You Might Need Actual Magic to Escape Your Hometown
Sara Flannery Murphy's novel "The Wonder State" is a portal into the Arkansas Ozarks in the Y2K era
The Wonder State, Sara Flannery Murphy’s genre-bending novel, follows five friends as they reckon with a past betrayal. Brandi, now missing, has invoked (with a touch of magic) the oath they all made as teenagers. With her words ringing in their minds—”You promised”—the friends return to their small hometown in Arkansas.
While Flannery Murphy was influenced by the Nancy Drew series and The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wonder State is darker than both. And yet the novel’s charm is strongest in its homage to the Ozarks, and to the nostalgia of being a teen at the turn of the millennium. With a plot that contains elements of fantasy, Murphy grapples with real and universal questions: Who gets to leave a dead-end town and who is forced to stay? What do you owe your high school friendships? For those without privilege or connections, is a career in the arts as inaccessible as a magical portal?
Murphy tells her story by transporting readers between two timelines. In one, a group of teens stumble into a friendship through a shared secret: They all know about Theodora Trader, a woman who designed magical houses in their town, one of which allegedly contains a portal into another realm. In the other contemporary timeline, one of the friends, Brandi, has disappeared in what appears to be a crime. The five friends, who escaped Eternal Springs through conventional means, have reluctantly returned, certain that Theodora’s houses are somehow responsible. As they try to find Brandi together, they grow distrustful of each other’s motivations. Murphy deftly moves between the two narratives, pulling the threads tighter and tighter as she propels readers toward an electrifying conclusion.
Over a series of emails, I corresponded with Murphy about portals into other worlds, viral tweets, the joys of writing teen characters, and Arkansas as a literary setting.
Sari Fordham: In 2021, you had a tweet go viral in which you wrote: “My husband shared his theory about portal narratives: if you go through a portal, it’s fantasy, if something else enters through the portal, it’s horror.” It’s such a clever observation and I thought about it a lot while I was reading; the portal in your novel leads out, but the story is a bit darker—or at least more complicated—than straight fantasy. Was your husband’s theory informed by living with someone who writes about portals? Do you agree with his theory?
Sara Flannery Murphy: I can’t claim much credit for that tweet! I was only the curator with a Twitter account. In my eyes, the traditional portal narrative is a deeply escapist one. It’s been fun to see readers describe The Wonder State as escapist, because that’s exactly what I wanted to explore: escape, as both a good and bad thing. There’s a fantasy that you’ll find this other realm, and, once there, all the traits that make you unlikeable or ignorable in your own world will be transformed. You’ll go from being an ordinary kid to being royalty, being a savior. It was an incredibly seductive idea to me when I was a child. What if changing my location also changed me? In Jay Carr, I have this protagonist who has a portal fantasy even before magic enters her life. She fantasizes about leaving her small hometown and finding success and a true identity in the “outside world.” And isn’t that as much a fantasy as finding a magical doorway in a wardrobe?
SF: For Jay, I felt like part of finding success in the outside world was not only leaving Arkansas, but also becoming an artist. I related deeply to her creative ambition and was struck by the scene in which she has the opportunity to talk with an artist. It leads to the practical question: “How do you make money?” In her reply, the artist, Ms. Garnet, shames Jay for commercializing art. Do you think purists create barriers for those who want to pursue the arts? Do you think those barriers are intentional?
SM: There’s this attitude in the US that it’s unreasonable to expect to make a living from the arts, and it’s a self-perpetuating myth: we don’t value the humanities, which means people with existing financial security are more likely to pursue an artistic life. Then we point to people struggling in a creative field without a safety net and accuse them of being self-indulgent, and basically bringing struggle upon themselves.
There’s also the reality that not every artistic pursuit needs to be a career. Monetizing your art so often comes along with external pressures, with compromising your desires for the demands of a market. Finding an identity beyond capitalism is deeply important.
In my book, Jay’s asking for career advice from an independently wealthy artist. For Jay, being able to earn an income is a pressing question, but for Ms. Garnet, it feels tacky and irrelevant. She’d prefer to hide behind art as a “noble calling.” Ms. Garnet deals in beautiful abstracts, but Jay’s stuck in the concrete.
Those two elements I mentioned—that art exists beyond capitalism, and that we devalue art to the point where it’s hard to make a living—can be combined and weaponized. For people who don’t want to contend seriously with the art world’s financial barriers, they hide behind the concept of art as being too “pure” to be commercialized. Which ends up leaving a lot of talented creators unable to pursue it because they need to pay the rent. It’s similar to what I see in fields like teaching: people pay lip service to teaching as a selfless calling, and then use that as an excuse to severely underpay teachers.
SF: I love how you transport the reader into the world of your characters. The Arkansas Ozarks have shaped them in such powerful ways—it’s impossible to imagine this narrative unfolding anywhere else. Why did you choose Arkansas as your setting?
