June 19, 2019

The Write Space – Sara Johnson Allen

by cns2020

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The Write Space is a monthly Q&A series from Creative Collective covering a local writer and a North Shore space(s) s/he associates with writing.  Questions? Contact: ellorelizabeth@gmail.com.

Give us your best writerly bio.

Photo Credit: Channing Johnson Photography

I was raised (mostly) in North Carolina. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College in 2005 and am now an Associate Professor of Communication at Endicott College in Beverly. When I am not grading papers or chasing after my 11, 9, and 5-year-old, I like to write about ‘place’ and how it shapes us.

My work focuses on how the present is inseparable from the past and the shifting nature of social class in America, especially in the changing South and blue-collar communities in New England. I always hope my work can give authentic voice to people not always represented in literary culture.

In 2018, I was awarded the Key West Literary Seminar’s Marianne Russo Award for Emerging Writers for a novel-in-progress, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship in Fall 2018, and a 2019 Elizabeth George Foundation artist’s grant. Most recently, I won the 2019 Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize. These honors have reminded me that while I am a good teacher and love my children fiercely, it is being a writer that is at the core of my identity.

I am also a co-founder of L’ATELIER Writers Workshop and Retreat, which welcomed its fifth annual community of writers in June 2019 in the Loire Valley in France. Many of our resident writers struggle to find time to write in their daily lives. Our program allows them to take the time they need to renew their focus on their writing and to put words on the page while also connecting with other writers.  

Tell us about a North Shore Write Space.

I mostly write at home, moving from spot to spot for no apparent reason. A writer friend recently diagnosed me as being a cat or at least working like one. I have a desk, but I tend to avoid it. I write in bed, on the couch, at the kitchen counter. Usually, I stay in one spot for a couple days then move to another one.

I do my best writing when I escape somewhere for a few days. I can increase my productivity if I am locked up somewhere with nothing to clean, no one to take care of, and nowhere to escape.

One of the best public spaces for writing in Ipswich is Zumis’ Espresso where the entire town converges. It’s a very energizing environment. I have also often worked in the Ipswich Public Library, which offers many different corners to hide away. Someday, I’d love to check out Gathr. I think working in public can help prevent writers from just folding laundry or Netflix bingeing to avoid the work. Not that I know anything about that.

When I’m in North Shore, not writing, I’m …

When I’m not working, I’m with my family. If at all possible, we are out at the beach (you’ll find us on the back side of Crane Beach or Sandy Point at the end of Plum Island), fishing for stripers (usually schoolies), biking around Ipswich, or on our way to eat ice cream at White Farms or Down River. We are also avid road trippers frequently driving to see family in Maine, Virginia, and North Carolina.

What are you working on now?

I was recently offered representation by a literary agent for my first novel WE MAKE THEM PAY. Although the contracts have not yet been signed and there is a long road ahead in moving the work into the world, this is a major step forward.

WE MAKE THEM PAY, which will hopefully find a home in the next year or so, is the story of three women who have lost connection with their children in different ways: through alienation, adoption, and across a militarized border. The women’s lives intersect in a “safe house” for migrant workers outside of Wilmington, North Carolina.  The three women, 24-year-old Kate Jessup, Kate’s con-artist mother Jackie, and Jackie’s business partner Maribel García Reyes, each have the power to help one of the other women find her children, but they do not trust each other.

WE MAKE THEM PAY looks at how different forms of privilege (white, wealth, citizenship) protect and elevate some people while drowning others. The novel also asks, who has the right to possess a place? Does it belong to those who are born to it or those who inhabit it?

This year, I also finished a working manuscript of a second novel that takes place in coastal Massachusetts. The story revolves around John Piper, a deli owner enraged by the building of a mansion on the banks of the river that is the lifeblood of his hometown. John convinces his sister-in-law, Theresa DuBois, an adjunct professor who has a background in eco-terrorism, to help him disrupt the construction. John and Theresa both want to stop the building of the mansion, but for different reasons.

And finally . . .

I’m a classic neurotic, superstitious writer, so I will share a story I published last year rather than an excerpt from one of my works-in-progress. I wrote “The Reader in the Square” after attending the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans. During that trip, a friend and I had tarot card readings in Jackson Square, which inspired this story.  You can read the full story at: The Reader In The Square

“I don’t read the future. The present has enough to say, and the past won’t shut up.

My father the estate lawyer and my mother the nurse practitioner did not pay St. Anne’s Parochial tuition for me to read tarot. When my friends graduated to Tulane and Boston College, I set up a folding table in Jackson Square by the cathedral. To my mother I say, “I live in the shadow of God. Isn’t that what you wanted?” When my father puts another brochure on my pillow for the B-school at the University of Louisiana, I shout through the wall, “It’s only Q2, Daddy, and I’m already 64% to my sales goals.”

I have more customers than anyone in the Square because rule #1: no phones.” 

Find out more at Sarajallen.com

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