Author of Thirst for Salt
Thirst for Salt, the exquisite debut by Madelaine Lucas, follows a thirty-seven-year-old woman as she reminisces about a formative relationship from her early twenties, with a man eighteen years her senior.
Eighteen years—a whole adolescence, a coming of age.
The narrator first sees Jude in the water at Sailors Beach, where she and her mother are renting an old whaler’s cottage for the month, and is instantly intrigued by him. To recall the past is to unravel the tendrils of a bluebottle jellyfish, map the welts left on my back and throat that summer, now long healed, though my body remembers them still. Lucas’ evocative, glimmering prose ensures that one can’t help but feel the urgency of first love, the narcotic feeling of falling under its spell while reading Thirst for Salt.
Image: Kylie Coutts
I wanted us to be like rocks or anchors, keeping each other in place. Love, I’d read, was supposed to be a light and weightless feeling, but I always longed for gravity.
While the novel revolves around the narrator’s memories of her time with Jude, relationships with her mother, younger brother and former roommates are explored with great assiduity, and the novel is very much about them as well. Lucas has charted a mesmeric and poignant journey of intimacy, desire and ultimately, introspection.
There must be people out there who are not drawn to the shadow of what could have been, who feel no pull toward the other lives they could be living, but I certainly have never been one of them.
Girls on the Page
The narrator in Thirst for Salt is a writer, though her time spent working on her craft is relatively minimal. I thought this was perfect, even more effective than if there were longer segments at her desk—because we know that a writer is a writer even when we do not see them writing. Lines like Only a writer would bring Duras to the beach, or describing the sound of the ocean outside her window as like a lover’s breath make you nod and think, yes, this woman is a writer at heart. How do you participate as a spectator while you’re out in the world? When you see something beautiful or inspiring, are you making notes in your head—or on scraps of receipt paper, as your narrator does—?
Do you journal, make lists, or have a specific way of categorizing ideas or phrases that you want to save for later use?
The most important and consistent part of my writing process is cultivating that awareness. You can do this anywhere—and in fact, it’s best done out in the world and not at the desk. When I am writing well, I notice more about what’s going on around me. Snippets of overheard conversation, a certain slant to the light, shifts in the emotional mood as well as other sensory details. I love that writing, which is often so isolating and insular, can also make you more alive to the world around you in this way. I’m not very methodical, though. I normally transcribe notes on the Notes App on my phone, simply because it’s always within an arm’s reach, whether I’m out walking or it’s the middle of the night. I have a notebook too for scrawling down ideas when I’m at my desk, but there’s no rhyme or reason to what gets documented in the notebook vs. the phone—it’s just about whatever materials are most accessible in the moment. Lines and ideas are fleeting. You have to catch them before they get away.
If I’m honest, I feel resistant the idea that artists are inherently more sensitive than anybody else—I think people are naturally creative as children, but the conditions of our world make it hard to maintain a sensitive nature. A lot of that curiosity, and playful spirit, gets crushed out of people. But I do think that the more you pay attention, the more you see, and being a writer gives you the opportunity dwell in memories and emotions on a regular basis, unlike a lot of other vocations.
How long had the shape of this book, the voice of the narrator been living with you? Is sitting down and tapping into the character when it’s time to write something that you can do with relative ease, or does it take a bit of summoning? Conversely, is stepping back into everyday life after a good writing spell a difficult adjustment?
I often tell my students that the relationships you have with your characters are like your relationships with anyone else in that you get to know them the more time you spend with them. I lived with the characters of Thirst for Salt in my head for over a decade, even if I wasn’t always consistently working on this project or conceptualizing it as a novel. I talk a lot about writing on a sentence level, and language, sound, rhythm are all important to me, but I also care a lot about character, which doesn’t feel as fashionable to say. My favorite books are the kind where you love the whole cast, despite and because of their flaws, and this is the experience I hoped readers would have with Thirst for Salt. But to create that, you need an intimate understanding of these fictional people, and that doesn’t happen in a first draft. You need time to think about how they might react to a given situation, or how their past informs the decisions they make in the present. It’s the work of psychology, really. I find people endlessly fascinating and spend a lot of time thinking about why they do the things they do. It’s the same mental work when you’re developing characters.
Finding my narrator’s voice took a similar process. It went through phases over the course of my revisions—some versions of the manuscript were more restrained, others more lyrical, others sharper and more truncated. In the end I think I found an equilibrium. In some ways, I feel like I had to grow into her voice in perspective. When I first started thinking about this story, I was twenty-four—the same age my narrator is when she goes on holiday with her mother to Sailors Beach and falls for Jude, who is eighteen years her senior. Now, I’m closer to the age she is when she’s looking back on their relationship, and it took me some time to find my way to her more mature voice and perspective.
"There is always an aspect to our lovers that will remain unknown and mysterious. Maybe the poets understand this best."
I’m always curious to know more about an author’s intention when a character’s name isn’t shared. (There’s an unnamed narrator in Julia May Jonas’ Vladimir, and if I’m remembering correctly, she said the character’s name was ultimately unknown to her, which I found interesting). Is the narrator in Thirst for Salt nameless even to you, or do you know her name?
