Riveting, Atmospheric New Fiction: An Interview with Lisa Duffy, Author of The Salt House

The Salt House, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
The Salt House, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

One of the things I love most about reading fiction is the opportunity to inhabit a consciousness completely alien to my own. Recently I’ve been an astronaut fleeing a post-apocalyptic earth; a WWII-era British soldier; a 1980s New York financier; and now…a grieving, conflicted Maine lobsterman. Strangely, this last one is the most foreign to me; before reading this book, I’d have been hard-pressed to think of even one paragraph from the perspective of a coastal Maine man in an industry I know nothing about. What would such a man think about? How would he spend his days, and how would he react to the collapse of his world?

Well, now I can answer those questions, thanks to this beautifully written family drama. The Salt House is the story of the Kelly family; Hope, a writer; her husband Jack, the fisherman; her sixteen year-old daughter Jess, and her eight year-old daughter Kat. All of them are still reeling a year after the day the youngest child, one year-old Maddie, goes down for a nap and is found dead in her crib a few hours later by her mother. Devastated, the Kellys abandon renovation of their dream home, an ocean-front cottage called the Salt House, too mired in the struggle with grief to regain the ordinary happiness they once took for granted. In addition, their finances are now precarious; Hope cannot bring herself to write and Jack’s lobster business is barely afloat, a preachment made worse by the startling return of his oldest rival, a troubled man named Ryland Finn. Hope and Jack, each concealing something from the other, find their marriage crumbling as their bewildered daughters try to cope with the loss of their baby sister.

It could have been grim, but this book is actually enchanting. Each of the Kellys—four very different people—is utterly believable and utterly lovable, their voices ringing with such authenticity that you’ll be pulling for them from the first sentence. It doesn't matter whether you are a lifelong coastal Maine resident yourself, or a Southern belle, or a Wyoming cowboy, or a Hollywood megastar: we’ve all—every one of us—contemplated the unspeakable plight of the Kellys. Who among us hasn't winced from the lancing blows of our worst fear—that someone we love will perish unexpectedly? It crosses the mind of every mother, every father, sometimes daily: What if he doesn't come home? What if she doesn't wake up? We banish these thoughts, but they occur to us all, worming back into our awareness with a little wriggle of terror. For the Kellys, there is no escape from the nightmare of this loss, but, as the book progresses, you’ll find yourself engrossed in the unexpected turns their lives take in the second year after Maddie’s death. A lovely, atmospheric, heart-wrenching book.

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KM: What was the genesis of The Salt House? Which came first to you, the idea of the characters—this specific family—or the plot?

LD: The Salt House started with Kat’s voice and that first sentence—The night Mom threw Dad out we had a dinner party at our house. I had that sentence in my mind long before I sat down and wrote the first chapter. But the story unfolded from there, and I knew early on that it was going to be a novel told in alternating perspectives from each member of the family.

KM: I had an easy time relating to Hope, the mother, and Jess, the oldest daughter (who is navigating her first romantic interest in the midst of all her family’s turmoil.) And the voice of Kat, the younger daughter, is so vivid and appealing. But I was most interested in Jack’s world. How much research into the fishing industry did you have to do? Did you grow up around boats?

LD: I grew up in the middle apartment of a triple decker twelve miles outside of Boston. But my father loved to sail, and my mother loved the ocean, so we spent a lot of time by the water. I love the New England coastline—how it’s so beautiful, yet utilitarian. Jack’s occupation as a fisherman and co-owner of Down East Lobster required a lot of research. The Lobster Gangs of Maine by James Echeson was an invaluable resource, as were a few folks directly connected to the fishing industry in Mid Coast Maine who were patient with my questions. My husband also spent a number of years in the Merchant Marine and worked as a deckhand on a lobster boat, so he was able to help me with the nautical terminology.

KM: The Salt House is centered around a tragedy, the death of baby Maddie, and the very different reactions and coping mechanisms of the four surviving members of her family. Was it difficult to envision four such separate perspectives? Did you relate to one of the characters more than the others? Which was the hardest character to write?

LD: It actually wasn’t difficult at all to imagine the different reactions and coping mechanisms because in a lot of ways I had a front row seat to a similar situation in my own family. My father passed away unexpectedly while I was writing The Salt House, and for a while, it truly did feel like life imitating art. Grief is universal—we all experience the feeling, but it’s also deeply personal. There’s no wrong or right to it. I didn’t relate more to one character or find one harder to write, but Kat was by far the most fun to write. She’s young and doesn’t have a full understanding of the events of her sister’s death. But she is aware, as most kids are, that she’s not in the know, so to speak. And her response to this is reactionary…she’s constantly pushing back and acting out. She’s not constrained by an idea of how she should act, so I had some freedom with her character, which was fun.

KM: Did you always have a clear view of how the story would end?

LD: Not at all. But I did have a sense, from the earliest pages, that this family would survive this tragedy. In my mind, it was always a story about resilience and the bonds of family and love transcending despair.

KM: What is your writing process like? What are you working on now?

LD: First drafts for me are tough. I’ll write a lot and then step away from it when I’m stuck, and focus on research or just catch up on other work that needs to be done, but I’m always thinking about what I’m working on, so when I’m ready to dive back in, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been out of touch.

Starting something new reminds me of redecorating when the kids were little. The house we lived in when they were young was a fixer upper, and there was always a room that needed to be painted. With three kids only four years apart, forget about free time, so I’d tape trim when they were playing on the floor next to me, or paint a windowsill when they were napping, and just leave the paintbrush in a plastic container for the day, submerged in paint, so I could just pick up whenever I had ten minutes. Then when it came time to roll the walls, the smaller stuff was done and it wasn’t this overwhelming project. I approach first drafts like that—just something every day until it’s done. When I’m revising, and the story is all there, I’ll work for as long of a stretch of time as my day will allow.

I’m working on book two now—a multigenerational story set in a working-class town just north of Boston.

KM: Finally: what are a few of your favorite reads?

LD: That’s a tough question…there are so many! But these titles will always stay at the top of my list.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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