Katherine Vaz, ABOVE THE SALT

Katherine Vaz, ABOVE THE SALT

Zibby welcomes Portuguese-American author Katherine Vaz to discuss ABOVE THE SALT, an irresistible and sweeping love story that follows two Portuguese refugees who flee religious violence and reignite their budding romance in Civil War America. Katherine shares the fascinating backstory of her novel, which is based on the true story of religious persecution in Portugal’s Madeira island, and then delves into her writing process and the importance of balancing poetic language with a compelling story. Katherine also shares her love of language (including the concept of “saudade”), the emotional inspirations she draws from her own life when writing, her next project, and her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katherine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Above the Salt: A Novel.

Katherine Vaz: First of all, thank you so much for inviting me on the program, Zibby. Thanks for all you do for writers because it’s so encouraging. Writers, we’re so solitary. This is a real treat.

Zibby: I’m so glad. Happy to help. I love writers. Speaking of, you are so breathtakingly talented, the way that you write. I feel like I’m reading a book that’s been assigned in school as an example of something. Your language, it’s just amazing, immersive, beautiful, otherworldly, soulful, spiritual. You’re a beautiful writer. I’m sure you know that.

Katherine: You know, it helps to hear that. It’s so encouraging. I will say that writers all have their challenges. It really makes sense to look at strengths and weaknesses. I worked with editors to hone the story and make the story, the spine of it, exist on the top of the book and carry people through. One of the most wonderful comments I’ve gotten are comments from readers saying, oh, yes, it’s a beautiful, poetic book, but the story was so great. It had twists and turns I didn’t expect. I cried here and there, which I love to hear, of course. That’s always very encouraging. I can give you the capsule version of the book.

Zibby: Yes.

Katherine: It’s based on a true story. I have Portuguese ancestry and have written a lot about the Portuguese in America. It’s a nice time to do that because suddenly, Portugal and Lisbon are just exploding with tourism and popularity. This is based on the true story of a group of people on the Portuguese island of Madeira who were converted to Presbyterianism, violently driven off the island. There was a boy named John Alves who was raised in jail with his mother, who was condemned to die for heresy. Believe it or not, Illinois adopted them, took them in. Very nineteen-century American generosity at work. John Alves met and courted and fell in love with someone he met in the Lincoln household. He went off to the Union Army, came back, and then something happened because he ended up wandering the West for decades before he found her again. It’s kind of a Love in the Time of Cholera meets Cold Mountain with a Latin/Portuguese element, I guess you could say.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness, wow. Do you mind if I just read a paragraph or something to give listeners a taste of your prose here?

Katherine: Please.

Zibby: This is still from the beginning. This is when John is in prison with his mom. He’s screaming. She’s just been taken away. “He gasped when his throat offered nothing more, not even raw bleating. Awash over him came music. People were singing the hymn “Pouring Out Our Rapture Sweet,” the sounds traveling, he guessed, from the hillock between the dolphin-flecked sea and the jail, men and women and children funneling words to heaven that heaven in turn was raining upon him. The tunny-fish in the tides swished and salted the wind that blew the melodies of these unseen souls to him. Someone was splitting pineapples with a machete, commanding the breezes to carry the juice’s spray. ‘O Happy Home, Where Thou Art Loved. Light of Light, Enlighten Me.’ The songs commanded him to abide by Mama’s anthem: If you live through one minute, you can survive the next, drink us up, eat us up, the world is a musical instrument. The banana trees sway like tall, jeweled women with violent hair who are mad to dance but only in one spot, such a racket, and someone, somewhere, is splitting a guava or beating egg whites until they form castles. Listen! Someone is opening a fish, lifting the spine by its tail to get to the meat still printed with the memory of its bones.” That’s just gorgeous. It’s just gorgeous. It’s so evocative. It’s all these things, even how birds can sustain you, just all the language. I don’t know. It’s just stunning.

Katherine: I had a lot of help with the practical work of making the story move. That comes naturally to me. My husband, bless his heart, says, “You know Katherine, you missed your calling. You should’ve been a poet.” To me, they’re one and the same. You can be a novelist who has a poetic voice. That just channels through me. There was a funny thing that happened. I live in New York City, as you do. I was walking in Gourmet Garage, if you remember that chain.

Zibby: Yes, yes.

