Saturday, March 22, 2014

Author Sarah Addison Allen Is Back


By Myra Schoen

Published in Black Mountain News: March 20, 2014

     You’ll discover 100 fascinating and whimsical things about The New York Times bestselling author Sarah Addison Allen on her website. Author of the recently published magical romance, Lost Lake, Allen in person is as “Light, sweet and sparkly,” as her latest novel was described in a recent review.

     For instance, Allen, who grew up and lives in Asheville, wrote her first novel at 16, “just to prove I could.” While she promises that that novel will “never see the light of day,” her next work, Tried and True, was published as a Harlequin romance under the pen name of Katie Gallagher.

     Since then, Allen has written a half-dozen bestsellers, including her latest, Lost Lake, a romance about a grieving young widow rediscovering love, an 8-year-old girl with a zest for life, and an elderly woman seeking her last great adventure. Their lives intersect at a collection of lakeside vacation cabins in hot and steamy Georgia, where magic spins dreams into reality.  

     More than anything, Allen writes about hope. “That is first and foremost in my mind, what I want readers to experience in my stories,” she said.

     Writing Lost Lake was a special challenge for Allen.

     “I had been diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2011, and it was a dark time,” Allen said. “Cancer is too hard, too mean to write about. You have a base fear of death, of failure. It’s hard to describe the journey, but it changed me. After completing a round of chemotherapy later that year, I didn’t know if I would get back to writing and touring. I couldn’t control the disease, but I knew I had to let go of the fear, and embrace hope.”

About two or three months after treatment, still in a fog, with “chemo brain,” Allen found it hard to focus.

“I thought I’d lost it,” she said. “Lost Lake was a hard book to write. I was determined not to write about cancer. Instead I wrote about grief. We take a journey of grief and come out on the other side of it, and life is still there waiting for us to live it.”

It took Allen a year and a half to complete Lost Lake. “By the time I finished, I felt whole. It taught me a lot. I could write a book after something traumatic. It didn’t have to be an anxiety-ridden process. Lost Lake helped me heal.”

Inspiration for her novels, Allen said, comes initially from a setting. “It can be the name of a town, the atmosphere, a sense of place. The place is the cornerstone for everything else. For Lost Lake, it was an image of Spanish moss, a wet swampy place.”

While Kate Pheris, the central character, was the first to inhabit the novel, Allen likes to introduce elderly characters into her stories. “I love them. They’ve had life experiences, and have a lot to offer the younger characters. They provide the moral compass.”

The Lost Lake resort may be fading and run-down, but its elderly owner, Eby Pim, is as young at heart and dream-filled as Devin, Kate’s young daughter. 

Allen earned a B.A. in Literature at University of North Carolina at Asheville. She thought it “…amazing that I could get a diploma just for reading fiction. It was like being able to major in eating chocolate.”

A shy and daydreaming child, Allen’s desire to write comes from a lifetime of reading. “The books we read in childhood influence our imagination even into adulthood.”  Her literary heroes include her Zack Allen, her father and a retired award-winning reporter and columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, Fred Chappell, Alice Hoffman, and Harper Lee, and others in the genre of magical realism touched by romance.

     What’s next for Sarah Addison Allen?

     “Fans have been asking for a sequel to Garden Spells, published in 2007, for the past seven years,” she said. “That’s what comes next….”

     And after that…certainly another compelling story spun with romance, mystery, and unforgettable characters.

Other books by Sarah Addison Allen include: Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, The Peach Keeper, Tried and True.



When Zen Becomes You


By Myra Schoen

Published in Black Mountain News – March 19, 2014

My mother’s memory was mostly gone. She remembered my sister and me, but not her grandchildren. She talked about visiting her long-gone parents. She imagined boarding a bus in Brooklyn to see them, although she’d lived in Florida for thirty-odd years, long after their passing.

