Interview: March 25, 2011
Sarah Addison Allen is a native of North Carolina and the author of THE PEACH KEEPER, which follows the unlikely friendship between Willa Jackson, a once-prominent woman, and Paxton Osgood, a wealthy do-gooder who finds herself in need of Willa's help when the restoration of the Jackson family home unearths the skeleton of a notorious traveling salesman. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Amy Gwiazdowski, Allen talks about the people and places that inspired her latest novel, elaborating on Appalachian culture and the unusual beauty of North Carolina's Transylvania County. She also speculates on the relationship between preoccupations with food and people's personalities, reflects on the nature of Southern superstitions, and hints at a sequel to one of her earlier successes.
Bookreporter.com: What inspired you to write THE PEACH KEEPER and introduce readers to a new setting, Walls of Water, North Carolina?
Sarah Addison Allen: There is a county near where I live called Transylvania County --- and it's not a land of vampires. It's actually known locally as the Land of Waterfalls, with more waterfalls than any other place in the state. It's such a gorgeous area. I've wanted to set a book there for a while.
BRC: Your characters are very human --- strong and fragile at the same time. Where do you find inspiration for them?
SAA: Everyday life. I strive to make characters as identifiable as possible, tapping into emotions we all feel, but don't always know how to articulate or acknowledge.
BRC: Tradition is deeply rooted in Nana Osgood, to the point where she feels guilt over her past actions. Do you have a strong belief in tradition yourself?
SAA: Growing up in the South, and growing up in the Appalachian Mountains in particular, you learn the importance of tradition at a very early age. It's deeply rooted in this area --- everything from recipes to handicrafts to music, to folklore and superstitions.
BRC: Willa Jackson is a bit of an enigma in that she runs away from who she is, but comes back to Walls of Water to redeem herself and show everyone that she can be the adult her father and grandmother wanted her to be. Yet when she finds out more about her father's life, her mindset changes. Did you like the idea of giving her a path that was more than she what she imagined for herself?
SAA: I was trying to figure Willa out the entire time I was writing the book. Her journey of self-discovery was my journey, as well. I wish I could say I am a writer who is master of all her characters, but I only ever see the character's path, the plot and the theme, after I finish the novel.
BRC: Tucker Devlin is a minor character we never meet, but his presence is felt very much throughout the book. Is this kind of character a bigger challenge to write, as opposed to one that is physically present?
SAA: The charismatic traveling salesman Tucker Devlin had a much bigger role in a previous draft of the novel, much of which was told in flashbacks. By the time I got to this current draft, he was just a ghostly presence, which actually ended up adding to the superstition and mystery of the book.
BRC: For several characters, the idea that second chances are a part of life is woven throughout THE PEACH KEEPER. Do their pasts and futures collide while you're writing, or do you begin with a plan for each in mind?
SAA: I wish I had a plan. I think it would make the whole writing process easier. But my individual process is very organic, and I've learned to go with the flow. I follow the stories and the characters where they take me.
BRC: Food played a large role in your debut novel, GARDEN SPELLS, where the main character, Claire Waverley, was a caterer with an otherworldly cooking talent. In THE PEACH KEEPER, Paxton Osgood has a small love/hate relationship with food, as well. Why make food so important to your characters?
SAA: I love food, the sensual nature of it, and the comforting nature of it. It always seems to find its way into what I write. I think the way we view food says a lot about our personalities, particularly about what emotions we're hiding. Paxton's issue with food in THE PEACH KEEPER says a lot about her unhappiness, even when it seems like her life is perfect.
BRC: I loved seeing Claire Waverley make an appearance here. Do you plan to re-introduce past characters into future books?
SAA:I definitely plan to write a GARDEN SPELLS sequel in the future! I just don't know when.
BRC: Do you find it a challenge to write books with the same general setting --- small towns in the South? What appeals to you about these places?
SAA: I write about the South because the South is what I know. Setting is the cornerstone to the atmosphere of a book, so it should always be firm. When it's built on that, the story is always in a secure place.
BRC: There is an amazing sense of home in your books, not just as a physical location, but also as a mental state. Is this something you feel strongly about yourself?
SAA: Absolutely. I've lived in North Carolina almost all my life. My heart is here.
BRC: There is a magical realism element that reminds the reader that there is more to life than what we see, and that some of the stories passed down through the years need to be remembered. Is this something you've grown up with?
SAA: I grew up with a strong sense of oral history and superstition. In fact, the original title of THE PEACH KEEPER was "God Eats Peaches," which I took from the old saying, "When God eats peaches, He saves the pit." I had a cousin who would never throw away a peach pit because of that saying. She thought it was bad luck. My family is full of strange Southern superstitions, which have been passed down from one generation to the next. My great-aunt never liked for company to come in through one door and leave through another, because she said that meant the preacher would visit.
BRC: What are you working on now?
SAA: I'm working on my next novel. Experience has taught me that where I start is no place near where I end up, so I'm excited to see where it goes.
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