Madelaine Lucas’s Thirst for Salt is a novel-length ache, a sore of past love and past life rubbed at by the actions of memory. Brought to bare by the nearly accidental viewing of an online post, our narrator remembers a lost love years and oceans away Lucas’s debut is a novel that excavates the past for its treasures and its traps; it is a complicated affair between a younger woman and an older man; and it is a thrilling entry to what promises to be a long career.
Kyle Francis Williams: Your novel, Thirst for Salt, explores memory and interiority as though it is a place our narrator is walking through. A line I absolutely love ends the first part of the novel:
We build new roads, rename the towns, reclaim and return the land here in Australia, the country I grew up in. As if it were possible to circumnavigate memory.
I want to ask more about that relationship between memory and landscape. Is memory—for you or for our narrator—refracted through place? Our memories are literally shaped by a landscape, I think, but how does that reflect in a mental landscape?
Madelaine Lucas: With that line in particular, I was attempting to gesture towards a larger colonial practice of erasure, where the renaming of traditional indigenous land plays a big part in this “rewriting” of history and memory. But there is also thinking through the intersection between place and memory on a smaller, more intimate level too, as you suggest. Landscape, environment, atmosphere—all these elements shape our emotional and interior weather, giving our memories their texture and tonality. This became particularly clear to me while working on Thirst for Salt, because I was trying to conjure a specific experience of the NSW [New South Wales] coast from the distance of an ocean away.
When Jude first meets our narrator (and calls her Sharkbait), she’s reading Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, itself a complicated story about a relationship between a young woman and an older man. The narrator of Thirst for Salt is not pubescent, but the age gap between her and Jude is still quite large. How did you navigate writing that dynamic? Were there helpful craft principles you stuck to, or a rule you kept in mind while diving into the power dynamics of an age gap?
One of the things that inspired me about Duras’s treatment of the relationship between the young woman and older man in The Lover is that the power doesn’t always go in one direction: Age and gender intersect with other social and cultural advantages like race and class to create that complicated dynamic. With Thirst for Salt, I looked at the age gap as an opportunity to illuminate and magnify the tensions that exist within any romantic relationship. Regardless of age, intimacy always involves attempting to bridge an impossible divide between two individuals. We all come to love with our individual histories, experiences. That’s the beauty of connection, and also the struggle to find it. Jude’s knowledge and experience is what draws the narrator to him initially, but it’s also the reason we know that their relationship ultimately won’t work. (Isn’t that so often the way?) That irony felt compelling—and tragic—to me.
In terms of craft principles, I didn’t follow any particular rules, but a few things were important. Firstly, to make this novel different from familiar narratives about older men and younger women, I knew the book needed to be driven by my narrator’s desire for him as much (if not more) than his for her. She had to make the first move. I also wanted there to be times of equilibrium when, regardless of other people’s perceptions, the narrator and Jude feel themselves to be equal. While age is an undeniable factor in the novel, it’s also only one element of character.
The Lover is far from the only book featured in this novel. As a bookseller and English student, our narrator provides us an extremely interesting reading list. Are those some of the same books that influenced your own writing? Are there other influences—in love stories, Australian stories, etc.—that played a big role in writing this book?
Many of the books referenced in Thirst for Salt—like The Lover, or Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, or The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath—are ones that were important to me as young woman, when I was the same age as my narrator or just starting to think about writing. They’re also all very female-centered coming of age stories and mentioning them seemed like a way to align myself with that literary tradition, put Thirst for Salt in conversation with those other voices and pay respect to my literary mothers. In terms of books that influenced the actual writing process, there were so many! I was mainly interested in reading about love, desire and domestic life—Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner, Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy were all crucial in helping me think through these themes in the novel. But with a debut novel in particular, I think you could say that is influenced by anything and everything the writer has seen, read, listened to, witnessed, imagined, remembered.
For a book about a love affair, I was surprised by how much of a presence our narrator’s mother (and the present absence of her father) play in the book. The mother, I should say also, is probably my favorite character. She is hilarious, down-to-earth, complex, and deeply human in a way a parent can easily not be in a story about memory. Can you talk about how you came to her, and why you felt her presence in the story was important?
I was interested in the way that ideas about love are shaped generationally. The relationship we have with our parents—and that they have with each other—is, for most of us, our first experience of intimacy. So, it seemed impossible to write about the narrator’s first, formative adult relationship without considering the influence of her family. And for young women, I think so many of the choices you make are informed by your mother’s story. There can be both a fear and compulsion to repeat those same patterns, or, alternatively, to rewrite that story by making different choices.
I’m also just fascinated by close, complicated bonds between mothers and daughters, where the lines between self and other become blurred or tangled. While other characters—like Jude, for example—had to reveal their depth to me over the course of many revisions, writing the mother’s character came to me very naturally. I think it was also easier to see the mother as three-dimensional from the beginning because her own youthfulness when the narrator was born meant that she didn’t fit the part of a more traditional mother-figure. Having a single parent or a young parent complicates the expected dynamic between parent and child because you end up inhabiting various different roles. For example, the narrator’s relationship with her mother can slip from being more like friends or sisters, to the emotional co-dependency of an intimate partnership. Most of us have to learn to see our parents’ full humanity as we grow older—this is part of maturity—but if those usual boundaries aren’t there, you’re aware of those flaws and vulnerabilities much earlier in life.
