Madelaine Lucas, THIRST FOR SALT

Madelaine Lucas, THIRST FOR SALT

Debut author Madelaine Lucas joins Zibby to discuss Thirst for Salt, a mesmerizing, sensuous, and lyrical novel about a woman’s long-ago holiday affair with a man 18 years her senior and, many years later, her reckoning with the choices she made. Madelaine talks about her unique editorial and stylistic choices, gorgeous cover, and the decision to explore a fascinating trope: relationships with significant age gaps. She also talks about her childhood, her funk-rock musician father, her love of music, her MFA experience, and the books she has read recently and loved.


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

Madelaine Lucas: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to our conversation.

Zibby: Me too. Start off, please, by telling listeners what Thirst for Salt is about.

Madelaine: Thirst for Salt is the story of a formative love affair a woman had when she was twenty-four with a man eighteen years her senior called Jude in a small fictional Australian coastal town called Sailors Beach. They meet when she’s on holiday with her mother and feeling adrift after finishing university. Quickly, she finds herself pulled to simple, seductive rhythms of this everyday life. As their relationship deepens, she believes that life with Jude at Sailors Beach might offer her the stability she’s been lacking after growing up as the daughter of two drifters, a loving but impulse mother and an itinerant, largely absent father. The arrival of Maeve, a woman from Jude’s past, threatens to rock their newfound intimacy. Now looking back on their time together years later, those questions about family and home have gained new urgency. She has to reckon with the choices she made that year at Sailors Beach and how they shaped what she imagines for her life in the future.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you for that. I loved, by the way, how at first, she was thinking, twenty-four and forty-two, how the numbers were reverse of each other when she thought about Jude’s age. It helps us as the reader remember how old they are too, so thank you for that. This book is so beautifully written. It’s obviously so literary. You did things stylistically in here which further cement that, like the lack of quotation marks and even some of the typeset flourishes that you use. Tell me about that packaging part of it and the form that you decided to take for the story.

Madelaine: I was really excited that my publisher supported some of those slightly more unconventional choices. For me, what I really wanted to replicate on the page was the experience of really being inside someone’s mind and their memories. If there was to be quotation marks, I would sort of see one at the start of the novel and one at the end. In my mind, the narrator is recounting or telling you the whole story, not necessarily spoken out loud. I don’t think of the dialogue, I suppose, as being a direct quotation, more of her memory of things that were said. Stylistically, I just liked the way it looked as well. It’s a little cleaner on the page. I know it can be a little alienating to some readers. Then I remembered Sally Rooney doesn’t use quotation marks. She gets away with it, so maybe I can too.

Zibby: How did you come up with this character Jude and their whole relationship? What was it that excited you about writing about this over time? Also, did you consider writing it not looking back from later, but having it just happen and then fast-forwarding at the end?

Madelaine: That was a suggestion that I got pretty early on when I was trying out early versions of this novel in workshop. It had a very different form back then. I was thinking of it more as collected short stories rather than a novel structure. A few people suggested when they read the original draft, why don’t you just write the story of that summer? For me, the narrative distance was always super important to the telling of the story. As a writer and as a person, I’m just much more at home in the past tense. One of the reasons I write in the first place is because I don’t really understand how I feel about something in the heat of the moment. It’s only through looking back and through writing it that I feel like I can kind of untangle some of those feelings or emotions. I also think that especially in terms of relationships, we don’t really know, necessarily, how formative they’re going to be until afterwards. I really wanted to see what it would be like for this narrator to look back on that experience that she had when she was in her middle twenties now being closer to Jude’s age and how her perspective on that dynamic would’ve changed. I also think that one of the feelings that I really wanted to create in the novel was this sense of longing, both for a person and for a place and a time in your life that’s no longer accessible. If it was told in the present tense, you wouldn’t have that kind of distance.

Zibby: I like it. Good choice, then.

Madelaine: Thank you.

Zibby: I don’t even know what made me ask that. I love hearing about why people make all the choices that they do because there’s always a reason. How involved were you in the cover? This cover is so perfect for this book.

Madelaine: Thank you. I love the cover so much. It was Beth Steidle at Tin House that came up with the design. It took a couple of rounds for us to get there, but I’m so happy with how we ended up. My editor said to me early on in the process, “I don’t think any author is ever ready to see their cover, no matter whether it’s good or bad or they love it or they hate it or however they come to feel about it.” I think she’s right because it’s really the first moment that you see your book as a product that exists outside of your vision for it. A book cover has all sorts of different aims. I’m so happy with where it ended up. I love this idea of a woman being alone in the water because that’s such a big theme of the novel too.

