“I’m of the opinion that the book is no longer mine once I quit writing it,” says Sarah Addison Allen, author of the just-released novel, The Sugar Queen (Bantam, 2008). It seems that Allen is not only willing to let her creative work become public property (ideologically, that is: the copyright still stands), she thinks her readers’ take on her novel often trumps her original vision. Queen, on the heels of Allen’s breakout literary debut Garden Spells, was a fairly dark endeavor for the author. For audiences, it’s light, fun, uplifting and ultimately magical.
“It seems to have brought out something good in readers,” Allen notes.
Queen is a multilayered read, fluffy at the outset but flowering into a deeply compelling and hauntingly beautiful work. The main character, Josey, is captive in her childhood home, hoping to redeem a difficult childhood by taking care of her bitterly critical mother. Our heroine isn’t happy, but she’s content with her insular world, mollifying herself with a store of candy and a stash of travel magazines. But when free-spirited, loud-mouthed Della Lee decides to hide out in Josey’s closet, the status quo is all shot to hell.
Allen’s apparent ease with the literary equivalent of the fourth wall (the invisible partition between the audience and the actors) might have something to do with her hard-won writing career. An Asheville native (“I went to Asheville High and graduated from UNCA. I’m as local as you can get.”), Allen started writing seriously right out of college.
Her father is a former columnist and editor, and his writing inspired Allen. “I don’t think I would have become a writer if my teachers in school hadn’t known my dad was a writer and wanted to see something good in my own work,” she says. She also quips that her only other vocational aspiration was, at age 4, to be a trash collector. Instead, she settled on penning romance novels, finally selling Tried and True to Harlequin under the nom de plume “Katie Gallagher.”
After that, Allen couldn’t sell another novel to save her life—despite completing and pitching up to three manuscripts each year. But she didn’t give up. “I had invested so much time that I didn’t want it to be all for naught,” the author says. Instead, she tried something new: last year’s Garden Spells. That novel, about two sisters with special powers that manifest through recipes, won over first publishers and then readers with its spellbinding story line and quirky nod to happy possibility.
Queen shares that same charming sensibility. Lovingly eccentric characters possess magical powers grounded enough in reality that readers don’t have to suspend belief. We’re told of one character who inexplicably attracts the very tomes she needs to solve her problems. “After all, how did you explain such a thing?” she asks. “Books appearing all of the sudden?”
Of another, Allen writes, “It simply was not possible for a Pelham to go back on his word. And it wasn’t good old-fashioned taught honesty, either. It was their genes, like their blue eyes and their russet hair.”
“I had an idea there was going to be magic in the book, but I didn’t know where,” the author tells Xpress. The idea of magical realism is to seamlessly blend the supernatural with the natural, she explains. “You can’t make people be able to fly. That wouldn’t jibe.”
What does jibe is the use of golden moments mined from the mundane of daily routine: a maid who practices her own white witchcraft and sees ghosts, a good-luck sweater, a freak snowstorm that leads a woman to her dream home. “This literary device is part of my voice. When I wrote Garden Spells, I knew this was my voice,” Allen says. So much for the romance writing—though Queen does possess a bodice-busting, heavy-breathing scene or two.
“The paranormal is very popular in publishing right now,” Allen says. “I got into it at just the right time.” And those magical themes will continue into her third novel, which is currently in the works. The author (who jokes that she, like her main character, “ate my way through The Sugar Queen”) will also revisit her other favorite topic: food. Carolina barbecue is on the menu for next year’s book, but with Queen on bookshelves now, readers can have dessert first.
who: Sarah Addison Allen
what: Local author reads from her book, The Sugar Queen
where: Barnes & Noble (83 S. Tunnel Road, Asheville)
when: Tuesday, May 20. 7 p.m. (Free. 296-9330.)