Honest Fictions with Allison Alsup

More than 30 years ago, then-creative writing MFA student Allison Alsup took her first trip to New Orleans on a whim to escape an East Coast blizzard. Since then, she’s published short stories, won some illustrious prizes (such as the O’Henry Prize for Short Fiction), co-authored a bar book about the French Quarter (The French Quarter Drinking Companion with Elizabeth Pearce and Richard Read), taught at the university level, and co-founded the New Orleans Writers Workshop. This June, she checked a long-awaited goal off her list: publishing her debut novel. Foreign Seed is a historical fiction retelling of the 1918 search for a botanical explorer, Frank Meyer (who brought the so-called Meyer lemon to the United States from China) after the explorer disappeared from a steamship on the Yangtze River. Foreign Seed is at once a story about precarious expeditions and emotional reckoning, told from the perspective of American Vice-Consul Samuel Sokobin, the man entrusted to find the missing Meyer. I sat down with Alsup to get more perspective on the risks and rewards of venturing into unknown territory, including how she fell in love with New Orleans, and her advice to newer writers who may be wondering if they’re up to the task.

It’s been three decades—I think it’s to the month—that you got your MFA.
It is. To the month.

You’ve had a varied writing career in that time. You’ve done a lot of things—food writing, teaching, editing, and what else?
I used to do food writing. I’ve done house renovations, I’ve taught at the university level, I’ve done listicles and food blogs. I co-authored a bar book about the French Quarter. But throughout all of that, the real passion has always been literary fiction.

So when you graduated with your MFA, that was the goal.
It’s always been the goal. In real life, you need to fall in love, get married, get divorced, do other things, make a living. All of those things have a way of popping up. And so there just reached a certain point where I felt I needed to concentrate more on the literary fiction because it was a dream, it never went away. It was not a passing fancy.

In terms of this particular novel, can you talk a little bit about how you found Frank Meyer as a subject and why he was so interesting to you?
I was doing research for other writing, and I came across some photographs that Meyer had taken [of the Chinese countryside]. I became fascinated to learn that he had been a botanical explorer employed by the American government. This is the guy who brought us the Meyer lemon. And that this was actually a job that you go and search out plants for agricultural cultivation in the United States—it had never occurred to me. It was very clear he had a wanderlust. So Meyer drew me in that way. His very ambition, drive, and extremism drew me. And then the more I read and learned about Meyer, it became very clear that there was a disturbing underbelly to this drive. Like many extreme people, it’s not necessarily something that they control. It’s something that they’re often controlled by.

Did his compulsion speak to you? Did you see that through the lens of your writing and art, and did it help you work through your own compulsion, your own dark clouds?
Absolutely. I don’t know that I saw it in terms of my own dark clouds, but I definitely saw it in terms of the idea of drive, what you might have to sacrifice in order to achieve a dream. And then when you do, you may assess that cost down the line much more differently than you would before it came to pass. What became interesting for me in the book is that Sokobin, the American vice-consul who is in charge of this investigation, has exactly the same reckoning with his own life. Ultimately, I think the book is more about [Sokobin’s] reckoning than Meyer himself.

I really wanted to talk to you about something I’ve heard you mention—you had written a completely different version of this novel.
Correct. Alas!

What was it that didn’t work? And how did you know that it wasn’t working?
Yes, it’s tough when you have to realize you’re not a natural born genius and you have to learn stuff the hard way just like everyone else, right? Damn. [laughs] How did I know it didn’t work? Because A: I knew in my head, I don’t have the essential things that I’m chronically telling my students and the people that I work with. And then B: I knew quite clearly because my agent said, “This isn’t gonna work!” So what happened—and again, it’s almost embarrassing to say this—I’m sitting on the couch, watching Netflix, watching probably my 800th British murder mystery. I’m not even one minute into the show and a lightbulb moment goes off. And I say, Allison, this story begins not when Meyer’s on the page, but when Meyer goes missing. This is where the story starts.

Saved by a British murder mystery.
Saved by Netflix. Absolutely. So it doesn’t surprise me that a little bit of that British murder mystery vibe enters into the book. I was going to have to go back to page one, and rewrite an entirely different novel, and the main character was probably not going to be Meyer, but our detective-like figure, which is the American vice-consul who’s sent upriver to find Meyer, Samuel Sokobin. And therefore, I needed to focus my attention on who is Samuel Sokobin and specifically, why is it that this case matters to him? How is it going to touch him, trigger him, affect him personally?

