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Interview: January 22, 2015

Bestselling author Sarah Addison Allen never planned on revisiting the characters from her beloved first novel, GARDEN SPELLS. But much to the delight of fans, she has brought the Waverley women back to life in her latest book, FIRST FROST. In this charming follow-up, Claire, Sydney and Bay are still struggling with their unique “gifts,” until a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of the family. Here, Allen talks to’s Bronwyn Miller about why she chose to return to her old characters and how their familiarity helped her through a hard time. She also shares how much she appreciates meeting her fans on tour (a lot!), whether or not she plans on returning to Bascom again, and how she feels social media has allowed for a less isolated writing experience. FIRST FROST is your sixth novel. Congratulations on its publication! When you finished your first book, GARDEN SPELLS, in 2007, did you know then that you’d revisit the Waverley family in another book? What drew you back to these women?

Sarah Addison Allen: I’m excited about FIRST FROST. When I wrote GARDEN SPELLS, I gave the characters a happy ending, and I thought that was that. But when the book was published, readers began to ask, “What happened next?” That’s when I considered another Waverley story, in a someday kind of way. It finally felt like the right time after completing a particularly hard book to write, LOST LAKE. Revisiting the Waverley world felt comforting, and I think I needed that at the time.

BRC: Your books are often described as “Southern fried magical realism.” When you first wrote about the Waverley family, did you know going in that it would incorporate your southern sensibility with magical realism?

SAA: I didn’t have a clue. I’ve often said that GARDEN SPELLS started out as a story about two sisters reconnecting after many years, but then the apple tree in the book started throwing apples and the story took on a life of its own, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

BRC: Is there a character in FIRST FROST that you feel is like you? Did you find certain characters more difficult to write than others? Did you draw upon people from your life for any of these characters?

SAA: Novels are often smoky mirrors to their authors. There’s a little something of the author in every book. I loved writing all the characters in FIRST FROST, even the elderly con man. He balances on a moral cusp, so his was an interesting, and challenging, character to create. Sometimes I draw upon people from my life as inspiration, but mostly I try instead to focus on universal truths.

BRC: Is Bascom, North Carolina based on your hometown of Asheville? How important is the setting to your stories?

SAA: Bascom isn’t based on Asheville, but I did name the town after a local folk festival legend named Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who was called the “Minstrel of the Appalachians.” Setting is the cornerstone to what I write. I think, without firmly rooting your story to a place, your story will simply float around without context.

BRC: What would you like readers to take away from FIRST FROST?

SAA: That there’s always an after, even after the happily-ever-after. And that maybe you can go home again. (Apologies to Thomas Wolfe.)

BRC: You will be embarking on a book tour for FIRST FROST. What’s the best thing about getting out among your readers and hearing their thoughts about your characters and stories?

SAA: It’s an amazing experience. The fact that someone will take time out of their busy day to come see me and buy my book suddenly makes the months and months of writing, which are fraught with insecurity, all worthwhile. My readers are genuinely kind, and I love meeting them in person. 

BRC: Each writer has his or her own routine for the practice of writing. What’s yours? Do you outline each plot point ahead of time, or start with a general idea and see where the story organically takes you? How long does it take you to complete a book, from start to finish?

SAA: It’s a very organic process. I start with a loose storyline, then see where it goes. It’s a frustrating process, not at all streamlined, but I’ve learned that it’s my process, so I need to trust it. Some books take longer to write than others. Generally a year, sometimes more.

BRC: You’re very active on Twitter and Facebook. How has social media changed the somewhat lonely endeavor of being a writer?

SAA: Social media has changed the landscape of writing and publishing in such a huge and powerful way. It has definitely made writing a less solitary endeavor, helping writers and readers stay connected in a way they couldn’t before.

BRC: Earlier in your career, you had written a romance novel under a pseudonym. Any hankerings to write in another genre in the future?

SAA: No, but I think it will always be a part of what I write, in the same way magical realism and Southern fiction and foodie lit will always be a part of what I write, because they are all parts of who I am as a reader.

BRC: You were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, and we are thrilled to know you are in remission. A serious illness can certainly change one’s outlook on the world. What has your perspective been since being diagnosed? Did it affect the way you looked at writing, or did it make you want to write about different topics? Might you ever write about your experience in a future novel?

SAA: Thank you. Remission is a wonderful word! I think cancer changed how I approach writing, now with much less anxiety. But it didn’t change what I write, at least not in obvious ways at first. LOST LAKE was the first book I wrote after taking almost a year off from writing while in treatment, and it was a difficult book to write, getting back into the swing of things. I was adamant when I was writing it that it wasn’t going to be a book about cancer. But, almost without realizing it, it turned out to be a book about grief, about how characters come out on the other side of life-changing events. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write directly about cancer. It’s too real and too terrible, and I can’t make it good or magical.

BRC: You had a family history of breast cancer, which made you extremely vigilant about self-exams and getting mammograms, and that led to discovering your tumor. What advice do you offer to women about self-exams and screenings to ensure better health?

SAA: Be proactive, first and foremost. There’s a lot of information out there about when young women should get screened, but you are your own best advocate. Forge a good relationship with your physician and listen to your body. It’s so important to learn these things before you actually need to know them. There is no cure for breast cancer, so your best chance of survival is early detection.

BRC: We, along with your many readers, couldn’t be more pleased that you are in great health and out with a new novel. We wish you the best with this and all your future projects. Speaking of which, what can we look forward to next? Do you have any plans to come back to these characters again, perhaps to follow Bay and Josh’s budding romance?

SAA: Thank you for your well wishes! 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. I’m working on my next book now. It’s very early in the process, but it involves older sisters who haven’t talked to each other in 30 years, a young woman on her own for the first time in her life…and an invisible bird.