I tried, at certain points, to think of a name for my narrator but they all felt so artificial. Although the novel is not based on true events, I gave my narrator so many of my thoughts and feelings that the only name that felt right would have been my own. However, this would have invited questions I didn’t think would be productive and that I didn’t want to answer. There’s also a charge to anonymity that I find exciting. It allows the reader question how much of the story might be autobiographical, and also to potentially to imagine themselves into her situation more deeply.
Was the title and its significance something you settled on early on, or did it arrive to you near the end of the writing process?
The title is a reference to the Robert Hass poem, ‘Meditations at Lagunitas,’ and it came very late in the process. I read it during one of my final revisions, and I loved it so much that I wrote it into the book—it’s the one Jude quotes while sitting in the narrator’s back garden, early in their relationship. The book was already riddled with salt, so it fit perfectly. It was my agent who suggested Thirst for Salt as a title, and then we decided to cut original quotation from the manuscript. The poem speaks to desire and longing, and the idea of longing for something that ultimately can’t satisfy you seemed to capture something about the impossible love between the narrator and Jude.
I came across this quote from an Anne Carson play called Norma Jean Baker of Troy after I was done reading your book and it made me think of the narrator:
“Desire is about vanishing. You dream a bowl of cherries and next day receive a letter written in red juice.” What was your relationship to desire while writing Thirst for Salt? Do you find that you need to be in a certain headspace to write about it?
What a line! I haven’t read that play, but another Anne Carson line haunts Thirst for Salt.
“You’re hung up on the past,” my narrator’s mother says, in the opening scenes of the novel. “Why carry all that around with you?” This is a reference The Glass Essay, in which a mother charges her daughter with a similar question and she replies, “Where can I put it down?” For my narrator, and for Carson’s, I think, the page becomes the place for all those lingering memories and unresolved feelings to live.
In terms of desire, I was also thinking about Hass’s line, “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.” I think so much of desire and intimacy is about trying to bridge the distance between ourselves and another body or consciousness, which is never fully possible. There is always an aspect to our lovers that will remain unknown and mysterious. Maybe the poets understand this best.
I do also think that part of the tone of longing in the book came out as a response to writing about Australia while living away from it for the first time, and my own feelings of homesickness. It made me want to recall the landscape in all its particularity as a way of touching it again. It made it easy in a sense to relate to my narrator, because she’s also longing for both a place and a time in her life that she can’t reach anymore. Early on, I knew I wanted the novel to have a kind of elegiac quality.
Without giving anything away, how did you arrive at the ending—how did you know when the book was complete?
I think a lot about what Sam Shepard said about endings: “The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.”
There are certain questions that come up in Thirst for Salt about family and motherhood that I didn’t want to resolve because I didn’t want to imply that one choice is more valuable or more lacking than another. Also, in terms of the narrator’s feelings about Jude, I think some relationships leave a long afterimage, and that’s okay—maybe we don’t “get over” certain experiences because they become an indelible part of who we are, inseparable from our sense of self.
That said, I also wanted the emotional arc of the book to feel satisfying for the reader—to leave them with a sense that something has been gained or learned as a result of all this contemplation. My friend Cara Blue Adams (author of the brilliant linked story collection, You Never Get It Back) talked to me once about endings being a “resting place” for the characters. I found this framework helpful as a way to avoid the urge Shepard talks about to tie everything up neatly, because I just don’t think that kind of resolution is true to life. But I did want to leave her in a space where there was hope and possibility in her future, and also for her to be surrounded by love, even if it’s not the love she once imagined for herself.
The narrator mentions that her writing habits are nocturnal—is there a specific time of day (or an entire season) when writing comes more easily for you?
I used to romanticize the idea of the writer who stays up all night to work, which is where those scenes in Thirst for Salt come from. Unfortunately for me, since I’m not a natural morning person, I’ve found that I work best before the demands of the day begin to take over. This means that on the days I write, I get to it as soon as I’ve come home from walking the dog. The more I procrastinate, the harder it is to get into that space of deep focus. I think there’s also something about coming to the desk when I’m still waking up. If I’m still half in a dream state, I’m less critical of whatever I put down on the page.
"Writing is thought of as a solitary pursuit, but I don’t think you can do any of this alone. And why would you want to?"
We learn about Jude’s musical tastes in this great, sprawling paragraph—he listens to everyone from Lou Reed to Karen Dalton to Captain Beefheart. Are you a writer who listens to music as they work? What, if any, music informed the writing and mood of this book?
Music is such a big part of who I am, and how I think. There are other musical references throughout Thirst for Salt other than the scene you mentioned. King the dog, for example, is named after Neil Young’s ode to his canine companion, “Old King.” Writing that list of record titles was fun—I put it in there partly to show things about Jude that maybe he wouldn’t reveal otherwise, but also because great album titles are poetry. It offered another way to add beauty, and resonance to the text.