This book has such a deeply personal angle that I think there are moments where you forget about the fact that this is happening in the early 20th century in China. But I do want to ask about your research process, and how you really immersed yourself in this era and this place.
I just thrill at the idea of historical fiction. It’s part of why I love New Orleans. We live in a town that is basically like historical fiction: a transportive, immersive setting that is very much in touch with its history. Historical fiction really has two things that it needs to do, which seem at odds. It needs to… take us to a different place, give us the specificity of that time, of that setting. At the same token, historical fiction cannot just emphasize or underscore what is different. It needs to remind us of what is universal and still applies to the human experience. In terms of the research, I did a lot. I got my hands on anything online, but also an out-of-print biography of [Meyer]. I went to the National Agricultural Library outside of Washington DC and then I went to the National Archives. It was a tremendously inspiring experience, and it’s something that belongs to every American citizen. It had the highest security of any place I’ve ever been, including an airport. But there I was able to hold primary documents [including] the original report that Samuel Sokobin wrote. I was able to tap into those facts as… a skeleton of the plot line of this book.

It sounds like the plot line is pretty true to reality.
As true to it as I possibly could make it. There’s very little in terms of investigation that’s made up. Of course, a seven-page summarized report is not the kind of dramatic action that you need for a novel. So you have to tap into those details and create scenes which you wouldn’t get in the original report.

You picked an era, a time we have no connection to and you’ve created it in the world of the story. I’m still thinking about the research you must have done.
I think photographs were really, really useful. I combed those photographs for any kind of detail. Of course, they’re only in black and white from that era. So I had to kind of fill that in. [Another thing that was] helpful from having read Meyer’s letters was the idea of heat and humidity. I thought, OK Allison, you might actually have a connection to this one. There’s a big river. It’s a humid environment. It gets really hot in the summer. This river sometimes floods. It has blue, brown water that’s used for shipping and navigation. It’s kind of filthy. It’s very familiar, right? I think you got this one. So anytime that I really needed to tap into that physical setting, I just thought of New Orleans.

You definitely captured the sweatiness. Which is really important because throughout the whole novel, Sokobin is hot and uncomfortable. He’s always wearing the wrong clothes.
He’s a little bit uncomfortable.

I mean, he’s a lot uncomfortable. But in many different ways.
You have to, unfortunately, make your characters sweat. Literally and figuratively.

And the smoking. He feels compelled to smoke all the time, even though he doesn’t seem to enjoy it.
Yes, we don’t always make the choices that are the best for us.

I love what you wrote in the book’s afterword. This idea of “ambiguous loss”—it’s a perfect way to describe some of the themes in Foreign Seed. Was that an idea you had in the beginning stages of writing or something you read into it later?
If only I had known that term, would I begin this book? I was heavily into the writing of this novel without still being able to articulate what was at the core of it. I’m driving down Carrollton Avenue, and I’m listening to NPR. They are talking about Dr. Pauline Voss, who did not invent but popularized the term ambiguous loss, which means that one does not necessarily have closure or resolution or answers to something significant that has happened. We like to believe that if we just want it or we work hard enough, we will find answers to some of the biggest things that happen to us in life and that can unhinge or upset us. What do we do if closure—if resolution—is not an option? I pulled over to the side of the road and just sat listening to the rest of this interview. And again, it was a lightbulb moment. This is what is at the core of Samuel Sokobin: You live long enough on this planet, life will throw you something for which you will crave more answers than you ever will get.

You followed your instincts and found the way to articulate them and explain them as you went along.
Yes, but was it ugly and desperate there for a little bit? Yes.

Well, it doesn’t show in the final piece.
Thank you. I appreciate it. It also was perhaps the idea of ambiguous loss being a little bit counterintuitive. I wouldn’t qualify my book as a mystery. It’s literary fiction that contains a mystery. And the idea of ambiguous loss is probably pretty counterintuitive to most mysteries, which are about discovering clues. But I think the human experience is a little bit messier and thornier than that.

