When Sarah Addison Allen was 4 years old, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.
"It was probably the only time I had a clear career goal," she says, laughing.
She watched the trashman go along, pick up the trash cans, dump it in the truck, "then the truck ate it. It was fascinating. It seems like the best job ever."
Fortunately for readers, Allen trashed that career goal in favor of becoming a writer. Her breakout book, "Garden Spells," released Sept. 4, debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times best-seller list after a heady month of leading Barnes & Noble's sales as the store's featured pick for the month.
Something of a 4-year-old's awe at a trash-eating truck shimmers in her novel, which features a magical apple tree.
"It's so funny that tree -- it told me what it wanted to be in chapter two, when it rolled this apple back to ," says Allen, 36, who lives in Asheville, her hometown. "So I went back to beginning and it wove itself in. The whole book wrote itself that way -- all these revelations and ah-hah moments."
The book is set in the fictional town of Bascom, which, Allen says, is "located right outside Hickory the foothills of the mountains." At its simplest, the novel is the story of two sisters reuniting after a lifetime of distance. Of course, that story is never simple, especially as each sister is coming to know herself as a woman at the same time as both are coming to know themselves as sisters.
Claire, one of the sisters, is a magical gardener and cook. Allen is neither.
"Isn't that awful?" she says. "I come from a long line of great cooks and women who garden, but it just sort of passed me over. We gravitate toward our strengths. I have this incredible appreciation for food, but preparing it is a tricky alchemy that I have never been able to master."
Allen's alchemy is conjured, in part, from her literary studies at UNC-Asheville, where she was first exposed to the heavy-hitting magical realism Latin American authors Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.
Magical realism takes the supernatural and blends it into the everyday. In the hands of the Latin American authors, she found it "a heavy device, very literary," and too intense for her own style of writing. But in time, she found other models.
Fred Chappell's " 'I Am One of You Forever' was the first time I'd ever seen magical realism in a Southern book," Allen says. "He uses a very light touch with it."
And Alice Hoffman, whose books include "Second Nature" and "Practical Magic," made it romantic.
I thought, 'I love that device. I could do that, too,' " Allen says.
Her first novel was a romance, published under the pen name Katie Gallagher soon after she finished college. She also published short stories in two collections: "More Sweet Tea" and "On Grandma's Porch" (Bellebooks). Then she hit a dry spell. She held "an endless series of dinky jobs" and briefly studied medical transcription.
"I hated it," she says. "I stopped. That's when I wrote 'Garden Spells,' in the fall of 2005."
Allen finished the book in four months, then polished it. (One item she removed was a prologue, which she has posted on her Web site, www.sarahaddisonallen.com. It contains a couple of the funniest sentences you'll ever read, but it comes with a spoiler warning. So wait until after you've read the novel to check it out.)
After sending "Garden Spells" out to seek its fortune, she set to work writing a second novel, thinking, "If 'Garden Spells' doesn't work out, maybe this next one will." But she believed in the novel's magic.
"As I was writing it, I knew this is the book that I was meant to write," she says. "For a very long time, I was trying to get published by trying to write toward the market. I wasn't trusting my own voice. 'Garden Spells' was very different for me. ... It ended up this crazy concoction of all the reader influences of my life."
Allen lives with nine cats -- five indoor and four outdoor -- in a house in Asheville left to her by her great-aunt Charlotte.
"I inherited her rose garden," she says. "It's amazing they're still alive. I think they're old enough, they know what to do."
Along with the house, she inherited a large portrait of her mother wearing a fabulous polka-dot prom dress in 1961. When she was little, Allen looked at it and thought her mom was a beauty queen.
"Mom did everything she was supposed to do. Supposed to marry young and have the perfect house and she did that. Then she looked at her life and said, 'I am so damn tired of doing everything for everyone else.' "
So she dyed her hair red -- "not gaudy red," Allen hastens to say -- and got herself a nose ring.
"At the time, I was like, 'Other moms don't have nose rings,' " she says. "But I'm proud of her spirit. She's living for herself. I can't help but say, good for you mom."
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
For the past month, Allen has been zipping to readings across the state. The latest, in Greensboro, drew about 60 people.
This weekend, she's at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance in Atlanta.
Her second book, "The Sugar Queen," is already done and slated for publication in 2008. Allen gained 18 pounds in the nine months it took to write it, as she researched her way through a medley of typical Southern dime-store candies: GooGoo clusters, Chick-O-Sticks, Cow Tales and Caramel Creams, or Bull's Eyes, those delectable caramel circles filled with cream.
Dieting would appear to be impossible. Her third novel "involves barbecue," she says. "I've been having a good time researching it."
The heavens haven't completely opened yet. She hasn't gotten calls from heavy-hitting authors saying, "Congratulations, you're in the club. Let me show you the secret handshake," she says.
But she has earned her own time.
"Writing is such a blessing. I can finally do nothing but write. I sit in pajamas and bunny slippers in front of the computer. ... You have to have a certain personality to sit for long times by yourself in this crazy, made-up world. I like it. It suits me."
"It's what I've been working toward. I've been working toward the bunny slippers all my life."