Sarah Addison Allen, OTHER BIRDS: A Novel

Sarah Addison Allen, OTHER BIRDS: A Novel

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Sarah Addison Allen about Other Birds, a whimsical and poetic new novel about 18-year-old Zoey Hennessey, the South Carolina island apartment she inherits, and the quirky and enigmatic neighbors she meets. Sarah talks about the bestselling debut that launched her career and the earth-shattering events that interrupted it, from a sudden cancer diagnosis to the deaths of her mother and sister just a few days apart. She describes how grief and trauma impacted her life and her books and then touches on her daily routines, the books she is reading, her love of food, and her strategies for coping with anxiety.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Other Birds: A Novel.

Sarah Addison Allen: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here.

Zibby: I’m thrilled to have you. We were just commenting, listeners, that we both have color-coded bookshelves. It’s a very happy Zoom right now. All Zooms should look this festive and colorful. Sarah, let’s get the preliminary stuff out of the way. Can you please share what your book is about?

Sarah: Other Birds, it starts with a character named Zoey. She’s eighteen, almost nineteen. She’s out on her own for the first time. She travels to a small island off the coast of South Carolina called Mallow Island to take possession of an apartment her mother left her. It’s a very small complex, just five units. That’s where we meet all the characters. Zoey is the opening to the rest of the characters. She is the conduit in which all these closed-off people open up. In a larger sense, it’s a book about what we hold onto and the secrets we keep and the ghosts we have around us and how to let go of them.

Zibby: I feel like people are literally opening up their doors. The way you write is so visual. I felt like I was on the stage set of a play with the different doors opening and the birds and the office. Then the police come. It was just so visual and sensory, the way you write, that you’re literally there. I love that sense of place and the way you do that with your words.

Sarah: It’s my brain. It’s the way I daydream. It is sort of cinematic. I gravitate to pictures. When I’m asked, what were my favorite books as a child? I remember the picture books the most. Of course, I read a ton when I was a kid, but the ones I visualize are the picture books. In college, my senior thesis was on just because I read a short story of his in which he details a murder, but he does it in slides backwards as if it’s a movie going backwards. That stuck in my mind. I think it’s the way my brain works.

Zibby: Wow. It’s one thing to have your brain work that way, but it’s another to be able to effectively communicate it on the page with language. Sometimes stuff is in my head. Especially if I’m doing a design project or something, I’m like, I know I want it kind of like this, but I don’t know exactly how to say that.

Sarah: Gosh, all writers are like that. How do you take what you see so clearly in your head and put it into words to communicate it to readers? It’s a universal problem for writers.

Zibby: Writers are really just amazing translators, is really what it is.

Sarah: That’s right. We are a translator. I’d never thought about it that way.

Zibby: You have had such an interesting career. You launched with a debut New York Times best-selling novel. You’ve had books translated in so many languages. Talk about having that first big success and then what that did for you going forward and how you maintain that. Then I want to talk about the medical issues that came up and why you took a break and all of that.

Sarah: Garden Spells was my big break. I was an overnight success twelve years in the making. It took me a long, long time to get published. My dad was a writer. He’s retired. He was a journalist. He was a columnist. He wrote beautifully and poetically, but he went to a job every day. He actually went to a building and wrote. It was nine to five, and he came home. When I decided after college that I wanted to give this writing career a go, he did not understand. I had boomeranged back home and lived with my mom. I wrote as close to full time as I could possibly get. I did part-time jobs and seasonal jobs. Nothing was happening. I wrote literally dozens of manuscripts. He kept asking me, “When are you going to get a real job, Sarah?” Garden Spells was this huge surprise. I almost gave up writing. It was the book I came back to after I gave up for a while. When I was asked, what was the best part of being published? my answer was always, my dad has stopped asking me when I’m going to get a real job. It was an amazing time. It was a stressful time. It was a time fraught with anxiety because I was completely unprepared for what it looks like to be a working writer, what it was to promote your book.