Katherine: I was buying groceries. The only passage in that book that didn’t have revisions or changes was one when I was shopping at Gourmet Garage. The last passage in the entire book came whole into my head. It’s the only one I kept intact at the end. It was funny because I very calmly finished shopping. I went home. I sort of tilted my head forward and wrote verbatim what had come into my head. That’s a gift. Writers will tell you that’s the sort of thing that’s just this magical gift that happens. It’s very rare.

Zibby: Wow. Gourmet Garage, who knew? Now tons of people — it is out of business? I thought it was still there. I haven’t been.

Katherine: I think it’s out of business. I liked it. Unfortunately.

Zibby: Oh, no. You’ve written several other novels and short stories and children’s books. You are just a writer’s writer. How did this all begin? How have you been able to continually innovate and have more product and new ideas? Take us through how that has happened for you.

Katherine: I was one of those lucky people who, instead of just thinking of writing as something I wanted to do, I knew at the age of twelve, there was an actual moment where I thought, this is who I am. The voyage getting from there to here, I went to a Catholic school called Our Lady of Grace in California. Sister Anna Maria wrote something on the board and said, “Use these words in a sentence.” I don’t remember the sentence I wrote, but I remember the sensation of feeling like it just got given to me. I thought, this is what I want for the rest of my life. Being a child, I didn’t realize how circuitous the road would be. I think we all know that sensation where you are kind of wandering. You don’t know what to do. You don’t know what’s right about whatever you’re dealing with. Suddenly, you think, ah, that’s it. The issue for just life in general, not just writers, is the patience required to get to those moments where you think, this is it. In this case for this book, I was giving a — it accumulates. Your life accumulates. I was invited to give a talk at the Library of Congress in the Hispanic division about my previous book. The woman in charge said, “They have a really strange exhibit in the map room. I really want to show you.” It was something called the Portuguese Protestants of Illinois, which made us laugh. She said, “You know, this sounds like something that would be right up your alley.”

I did a little preliminary research, but I thought, oh, I don’t know. It was like my own love story. I don’t know about this guy. I don’t know if I want to get involved. Then suddenly, I read an interview with him in which he talks about being an old man going back to the Lincoln household. I have this in the book. He is so overcome with memories of love when he was a young man that his hand is shaking too much to sign the Lincoln guestbook. Another person there has to do it for him. That kept me going. It took over fifteen years to write this book. That kept me going. Not the goals or the plot so much as that moment of, what kind of love was that that as an old man the memory is making him shake so much he can’t sign his name, a competent person, physically able, can’t sign his name? When I was in Illinois doing research, there was a wonderful moment where they were so happy in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library that I was not there to check genealogy, like my great-great-uncle was the pallbearer of a Lincoln, that kind of thing, that they kept running down to the vault for me and saying, “Let’s get the guestbook up. Let’s get Mary Todd Lincoln’s cookbook. Let’s bring it up,” which was wonderful because the dessert pages were stuck together with sugar. I’m a real believer in, when you do a book, it’s not just fact or word, it’s bringing the world into your veins and going out and being surprised, meeting people.

In Illinois, I met a botanist at Illinois College named Dr. Lawrence Zettler who was developing ghost orchid perfume. I thought, that has to be a cameo in my book because who knew that ghost orchids were out on the prairie of Illinois? It was only last year that in London at the Royal Horticultural Garden annual event he gave me a vial of ghost orchid perfume. We went there basically to get it. I wish I could tell you it’s this intoxicating, wonderful scent, but it was kind of neutral smelling. I think research, like life, you have to say, all right world, let me open my veins. Emily Dickinson has a beautiful line about keeping the soul ajar. That is what writers have to do. We get very goal oriented. We get, here’s my plan. Here’s my outline. Then we miss that point of going from discipline and will into inspiration and saying, all right, tell me what the story is. That part of it really took a lot of years to get right in terms of writing these characters. It’s been a real thrill to have it done, though, I must say. It got into People magazine as a Book of the Week. You put it on your top-fifteen list for November. I’ve been so heartened by readers writing to me saying that they fell in love with Mary and John and my characters. That means the world to me as a writer. That just made it all worthwhile.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Keeping the soul open, I love that. I feel like in your book, the way you write about love is particularly soulful, impactful. What are you tapping into in your own life, if anything? Which loves are you sort of putting an IV into and draining?

