Raleigh writer Nicole Sarrocco picks up her phone between two classes – the one she’s teaching and the one she’s taking. She teaches humanities and Southern lit at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, but now she’s sitting down beside students for her first high school math class since 10th grade. She’s having a blast.
“The kids didn’t know what to make of it,” she says. “We do a lot of group work, so I was paired with one of my students yesterday. That was really funny.” Appropriately, Sarrocco is blogging about the experience at her site, nicolesarrocco.com.
Sarrocco’s first novel, “Lit by Lightning: An Occasionally True Account of One Girl’s Dust-ups With Ghosts, Electricity, and Granny’s Ashes,” sees a release party Sunday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. (A second book in the “Occasionally True” trilogy, “Ill-Mannered Ghosts,” will be published next year.) Though she’s published poetry aplenty, such as the 2004 collection “Karate Bride,” “Lit by Lightning” is Sarrocco’s first foray into long fiction, or at least fiction-ish writing – thus, the “occasionally true” in the title.
“The book has so much in it that’s my real experience, just cast in a different way,” Sarrocco says. “There are things that are easier to talk about if you’re telling them as a story than they would be if you were telling them honestly in your own personal narrative.”
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Below is a bit of our between-classes phone conversation. We talked about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, which happens each November), the blurred lines between the rational and the supernatural in her work, and the je ne sais quoi of Southern lit and the Southern experience.
Q: “Lit by Lightning” was written as a NaNoWriMo project?
A: Yes, the year before last. I went and looked at the website and it looked like fun. I didn’t plan anything. I just went and sat down on November 1 and started writing. I had been working on some personal essays and at the time I had been working on a memoir, and I really thought I would end up with stuff that would go in the memoir. That didn’t happen at all.
I think the whole NaNoWriMo thing has gotten me writing more fearlessly. You tend to over-censor yourself more than you realize when you write. Now I’m more apt to say everything and go back later and worry about what to cut out.
Q: How does that connect with publisher Phil Bevis’ note in the back of the book about you being “tired of acting normal?”
A: He thinks I’m eccentric. I keep trying to tell him a lot of people in the South are eccentric in the same way as I am. He has this nice charismatic distance in the Pacific Northwest, and the South has this exotic charm for him that maybe to those of us who live here isn’t quite as exotic.
Q: Is it easier to say the things you would want to say in a memoir if you’re not completely beholden to fact?
A: Oh yeah, I think so. My family knows that there are versions of them that show up in my writing all the time, and they’ve just gotten used to it. Some of them enjoy it more than others. I have a cousin who’s like, “I watch what I say around you now.”
I think it may be more common here, being tied to history, being tied to community, being aware of the people around you. I have enjoyed the times I have lived in big cities, but partly for the quiet. I know that sounds crazy, but there’s too many people to take in everybody. When you’re in a small town, it’s like Jill Conner Browne in “The Sweet Potato Queens,” where she talks about people seeing each other on the street and saying, “Tell your mama hey,” like it’s all one word. I ran into somebody I knew at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts at 2 in the morning one time and both of us were thinking, “Please don’t tell my mother you saw me here.”
Q: Right. There’s no anonymity.
A: Not even in your own head. Everything you do feels like you’re on that same circle with your ancestors. The second book, which I wrote last NaNoWriMo, has to deal with the main character going back to the land that she grew up on and considering building a house and living on this land. The land itself is very haunted. It has a past that is hard to put together, but it is weighed down with a bad past.
Q: Were you to write a straightforward memoir, would you feel it was weaker without ghosts?
A: Some of the weirdest supernatural stuff in the book really happened. I can’t explain the facts of it – if it’s really supernatural, or if it appeared to be that way – but a lot of it is stuff that happened.
Q: Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year?
A: I am. I’m taking a math class, teaching four classes, this book’s coming out, and I have a 16-year-old and a 5-year-old – there is a lot going on. I am up to 14,000 words, which is a little less than I’d like to be along, but it’s a thing.
Q: Who are some Southern voices you really value, who you really connect with?
A: I love George Singleton; he’s wonderful. Karen Russell and Michael Parker are two other Southern writers I love. Kelly Link I like a lot and I have a lot in common with her, because she’s got some supernatural elements, but I feel like the way the supernatural exists in Kelly Link is the way the supernatural exists in Gabriel Garcia Márquez. It’s like magical realism more than it is horror or science fiction. It’s like what he says about magical realism – there’s nothing magical about it, it’s just the way things are here.
Meet the author
▪ Nicole Sarrocco’s release party for “Lit By Lightning” takes place at 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 22) at Quail Ridge Books, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh. More info at quailridgebooks.com.
▪ Sarracco will read from her book at 2 p.m. Dec. 6 in the Bryan Center lobby of the N.C. School of Science and Math, 1219 Broad St., Durham. More at ncssm.edu/news.