I was miserable. It was the best time in my life, but I was miserable. I didn’t know how to handle it. I cried all the time. I overate. I gained a lot of weight. I had four best-selling books in a row. Bam, bam, bam. Then all of a sudden, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had stage-four breast cancer. Everything just stopped. My world just stopped. I went through treatment. My scans are clear. I’m in remission. When I came back to writing after taking some time off, I had an entirely new perspective of what it was like to walk to that precipice and look at the end of your world. What I saw was not a missed deadline. I learned how to take things in stride because, oh, my gosh, I know what’s worse. I wrote two other books and then took another long part off when my mom got sick and came back with Other Birds. Losing my mom was another whole new perspective. Each point in my life, every dark, blue point in my life has taught me something not only about myself, but about how to approach writing.

Zibby: Didn’t you also lose your sister?

Sarah: I did. I lost my mom and sister within days of each other.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Sarah: Thank you. It was a tough time. I couldn’t write my way through it. I had to take the time off. I couldn’t focus at all.

Zibby: Can you talk about how they passed away?

Sarah: Sure. I had actually started Other Birds. Then my mom had a massive brain hemorrhage. It left her profoundly brain damaged. I watched her die for four years. I fell into an incredible depression. It was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I had lost her, but she was still here. I was so very close to my mom. She was my best friend. When I moved out, I actually moved next door. I lived next door to her forever. Losing her on that emotional level was tough. She was getting to the end of her life. She was in hospice. Then my sister died suddenly. I was the one who found my sister. I remember no one could find her. She had collapsed in the yard. Here I am giving her CPR. She passes away. Then Mom passes away. Then there are two funerals in six days. There was a lot of trauma. There was a lot of things to work through. I could not write through it. I couldn’t journal. I just had to stop. Grief is like this huge boulder that sits on your shoulder or your back. It’s so heavy you can hardly move. You think that your life is going to be that for the rest of your life. I thought for a while, I just don’t know if I can write ever again if it’s going to feel this bad forever. Eventually, when happens with grief is that it gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s a pebble about the size of your hand. Then you close your hand, put your hand in your pocket, and you leave the pebble there. You walk around with that pebble for the rest of your life. You still feel it, but it’s no longer that way. You always know it’s there. Once I got to that point, I could get back into Other Birds. I finished it. It had a whole new dimension to it because it deals with mothers. It deals with ghosts and people who have passed on. That’s what brought me to this place, a lot of dark, but that dark magnifies the light. With perspective, the light is so bright you can hardly stand it.

Zibby: See, I think it’s so amazing that you can go through all of that, which is so awful, and I’m so sorry, and yet still go on your website wearing a huge sweater that says, “Happy.” You have to really make that a choice. That is an active choice that you have to recommit to over and over again to say, I am going to still have a happy life when so many who I love are not here anymore. That’s hard.

Sarah: That’s exactly right. You know. I’ve read Bookends. I know that you know what grief feels like. You know that it’s a process you have to go through to get to the other side. One of the most important things I learned is that you can still grieve and still feel blessed. You can miss someone and still celebrate a good thing. They can coexist.

Zibby: What were you doing? Who was taking care of you? How did you get through that? What did you do to get through it?

Sarah: I shut down, actually. I have a very close group of friends. I have my dad. I have my niece. I’ve got my family and my friends. I found out very quickly, something I didn’t know about myself was that I’m not a fight or flight; I’m a freeze. I just shut down. I did what I needed to do. After three hours in a day of intense doing stuff or caring for my mom or doing paperwork, I had to sit down and zone out. I could not think about how hard and heavy things were. Of course, therapy came in very handy during this time. It was just a process we have to get through. One of the things we get bogged down in when we’re going through something hard is we think it’s never going to end. That desolation, that sense of despair can sometimes be so hard to get out of. I have learned through several waves of dark times, give it time. They don’t last forever. Hope is so important. I try to end every book I’ve written on a sense of hope. You did the same with Bookends. My heart swelled with that. Hope, hope, we need hope.

Zibby: Thank you for reading Bookends. In Other Birds, the loss of the mother is a paramount feature, and reinhabiting a sacred space from the past. Then in the beginning, there’s a death right away. You’re in it. You’re just marinating in it, so to speak. Did you go back and write that? Was that the way it was? How did you map your life onto your fiction?

