Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Sara Johnson Allen
by Leigh Camacho Rourks Read the Story June 18, 2018
The first thing I noticed about your piece is the strong sense of voice, a voice that captured me immediately, so I felt I knew her after just a few sentences. This made me wonder, for you, does the character come first or the story idea?
Character 4-eva. I don’t think about story much at all, which is why my work then needs a long revision period to make the structure and pacing work. This piece was slightly different, though, in that more than other things I have written, it was inspired by a real experience. In March, I had a tarot card reading during the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans. I was with another writer, and like writers do, afterward we started trying to construct the story of the woman who did our reading. I was so fascinated by what those readers in Jackson Square must see and hear that I wrote my first draft on the plane ride back to Boston.
I love the ways that the piece examines the feminine, especially the way it ultimately rejects a view of femininity as being beyond rage and violence. Your narrator reminded me of Hurston’s women, their ferocious negotiations of gender. Are there any writers who influenced this aspect of your writing, or who you, as a reader, turn to for these sorts of characters?
Now that I think about it, there is a lot of rage and violence in many of my female characters. Even if it’s sort of subdued, it’s there under the surface. Certainly an early influence for me was Flannery O’Connor, so the darkness of human nature was something I was drawn to even as a young reader. When I think about my reading list this year, there were a lot of strong female characters who challenged social norms: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.
What I read that stayed with me this most this year was Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women, which has powerful female characters in the most dehumanizing of circumstances rising up against the worst kind of oppression.
So maybe my mind has been on women who have had enough. And in general, I love a good revenge story.
History and place and character are fully entangled in this piece, which is all the more interesting because of the short space that flash gives us to establish all three. What about the genre made it so perfect for this exploration?
I am forever obsessed with place. I moved around a fair amount as a kid, and it seems to me “place” has an incredible kind of power over us. I’ve been to New Orleans a handful of times over the years, and when I returned this March, I found it unchanged. I’m sure this is because I was largely in the tourist areas, but still I thought about how New Orleans seems to me to be one of those places where history and place cannot be untangled, even though massive changes have come through: the rise and fall of governments, Hurricane Katrina, digital culture.
As far as the form of flash fiction goes, I have spent the last few years wrestling with a novel that is finally finished (is it, though?). This was the first short piece I have written in years. I had forgotten that creative constraints like limited word count can make it an alluring challenge to see how many different levels one can pull off in a tiny space.
I find the way the piece avoids the future but ends with a drive toward it in a way that is really lovely. What is your relationship with the future?
As a concept, I am in love with the future. The possibility. The things you can create and build that you don’t have now, but you could have, maybe. But this kind of love for what hasn’t happened yet wrecks the present. I have these three small people in my house who live purely in the present, and it’s a stunning challenge for me.
In real life, I am terrified by the future. I am still cowering in a corner wanting to watch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu but way too scared. I, like many other people, can’t make sense of what’s happening in our country, in our schools, relationships, and workplaces … except through writing. I guess that’s how I am trying to make sense of it.
Since this is a Louisiana piece, and I am a Louisiana girl, I have to ask—what’s your favorite Louisiana food?
This is a cruel question, so I hope I may reserve the right to answer by course. I will choose a cup of gumbo for an appetizer, shrimp and grits for a main dish, and beignets for dessert … no, pralines … no, beignets.
About the Author:
Sara Johnson Allen was raised (mostly) in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her MFA from Emerson College in 2005. Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate, Redivider, The Bangalore Review and was submitted to Best New American Voices. She was recently awarded the 2018 Marianne Russo Award for Emerging Writers by the Key West Literary Seminar for her novel-in-progress, We Make Them Pay.
About the Interviewer:
Leigh Camacho Rourks is a Cuban-American author and professor. She is the recipient of the St. Lawrence Press Award, the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize, and her work has been shortlisted for several other awards. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, December Magazine, and Greensboro Review. Her collection of short stories, Moon Trees and Other Orphans, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (Sept. 2019).
About the Artist:
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