To be honest, there were certain things I originally drew from my relationship with my own mother, and even though the character departed from the source inspiration as the novel developed, I think that ring of truth must still carry through. Even when I workshopped early drafts that eventually became the novel, people would often tell me she was their favorite! I’ve found this is often the case—that the parts of a book that are closest to home are what tend to resonate most with readers.
How long did you work on this novel, and how many iterations do you think it went through? Workshopping early drafts sounds both exhilarating and terrifying. Did you find the novel grew with you as a person and a writer? Did you always have a sense of where you were going and where you would end up with it?
My vision for the shape the book would take changed over the years, though the setting and central characters were there from the start. I came to the novel from a background of mainly reading and writing short fiction, and I’d originally envisioned Thirst for Salt as a series of interconnected stories revolving around the same narrator—like Sara Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived in or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Jude, King, the narrator’s mother, and Maeve were all present in the early stories I workshopped at Columbia. Those drafts got mainly broken down for parts once I realized I was telling one larger story, but “Ruins,” which was awarded the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize in 2018, appears in the novel almost unchanged as one long chapter. I figured if Ben Lerner could reprint a short story as a section of his novel 10:04, then so could I!
In many ways, “Ruins” was the turning point for the project; it was the last story I wrote before making the decision to turn those stories into one novel and essentially start again, and it was also when the voice found a new authority. I thought, what if I just kept this going? Could I make a whole book that felt like this? It’s hard to say how many total iterations the manuscript went through because I revised and rewrote along the way to make sure everything flowed together, rather than writing a full draft and then returning to the start. My process is very “one step forward, two steps backwards”—and very slow!
You mentioned being an ocean away while trying to conjure the NSW coast. I would love to hear more about how that process worked out for you. I’m imagining a lot of silent, contemplative stares out of windows or into screens. Were there trips home as well? Did you find any surprises in either the actual place or the way you wrote about it?
I went back to Australia a few times while I was working on the novel. These were never research trips—I was there to visit my family—but it was helpful to have the chance to revisit the South Coast landscape and gather sensory data along the way, like the names of specific plants, the smell and feel of the air. The scenes set in inner-city Sydney were much easier to access because I grew up there, so those places felt like a such a deep part of my DNA. I never wrote anything beyond a few notes on my phone while I was home, though. When it was all so close, I felt like I couldn’t see any of it properly. I found it much more generative to recall the settings from a distance, through memory, and see what remained most vivid in my mind and what fell away once I was back in New York. That sense of distance also helped me access my narrator’s perspective—both of us longing for a time and place that we couldn’t reach anymore. There’s a way that proximity can make us take things for granted, and I don’t think that feeling of longing would have been as potent if I’d been writing about Australia while living there. That said, there were also definitely times in the process that involved less “silent, contemplative” brooding and more listening to Australian bird calls on YouTube to recall their particular cacophony.
You’re a senior editor at NOON, one of my favorite literary magazines, and one that has a very particular interest in language and style. How have your experiences as an editor affected your writing?
My time at NOON has been its own education, one that’s given me a much sharper eye as well as a stronger ear for the acoustics of language. Working so closely with Diane Williams has taught me, among so many things, to see editing as a collaborative and often spontaneous creative act, and there’s a spirit of playfulness to her work as both a writer and editor that I deeply admire. Our meetings often feel like this rare, hopeful space where all the other concerns of publishing drop away, and all that matters is the joy and struggle of making art out of language. I also believe it’s a healthy practice for all artists to not think exclusively about their own work, and I’m grateful that my work as both an editor and teacher gives me a regular opportunity to invest in the work of other writers. It’s satisfying when I can see the way a small adjustment will help make a writer’s story stronger, and also when I can apply this to my own work. However, I did have to learn to rein in these compulsions while I was working on Thirst for Salt. I admire the mystery and brevity of the prose we publish in NOON, but it’s difficult—and perhaps not always desirable—to maintain this heightened attention to language over the course of a novel.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m excited about the prospect of returning to some short stories I had to abandon at the expense of finishing the novel. After the book tour and publicity cycle, the thought of writing becoming something solitary and private again feels like a treat! Not that I haven’t enjoyed the experience of connecting with readers—that’s been such a gift, and the former musician in me understands promotion and performance as part of my job as an artist—but it wasn’t possible for me to focus on new work at the same time. I have an idea for a new novel, but I’m also not in a hurry to put pressure on myself to produce another book right away. I know I write slowly, but I’ve learned to trust in the process.
Kyle Francis Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop and a recent MFA graduate of the Michener Center. His fiction has appeared in A Public Space, Southern Humanities Review, Epiphany, Southampton Review, and Joyland. He is on Twitter @kylefwill.
Madelaine Lucas is the author of the debut novel Thirst for Salt, which was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and a senior editor of the literary annual NOON. Originally from Sydney, Australia, she teaches fiction at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her family.
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