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A Conversation with Author Sally Allen, “Unlocking Worlds”

Editor's note: all of us at HamletHub congratulate our Books, Ink editor, Sally Allen, on the release of her book, Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers (Griffins Wharf, November 2015).

Every book lover has gone through a reading slump where you just don’t know what book you want to read next. You might think “I want to try reading the Russians/classic fiction/genre fiction/memoirs, but I don’t know where to start.” If you are really lucky, you might have a friend who always has the best book recommendations, but friends who have read so many great books and can think of several titles immediately are rare.

I am one of the lucky few, because I have a friend who always gives me the best books to read. I’m not telling you about this friend to make you jealous. I’m telling you because now you have the chance to get all her incredible book recommendations too.  Many of you know my dear friend Sally Allen, from all her incredible articles and author interviews on Books, Ink, but there are many things you may not know.

Sally earned a MA in English Language and Literature and a PhD in English Education from New York University. She has taught writing and literature at New York University, Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University. She is an associate faculty member in Communications at Post University.  Her articles have appeared in several magazines, she teaches writing workshops, leads book discussions and she has earned three Connecticut Press Club awards. (Books, Ink) While doing all of this, she also wrote a book.

Sally’s new book “Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers” will be released in November 2015.  While I always enjoy talking books with Sally, I was especially excited to sit down with her and discuss her book.  In “Unlocking Worlds,” Sally discusses many different book categories. Each chapter opens with Sally’s experience reading books in that category followed by ten incredible books.  She gives you just enough information about each book to spark your interest and you will be writing down many titles while you read this book on your “to be read” list.

While Sally introduces the reader to so many great books, I asked her to pick a few from all of her recommendations. She recommended “2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas” by Marie-Helene Bertino, “it’s just this really whimsical story that’s funny and heartfelt and moving.” She further explains when she thinks of contemporary books that she’s read, that one stands out. She also recommended “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens “because it is such an amazing world and I love Dickens’ writings.  He’s just incredible.” For a third recommendation, she included a shorty story….Gogol’s “The Night Before Christmas” saying “it is so funny, clever, it makes you laugh. It comments really incisively on human behavior. I would say it’s a really fun story to read. So if you are going to dip your toe in the massive ocean of Russian literature that is a fun way to start.”

Reading the book, I wondered how Sally came up with so many incredible categories. Did she start with one category and read many books in it, then move on to another? Sally explained that she started out by reading lots of books. “I was looking over all the books I had read and I just started to notice that there were patterns.”  She remembers working on her dissertation and her chair talking about binning and coding, “so after a couple of years of reading and writing about books, I couldn’t stop myself from binning and coding which is how the categories came up.”

The goal of this book, in addition to giving great book recommendations, is to model a way of thinking about books.  As readers, we need to understand what we love. We need to see the personal component in reading.  Sally believes “whatever books move you and whatever books nourish your spirit, those are the books you should be reading whether they are children’s books, genre books, classic fiction, literary fiction.”

The books included in “Unlocking Worlds” are the books Sally has enjoyed over the past few years, which lead me to wonder if there could be another book about reading and great books in the future for Sally. “I thought about doing it for classic fiction which is my current reading phase right now.”  Having been inspired by our Gilmore Girls reading challenge (http://books.hamlethub.com/booksink/readers/41613-gilmore-girls-reading-challenge), Sally is currently reading or rereading many greats from classic fiction. So hopefully, we will have a future discussion about another great book about reading and books.

Our conversation about current reads, diverted back to childhood reads. Sally shared her favorite childhood book was “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “I had about 3 or 4 copies of this book and I just read it over and over again.” About five years ago, she picked up a copy and reread it again for the first time in many years. She explains that experience as being like revisiting your childhood home that you haven’t seen in many years. “You anticipate where everything is, so you are just one step ahead. Every sentence I read was like de ja vu.” She admired the main character. As an adult rereading the book, she saw the book with new eyes, saw the classism the main character fought, and her respect for the main character grew.  She describes reading the book, “the moral heart of the story resonated with me so much. I felt it was a story that gave me another way to understand the morals I was being taught, about being a kind person, about seeing people as human beings.” This interview alone has added several books to my “to be read” list with “A Little Princess” now on the top of my list.

Growing up a reader in New York, Sally loved reading E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler.” The book takes place in the Metropolitan Museum, which Sally visited many times as a child with her family. She loved the idea of the book taking place in the museum and would write stories where she joined the characters in the story.  She credits reading in helping her becoming a writer. “Reading was always the thing that inspired me to write.”

As Sally grew as a writer, she is still inspired by reading, “if I don’t read, I don’t feel inspired to write.“ Sally is drawn to the process of writing. “I love trying to find the right words and trying to find the right structure.” She describes language as fascinating and loves the power it has to “change an experience and how you can remember an experience by how you can express it.” When asked what advice she would give to those who want to write…..read. She believes “books are the best teachers in so many ways.” She suggests, “it’s good to read the kind of books you want to write but don’t compare yourself to anybody else. “ That is wonderful advice for readers and writers of all ages. She also believes you should write every day, “even if it is just writing down words or writing down a memory…just immerse yourself in language.”

We concluded with one of my favorite questions….what is the one thing you wished you were asked, that you want to tell people about your book? Sally explained, “Why do you have children’s books, young adult books, genre books, classic books all together in a single list?” Many readers are drawn to certain categories, but Sally believes they are all important, “they all taught me something…..they all deserve a place of honor on my list.” I love all the categories Sally has included in her book. I was excited to get great book recommendations in categories I am normally drawn towards and I was equally excited to her introduction and book recommendations in categories I haven’t read yet, but am now eager to explore.

Sally will be at Barnes & Noble in Westport on November 18th at 7 p.m. for an author talk and Q&A (1076 Post Rd. E. Westport, CT). More information is available here (http://books.hamlethub.com/booksink/authors/42192-sally-allen-to-appear-at-barnes-and-noble)

Sally will be doing an author luncheon at Bernard’s in Ridgefield on November 19th.  (20 West Lane (Route 35) Ridgefield , CT). Additional information about registering for the event can be found here (http://www.bernardsridgefield.com/#/author-luncheon-series/)

*photo by Jessica Collins

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