New Orleans resident and budding author, Allison Alsup is this year’s winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction, the annual Philadelphia Stories contest presenting the winning author with a prize of $2,000 and a plane ticket to Philadelphia where she was honored for her work at an awards dinner. Allison’s winning story, “East of the Sierra,” forms one chapter of her novel, a current work-in-progress tentatively titled No Place in This World. Allison’s other awards include the 2009 New Millennium Short Short Contest for her short story “Grass Shrimp,” as well as three stand-alone pieces from her novel that have won national contests. A fourth excerpt was selected as a finalist and will be published next summer in Salamander, a magazine for poetry, fiction, and memoirs.
Congratulations on becoming the winning author of the 2010 Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction! What are your feelings on such an accomplishment?
The Philadelphia Stories win has been particularly special because it has been so personalized -- Ru Freeman taking the time to write such a gorgeous paragraph about my work, this profile, and the awards dinner where I met the magazine staff and the McGlinn family. To be an emerging writer and to have such efforts made on your behalf is overwhelming; you’re not used to it and you don’t quite know how to handle such positive emotions.
Your story "East of the Sierra" beautifully illustrates the struggles of two Chinese immigrants, as well as the relationship between a father and his son. From where did you draw your inspiration for the story?
The idea for “East of the Sierra” came from a two--sentence footnote in a history book. I wish I had some alluring explanation for why a white, educated, contemporary American woman is so fascinated by turn-of-the-century, working class Chinese migrant men. I am sure that part of my interest stems from the fact that my husband is half Chinese-American and that I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region that has been significantly influenced and, in some cases, built by generations of Chinese-American men. There is also the California landscape itself and its endless inspiration. But I think what keeps me writing is that the “Bachelor Society” world of early Chinese migrants is one of conflict and tension, discrimination and identity issues, uncertainty and instability -- the stuff of compelling stories. When I started, I thought, “what am I doing writing this”? I wasn’t even sure if I had the right to write about another ethnicity. But now I understand that I was drawn to such characters because, like them, my own future and sense of self felt so unsure. In many cases, they overcame impossible odds and demonstrated profound resilience. It’s what I’m hoping for.
You went from full-time teacher to full-time author – how did you make this difficult transition?
A little less than two years ago, I was laid off from my university teaching job in New Orleans. I was working part-time, having reached the tough decision that five years of teaching a full load of English was leaving me with no energy and inspiration for my own work. The decision to walk away from a possible lifetime position in favor of my fiction, which had no track record of success, was a little terrifying, but, like a lot of writers, I felt a had no choice. You have to write or everyone within hearing distance suffers. I’d spent about a year and a half financially maneuvering and slashing our budget to even get to a place where my husband and I could live on less. But the recession hit and so after just one semester of “the plan,” and just two days before Christmas, all the part-timers in my department were let go. Suddenly, I was applying for unemployment. I was stunned; there was no plan B. It wasn’t clear if there would ever be classes again. It was mid-year; I sent out resumes and received zero response. There were quite a few breakdown and tirades of the so-every-bad-decision-I-have-ever-made-has-come-to-this variety.
What finally made you sure that you had made the right decision?
In the beginning of January 2009, I realized I needed a new plan: just write. I told myself that I would allow myself two years to get any kind of bite, any publication whatsoever. If no one wanted anything by then, I would stop the bleeding and enroll in some sort of certification course. I was daunted, unsure of where I should put my energies. I think a lot of writers face these manic moments where we tell ourselves, I could do this idea, that idea, or the other thing I just thought of and, for a while, we have to date our stories before committing to a long term relationship. Finally, I told myself enough talking about it, enough finding clothes and dishes to wash, just do it. I gave myself one hour to start on an idea that I had very little knowledge but whose quiet, watery images kept playing in my mind. I referred to it as the Chinese fisherman story. That night I started a short short called “Grass Shrimp”--a conceptual overview of the novel I am now writing and from which “East of the Sierra” forms a stand alone chapter. About six months later, “Grass Shrimp” won the 2009 New Millennium Short Short Contest. When the call came in, I was filthy, having just helped my husband to install some rain gutters. I [continue to] work on a very part-time basis, teaching creative writing with an after school program that offers academic and financial support to inner-city high school students here in New Orleans. The program is called College Track and is in association with the Urban League.
What do you think the future has in store for you? What inspires you to continue to write?
As of this fall, new teaching opportunities have arisen, but I’ve declined. My husband Gavin, a historic home renovator, has managed to support me this far. We have no cash reserves, but we’re moving forward in a sort of faith and stubbornness that writing needs to occupy the center of our lives. Most writers, including myself, couldn’t do what I am doing alone. I could not do this without Gavin’s patient belief and his willingness to swing a hammer on my behalf. You need help: a little money, someone to hold you accountable, and you need supporters, like Philadelphia Stories, who say keep going.