Sarah: I’m such a pantser when it comes to writing. I have an idea. Always, always, I know where it’s going to be set. That’s paramount. I always have to know that. The setting almost has to be a character itself. Then I build the characters out of that. Opening up the story, in the very first chapter, the very mean hoarder dies when a bookcase falls on her. Every book lover’s worst nightmare, oh, my gosh. They get so many books. They’re going to fall on them. I realized early on when I was first writing Other Birds, that character had to die in order for the rest of the characters to come together, but she didn’t go away. She comes back in the sense of a ghost. There are several ghosts in the story. We get points of view from the ghosts. It’s part of the magical realism parts that run through the book. We still get to know her after she dies.

Zibby: When you are in a free-flowing, things are going well type of writing mode, what does that type of day look like for you? On a good day. You rebound from this horrific period of trauma. Now you’re sitting down at your desk writing. Paint a picture of it for me. Are you all nicely dressed and made up like you are now? Where are you? What does this whole thing look like?

Sarah: It is full of a lot of angst. It’s constantly fighting the urge to get up and do something that I don’t really have to do, like laundry. It is making myself sit down and write. When I was away from writing, I missed it. When I’m back in writing, it’s like, oh, my gosh, I really missed this. I missed how frustrating it is. Writing is hard for me. It’s hard to make something beautiful. I’ve said this a lot over the past couple of months, and it’s true. I am not a great writer, but I am a really great rewriter. The painful part is getting words, even if they suck, onto the page. Then you can edit them. Then you can rewrite. Then you can put the magic. Then you can find that right word. You can find that beautiful way of describing something. The first draft is always ugly. It’s painful. It’s just making myself do it. I have a home office. This is where I work. I treat it as a nine-to-five job now. When I was younger, I wrote well into the night. I was such a night owl. Treating it as a job was a big sign of, I’m an adult now. Look at me. I’m writing during the day. This is what it looks like for me. It’s a job. My commute is from upstairs to downstairs, which saves on gas. It’s a painful process, but I can’t not do it. It is so much a part of who I am that even if I wasn’t published, I would still be writing something.

Zibby: Wow. What about reading? How does reading fit into your life now and always?

Sarah: My reading habits changed a lot once I became published. The interesting thing about when you’re now being asked to read books before they’re published for blurbs and things like that, it has opened up this entirely new world of books I never would have read otherwise. That’s been a joy. I can’t read while I’m writing. I have to write the book. I have to be in it because sometimes other writers’ voices will get in my head. I’ll find my syntax changing a little from a book that’s really affected me or I’ve really liked. I go on binges after I finish writing. Let’s see. The last book I read was Myra Malone’s Minuscule Mansion, which comes out in January. It’s a little magical realism kind of book. I enjoyed that. I saw Kevin Wilson’s new book came out. I downloaded it. I haven’t read it yet. I really enjoyed his Nothing to See Here. It’s all over the place. I don’t sit down with a stack of books and read like I used to. I have to find time to do it, which I think is another adult thing. Sometimes being an adult is fun, but sometimes it’s just, I don’t like it. I want to go back to the time where I can just be in a nook with a flashlight and read like I did when I was a kid.

Zibby: One of my kids the other night, who’s very young, was saying how much they did not want to be a grown-up. Literally, there were tears involved. All the responsibilities and all of this. What if this? What if that? It was so sad. I was like, “No, being a grown-up can be nice. Not all the parts. There’s a lot of pain, but there’s a lot of joy.”

Sarah: I like the little saying, no, don’t grow up. It’s a trap. It’s a trap. Don’t do it. Don’t grow up.

Zibby: It’s so true. Tell me about the differences with your fiction from the before and after from your own health scare. Not even scare. Your health challenge. How did you find out about your cancer? Then in the whole craziness of the writing career, how did you just slam on the brakes? What was that like when everything must have been just swirling and going around you?

