The world of Asheville writer Sarah Addison Allen
by Wiley Cash | photographs by Mallory Cash
In Sarah Addison Allen’s new novel, Other Birds, an 18-year-old woman named Zoey Hennessey returns to her long-dead mother’s condominium on fictional Mallow Island off the coast of South Carolina to reconnect with her mother’s spirit by tapping into the spirit of the place. Upon her arrival, Zoey finds a historic building that houses a collection of mysterious misfits, all of them bearing their own personal stories driven by pain and longing. Although Zoey is heartbroken to learn that virtually nothing of her mother remains in the condo, she is pleased to make a home among the Dellawisp’s eccentric tenants.
Not only is the Dellawisp haunted by the lives of the people who currently live there, it’s also haunted by the lives of the people who lived there once upon a time, for the living are not alone in the old, rambling complex. Spirits hover on the margins of people’s lives just like the tiny turquoise birds that have overtaken the Dellawisp’s courtyard. While navigating the past and present of these myriad lives, Zoey reclaims her own life, and she learns that family is something you can create when you need it most.
On a Saturday morning in mid-June, I meet Allen in the lobby of Asheville’s historic Grove Park Inn. While tourists and bellhops bustle all around us — the din of voices and laughter carrying along the great lobby’s stone floors — Sarah and I make our way to the verandah that overlooks the golf course. In the distance, the city of Asheville sits like a pink jewel among the swells of misty blue mountains. If the setting sounds magical, it’s because it is. It’s also because my head is still buzzing with the possibility of magic after finishing Other Birds. All of Sarah’s previous novels contain magical elements, beginning with her 2007 debut novel, Garden Spells, which tells the story of the Waverley family, whose garden bears prophetic fruit and edible flowers with special powers. The novel was an instant New York Times bestseller. Since then, Sarah has published five novels that have gone on to sell millions of copies.
While Other Birds is certainly as magical as Sarah’s previous novels, it seems much more personal. When I ask her if this is true, she doesn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt,” she says. Just as several characters in Other Birds must confront tragedy and grief, Sarah has had to do the same in her own life.
“I started the book, and then my mom had a catastrophic brain injury,” she says. “For four years I watched her die. It was horrible. And then 10 days before my mom passed away, my sister died. I’d put this book on hold while caring for my mom and going through that grieving process.”
When Sarah returned to work on her novel, she found that not only had her sense of the novel changed, her sense of herself had changed as well. “I came at it from the point of view of learning a lot about life that I didn’t really want to learn,” she says. “I learned a lot about grief, and I learned a lot about what to let go of and how we hang on.”
Sarah explains to me that if this book feels different, it’s because she’s different. While Other Birds is just as hopeful as her previous books, it confronts the reality of grief with a stark realism shrouded in elements of magic once ghosts begin to join the chorus of characters.
“My grief came out in those ghost stories,” Sarah says. “Even though the characters don’t know the ghosts of their mothers are there, they’re still there. I like that sort of wishful thinking in terms of losing my mom. Maybe I haven’t really let her go, or maybe she hasn’t really let me go. In some way she’s still here.”
Sarah grows quiet, and I imagine memories of her mother playing through her mind, and I wonder how those memories found their way to the page. “My mom was my best friend,” she finally says. “The characters in the book deal with the losses of the people who are supposed to care for them. But in the end they learn how to let go and move on and find family among themselves.”
Grief is not something new to Sarah’s life. Ten years ago, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer, but after losing her mother and sister, her own medical journey was put into perspective. “It’s the difference between the fear of leaving and the fear of being left,” she says.
Sarah’s readers certainly marked her absence during the seven years between the publication of her last novel, First Frost, and her new novel. Once the publication date of Other Birds was announced, online book chatter erupted in celebration. In her own quiet way, Sarah celebrated her return to the page as well. She tells me that getting back to work on Other Birds after losing her mother and sister was a return to something that felt normal. “Getting back into the swing of things felt good,” she says.
Meeting with Sarah in one of Asheville’s most iconic locations feels right because she’s a writer whose identity is inextricably tied to western North Carolina. “My heart is here in Asheville,” she says. “The farther I get away from Asheville, it feels like a rubber band being stretched taut. I need to snap back. I need to come home.
“My sense of belonging is something I want to give to my characters,” she says. “They’re all in search of a place to belong. A lot of times that’s a physical place, but a lot of times it’s an emotional place, and sometimes it’s the people you surround yourself with.”
I understand the point she’s making, both because Asheville feels like home to me, but also because my own writing relies heavily on my characters having a sense of belonging to a particular place. But I also understand Sarah’s ties to Asheville because we are alumni of UNC Asheville, where we both majored in literature just a few years apart from one another, studying under the same professors and encountering many of the same books that left lasting impressions on us, books like North Carolina native Fred Chappell’s novel I Am One of You Forever.
Sarah sees that novel as one of the first books that introduced her to magical realism while showing her that western North Carolina could be a setting for her own work. She says that reading Chappell’s novel at UNC Asheville was like “cracking open a geode and seeing the sparkle inside.” She still remembers how Chappell’s use of folklore and ballads in the novel resonated with her as a native of western North Carolina. “That was my territory,” she says. “That was something that hit close to home.”
I was so affected by Chappell’s novel that I borrowed the name of the main character from I Am One of You Forever for my debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. Chappell named his young protagonist Jess Kirkman; I named mine Jess Hall.
When Sarah’s debut Garden Spells was published in 2007, I was entering my final year of graduate school in Louisiana, and the fact that an alumnus of UNC Asheville had hit the publishing big time was both emboldening and daunting for someone like me, who desperately wanted to join her. But in talking with Sarah I learn that her 13-year path to publishing Garden Spells after graduating college was long and hard. According to her, during those years she had written dozens of full-length manuscripts and been rejected by scores of literary agents.
“I was writing as close to full time as I could get,” she says. “I was doing part-time and seasonal jobs. By the time I wrote Garden Spells I was just about ready to give up. I’d gone back to school, and I hated it, and I thought, Let me give it one more go. And I wrote Garden Spells, and suddenly, there it was. I sent off 12 or 15 queries to agents, and only one of them wanted to see the novel. That’s the agent I have today.”
Both Sarah’s new novel, Other Birds, and her path to publication prove one thing: If you look, there is a family waiting for you.
“Your tribe is out there,” she says. “Your people are out there. Just keep looking.” SP
Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at UNC Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.