Zibby: Totally. Yes, it’s amazing. What do we think about relationships that take place across big age gaps? This is a modern trope that is used all the time. Not all the time, but it happens. My grandfather’s second wife was younger than my mom. There are lots of relationships across time. What do you think some of the pitfalls or some of the — I don’t know. What should we take away from their relationship about big gaps?

Madelaine: I suppose one of the things I wanted to do in the novel is kind of resist coming out as for or against or, this is problematic or it’s not problematic, and just wade into some of those complications that can happen when there’s a gap between ages. I think you’re right. I think it is a familiar trope or a cliché. That’s part of the reason I wanted to investigate it. I think clichés exist for a reason. These are patterns that happen. I felt like I could bring maybe a little bit more nuance to this relationship than I’d seen portrayed otherwise. Particularly, pop culture, if we look at the age gap between a young woman and an older man, it’s often told from his perspective. It’s his desire for her that drives the narrative. For me, the question of, “What is this younger woman looking for in Jude, in this older man?” that was more interesting to me. I just wanted to show the ways that she can also have agency, that she might also be teaching things to him or reminding him of things that he’s forgotten at that point in her life. In a lot of ways, I just wanted to wade in and ask those questions rather than answer them.

Zibby: “Wade in” is a good analogy for this book too.

Madelaine: Yes. No pun intended.

Zibby: Would you mind if I read a passage or two that I thought were really beautiful?

Madelaine: Please. Of course. I would love that.

Zibby: One is how you describe somebody. I’ve tried to write fiction. I find it impossible to describe something that I have in my head and get it down on the page. I felt like you did such a good job. Then just across the page, you write about a description which also is beautiful. Just two paragraphs. First, you wrote, “But how old, exactly? I’d never been a good guesser of ages, and I could no longer easily recall the way I saw him as a stranger. His face would become more familiar to me than my own father’s, the crease between his brows that reminded me of a cowboy in an old movie, bump on the bridge of his nose where it might once have been broken, though that day as he stood in front of me, wet hair wilting the collar of his shirt, patch of damp above his breast pocket like an ink stain, I couldn’t guess how, a drunken fall, a fist fight, some feat of athletics long ago. He was handsome, though not in the way I imagined he would’ve been when he was younger, burned-out look around the eyes, deep-set and slate that day, though I’d learn in time that they were changeable, like moods, like weather.” That was so good. One more passage about the beach. “Bondi Beach was crowded with bodies browning in the sun, tourists staying where the waves were waist-high, never going out too deep, afraid of what might lurk beneath the dark and choppy water. Sand, hot and grainy and yellow, burned your feet to walk across it. It was not like Sailors, where bush grew around the fringes of the shore making it feel sheltered, secluded. Down south, the sand was soft and white as baker’s sugar, and you could scoop up handfuls of sea water, pool it in your cupped palms and watch it run clear as it slipped through your fingers.” So good.

Madelaine: You read that so beautifully. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks. It is so beautifully written. It’s so evocative. The way you write, it’s calming. There’s something about the cadence of it that makes me feel calmer. You’re slowly immersing us into your scenes and places. Just these little comparisons you draw or the way you do it so subtly really brings us there without you being too overt about it. I don’t know. It’s a skill.

Madelaine: Thank you. It wasn’t easy. It definitely took a lot of time and a lot of revision trying to get that balance right, trying to allow the prose to feel immersive but also not dragging or too indulgent either with description. Something I was thinking about a lot in the novel is the idea of desire. I wanted to capture this, on one hand, an ambient sense of desire for the life not lived because I think that’s so much a part of who we are too. The choices that we don’t make in our lives, they can be just as formative as the choice we do make. Then on the other hand, wanting to snap into these moments that would feel really visceral and alive and present. Part of the way I tried to do that was through the descriptions of the landscape to just try and bring the reader into those scenes and into that place.

Zibby: I love it. I would like to go there, even though you made it up.

Madelaine: It is based on a real town. A lot of Sailors Beach is drawn from the south coast area of New South Wales, the Jervis Bay region. It is that gorgeous. The sand is white. The water is turquoise. The best places do feel really secluded and private and empty. It’s less and less that way now, which is partly why I gave the town a fictional name. It gave me a bit more flexibility. The specific beach I had in mind, Hyams Beach, is now a very popular, wealthy tourist destination. It’s changed a lot from how I remember it from when I was a child.