Sarah: It was traumatic. It was out of the blue. I was thirty-nine. I actually had a break in my schedule between my third and — I had just finished my fourth book. I was set to go on tour with it. I was going to sign a new contract for a new book. I had a chunk of time in which I had scheduled my dentist appointment. I needed new glasses. I thought, I’m not going to have much time next year, so let’s go ahead and schedule a mammogram. Lo and behold, I had a four-inch tumor that was so deep in the tissue I couldn’t feel it. It had spread to my lymph nodes and my lungs. I had no clue. No clue. Here I am, thirty-nine faced with this while survival statistics are, am I going to live to forty? What’s going to happen? My world stopped. It was the worst thing that’s ever happened up until that point, but it also took me to a place in which after treatment, after it was all done, I was in a much better place. I wouldn’t have gotten to that place had cancer not happened. I am not to the point where I can thank cancer for anything, but had I not gone through that journey, had I not learned what I learned, if life had not made me stop, I believe I would still be as miserable as I was before it happened.

It taught me a lot. It brought me to a better and brighter place, but I wish I had learned it another way. The universe was saying to me, hey, Sarah. It was probably trying to tell me that all along. It was like, bam. I needed something big to teach me some lessons. Unfortunately, I had to learn it that way. After treatment and after I got back into writing, I was determined. I got the question a lot, are you going to put cancer into your books? Are you going to write about your experience? My answer was always no because I write magical things. I write about happy endings. I couldn’t make cancer good and magical. Lo and behold, when I finished this book, my first book after cancer was Lost Lake. What it was about was a character who had lost her husband. She was coming out of this deep, dark place in her life, but she was finding something bright on the other side. In a way, I ended up writing about cancer. I didn’t want to do it, but I wrote about a character who went through something similar.

Zibby: You’ve been talking a lot about the misery that came with the success, which I find very interesting because everybody assumes that success brings mostly joy. Was the sadness underneath something you had wrestled with forever no matter what? Is this just your baseline, or was it something about the success that triggered something new in you?

Sarah: I think I am an anxious creature in general. I’m not a shy person, but I’m an introverted person. I keep my world very small deliberately because that’s how I manage it. I don’t like when I have a lot of things going around me. I don’t like when I have a lot of things to do. Writing was a natural fit to me because I could be in my head where all the sparkles were. That’s where I lived. After Garden Spells was published and after the success of that book, having to travel and having to speak in public and the intense pressure I felt to continue that, to write a book that people would like as much, I was miserable. It wasn’t the success. It wasn’t the attention. It wasn’t the fact that something good had happened to me. It was my inability to deal with it because I had never had to deal with it before. I’d become used to it. I understand how to deal with those kind of pressures being an anxious introvert, but back then, I didn’t because it happened so quickly. My goal was to be a working writer. It was to have a book published. Maybe a few people would read it. It would be good enough that I could keep doing it. I didn’t foresee that it would blow up the way it did. It was trial by fire. I learned a lot about how to manage my anxiety just from that.

Zibby: Let’s say there’s another author out there or they’re about to have a book come out and they do have that temperament, which so many authors do have, is there any advice for getting through that? Is it just, you figure it out on your own? What would you say to someone who’s in your shoes now?

Sarah: Oh, wow. It’s what I would say to myself, but I wouldn’t have listened to myself. Take time to enjoy the good. Take a step back and look. Put it in perspective. Also, don’t think that you have to give so much of yourself, that you have to pretend to be this extroverted, outgoing person. Because they liked your book, you want them to like you too. Just don’t try to pretend to be someone else. Don’t try to pretend that you’re not scared to travel if you’re scared to travel. If you have nerves in public speaking, oh, my gosh, tell people that in your audience. They will understand. We are so connected as human beings that we all get it. Even if you’re talking to an extrovert, they get it. Go easy on yourself. Honestly, what I’ve found with everything, it just takes time.

Zibby: From the deep to the detailed. You mentioned in the little write-up when we were booking this session that you have a Golden Grahams obsession. I want to hear about all the food stuff in your life because this is great.

Sarah: I’m a big foodie. I’m a big eater. I don’t have a very sophisticated palate, but I have always, from the time I was a child, equated food with love. I’ve been an emotional eater all my life. This Golden Grahams thing, I don’t know what it is. For the past year, I have just devoured them. I don’t put them in a bowl and eat them with a spoon and milk. They will sit there on the counter. I will graze on it all day. Then I will blame people for eating them when the box is gone when it’s all my fault. I love food. Food shows up in all my books. It’s so closely connected to my mom. Food is love. It’s an extension of affection when someone gives you food. I also like the magical aspects of food. Like Water for Chocolate explores that.

