The protagonist of Winnie Frolik’s debut novel, Sarah Crow (One Idea Press), is something of an homage to the characters of the author's literary heroines of the 1800s. Sarah is a governess in 19th-century England struggling with bleak romantic and financial prospects, mental health issues, and loneliness.
“I love books from that era: the Brontes, Jane Austen, George Eliot,” says Frolik, who appears Tue., Dec. 3 as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Made Local series. “I started doing a lot of research and completely lost myself in that era. I then took a stab at writing in the style of the era.”
What emerged is the story of Sarah Pole, orphaned at the age of 12, unwanted by her relatives and relegated to a boarding school to train as a governess. She is deemed unattractive by her peers and teachers. Marriage, then a lifeline for many young women, seems an unlikely option for Sarah.
Frolik endows Sarah with a rich inner life, one capable of anything she desires despite her circumstances. But there’s another aspect to the character that binds her to the author. Frolik is on the autism spectrum, and though it wasn't diagnosed until college, and she was bullied in high school because she was perceived as different. Like Sarah, Frolik felt disenfranchised because no one recognized her condition.
“I ended up writing a heroine who is definitely treated as an outsider by her society because that’s what I’ve been in society,” Frolik says.
That identification with her protagonist helped Frolik flesh out the character. Beyond that, Frolik, who also works as a pet-sitter and a freelance writer, isn’t sure if her condition matters.
“To be honest, I don't know to what extent, my being on the spectrum affects my writing,” Frolik says. “I know I can be obsessive over my writing, and I'm told I have a distinct voice, but I don't know whether that's autism, authorism, or just me. I do know that being on the spectrum makes me partial to telling the stories of outsiders.”
Frolick did extensive research for Sarah Crow, and enlisted advice from the Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops attached to Carlow University.
Admitting the influence of Austen on the novel, Frolik says, “I tried to make it my own. But I was also having a little bit of fun at Jane’s expense. There’s this element of women living in the direst poverty, but they still had servants. That’s a rather strange concept of poverty, but what if you’re even lower than that?”