In some instances, readers know more about the books Sarah Addison Allen’s written than she remembers of them herself. But the local author loves that her fans are not only interested in her novels and characters, they’re invested. It was reader curiosity, in part, that inspired Allen to revisit the Waverly family from Garden Spells, her 2007 New York Times best-seller and the first of her works of magical realism.
“When it was first released, I got a lot of questions from readers saying, ‘What happens next?’” Allen says. “Returning to it felt comfortable.” Her new novel, First Frost — which she reads from at Malaprop’s on Monday, Jan. 19 — picks up 10 years after Garden Spells left off. Mysterious Waverly sisters Claire and Sydney are each settled with husbands and careers, and each sister has a magical power (cooking and hair styling, respectively). Sydney’s daughter, Bay, is 15 and coming into her own gift — the ability to know where people and things are meant to be. That skill, however, doesn’t seem to be helping her win her crush, Josh Matteson — though Bay knows for sure that Josh belongs with her.
Things in the Waverly households get crazier as the first frost approaches and the family’s enchanted apple tree, which lies dormant all summer, prepares to bloom. While this novel was a return for Allen, it was also a departure. The writer, known for her wildly creative storylines, realized that by revisiting a previous setting and group of characters, “there were things I couldn’t change. Who they were, what their gifts were and what the town [fictional Bascom, N.C.] was about was set in stone. It was a challenge to take that existing world and make it new.”
One sticking point was the magical apple tree. “I wrote in Garden Spells about how it blooms in the fall,” says Allen. “I wanted [First Frost] to be set around Halloween, but that darned tree had to bloom, because that’s how I’d already set it. So that’s how the whole first frost party came about.” That particular scene, created to make disparate ideas jell, is one of the book’s most spellbinding.
A change that occurred between drafts of First Frost was the addition of Russell Zhler (not a character from Allen’s previous novel). The elderly circus performer and scam artist, aka The Great Banditi, appears in Bascom with a plan to swindle Claire of her earnings from her successful candy business. In an early draft, Russell’s role was minor. “I later decided to weave him into the book,” says Allen.
Teenage Bay, on the other hand, is so central to First Frost that it could be argued the novel is a YA read (it’s not — at least not exclusively). “I remember writing Bay’s character and thinking about my life when I was 15, and what she might be going through,” says Allen. “It was difficult, and it was interesting as well to approach Sydney and Claire as mothers — there were mother relationships that I didn’t get to explore greatly in Garden Spells.”
In fact, one reader who participated in a goodreads.com fan group discussion asked, “What it is about that maternal-daughter relationship that draws you to featuring it in each of your books?” Allen, who insists she’s “such a seat-of-my-pants writer,” says, “I’m so completely blinded by the process of writing that I never really see what I put of myself into my books until they’re done.” The writer says that she has a great relationship with her own mother (and the young daughters of First Frost ultimately do, too) but muses that fictional relationships are — at least in some small way, and perhaps subconsciously — manifestations of real-life experiences.
Though many of Allen’s novels have been based in Western North Carolina-like towns, this, too, is unintentional. “I’m a writer from Asheville, but I don’t set books in Asheville,” she says. She’s currently at work on a new novel that takes place in Charleston: “My first book set in a real place,” she says.
Early on as a novelist, she wrote at night but now works during the day: “My final transition into a day job,” Allen says. She attributes that shift to the success of Garden Spells, but even that initial foray into magical realism came from Allen’s seat-of-her-pants approach. “I don’t think Garden Spells would have come about if I’d thought, ‘I’m going to write a romance,’ or ‘I’m going to write chick-lit,’” she says. “You have to encapsulate your novel into a sellable point, but when you’re writing it, it has to be your story, not the story you think will sell.”
WHO: Sarah Addison Allen
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Monday, Jan. 19, 7 p.m. Free