Q &A / ANNE RIVERS SIDDONS, author: Hauntings and other magic 'could happen'

Ex-Atlantan's latest novel goes beyond Southern locales --- and beyond ordinary reality.

Ten years after leaving Atlanta, best-selling author Anne Rivers Siddons admits she still misses the city.

But not enough to move back.

"I feel like that's where I belong, but I can't live there anymore," said Siddons, who now divides her time between homes in Charleston, S.C., and Maine. "I miss my house there and I miss my friends, but when I come back to visit, I just get more and more frantic in that traffic."

Siddons wrote eloquently about the city she loved in "Peachtree Road" (1989) and "Downtown" (1994) before turning her attention to South Carolina with "Low Country" (1998), "Islands" (2004) and "Sweetwater Creek" (2005).

In her new novel, "Off Season" (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99), she leaves her humid, lush Southern landscape for the chilly, rugged coast of Maine. If that's not shocking enough to readers who could almost smell the magnolia blossoms in her Southern novels, Siddons introduces magical realism in the form of ghosts and a cat that communicates with the main character.

The story centers on Lily Constable McCall, a 53-year-old widow who is returning (with her outspoken cat, Silas) to the family cottage on the coast of Maine to dispose of her husband's ashes. The cottage rekindles memories of the summer of 1962, when she was 11 and in love with an older boy.

Like all her novels, "Off Season" is driven by realistic characters and a strong sense of place. Fellow authors Kathy Hogan Trocheck and Terry Kay agree that those are the qualities that set Siddons apart from other popular fiction writers.

"Of course, there have been others to bring life to Southern women and their stories, but Anne Siddons has found a way to mine the physical and emotional landscape of her native South in such a sumptuous, layered way that I think she has influenced a whole new generation of writers," said Trocheck, who writes about Southern characters under the pen name Mary Kay Andrews.

Kay, author of "To Dance With the White Dog," is just as effusive in his praise.

"Annie has a compelling ability to reveal both the vulnerability and the resiliency of the people she's writing about," he said. "Annie's sense of place is strong enough to make readers feel as though they were born and reared there —- there being wherever she chooses her settings."

For years, Siddons, 72, thought her settings would always be Atlanta and Georgia. Born in Atlanta, Siddons grew up in Fairburn and attended Auburn University. She was editor of the college newspaper until she wrote an editorial critical of racial segregation and was dismissed. Years later, that event would inspire her first novel, "Heartbreak Hotel" (1976), which was made into the 1989 film "Heart of Dixie."

Before Siddons turned to fiction, however, she worked as a writer and editor at Atlanta magazine with founding editor Jim Townsend and a couple of then-unknown writers, Pat Conroy and Bill Diehl. In 1966, she met and married Heyward Siddons.

Her first national best-seller, "Peachtree Road," is a portrait of Atlanta's white elite on the eve of the civil rights movement.

"The '60s during the civil rights scene was my time in the world," Siddons said. "Back then, Atlanta was a small enough city that you could know it."

In a recent interview from her home in Maine, Siddons talked more about Atlanta, her new book, and the spirit world.

Q: Do you believe in ghosts?

A: I don't not believe in them. It would not surprise me if they existed. I have been in places where there's a sense of something more there than what you see. Sometimes it's troubling and sometimes it's not.

Q: Have you experienced anything like Lily does in "Off Season"?

A: No, I haven't. But I am a great fan of people who can employ magic in their writing. I just find it totally likely that something like that could happen.

Q: There is an incredible sense of loss in this novel. How difficult were those scenes to write?

A: They were tough. I didn't realize how tough they would be. But I couldn't expect a wild, complicated child like Lily to be what she would have to be in the end without losing someone. She had to go from being a tomboy leader to being a fearful child who hid from life.

Q: Does dividing your time between Maine and Charleston cause you to have a split personality?

A: No, it doesn't. It makes me very grateful for Maine in August and September and Charleston in November. Winter and spring in Charleston is wonderful. I feel incredibly lucky to have the best of both worlds.

Q: Do you plan to write another book set in Atlanta or Georgia?

A: I don't know. I suspect at some point I will. It may be about somebody who comes back to Atlanta after a long time. There's so much to love —- the electricity and the sheer beauty of the city. I'd like to try to write that book.

Q: You've had a very successful career as a writer. Is there something you would like to accomplish that you haven't?

A: I'd like to write one book that used everything I have right out to the end. I would like to do something deeper that speaks to more people. I'm just not sure when I would do it. I had open heart surgery in April —- a valve replacement. Heart surgery really changes you. I feel perfectly fine now, though. I have energy I haven't had in years.