I want to talk about your role as editor and teacher in addition to writer. I imagine you hear your own voice in your head as you’re writing.
The editing has been a recent development. Even though I have taught writing in one way or another for many, many years, the work as a developmental editor working one-on-one with other writers to develop their stories and manuscripts has probably been in just the last five years. It is something that has symbiotically helped my own writing beyond measure. Now, have I always followed my own advice? No. But at several points as I was coming to the close of writing this novel, I’m trying to figure out what was going to happen in the end because I didn’t know. I had to say to myself: Allison, in an imagined world where you actually followed your own advice, what would you tell another writer? I can genuinely say that working with other writers and teaching, editing, is as enjoyable, as satisfying to me, as gratifying to me, as working on my own work. And I never want to give up either.

I was hoping you could talk a little bit more about the New Orleans Writers Workshop. You’re one of the co-founders as well as the current creative director. Could you speak to your goals for the organization?
We’ve been around for a few years; a couple years ago we became a nonprofit. We would like to bring what I consider MFA-quality creative writing to anyone in an affordable way. [Our] writing workshops are led by people who are actively writing themselves, and they have all had experience teaching writing. Our students are all over the map; some of them have never taken a creative writing class. Other people have already taken many classes, have a pretty strong background in writing craft, or have published works.

Why New Orleans? I know you spent some time in Boston for your MFA at Emerson College.
I’ve been here a really long time. I feel like I’m from two places. I grew up in the Bay Area but I’ve spent more time in New Orleans in my adulthood than any other place. I’ve been here 24 years. The MFA does factor into why I came to New Orleans. When I was a second year student at my MFA program, we were the last class to have these dreaded essays that we had to write in addition to our regular coursework. We had to write on what they call kind of canonical works, one of which, on that list that we could choose from, was A Streetcar Named Desire. And if I can take you back to a winter’s night in Boston, where yet another blizzard is about to descend on the city: I turn to the beau, the love of my life at that time, and say, “Hey, let’s get in your Volkswagen Jetta and let’s get ahead of this blizzard and drive down to New Orleans so that we can check out this setting for A Streetcar Named Desire.” So we did exactly that. And we got in the car that night and we ended up spending like a week down here. The architecture blew me away. The lack of the typical houses with the yard and the separation between the public and the private wasn’t here. It fascinated me. I also remember going to what is now a Mojo, but it used to be (back in the day) a Rue De La Course, and it had everything that I had never experienced. It had rusted pressed-in ceilings that were like 16 feet high. It had this amazing old woodwork that was in this state of decay. It had this patina of history that I had just never experienced to this degree. And it had a bathroom that was essentially an outhouse. And I thought: This is where I belong. And I set out of that Rue De La Course, and I turned to him and I said, “Someday, I am coming back down here and I am going to be a writer in this city.” It’s also why releasing my first novel here, no matter how many years it’s taken, feels so poignant for me. It feels like I’m finally making good on a promise that I made to myself three decades ago.

What advice would you give to writers who are starting out, or perhaps coming back to writing after a hiatus, and are interested in publishing a first novel?
Honestly, there were so many things that I had to learn about for this book. And so many times when I felt like this book was beyond me, like I wasn’t equal to the task. This book does not on the surface bear any resemblance to my life. My characters are almost all men. Samuel Sokobin is Jewish. I’m not. It’s set in rural China, I’ve never been. Even as old as I am, I’ve never lived in 1918. I didn’t know anything about World War I. I didn’t know anything about botanical exploration. I didn’t know anything about the American Embassy. None of it. My pithy one-liner is: Don’t write the story you already know. Write the story you’re compelled to learn.

Are you currently working on anything else? Anything you can share with us?
I’m working on another. I can’t wait to get back to writing. It’s been a while. It will be speculative in that it is set during a Cold War era-like time, in an undisclosed Eastern European country that has been taken over by a communist-like force. It’s going to follow a family that has had tragedy and trauma with the invasion of their country and the long-term effects of that. Despite all of that, I’m hoping that there will be a message of hope.

For more info on Foreign Seed, check out turnerpublishing.com; for more info on the New Orleans Writers Workshop, check out neworleanswriters.org.

Top photo by Tammie Quintana

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