Sarah Harris Wallman

Magic Words

Though she writes magical realism, Sarah Harris Wallman—co-director of Albertus Magnus’s MFA writing program and an aspiring novelist living in Westville—keeps it pretty regular-real otherwise.

On the notion of adding a dog to her household, already flush with two young boys: “That’d be too many things that can’t poop independently.” On the phoniness of Facebook: “Whole lives are detergent commercials. Everything is sunny, happy.” On obliviousness: “People who don’t notice things are the most annoying people in the world!” On a realer form of fiction: “Gritty realism doesn’t do it for me. I get enough of that in my day-to-day life.”

All of those impulses, in some way or other, help explain her peculiar approach to storytelling, most fully realized in Future Perfect Tense, a novel she’s currently shopping to publishers. Unlike one of its main characters, Brenda, who’s cursed and blessed with the power to foresee others’ life stories simply by touching people and objects, Wallman’s had to work for the story she’s divined.

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That includes writing four other novels that’ve ended up on her own rejection pile. “It’s too bad. I mean, with pancakes, it’s only the first one that’s bad,” she quips, adding, “I’m always writing a novel draft, then believing in it for a month, then realizing it’s not that good—until the current work, which I still believe in even a year after completing it. I can look at a page and not cringe.”

That makes two of us. Tense, which we’ll be excerpting later this week, is deft and sensitive. Its narrative notices enough of the little things to paint deep, vivid pictures while keeping things moving. Mirroring its author, the book also has an alluring dark streak. Most of the futures Brenda sees are filled by humiliations and flaws and vices and losses. In one vision, moles are described as “incipient skin cancers.”

About her affinity for dark things, Wallman laughs. She says she often forgets she has it, only to be reminded by readers and editors of the many short stories she’s published, like the macabre The Dead Girls Show. “I don’t know where it comes from. I didn’t have a traumatic childhood.” A pause gives rise to a brainwave. “I always loved fairy tales. I think with fairy tales there’s a lot of darkness.” Then she remembers a formative reading experience. “One of my favorite books as a child was book about an elephant who runs away from the circus because nobody notices him. So he leaves a really dramatic note: ‘I’m running away because nobody notices me.’ Then everyone in the circus is sitting there with the note, and they go, ‘Who’s Floyd?’” The irony and pathos of Floyd’s situation made her laugh, even though it’s a rather sophisticated joke for a tot.

It’s also a rather odd moment for an adult to remember so easily after three or so decades, but Wallman’s relationship with literature has always been special. It started with her mother, a children’s librarian, who created a home life marked by “constant, constant reading.”

Wallman supposes her mother’s occupation is ultimately why she’s wanted to be a writer all her life, which may be an example of the sort of synchronicity—a coincidence so improbable it seems like fate—she says gives the real world some of its ‘magic.’ Such moments create a sensation of magic—“a stray feeling of rightness”—that helps make living worth all the trouble.

“One of the big themes in this book and in a lot of my writing is that you have to accept how mundane life is or you won’t survive. You have to accept the daily battle. And at the same time, you can’t accept it. You can’t think there’s no magic in life, but you can’t be like one of those people who go on American Idol and can’t sing. You can’t live with that kind of magical thinking. That’s not going to get you anywhere.”

Wallman, for her part, isn’t like Idol cannon fodder. She’s not William Hung; she’s Jennifer Hudson. She’s a genuine talent looking for the right champion and, if there’s enough magic in the world, she’ll get it. “So much of life is a struggle, a war of attrition,” she says. “Then, sometimes, it’s not.”

Sarah Harris Wallman
(203) 773-4473 |
Albertus Magnus Faculty Page

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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