Singing on the page

Dorothy Allison emerges from a four-year bout of writer’s block with sage advice and plans for a new novel

Dorothy Allison’s early fiction is so good that literary lions eventually will stand together at publishing parties and ask, in the course of normal conversation, “So, where were you when you first read the novel Bastard out of Carolina?”

The most famous of Allison’s books, Bastard greatly expanded the genre of Southern literature. The story brims with mean, hardworking men and stoic, no-nonsense women from deeply poor rural communities. And like her other stories, it explores thorny social issues, including childhood sexual abuse, from the point of view of the survivor.

With its stripped-down Southern dialogue, Allison’s novel became a defining book of the 1990s. Bastard won a Lambda Literary Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992. The Boston Globe dubbed Allison “one of the finest writers of her generation,” while The New York Times Book Review referred to her as “a major talent.” For a while, Allison continued to publish short stories, essays and even a theatrical piece, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. But after her second novel, Cavedweller, was published in 1998, Allison retreated into an uncomfortable silence.

Allison said she concentrated on raising her son, Wolf—who now looks a little like Harry Potter—with her partner, Alix, on the Northern California coast. Invisible to most of her readers, Allison also taught regularly. But she’s rarely appeared before her Sacramento fans, until now.

A new writer’s conference, based on events like the popular workshops hosted by the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, will take place this week at California State University, Sacramento. Featuring workshops and lectures, the CSUS College of Continuing Education Writers’ Conference will provide a local forum for accomplished writers like Allison. On Friday, August 5, Allison will give the keynote address at a luncheon kicking off the workshop. She also will give a free reading to the public on Friday evening.

“Writing is, at its best, isolated, exhausting, overwhelming,” Allison said. “Conferences, where you come together with other writers, are pretty much where you maintain your sanity.”

As the keynote speaker, Allison said by phone that it will be her job to inspire writers and to get them excited about being, if only for a moment, part of a community. “Mostly, we work in little rooms alone with our radio on,” said Allison, “if we’re able to even have the radio on.”

It’s at conferences, Allison believes, that writers can push each other toward greater originality, countering the influence of all those folks trying to force them into previously crafted molds. When everyone around the table loves books and the “poetry of spoken language,” they can guide each other toward something fresh—like what Allison heard in her own Southern family’s voices and then reproduced on the page: “not psychology language, but the language of the Bible and heartbreaking western songs.”

“Being unexpected and unique, that’s kind of scary,” said Allison, “but it’s what you really want from writers.”

Allison is notably sentimental about good stories. She’s only discovered perhaps two or three great voices in the last decade, she said, but when she does hear them, she’s deeply moved. And contrary to type, they’re not always Southern, and they’re not always female. “There’s no predicting the voice that will just leap inside you and change your heart,” she said. “Their stories spark my stories.”

A lesbian activist, seductress, Southern cook and woman of various well-documented appetites, Allison herself became a taste that readers craved. But as she retreated from the literary fore after writing Cavedweller, her fans began to fidget. They started asking themselves, “Where the hell is Dorothy Allison now?”

Allison explained that she wrote steadily for four years on a novel she couldn’t finish. It began after she taught the children of the rich and accomplished during a stint at Stanford University.

“It’s hard not to hate people who are so blessed, if you come out of a family where no one is blessed,” Allison explained, “and at the same time, be awe-struck with admiration.”

So, said Allison, she started writing one of these young women, preparing a character portrait, trying to find out who she was. What followed was a story about three women, “one who is an anti-violence activist. Part of why she becomes such is that her daughter, who is in her early 20s, is assaulted in a parking lot in San Francisco.”

Though Allison originally started with a character sketch, “You know, I’m a writer,” she said, “and there has to be a story, so I put her in that parking garage. I had her get thrown off the third floor into the street. I put her in a coma for a year. I had her come back with no language and not even the ability to walk. … That made me love her deeply.”

Allison took a year to visit coma wards and interview doctors. “[It’s] that thing writers do,” said Allison, “to make sure that you’re not screwing up.” But after meeting families devastated by violence, Allison put the novel away. “And I just couldn’t write for a while,” she said. “The book seemed, to me, wrong—very sad, very angry, but wrong.”

In the next few years, Allison was not always writing, she said, but she was always trying to write. “I didn’t lose faith in what writing could do, but I lost faith in what I could do.

“I’ve got boxes and boxes of trying to write,” Allison said, “which I think every writer has. That’s like the compost heap. You’ve got to have it. It’s just that I’ve got two years of compost and nothing of use in that two years.”

While Allison read every book about writer’s block, depression and crisis—believing that September 11 contributed to her blocked imagination—she also developed sympathy, she said, for those writers who had appealed to her when they suffered writer’s block. “Really, the arrogance of being able to write is not really believing them about how helpless they were,” said Allison. “I believe them now.”

Allison said that one of the challenges of writing was to banish despair. In considering the current political climate and her son, who will be of draft age in a few years, Allison found herself thinking, “Oh my God. I was an anti-war activist when I was 19, and now I’m 55, and I have to do the whole thing again!”

In spite of her dry spell, and her despair over politics, Allison recently said what fans have been waiting to hear for years: Those voices that originally spoke to her are beginning to “sing on the page” again.

“I have two poems coming out next month in Hanging Loose, and a short story coming out in the next issue of Tin House,” said Allison.

Most significantly, Allison has returned to her boxed novel, and she’s so thrilled about it that sometimes, while writing, she has to stand up and walk around shaking her arms in excitement.

“God, I wish that for everyone,” she said. “It’s like the light in the air, the taste of the air has changed. The light in the room is brighter. Everything has a purpose and power because the person talking on the page has gotten it right.”

What got Allison writing again? She discovered a new character, a nun who suffered and triumphed over violence in her own life, and the story began to flow. “I am deeply grateful to the three women in this novel, suddenly letting me begin to write them again,” she said.

Allison thinks a lot about stories and who tells them. Sometimes, she said, people fall in love with “the romance of destruction” and tell themselves terrible stories about their inability to escape. “That was one of the romances in my family that I found really destructive.”

“If you tell yourself a heroic story,” said Allison, “or you make your version of your life heroic, it’s truly powerful.”

Musing over the people who inspire her, Allison said, “There’s a wonderful writer, Lillian Smith, and she used to say that the winner names the age. The survivor names the age. … Truth be told, writers name the age. We make it heroic, or we make it heartbreaking, but we give it a meaning.”

Allison called the coming CSUS writers’ conference “a giant circle in which we all sit down at the table. Literature becomes, literally, the table at which we pull up a chair.”

If you’d like a seat at the literary table for this event, the luncheon is set for 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, August 5, at the Alumni Center on campus. The event is open to the public, but Liz Hough, of the CSUS College of Continuing Education, recommends signing up ahead of time to secure a ticket. For more information about the conference, and about the free readings by conference instructors, including Allison, visit

And for those eagerly awaiting Allison’s next novel, she hopes to publish it in 2006. She understands, as well as her fans do, what it’s like to wait. “I haven’t had a book from Bobbie Ann Mason in a while, and here it is,” Allison said. “The Women’s Review of Books sent me the galleys, and I’m all excited. So, maybe I won’t be quite so withholding. I’ll get mine out faster—pay back Bobbie Ann.”