Zibby: Yes, love that book.

Sarah: It’s in all my books as well because it’s so much a part of who I am. When my mom got sick, I lost an incredible amount of weight very quickly, which is the only time in my life I have ever not eaten through something horrible. That was my huge clue that my eating was so closely tied to my mom. All these years after my mom — my mom and sister died three years ago. I’ve kept the weight off. It’s because my whole habit changed because of going through those years and coming out from that. I graze a lot, but I don’t overeat. Sugar is my big downfall. I have to resist that, especially when you’re writing and you find something’s just not working. It’s that urge to go get a candy bar or something sweet because your brain zings. It opens up and makes you happy. It makes you want to write something happy. I have to resist that. Food has been a big part of my life all my life.

Zibby: Me too. I’ve realized that the only time I don’t eat is if I’m really, really scared. It’s not grief. It’s not stress. It’s only fear, I feel like, that will stop me.

Sarah: Now that’s interesting. I had never thought about that. Fear, I wonder if it’s something deep-seated, primordial that we can’t eat if we’re on alert. It’ll be a distraction. I wonder if that’s it. That’s an incredible observation. I’d never thought about that. Wow.

Zibby: If you could get your mom’s dish, something she made you, today, is there one thing you would be like, oh, I would love to just have one more bite of this?

Sarah: I am a horrible cook, so I don’t cook. She didn’t write anything down. I don’t have any of her recipes. Her potato salad, oh, my gosh, I wish I had her recipe for potato salad. She made an excellent potato salad. I wish I had that. She made something called a Russian vegetable pie that I miss. It was an extension of, I love you, so here, eat. She was like that all my life. I miss that about her. She would stop by on her way out or on her way home, and she would just drop off food. Sometimes I’d be gone. There’d be food on my doorstep. She was like a little food fairy. It was her way of showing love to not just me, but to everyone. It was classic Southern food-pusher. Here, you eat.

Zibby: What is coming next for you after Other Birds? What’s next?

Sarah: I’m working on my new book right now. It is set in North Carolina. All my books have all the different genres. There’s romance and magical realism and Southern fiction and foodie lit all mashed up. This one’s no different. It’s set in Central North Carolina during the rainiest season on record. There are lots of buried secrets that are uncovered in the mud. I’m having some fun just finding my way through the book, through the mud, as it were. As difficult as writing is, it feels good to be back into the sense of normalcy. I am glad to be writing again.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. What’s your plan today after we get off this podcast? What are you going to do?

Sarah: I have to go to the grocery store for a Christmas party. I’ve got to get stuff for a Christmas party. I’ve got to go feed my cats. My niece is coming home for Christmas, so I’m very excited about that. Just boring stuff. What about you? What does your day look like? You have, probably, much more interesting stuff happening today.

Zibby: Lots of meetings. Lots of podcasts. I have four podcasts today. My team is downstairs today. They come in a couple days a week. My son does jiu-jitsu today. My daughter has a playdate. All of that stuff, craziness, school pick-ups and all of that, life.

Sarah: It’s interesting. Reading your book — I don’t thrive in a lot of things going on, but you do, don’t you? It’s this idea of, having a lot going on is where you find your zone. Is that true?

Zibby: That is true, yes. I know. It’s weird.

Sarah: I think it’s fascinating and wonderful.

Zibby: Thank you. I think you’re right. I like having a lot of stuff going on. That makes me happy. Anytime I feel like, okay, I have things under control, then I add something new. I’m like, I can manage everything on my plate. Time to open a bookstore. Let’s do it. I like to be overwhelmed. You could read into that how you will. It was so nice chatting with you, Sarah. I really appreciate you letting me into your interior life and letting me pry a little bit. It’s been a joy just to see you and to be somebody watching someone else’s beautiful shelves in the back. It’s so nice.

Sarah: I know. It’s perfect.

Zibby: I hope you have fun at the grocery. Stock up on your Golden Grahams. Have a really wonderful holiday season.

Sarah: Thank you, Zibby. I’ve had a blast. Thank you.

Zibby: Me too. You take care.

Sarah: You too. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sarah Addison Allen, OTHER BIRDS: A Novel

OTHER BIRDS: A Novel by Sarah Addison Allen

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