Zibby: Yesterday, Tracey Cox, who hosts one of our shows, and I used to host a show with her, she posted a place that sounds a lot like what you were describing. She said where it was. I literally wrote back, and I was like, “Where are you? I’m getting on a plane. I have to be where you are. It is the most gorgeous place.” Australia’s a little too far to hop over to. It sounds just amazing. I really liked the depiction of — what is your main character’s name? I’m sorry, I always forget names.

Madelaine: She’s actually anonymous, so .

Zibby: Oh, great. Good. Great. Thank you for sparing me that. I like the anonymous character’s relationship with her mom and the closeness to her mom and the things that they understand about each other and don’t and all of that. Tell me about that relationship and how it was writing that and just all about that.

Madelaine: I’m so glad that that came through because even though there is this central love affair at the core of the novel, I really did want it to grapple with many different kinds of love. The narrator’s relationship with her mother is one of the most important versions of that. In a lot of ways, I think of the novel as being a very specific kind of female coming-of-age story. I think so much of coming of age as a young woman and the choices you make are really influenced by the choices you saw your mother make, whether you’re trying to choose actively against them or you’re trying to emulate them. I just feel like it’s always kind of in conversation with your mother and her life, especially when it comes to her relationships with men or her decision to have children and things like that. I did, in a lot of ways, see the narrator’s relationship with her mom to be more central to her relationship with Jude. Part of that as well was that the narrator was raised, until she was twelve, as the only child of a single mother. I think that also affects the dynamic. You end up taking on different roles for each other. Part of that is based on my experience, too, growing up for many years as the daughter of a single mother and how you form a kind of special closeness.

Zibby: Then you had a sibling? What happened then?

Madelaine: Yes, two younger half-brothers. My narrator has one younger half-brother. I couldn’t quite manage to — I didn’t have space for that many characters.

Zibby: I read in your bio you have a rock-and-roll musician father.

Madelaine: That’s right.

Zibby: What was that like? Were they divorced? Is that why you had a single mom?

Madelaine: Yeah. My parents, like my narrator’s, separated when I was very young. We moved around a lot when I was growing up. A lot of this novel is not autobiographical at all, but there are elements drawn from my own childhood, especially what it was like to grow up with creative, somewhat transient parents. My dad is great. He’s actually the opposite of a cliché rock-and-roll dad. He was very hands-on when I was growing up. He’s an amazing cook. He cooks like an English grandmother. Growing up the way that I did definitely taught me that people are always full of more complexity than you’d imagine.

Zibby: Wait, I have never heard somebody to be described as cooking like an English grandmother. What does that even mean? What does an English grandmother cook like? I’m thinking porridge or something when you say that.

Madelaine: Sunday roasts. He bakes bread, upside-down cakes, classic old-school.

Zibby: Wow, very traditional.

Madelaine: He was raised by his English grandmother, so I think a lot of that trickled down.

Zibby: Got it. What kind of musician? Are you musical too?

Madelaine: For most of my early twenties before I started focusing on writing, I was in a band with my now husband. We played a lot in Sydney. That was really my main focus. My dad is a funk rock musician. My music was very different. It was much more folk country, singer-songwriter. I love playing music. It’s such a big part of who I am. I think that at a certain point in my mid-twenties when I was having a similar reckoning to my narrator of, “How am I supposed to survive in the world outside the institutions of family or university?” I realized that I wanted still a creative life, but maybe one with just a touch more stability than I had grown up with. My incredible solution to that was to go and get an MFA in creative writing, which now seems hilarious to me that that was my stable halfway.

Zibby: That’s really funny. I like stability. I think I’m going to be a writer.

Madelaine: I think it’s a real testament to the way that I grew up that that seemed like the sensible choice.

Zibby: Interesting. That’s awesome. There are so many authors who have the music gene. Writing is such a creative act in and of itself. It is art that writers create. It’s just another form of it. I’ve been finding lots of cross-sections or overlaps. I remember a long time ago my former mother-in-law said, “You don’t just write. You must do something else that’s creative.” I was like, “No. I can’t paint. I can’t draw.” She’s like, “There must be something.” I was like, “I love photography.” She’s like, “There you go.” There’s usually something else when that part of your brain is activated.

Madelaine: I think so. I also think it’s healthy to have more than one passion just so you can bounce between the two. As you would know, inevitably with writing, you have these moments of frustration, of writer’s block. It can be really helpful to have something else that you do that is creative but you can maybe just enjoy for pleasure a little bit more that doesn’t feel as much like work.

Zibby: Were you the singer in the band?

Madelaine: Yes.

