Spotlight Interview with Dorothy Allison


Dorothy Allison will be facilitating a Master Class on Friday, May 24, at 1:30 PM as part of the 10th Anniversary Saints and Sinners Festival programming.

Let’s talk frankly about the performance aspect of reading off the page. What if you are a better reader than you are a writer? Can performance become a part of the craft? Is there a set of rules and exercises that help make this process more useful? Can performative aspects detract from the written work? How do you train yourself to use performance to improve the work on the page? Is performance necessarily a lesser work? Finally, are there ways to write out verbal expressions that enliven performance but seem awkward or obscure on the page? These are just a few of the things we will cover in my workshop on the performative aspects of writing.

Dorothy Allison received mainstream recognition with her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, a finalist for the National Book Award. The novel won the Ferro Grumley prize, became a best seller, and an award-winning movie. Her second novel, Cavedweller became a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, finalist for the Lillian Smith prize, and an ALA prize winner. In 2003, Lisa Cholendenko directed a movie version featuring Kyra Sedgwick. Awarded the 2007 Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction, Allison is a member of the board of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her new novel, She Who, is forthcoming. For more information, visit

We had the opportunity to catch up with Dorothy who has been a long-time supporter of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival.

Q: As someone who has attended numerous Saints and Sinners, why do you think the festival is important to the LGBT writing community?
Allison: Sometimes, after reading the work of young authors in a workshop, I find myself asking them ‘who do you write for?  Who do you write to?’ Some answer me immediately—my daddy, my mama, my first lover, the preacher who scared me so badly when I was thirteen. But some just stare at me, not knowing how important the question actually is. Of course, we write for ourselves. Of course. But even making notes in a journal or commenting anonymously on some blog, we have an observer in the back of our heads—a reader, a witness. It is that witness that shapes the work—focuses it or, now and then, pushes us past what we are first willing to share. Tell me the truth, that reader/witness demands. Say what you fear. Say what you love. Tell me something no one else has ever told me. Out of that demand comes the best work—the richest most revealing narratives, what we never imagined we could share but discover in the writing.

That witness/reader is not always trustworthy. Sometimes the demand scares us too deeply and we cannot rise to the challenge—not immediately anyway.  But it is those nagging demands that we circle back to over and over that take us into stories that might change everything, that might use all of us, and by taking us so far into our fear or desire—show us who we really are, or can be.

One must create that witness, cultivate that imaginary reader, seek out that audience.  The community to which we address ourselves is shaped over our whole lifetime—and it is that community that takes us to our best selves as writers, as readers of other writers and as members of an often misunderstood or misrepresented minority.  For me that murmur of voices, that eye and ear and heart has always been shaped in part by exposure to audiences like those that come to Saints and Sinners. I write for them, toward them—those widely read, demanding individuals who will not let me shrug off my responsibilities, my fears or my great aching hopes.  Not all of them write, but all of them read. All of them push me to my best work.

Q: What are you currently reading for fun?  
Allison: Poetry.

Just read The Gift of Tongues, the anthology of work done at Copper Canyon over the last twenty-five years—like reading history, but better. Wonderful, wonderful work.

Q: If you could only share one thing with an emerging author, what would it be?
Allison: Be afraid but don’t let it stop you. And take revenge.  At its best revenge becomes justice. At its worst it is at least small compensation—and those you hurt on the page can always come back on another page.

Q: Your Master Classes at the 10th Anniversary event will be “A Voice Like Thunder, A Text in Whispers”.  In your opinion, what role does performance play in the toolbox of the author?
Allison: Performance at its best in the realization of the connection between the artist and the audience. One hears and feels the response immediately—the indrawn breaths of genuine engagement, the rustling that signals a loss of attention—or in some cases the shouts or whispers of the congregation testifying to the resonance of the work in their own lives. It sidesteps the delay inherent in publishing. 

More importantly, performance is a complicated tool—a razor sharp way to focus your energy and insights but also a constant hazard.  You can caricature yourself and your people just as easily as you can make them breathtakingly real and vulnerable.  Each individual writer must find their own way into the actualization made possible by performance—while avoiding the pitfalls.