Local author Sarah Addison Allen started her career years ago as a frustrated romance writer. But she found her niche when she tried her hand at magical realism, giving ups first Garden Spells (2007) and then in succession, The Sugar Queen and The Girl Who Chased the Moon.
This year, Allen returns with The Peach Keeper. The novel follows two women — Willa and Paxton — who are grew up together and are now navigating adult life in the hometown that still remembers (all too well) how they behaved as girls. Paxton is sheltered and still (at 30) lives in the family pool house. Willa, formerly the town bad girl, is trying to make good running an outdoors store and living in the home of her late father. While Willa and Paxton were never close, their grandmothers were best friends as girls and share a dark secret. A construction project threatens to bring that secret to light, and also looses a ghost who stirs up trouble for everyone.
Peach will be released on Tuesday, March 22. Allen had planned a launch party to be held at Malaprop’s but a health issue meant canceling that event. Still, signed copies of the newly released book will be available in the downtown Asheville bookstore and fans can check out the latest magical tale while sending good thought for a quick recovery in Allen’s direction.
Allen recently spoke to Xpress about her new novel.
Xpress:Your newest novel (like the previous three) is set in a fictitious but very familiar-seeming town.
Sarah Addison Allen: It was actually inspired by some of the small towns in Transylvania County like Brevard — the land of the waterfalls.
I don’t do it on purpose when I start writing. The towns take shape and I think, “Oh this sounds like such-and-such a town.” I never actually thought, “Oh, I’m going to start this town based on Brevard.” I write so organically. I start with nothing and the picture is painted as I go on.
I write what I know and what I know is this area. It’s a part of who I am as a writer.
Have you thought about a setting a book someplace outside of N.C.?
What I’m working on right now are proposals for the next book. One is a road trip book, so it doesn’t actually take place in North Carolina. Another one takes place in a small fictional place outside of Savannah. Another one is a Garden Spells sequel, so it’s back in N.C. I’m venturing outside of N.C. in some respects, but they’re all still in the South.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. It was more born out of the story. The story couldn’t handle a lot of magic. I knew the magic was going to be superstition. There’s no tree that throws apples or books that follow a character around. There’s nothing that obvious. It is absolutely less subtle. I think it’s just what the story called for. The story didn’t call for anything overt. It’s like a ghost story more. It’s on that vein of superstition, how we accept it. How we knock three times or whistle when we pass a grave yard. We don’t even think of it. It’s part of our day-to-day life, but it’s magical, really.
Superstitions are about trying to control what we have no control over. And they’re passed down form generation to generation. They live on. Our great-great-grandmothers wouldn’t put hats on the bed and we don’t either, because our mothers told us. Things we don’t even understand, but we do them anyway.
There’s also less food in this book than the previous three. I didn’t want to get stuck in every book having a similar food theme or this overt, almost fantastical magic. I think it’s a natural growth for me. But, like I said, one of the proposals I’m turning in is a return to Garden Spells so that will go back to the fantastical magic.
Like the magic and food elements, your books also tend to have an elderly character. (In Peach it’s two grandmothers who are trying to hide a secret from their youth.) Is this intentional?
I do think about it because my characters are so young that it’s a good balance. I spent a lot of time in my 20s taking care of my great aunt Charlotte. I inherited her house when she passed away, which is the house where I live now. She taught me so much around getting old and how to do it gracefully and what you go through. For the story itself, it’s good to have that wisdom and balance. Even if it is comic relief.
In The Peach Keeper, some of your characters deal with returning (or never having left) the town where they grew up, and overcoming the ideas that others have of them, left over from childhood. Was that in anyway inspired by your own experience, since you grew up in Asheville and still live here?
I don’t think it’s a reflection on who I am. I think when you’re the youngest kid in the family, it’s hard to be seen as a grownup. Maybe in that way it’s a mirror of who I am. I think it’s a great plot device. It’s ripe for exploration. When you think about how complex a character is who is completely different now form when they were growing up and no one else lets them forget who they were. It lends itself to a deep and rich character.
Do you spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of plot devices?
I think the writing process would be a lot easier if I could sit down and plot the book and have these characters fully developed when I start writing. But they’re not. I can only look at this is hindsight. I wish I knew all these things about the characters before I started writing. The Peach Keeper went through almost three drafts. From April to October of last year all I was doing was rewriting this book. It was a bugger.
Do you ever worry that you won’t be able to write the next book?
It’s a standard operating procedure for all writers, we always thing there’s never going to be another idea or again. Or the book is the worst thing you’ve ever written — that no one’s going to buy it and it’s horrible and you’ll never be published again.
Do you take time off between books?
I deliberately took about two months off. I did a lot of promotion and publicity, but I didn’t actually write anything. I couldn’t imagine starting another book after that, going that long and that hard.
Still, if you turned the book in in October and it’s coming out in March, that’s a quick turn-around.
I know! It was because it had to go through a completely different draft, I had to completely rewrite it and it already had its on-sale date. My skin was horrible by the time the process was over. Stress! Usually it’s about a year turn-around from when you urn in a novel.
Advance reviews seem very positive for Peach, but many of them call it a “quick read.” Considering how difficult it was to write, does that bother you?
I don’t think that bothers me as much as “These books are so light.” I think my conception of dark is a lot lighter than anybody else’s, but when I’m writing these books I’m miserable and I think these books have dark elements and suddenly I’m getting these reviews that say they’re so light and uplifting. I’m thinking, “really?” I went through such hell writing this book and I really thought it was deep and dark. That dichotomy — I think it’s curious.
I like that they’re quick reads, though. I like that people read it all in one night because they don’t want to put it down.
What do you think of on-line communities for readers like Good Reads?
I try to stay away from reviews online. I think the online communities such as Facebook — social networking — is absolutely vital to an author for promotion. Readers have such a wealth of connection online — Shelfari and Library Thing — whereas before you had to rely on your librarian or your bookseller to suggest a new book. Now you have these communities in which you can find something new. I have gained a lot of readers through word-of-mouth on these reader sites. Blog tours — I don’t think they’re as important as they were before but I’m still doing blog tours for the release of the book because they’re so viral.