Sometimes, in her mind, she prepared dinners for her older sister Lily or her twin brother David and their families, as she had in the past. Her caregivers told me, “Your mother’s been baking an apple pie this morning.” And they’d smile, watching her knead the imaginary dough.

When I visited, she’d often say, “Let’s go upstairs and see your father.” She lived in a skilled-care unit with 18 semi-private rooms. Her roommate was a woman left voiceless and immobilized by Parkinson’s. There was no upstairs.

My mother and I had had a rocky relationship from my childhood through my teens and twenties. She was critical, cold, and always angry. In those years, Father worked late. Often, he arrived home after we were all asleep. Our only shared family time was on weekends.

Mother suspected he had another, more exciting life, apart from her. Still, he was the center of her life. And when he was home, she doted on him. My sister and I adored him, too. He embraced us in warmth, lightness, and fun, dusting away Mother’s drabness and depression.     

The pattern of their marriage changed when Mother was diagnosed with cancer in her sixties, soon complicated by the onset of heart disease, macular degeneration, and dementia. To our surprise, Father became the devoted, loving husband and caregiver Mother had always desired.  

Several years later, after a severe fall left Mother with a multi-fractured leg and seizures, her daily care needs escalated. My sister found Mother the small skilled nursing unit within a larger senior “independent living” community with an excellent reputation. With good humor and grace, Father moved into a studio apartment there, to be near her.

While Mother was hand-fed by an aide in her unit’s dining room, Father prepared his own small meals in his tiny kitchen, foregoing the small talk of the elderly residents in the “independents” dining room with its perimeter of parked walkers and wheelchairs.

Once a week, I drove Father to the stores he liked, to stock up on the next week’s groceries. Ever prudent, he never bought more than one week at a time.

Mother’s attention, as always, was focused on my father. If dementia left her any sense of time, I’d bet it was measuring the hours until his afternoon visits. Whether it was the stability of their routine or something else, my mother’s anger and bitterness peeled away. Instead, a new sweetness emerged, something I took to be her true essential self that had been buried by years of emotional scarring.

     Then one night, while the world was asleep, Father got out of bed, and alone in his room, died, abruptly, suddenly. Why and how? We had no answers. My sister and I were stunned and heartsick. And we didn’t know how to tell Mother. How would she react? Would she be hysterical? Would she have another heart attack? Would she even understand?

     At first, we decided not to tell her. She was so frail in body and mind. We held the small, simple memorial service without her. As it turned out, when we finally did tell Mother, she couldn’t get her mind around it.

“What? A heart attack?” she asked. “Is he sick? Where is he?” But not the emotion, grief, tears, or hysteria we feared. After some silence, she’d ask again, “Where’s Daddy?” as if for the first time. Over and over, day after day, hour after hour, we had to remind her that he was gone.

Our visits were in a small reception area, just outside the unit director’s office. One day, the director, who couldn’t avoid hearing our conversations, took me aside. “Stop telling your mother that your father has passed. Every time she hears that, it’s a fresh assault.”

It was hard to lie, at first. But it became easier when Mother asked, as she often did, “to go upstairs and see your father,” for me to answer:  “Daddy is taking a nap,” or “Daddy is at the store,” or “Daddy is at work.” Lies, though they were, brought peace, a semblance of order in her universe.

Sometimes, if a manly figure passed by, she would visibly brighten up. Through her eyes grown dark with macular degeneration, she would see the shadowy figure as her husband, come to sit by her side and talk gently with her about their families, their memories, the life they had together.    

On a day that my son came to visit with me, she said, after he’d left, “That young man has a nice nature. He’s very friendly.” I was touched by the sweetness of her perception, even if she didn’t know he was her grandson.

Once, from the midst of her dementia-fragmented mind, she made a Zen-like proclamation, which I like to attribute as rising from her long-suppressed essence: “Not everything comes. One thing comes. Another doesn’t come.”

Isn’t that just like life?


Sunday, February 16, 2014