Zibby: Did you have an album or anything?

Madelaine: We have a couple of things lurking online on Bandcamp. This was in the pre-Spotify days, so there isn’t too much of an internet trail, really.

Zibby: What was your band called?

Madelaine: Devotional.

Zibby: That’s good.

Madelaine: It was very Mazzy Star-esque.

Zibby: That’s great. So you got an MFA for some stability. Then you started writing. Tell me what it was like working on this novel and then even selling the novel.

Madelaine: I feel really lucky that a lot of working through the novel was done while I was a student at Columbia or afterwards doing this teaching fellowship. I did have that sense of stability or structure and also felt like I had time to make what I wanted to make, which I think is a really rare gift. I started working on it in earnest in 2018 after writing these stories for a little while that I was thinking would be connected. Then it was about two years of just working on it on my own before I signed with my agent. We did some more revisions. Six months later, we sent it out. It’s such a slow process, publishing a book. It made me glad that I didn’t rush. It takes so long anyway, so I think there’s kind of no point in rushing the part that really, in a lot of ways, is the most enjoyable, when you’re alone with the project and it’s just yours.

Zibby: That’s nice. Did you start another project yet? Are you done? Where are you with more writing?

Madelaine: I have an idea for another novel, but I’m kind of just enjoying letting it percolate in the back of my mind right now. I really feel that so much of the writing is done when you’re doing other things. It feels good to just start to be thinking about something new. I also love writing short fiction. I’m excited now. I’m done with this novel. I’m doing a lot of publicity stuff for it right now. I’m looking forward to playing with the shorter form again and returning to that after working on something so long for so many years.

Zibby: Pretty soon, you’ll be down to poetry. Now we see why it’s such an appealing form.

Madelaine: Just whittling it down shorter and shorter.

Zibby: You’re like, I can accomplish this in an afternoon and then just publish it. There it is. Very rewarding. What are some of the books that you love or have loved in the past or are reading now?

Madelaine: It’s such a great question. I feel like inevitably, my mind goes blank whenever anyone asks me.

Zibby: I know. I’m sorry. I always do that too.

Madelaine: I can tell you for sure some favorites that I’ve returned to during the process of working on Thirst for Salt. I loved The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. We were talking about dogs just before this call got started. There’s an important dog character in Thirst for Salt too. It’s such a beautiful book. Even though its themes are quite heavy in terms of grief and suicide, I do find it really affirming and comforting to read because it’s a reminder that there’s always something to be gained from love even if there’s a risk of loss. I also loved Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. That was another big influence on Thirst for Salt, the way that she thinks about absence and transience and how that can shape the way someone inhabits a home. Let me see. What else? I also love this book called Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima, which was a Japanese writer originally publishing in the seventies but only recently translated into English. It’s such a beautiful book about a woman and her young daughter in the aftermath of a divorce and their very circumscribed day-to-day life in their apartment in Tokyo. I actually read that in the pandemic. It was one of the few things that, even though it was written for another time, really connected with that experience of feeling really isolated in this tiny little micro domestic world. That really stayed with me as well.

Zibby: That’s great. Who are some of your favorite singers, songwriters, bands? What do you listen to when you’re working, when you’re not working?

Madelaine: That’s such a great question. In a lot of ways, I’m drawn to music that’s similar to the books I read. I love atmosphere. I love texture, confessional emotion. A lot of my favorites are country folk musicians, so Lucinda Williams, Joni Mitchell. I mentioned Mazzy Star before. Again, very immersive and textural.

Zibby: I feel like it’s so clear, the tone of your book. That’s why I’m asking more about the music piece too. It just feels so lyrical, I guess. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Madelaine: Circling back to what I was saying before, I would just encourage aspiring writers to take the time that they need to make the thing that they want to make. One of the beautiful things about writing a novel is that you live in this project for a long time. Especially with a debut, one of the things that’s special about first novels is that they contain all of your growth during that period, both as a human and as a writer. The rewards of publishing are really highly unpredictable. I think that it’s also important to trust your own vision. Try and remain focused on the story that is most important for you to tell because I feel like there’s no other reason to do it.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much, Madelaine. Congratulations on Thirst for Salt. Thanks again for doing an event at Zibby’s Bookshop in Santa Monia. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there.

Madelaine: It was a pleasure.

Zibby: Hope our paths will cross soon.

Madelaine: Thank you so much. Thanks for chatting with me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Thank you. Take care.

Madelaine: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Madelaine Lucas, THIRST FOR SALT

THIRST FOR SALT by Madelaine Lucas

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