During the hours I spent writing the novel, the only thing I could listen to was Grouper. I wanted to the novel to feel intimate and insular in a similar way to her records, which are so atmospheric and textural. I’d sit down at my desk every morning and listen to her albums Grid of Points, Paradise Valley, Ruins, The Man Who Died in His Boat and Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, in that order. It became a ritual that helped me access the emotional mood of the novel while I worked on it over the years. There were other songs that helped me think through ideas and characters. You can read about some of them in an annotated playlist I made for Largerhearted Boy.
How old were you when you first realized you wanted to be a writer, and how does it feel now, to hold Thirst for Salt in your hands?
I don’t know when the ambition to do this professionally first arrived—most likely during high school—but I’ve felt the desire to write since I was a child. As Joan Didion writes in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook”: “I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle… Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” I remember reading this in my twenties and feeling seen!
I’ve also worked in bookstores at various points in my life—in fact, my first job as a teenager was working in a children’s bookshop—and it still seems amazing to me that my novel is now out there in a box of deliveries, waiting to be unpacked and put on the shelf. It feels completely surreal to have achieved my most long-treasured dream.
Do you think of who will read your work as you’re writing it?
I write the kind of fiction I like to read and want to encounter more of in the world. It’s not for everybody—an impossible metric for any piece of art to live up to—but I know that there are other readers out there who love the same books I do, and so I trust that there is audience for what I want to make, too.
Is there any advice you would share with other authors who are on the road to publishing their first book? Were there any pleasant surprises about the editing and/or publishing process, any obstacles you wish you had been better prepared for?
I’m going to pass on the advice that was given to me by my friend Allie Rowbottom, whose debut novel, Aesthetica, came out last year, which is: don’t be afraid to be your own champion and advocate for your work. Unless your first book is a runaway success, I don’t think contemporary writers have the luxury of being the mysterious writer in the woods anymore. The more you can do to build a strong, genuine community (online, wherever), the more likely you are to find the readers and other writers who will support what you do. I’d say that the nicest surprise in this regard is how generous people have been—all the writers who offered advanced praise, or interviewed me, or helped with events. Writing is thought of as a solitary pursuit, but I don’t think you can do any of this alone. And why would you want to?
Publishing is so unpredictable—what works for one book won’t necessarily work for another. And so, on that note, I think the most important thing is to give yourself the time to make the thing that you want to make. Writing and then publishing a novel is such a slow process, and so I don’t see the point in trying to rush it, especially as a debut. Late capitalism doesn’t tend to reward this kind of private, slow toil, and so it can be easy to lose sight of the point, which is the writing itself. At the end of the day, doing the work is the only reward you can rely, and it’s also the only part of it you can control. I’m a very impatient person, so this was probably the biggest lesson I had to learn. But if you make something you can believe in, no one can take that away from you—no matter what sales or reviews say.
"I think some relationships leave a long afterimage, and that’s okay—maybe we don’t 'get over' certain experiences because they become an indelible part of who we are, inseparable from our sense of self."
I know you’ve mentioned The Lover as an influence. Housekeeping is quoted in the epigraph. The Bell Jar, To Kill a Mockingbird and Play It As It Lays are mentioned throughout the novel—can you share some books that might have influenced Thirst for Salt, in terms of either the actual writing, or perhaps other books the narrator might have carried around with her in her day-to-day life?
A lot of the other books mentioned in Thirst for Salt—The Bell Jar, The Lover (which I did first read on a beach holiday), Voyage In the Dark—are ones that were important to me as a young woman when I first started writing, but they’re also very female-orientated coming of age stories. So, I mentioned them partly to acknowledge that I was writing into a literary tradition that, I think, still sometimes gets overlooked or is not given the same weight as the classic male bildungsroman e.g., Catcher In the Rye. It was when I was around twenty-three that I realized my literary education had been completely dominated by white male writers—this was also the time of movements like #ReadWomen—and I deliberately set out to correct this imbalance. Joan Didion, Jean Rhys, Renata Adler, and Elena Ferrante were all very important to me at that time. It would be impossible to list all my influences here, but I will say I imagine my narrator would have also loved The Neapolitan Trilogy, which came out in Australia around the time the main events in the book are set, but I wanted to avoid any references that would date the story to a specific cultural moment.
What is your relationship to the book now that it’s done, it’s printed, it’s in the hands of readers? Are you someone who sort of disassociates and thinks onto the next, or do you find yourself still dreaming in the narrator’s language, so to speak?
When I was recording and releasing music, I used to disassociate this way. I’d think, the album is out now, it’s not mine anymore, nothing to do with me! With the novel, it took up such a big part of my life that it’s harder let go and move on to something new. That said, I also don’t look back much at the work itself. I don’t obsess over things I would do differently or want to change, because I see the book as a record of who I was—my obsessions, thoughts, fears, desires—during the years of my life I was working on it. Everything you learn from one project, you bring with you to the next. But it’s going to take some time to figure out what ideas are going to dominate this new phase, and form those relationships with a new set of characters.
Interview by Emma Leokadia Walkiewicz
© Girls on the Page 2023