When Sarah Addison Allen sat down to write Lost Lake, her first novel in three years, she began with an image: Spanish moss.
“I knew I wanted to go someplace swampy and wet,” Allen says, and so Lost Lake was born — a fading resort on the outskirts of a small Georgia town. For the local author (who reads at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café on Friday, Jan. 24) this marked a significant change: It was the first time she had set a story outside of North Carolina.
Lost Lake breaks from Allen’s previous novels, including New York Times bestsellers Garden Spells and The Girl Who Chased the Moon) in another significant respect. As she puts it, this novel “has a sense of grief that the others didn’t.”
The new book tells the story of Kate Pheris, a young widow just beginning to reclaim control of her life after a year lost to mourning her husband. Several other characters — including romantic interest Wes Patterson — are also dealing with grief in various forms. Kate’s journey sets off a series of events that move them all beyond heartache to reconnection and renewal.
In short, Kate goes to Lost Lake and finds “something she didn’t know she was looking for,” Allen says. “Which sort of mirrors the cancer journey.”
Allen has firsthand knowledge of that disease. She received a breast cancer diagnosis during the release of her previous novel, The Peach Keeper. And yet, she says, she didn’t set out to write about her illness.
“When I announced that after treatment I was going to be sitting down to write a book, the question I was asked the most was, ‘Is this going to be a book about cancer?’ And my answer was always, ‘No!’” says Allen. Cancer isn’t even mentioned in Lost Lake, she notes, but when she reread the completed work, she realized that she “wrote a book about grief. So in some small way, I did write about cancer.”
Allen took a year off from working on fiction as she went through treatment and admits that “sitting back down to write was terrifying.” But just as her protagonist discovers, a terrible experience freed her in unexpected ways. “It’s still hard to write a book, but it’s not the end of the world,” Allen says. “I’ve stood on that precipice, and I’ve seen the end of my world, and it’s not a missed deadline.”
This sense of liberation extended to Allen’s professional life. Even before her diagnosis, she had a desire to expand her creative boundaries by changing publishers. She believes her illness allowed her to move past her fears and begin the journey that led her to St. Martin’s Press. “I would have been too scared to do it had I not been through what I went through,” she says. “Letting go of a lot of fear was a big change in my life, post-cancer. Fear of doing something wrong and then of something bad happening. And then something bad did happen. And it’s not the end of the world.”
These lessons inform Kate’s quest to reclaim her life. In fact, the connections between Allen’s experience and Lost Lake extend even to physical details. Kate begins her lost year of grief by cutting off all of her hair. “I lost my hair with chemo,” Allen says, and Kate’s hair “is exactly what my hair was going through during that one-year mark.”
Despite these parallels, Allen insists that Kate’s story is the character’s own. “I don’t see her as any sort of mirror of me,” she says.
For one thing, Kate’s story is deepened by Allen’s signature magical realism. While those elements in Lost Lake appear with a lighter touch than in some of Allen’s other works, they serve a similar purpose by pointing the reader’s attention toward truths guessed at by the heart. This is especially apparent in the connection that forms between Kate’s young daughter Devin and Wes Patterson’s elusive brother, Billy (glimpsed chiefly through memories of him as a young boy). Their story, in turn, draws Kate deeper into the mystery surrounding Wes.
Wes, Allen says, “is different from any other male character I’ve written.” Noting how it’s a staple in romance novels that male leads are there for the female characters, Allen broke from this tradition and took pains to give Kate’s romantic interest a rich backstory.
In the end, Lost Lake turns just as much on resolving the grief in Wes’s history as in Kate’s. And once again, this central theme of Lost Lake is informed by Allen’s experience. The author says, “You go through the worst thing you could possibly go through, and suddenly you see that life is still there, waiting for you to live it.”
who: Sarah Addison Allen
where: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
when: Friday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. Free.