Katherine: That’s a really great question. One thing I wanted to get across is — there’s this wonderful Portuguese word that people are hearing more and more now, which is sodade. In Brazil, they say saudade. It’s supposed to be one of those impossible-to-define words. It means a kind of longing for people or places that are missing so that the absence of them is the biggest presence in your life. You can have sodade for people who are still in your life, but there’s that longing. I think that attitude, that a capacity for grief and sorrow increases your capacity for joy and love, was something that I always grew up with. That emotional capacity is large if you can contain all those things. Being in love with someone else, of course, you accept grief that might come. You take it all in. One of the things that happened to me personally when I was writing the book was my father died. This is now about ten years ago. I was one third of the way through. He’s kind of in the character of — in fact, his name was August, Mary’s father. He was a magical gardener. That got me through that.

I put a lot of the love I had for my dad, who came from the Azores — his family came from the Azores. I felt a lot of love and missing him. I think the love of Mary for her father was the flip side of my grief. I think that those aren’t opposites. We tend to shy away from grief and sadness. I think the idea of embracing it is part of being — having a large capacity is important. There’s another personal thing, which is a lot more fun, which is that at the beginning of this book when I was at the Radcliffe Institute first starting it, I met Christoper Cerf. The entire span of our relationship together has been this book. I’ve been putting my own love story while writing this long love story — I won’t tell people how it turns out later in life. That fueled me too. Books and language are a way of sharing the language we all feel inside but we don’t really use on a day-to-day basis. We can’t. Even when you’re fond of someone, even when you love someone, you don’t constantly say it. We all come up with clichés when we try to comfort people or say we love someone. I think language and books and love stories are a way of really getting into that bedrock of emotion where language can help us connect with each other.

Zibby: Wow, that’s beautiful. Really beautiful. I’m so sorry about your dad. Now I want to hear more about your falling in love with Christopher Cerf, who, by the way, was on this podcast many years ago.

Katherine: Yes, he was.

Zibby: Tell me about that. What was that like? Were you both married previously? This is none of my business, but tell me anyway.

Katherine: Second marriages for both, later in life. I will say this is very amusing because I have young people, both men and women, young men and women, who come up and say, oh, my god, you’re my model because otherwise, I just want to give up. I said, well, I did give up. I was alone for a number of years. It had that feeling of a later-in-life love when I met Chris. We had actually met twenty-five years before in California but didn’t even go out. He lived in New York. I lived in California. I was at the Radcliffe Institute at a party. A wonderful woman named Lindy Hess, who people in the publishing world will recognize as someone who is this wonderful person able to put editors in all sorts of places — she ran a publishing program, the Columbia Publishing program — said his name. I said, “Oh, my gosh, I haven’t heard that name in years.” I had a friend named Varley O’Connor who had a book coming out with Bellevue Literary Press, which was put out by Bellevue Hospital. They were doing books on medical topics. She had a novel called The Cure coming out. I said to him, “I’m going to a book party at Bellevue Hospital. You’re welcome to join me.” Our first date was at Bellevue Hospital for a book party, which was a wonderful marriage of all sorts of things. I knew my life had changed right away. This is very romantic, but we kissed in the cab, kind of sat back like it was a movie scene. I got out and went to my hotel, sat on the end of the bed. We had dinner and talked for four hours. The phone rang again. He said, “I wanted to hear your voice again.” That was it for me. That was fifteen years ago.

Zibby: Aw.

Katherine: I know. Whenever we have a quarrel, I think, oh, but you have such a good story. Stick to the chorus. He’s very dear. Of course, he comes from a publishing family. His dad started Random House. Chris went into Sesame Street. He’s a joyful, colorful person. That inspires me. I married someone who really inspires me.

Zibby: Amazing. Oh, my gosh, I love that. You said you were working on this for fifteen years. Meanwhile, you’ve had all these other things come out and have been so prolific in so many ways. What happened? Do you just leave it on the computer and every so often go back to it? How do you keep the momentum without forgetting what’s happening? I feel like if I don’t work on something for a little bit, then I have to read it all the way from the beginning. Then I’ve wasted all this time. I’m like, forget it. How do you keep going back into something over a prolonged period of time without losing the thread and keeping all the momentum?

Katherine: The proper answer to that is I do lose the momentum. I do get lost. I do lose the thread. I have to go and say, maybe I’ve lost that for a reason. Maybe the world is trying to tell me something. I try to go back. It accumulates, but I feel like I work very slowly. There’s a wonderful thing — if I can give a gift to your listeners, it’s that — a friend introduced me to something called the Pomodoro Technique? Do you know what that is?

