The Arts

Nicole Sarrocco and Her “Occasionally True” Ghosts


Nicole Sarrocco is the author of Ill-Mannered Ghosts: An Occasionally True Account of Hillbilly Stonehenge, Occult Cleaning Products, the Lady in the Picture, and the Bloodcurdling Tale of Crybaby Lane. That splendid mouthful of a title, which frees me from writing a catchy opening, caught my eye on the November events calendar for Scuppernong Books on Elm Street, where the author will be appearing at 7 p.m. on Nov. 29, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It made her sound like a woman who gives a good interview.

Despite dealing with election aftermath while teaching English and History to high school students at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (of which her publisher says, “She is brilliant—wondrously and completely mad—and that fancy PhD of hers is the only possible explanation for the fact that they let her teach children”), she answered my emails while buying a familiar local lunch. “If you’re anywhere near a Biscuitville and you eat chicken (normally I don’t because they’re terrible creatures) I highly endorse this spicy chicken and honey biscuit they’ve got right now.” It seems typical that her next message read: “Something’s on fire, but the drive-in window line is so long we can’t get our car out to leave.”

When not risking death by biscuit conflagration, Nicole Sarrocco lives just outside the Raleigh with her husband, daughter, son, dog and three visiting groundhogs, Woody, Chuck and Natalie (as in Natalie Wood). The house, she says, is haunted by something that sounds like someone hopping on one foot, and “some entities in the back bedroom my son calls Jesus and the Cubble.”

Nicole was born at the old Rex Hospital in Raleigh and grew up in a tobacco field on the county line. When I ask her authenticity in depictions of the South, she gives me a fascinating but too long for this article answer that references The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, The Matrix and French sociologist Jean Baudrillard (really, come ask her about it at Scuppernong), then attacks a couple of pet peeves. “Bless your heart, when said by an actual Southerner and certainly by Southerners over the age of 35, means bless your heart. It only means ‘you’re a f*cking idiot’ if it comes from a Yankee or a hipster. Also, f*ck all that Steel Magnolias bullshit. Good God, I hate that.”

And poultry, but we never get to that. Instead, as writers tend to do, we talk about other writers. She adores the spooky allusive literary fantasies of former Greensboro native Kelly Link, who was short-listed for the Pulitzer this year, and is delighted to hear Kelly once gave me a mummified llama fetus for Christmas. And she practically worships my old UNCG classmate George Singleton, author of the novels Novel (yes, that’s the title) and Workshirts for Madmen, and terrific story collections like The Half-Mammals of Dixie and Calloustown, which she’s taught in her classroom. “To me, he’s the best writer in America. I love him like I love Walker Percy.”

Time for the obvious question. Ill-Mannered Ghosts, just out from Chatwin Books, is the second in what Nicole calls the Occasionally True Trilogy. The first, Lit by Lightning (“An Occasionally True Account of One Girl’s Dust-Ups with Ghosts, Electricity and Granny’s Ashes) was published by Chatwin in 20015 and the third is scheduled for next year. So how occasionally are these novels true?

“A whole lot of Lit By Lightning is true. There’s more invented narrative in Ill-Mannered Ghosts, but there’s still a lot of real terrain. The non-factual parts of both are the parts of the narrative that need to be there to knit together the rough parts of the truth. I guess part of what fiction does for me is allow me to bring some kind of order or at least put a fence around some of the rougher facts or stories that I know. The resulting narrative might still be absurd or unresolved, but it’s about something. It has an arc. If you think your day-to-day life has an arc, you will make yourself a little neurotic. I think it’s why some people think I’m OCD or paranoid. I was on a plane that was having some kind of problem with the landing gear and we were all having to brace for impact as we got near the airport, and there were all these exchange students – I could just see their happy passport photos on the TV news when the plane was going to crash inevitably – that’s a level of narration to your daily life that might be invasive. Do you have theme music playing in your head sometimes, when you’re just walking around? A voice-over describing what’s happening, maybe? Does your music get ominous when you come to some sort of crossroads, as if you know your impending wrong choice will later be the moment everything went wrong? Yep.”

“Many ghost stories call up such deep sadness for me. I’m wrestling with a story that isn’t mine to tell exactly in the third book. It needed some time. It might come out in some form, but it’s the saddest kind of story. Early death, lost potential, lost love, fulfillment thwarted, a perfect story ending cut off like the last pages of a book torn out. It’s only part of the third book, but it keeps coming up like it belongs there, so maybe it does.”

The Christmas season was once the traditional time for, as the song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” puts it, “scary ghost stories.” So, even though Halloween is over, I ask Nicole to tell me a true one.

“Ghost stories for me fit into the uncanny that can at times get so intense that it makes you feel like you’re freezing on the inside. Most recent for me? My son pointing into the woods next to our house and saying ‘See that girl with the long black hair? She’s all wet,’ then turning and looking into the woods and calling out ‘Come inside! You can come inside!’ I scooped him up and rescinded the invitation as loudly as I could.”

Wanna go? Nicole Sarrocco will discuss her work at 7 p.m. on Nov. 29 at Scuppernong Books on Elm Street in Downtown Greensboro.