wing. Julia bakes cakes with the power to reunite people, though she has financial and romantic troubles of her own to deal with.
"It's a story about finding
forgiveness," Allen says, "about
It's also a story about barbecue. Like any respectable small North Carolina town, Mullaby has a barbecue joint on Main St., and the residents, like the author, take it very, very seriously. North Carolina barbeque, Allen explains, is always made with pork, but the state has two distinctive styles: eastern, which is "tart, thin and peppery," and western, which is "thicker, richer
When asked which one she prefers, the author points out that her hometown of Asheville is in the western part of the state and leaves it at that.
Beyond barbecue, food and eating is another theme that carries through all of her books, and one that provides her with ample opportunity for delicious research.
"We took a tour of barbecue pits of North Carolina for this one," she says, pointing out that she could probably write a guide book for them. "I've gained 20 pounds doing research for the barbecue and candy and cakes in the books I've written." She even joked about writing a book about fruit and vegetables to balance it all out.
And so she is. Allen's next book, slated for release in 2011, features peaches and coffee. Writing about food "just happened when
I left myself go," she says, calling it "an extension of who I am."
When Allen reads for pleasure, she rarely remembers plot details, but "whatever I read, I always remember the food in it."
With a debut novel that hit the New York Times bestseller list and praise from critics and readers -- both Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen (April '09) received Top Picks from RT -- Allen may appear to be an overnight success, but that's hardly the case.
"I wrote as close to full time as I could for 12 years," she says, while also working "a lot of part-time and odd jobs," before her first book sale. So when she's asked for advice by aspiring authors seeking publication, Allen's feels more than qualified to tell them that the only thing that works is "what you always hear as an aspiring writer: Don't give up."
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