First Frost : An Interview with Sarah Addison Allen

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In Sarah Addison Allen's First Frost, we return to Bascom, North Carolina, and the magical Waverly family first featured in Garden Spells. Addison Allen's books feature a splendid use of magical realism that immerses us into the hearts and minds of her characters. We spoke about the nature of belonging, magic, and writing.

What drew you back to Bascom in First Frost? What inspired you to return to Bay's story?

Readers were my primary inspiration. When I wrote Garden Spells, my first book, I gave everyone a happy ending, and I thought that was that. But then readers started asking me what happened next. The idea of a next made me happy, so I filed away a story in the back of my head, and waited for the right time to write this book. The right time finally came after a particularly hard book to write, Lost Lake, which was the first book I wrote after taking a lenghty time off for cancer treatment. It was hard getting back into that headspace. After I finished Lost Lake, I knew I wanted to return to something comforting, and I knew readers had been asking for this, so I returned to the world of the Waverleys in First Frost. And it was an amazing experience.

Belonging and accepting yourself are two themes woven into the Waverley family history. What do you hope the Waverley sisters books say on those subjects? What does it mean to belong? What does it take to accept yourself, warts and all?

I think belonging has so much more to do with how you see yourself than it ever has to do with how others see you. All the Waverley women in First Frost have struggled with the crazy gifts they've been given -- but not teenager Bay. Bay Waverley was six years old in Garden Spells, and she was already a preternaturally insightful child, so I knew she would become a very grounded teenager. She's a symbol of change and a generational shift in her family's way of thinking. She basically says, We're not weird, we're normal. Normal for us. Like the Waverely sisters, I think we all chase the idea of approval and fitting in. I like that Bay says normal is completely subjective.

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Your books lovingly make use of magical elements; what is some magic from your everyday life? What inspires the gifts you give your characters? When did you start using magic in your fiction?

Magical realism -- when the supernatural blends so seamlessly into the natural world that it doesn't appear unusual at all -- captivated me from the moment I first discovered this genre in college. It was like cracking open a geode and finding the sparkle inside. I was enchanted. And I think the newness, the way this literary device opened a whole new world for me, made the first titles I read unforgettable, like first loves: The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chapppell, and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquirel. But I wrote for years before finally deciding to incorporate magical realism into my own writing. I think I was just so busy trying to follow the market in order to get published that I ignored my own voice. And it was an important part of my journey to realize that who we are as writers reflects who we are as readers. So I tapped into what I've always loved to read, and that's when I finally got published. And it's magical realism now that ultimately inspires the gifts I give my characters. It's become a very natural process.

I'd love to know more about your writing process--where do you begin, with the story or with the characters?

It's very organic. I start with an idea. I have the general story arc and the cast. But then I sit down to write and things change. New characters appear, some disappear. And the big elements of magic in all my books -- including the prophetic apple tree in Garden Spells and First Frost, and the books that appear on their own in The Sugar Queen -- weren't in the stories until I started writing. I was actually surprised by them!

Will we get to visit the Waverley sisters again and learn more about Mariah's gift? Will Fred come into his own?

I don't have plans to return to Bascom, but now that First Frost is out, I can never say never again! Maybe some time in the future I'll go back for a visit to see what those magical Waverleys are up to.