SM: The simplest answer is that Arkansas is my home state, and I’ve always wanted to set a book there—particularly in the Ozarks, where I lived as a teenager in a town called Eureka Springs. The forests are so beautiful and have these hidden bluffs, hot springs, winding rivers. A lot of the architecture is surprising, everything from Victorian homes that are now rambling hippie mansions to carefully converted school buses. There are McMansions and megachurches, and also these weird, gorgeous homes built by a few friends who care about the forest views more than indoor plumbing.
I grew up with this pervasive idea that I’d leave Arkansas and go somewhere else. Maybe because I absorbed messages—from books, movies, TV series—that your hometown is something you outgrow if you’re an interesting person (which I aspired to be). I distinctly remember conversations with friends in Arkansas who felt like their real life waited somewhere just outside of the state. It felt natural to slot this coming-of-age journey onto a state that’s already underrepresented in fiction.
SF: Did anything surprise you about writing a semi-autobiographical book, one that’s set in the town you grew up in and featuring teenage characters? Your previous novels have been more speculative and less connected to your past.
SM: Writing teenagers was a lot of fun because I felt less of a need to rein in their reactions or downplay their intensity. Teenagers can be more idealistic and changeable and intense than adult characters and still feel authentic on the page, and I loved that . . . every time I returned to the teenage sections versus the adult sections, I felt freer. Writing this book also gave me a chance to revisit my own teen years in the Ozarks in the Y2K era. I was more of an outsider as a teenager; I didn’t have a group like the six friends in The Wonder State. So maybe there’s a little wish fulfillment in this idea of being part of a ragtag group and breaking into houses and exploring the town so boldly, because I was much more on the fringes in reality.
One moment of serendipity: my mom reminded me of a time in Eureka Springs when I was testing out my theater-kid chops, and I got to write and star in a sketch as part of a summer-long theater camp. The play was about a mysterious house . . . one that offered cryptic gifts to anyone who entered. And the narrator had a chance to go inside the house, and potentially turn her back on her town, but instead she decided to stay in her reality because there are so many tiny things she treasures about her day-to-day life.
It makes sense that the teenage me and the adult me would be obsessed with the same themes, and follow those themes in the same direction. But when my mom reminded me of that play, after having written the book, and I realized all the similarities between my teenage imagination and my grownup novel . . . it felt so powerful and surprising. Like The Wonder State was being approved by my past self.
SF: The Wonder State has echoes of both Nancy Drew and The Chronicles of Narnia, and both series are referenced in the novel. Did you read either when you were growing up? Did you intend your novel to be a grown-up version? Were you writing against the classics in any way?
SM: Oh my goodness, yes! It’s so funny to realize that loving the Narnia books is one of the biggest stereotypes of “Christian homeschoolers.” I was a Catholic homeschooler, and I didn’t do anything to dispel that myth. But as a kid, I didn’t even read the Narnia books as Christian fiction. I just loved the worlds and characters that Lewis created. Rereading the books as an adult, the moral allegories are tougher to ignore, but Narnia still feels like a place I once actually visited.
Nancy Drew was also a massive favorite. I was always scanning the library shelves for those little yellow hardcovers, hoping to find one I hadn’t read yet. The Haunted Showboat! The Witch Tree Symbol! My editor, Daphne, was the one to draw a comparison to Nancy Drew, and it’s a total delight. I feel so at home in stories about amateur detectives and people who are snooping around, breaking into houses, searching for clues. Nancy Drew is baked into my storytelling DNA.
I’m not sure that I’m writing against these classics—not intentionally, since I find a lot of joy in familiar storytelling. The friends returning to a hometown they swore they’d never revisit is such a cliché, yet I’ll devour it every time. But I did approach the story from a slightly odd angle in that the story focuses more on the quest to find the portal, and not on the world beyond the portal—and I worry that readers won’t respond to that. Fortunately, so far, a lot of readers seem willing to go along with it!
SF: You’re touching on something that I particularly loved about this novel—that the plot is driven by the quest to find a portal. The search is so compelling because we encounter these magical houses along the way, each influencing the plot and characters in surprising ways. Which house did you find the most fun to write about and why?
SM: The Forever House was the most special to me. I purposefully let myself write a longer chapter during those scenes, so that there’s hopefully a subtle shift in the reader’s experience of time. I also liked exploring some of the character interactions that arose from that particular situation (no spoilers). This was actually the first house I ever imagined, and a lot of emotional weight happens inside those rooms—I can visualize that space so clearly. I mentioned that Narnia still lives in my memory as clearly as any actual place I’ve visited, and the same thing happens with my own writing. I feel like I could walk into the Forever House this moment, if I could only find it.