Zibby: Yes, I’ve heard other authors talk about it.

Katherine: You can google it. People who are listening can look it up. In brief, it’s twenty-five-minute timed work sessions that sound awful and too disciplined and uptight. I thought, oh, no, I don’t think this would work, but a very magical thing happened. Suddenly, twenty-five minutes goes. The timer rings. You think, how did I do that? I just wrote a page. I think there’s a capacity you have to have for letting the world surprise you and letting the world come in and say, here’s what’s going to happen. When you try to will something in place, it doesn’t work as much as saying, all right world, let me embrace you and see what happens. One of the things that happened is twenty years after finished my second book, which was called Mariana, which is about a nun who has a love affair in Portugal — it’s based, also, on a possibly true story. That was in six languages. It did better in Europe because she’s a romantic icon in Europe. Twenty years after that, a woman named Anne Harrison, who’d been optioning it, found a woman named Sandy Welch in London to do the screenplay, which is now in process. Sandy is a very accomplished, wonderful artist who’s done a lot of things for the BBC, like Jane Eyre, Emma. She does these literary adaptations. That came after twenty years of finishing something. One thing that does keep me going is trying to be calm and saying, all right world, what gifts are out there? The world is such a tormented, difficult place full of so much horror and conflict. I think a capacity for saying, please world, be beautiful and do something, maybe I can share it — well, who knows? That’s kept me going. That’s kept me going as a writer.

Zibby: Wow, that’s beautiful. What are you working on now that this big work has come out?

Katherine: I’m actually trying my hand at a screenplay based on one of my stories. I studied screenplays back in my twenties to learn about story structure. That was a, usually, useful tool. I’ve had a lot of students who have gone on to be very successful in the screenwriting world and writing. They say, “You know Katherine, you taught us how to do that and use movies as example about story spines. Why don’t you try one?” I think I’m still a novelist and short story writer, but I’m doing that as a way of moving on. My next book, here’s what I hope, that it’s short, contemporary, and funny. We’ll see if that happens, but that’s my aim. I just read Beastings, which made me laugh a lot. It’s a tough book too. I thought, this is wonderful, a family and a humorous story. It seems like something to try, so something short and contemporary. I think it’s very difficult for writers to be in that fallow period where you think, all right, what’s next? Learning that kind of patience is another kind of lesson.

Zibby: What else are you reading?

Katherine: At the moment, I’ve just started Open Throat by Henry Hoke. I just read Andrew Ridker’s Hope. He’s someone I met at the breakfast you hosted. I loved that book. I just finished that. The Center for Fiction sent me some books because we’re friends. Let Us Descend is next on my list. I did want to read The Prophet by Paul Lynch. I’ve got that lined up. I’ve had the James McBride, Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, queued up to move onto as well. I’ve got a pile of New Yorkers to get through. I think reading is a good thing to fill up with in these in-between phases. I tend to work on one thing at once so that my brain can stay attuned to the one thing without jumping, trying to be calm and waiting for those things that might happen for the thing I’m working on. Other people have different ways of doing things, but that’s mine.

Zibby: Amazing. Last, pieces of advice for aspiring authors?

Katherine: I think I have a really creative one, which is, don’t call yourself aspiring. You can change your life the moment you decide who you are without getting out of the chair where you’re listening if you say not, I want to do this one day, but I am a writer. I believe in making actual physical gestures to the world to be part of that community in a generous, heart-responsive way. For example, when I was a somewhat penniless college student and I knew who I was and what I wanted to be and I wasn’t sure how to join that world — I didn’t really know any writers. I decided to subscribe to a few literary magazines, which at the time came in the mail to you, and to read them. That was my way of contributing to the arts, you might say. Some gesture to the world. There was a well-known artist I met in Los Angeles who said to me something that haunted me and stayed with me. He said, “Never trust anyone who’s jealous for the successes of his friends or her friends.” I think being bighearted is the way to go. Decide who you are. Look up the Pomodoro Technique, maybe. Belong to the world immediately. Then it’s a long road that will be run.

Zibby: That’s amazing. So inspiring. What a story, both your own story and Above the Salt. Congratulations. It’s just a pleasure to talk to you.

Katherine: This was such a pleasure. I’ve been looking forward to it so, so much. Thank you again for just championing authors and books and writers because it does make a difference. Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Thank you so much. Hope to see you again soon. Bye, Katherine.

Katherine: Buh-bye.

ABOVE THE SALT by Katherine Vaz

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