Monday, July 02, 2007

July 2007 Featured Book Club Pick: What You Have Left

Meet Will Allison. A native of Columbia, S.C., and a former Charlotte resident, Allison’s debut novel “What You Have Left,” released this June from Simon & Schuster’s Free Press, is taking readers by storm in 210 unforgettable pages.

Take me home, country road

Allison tells the story of Holly Greer, whose father, Wylie, leaves her in the care of her grandfather on the day of her mother’s funeral in 1976. Thirty years pass before Holly sees her father again. Through Holly’s search to reconnect with her dad, Allison deftly weaves the stories of three generations grappling with the effects of love, loss, disappointment and forgiveness. Set in the author’s hometown, the book’s country roads and NASCAR dirt tracks echo the coarse exterior of the novel’s characters and belie the story’s strong undercurrent of emotion.

The book was eight years in the making, beginning with a short story that became the novel’s penultimate chapter. “I asked myself, ‘What else do I want to know about these characters?’” Allison said. “Then I wrote each succeeding chapter using whatever time period and focal character best allowed me to answer that question. The method was a bit haphazard, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or a collage.”

Allison, who now lives in South Orange, N.J., with his wife and daughter, admitted that a fair amount of the novel’s setting came from his South Carolina childhood. “My dad was a big NASCAR fan; he knew Cale Yarborough as a teenager and volunteered as a track steward at Columbia Speedway in the 1960s,” he recounted. “He used to take me and my brother to races all over the South.” In addition to racing research, Allison’s father read over the manuscript to make sure the facts were straight.

The description of the farm belonging to Holly’s grandfather, Cal, was inspired by Allison’s grandfather’s dairy farm on the outskirts of Columbia. “My grandfather’s full name was William Elmer Allison, same as mine, but he went by ‘Skeet,’ after the sound of cow’s milk hitting the pail,” Allison explained. “I wish I could have named Holly’s grandfather Skeet, which I’ve always loved as a name, but Cal (the character) isn’t at all like Skeet, and it would have just been too weird.”

A good story

The former executive editor of Story and a staff member at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Allison has penned short stories that have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Glimmer Train, One Story, Kenyon Review and other magazines. He has taught creative writing at various universities and, in addition to working as a freelance editor, writer and ghostwriter, also has been everything from a busboy and landscaper to a process server and baseball card dealer.

Given his past of “cobbling together whatever work” he could, Allison is grateful for the chance to write and the warm reception his debut novel has received. “It’s so hard for first novels to get attention,” he said. “Mostly I’m just grateful to the readers and booksellers who’ve taken to the book, and to Free Press, which has done a bang-up job publishing it.” He is currently working on another novel, set in New Jersey, for Free Press.

As for “What You Have Left,” Allison said, “I hope (readers) find it compelling and moving,” he said. “That’s all I’m ever shooting for – to tell a good story.”

Want to go?

Join the Charlotte Weekly Book Club on Monday, July 23, at 7 p.m., for a phone chat with Will Allison and a discussion of “What You Have Left.” R.S.V.P. for the event at