AN INTERVIEW WITH ISABEL ZUBER
Patty Smith: This is Patty Smith, an instructor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I'm here at VCU talking with writer Isabel Zuber, winner of the 2003 VCU First Novelist Award, for her novel, Salt, published by Picador in 2002.
Isabel Zuber: Thank you, Patty.
PS: I wanted to talk about the opening of the book. Although most of the book takes place in the late 1800's and just after the turn of the century, you open the book in 1932 with Anna's son discovering a packet of old love letters his mother received. I was wondering if you could talk about the decision to open your book at that particular point, and what does it say about how we are to think of Anna and her life?
IZ: The book didn't begin there originally; this is a late addition, and I'm interested that you zeroed in on that. It originally started with Anna waking up because there's somebody out in the garden in the middle of the night. That's a terrible cliché. Zeroing in on somebody asleep, in bed, their eyes open. My editor did not like that, wanted something else. So what I tried to set up in that first scene was a mystery: Anna, the mother, is a mystery to her son. And in that scene, several things are set up that are not really true, and you don't find out until later that it's inaccurate. It's a flash forward, it's what Roland thinks—he's wrong about a lot of things. By the end of the book the reader will know a lot more about his mother than he knew. That's what I wanted to put in that scene.
I have heard a lot of readers, Patty, who say they have to go back and read that scene again.
PS: I was the same way. I read it and it does what you ask it to do, it does set you up for the mystery. You wonder who the letters are from, and in the end we find out they're from Martin, this man that she's had an affair with, but we don't see a lot of Martin; he doesn't get a lot of space on the page, so I was curious about the decision to open with the discovery of his love letters.
IZ: Letters play an important part in the book.
PS: They do. They do.
IZ: In fact, I have a whole reading that is just about letters. This afternoon, one of the participants in the workshop said she was so glad that Anna got to have that affair—because she got back at her rotten husband! My daughter-in-law did not like that scene. She said that that Martin was too good to be true, that he was a fantasy figure. And I think that's true, but I wanted him there and I wanted those letters there from the very beginning.
PS: Well, it's true, that was, in fact, my next question, that stories and letters and words play an important role in Salt. It seems to me from the novel John receives early on from his teacher, to the books Anna encounters at the Albas' and the stories that are read out loud by Mr. Alba; the books that Anna has to sneak from Yale Leftwich's store, and the poems that Martin writes at the end, and I was wondering if you could talk about that and also maybe the role of the Fox Woman, the story of the Fox Woman.
IZ: One of my readers wanted me to put more literary allusions and quotations and that, and I put a few more than I had. I like the Hardy poem that I used at the end ["The Self Unseeing," by Thomas Hardy], which I was not familiar with. I went back and looked that up and put that in. I think these enrich the story. Are you aware that the ghost that appears to Anna is Wilkie Collins? I wanted that to be the connection between a writer and a reader that transcends the grave; he appears to her on the day he dies. And that description, that is Wilkie Collins, that's what he looked like.
About Fox Woman, I was telling them this afternoon in the novel workshop that I had read a book called Coyote Was Going There, which was Native American literature from the Northwest. Violent, strong stuff; adultery, murder, all this—not the folk tales I grew up thinking were Native American literature. This is something quite different. And a lot of things about shape-shifters. Usually, in Native American literature those are bears; there's a real close affinity between humans and bears, and their thinking. But I wanted something different. Patty, I don't know where this thing came from. I woke up one morning when I was at Hambidge and there was all of Fox Woman; I wrote it all out.
PS: That's great.
IZ: Now later, as I was telling you, I took this and put it in three different places in the novel because I wanted the last part of Fox Woman to be near the end of the book. Oh, I had a wonderful time doing that. One of the reviewers of the book thought that was a very, very ominous story because of the way it ended.
PS: Is that how you intended it to be? Like an omen, a bad omen to Anna.
IZ: No, not really; it just seemed to me that's the way that story had to end to see that connection—that was interesting to me, that a reviewer would feel that.
PS: Also, the land obviously plays such a huge role in the book, and also for the characters, for John, obviously, that's his desire—to own more land, to work more land, to make money from the land . . .
IZ: To chop the trees down on it.
PS: That's right. And Anna, too, the land is really a strong part of her and her background and where she came from, and the description of place is really striking in the book. It's beautiful, and I was wondering if you could talk about the role place plays in your work, generally.
IZ: We were discussing that this afternoon, too, and someone asked me if I considered myself an Appalachian author or a Southern author. And we were talking about what the difference is, and one of the things I said was, of course, the Civil War division, and if you were slaves in the mountains, but the other thing is the mountains themselves. There is just something about that kind of land that gets to people, you know, Charles Frazier, and everybody. I told them that when I was little and I came down into the flat country I thought something terrible had happened to it.
PS: Really? So you grew up in the mountains.
IZ: Oh yes, I'm originally from Boone. So place is extremely important. The land is a character.
PS: That's right. Is that true also of your poetry? That land figures so centrally?
IZ: No. Not as much. Not as much.
PS: Well, that's interesting. What about, maybe you could talk a little bit about the move from poetry to fiction. What was that like for you? Had you always worked on fiction while you were writing poems?
IZ: Yes, I'd always done both. This is the first novel, but I've always written short fiction and poetry as well, and have published a number of short stories in journals, as well as two poetry chapbooks. It didn't seem that different to me. I think a novel has a lot more structure. Poetry comes to me in a flash, usually if it's any good; I don't revise much when I write poetry . . .
PS: That's interesting.
IZ: I'll get it all in once piece. If it doesn't come that way it isn't much good. And I can't fix it later. You can fix a novel; you can keep tinkering and working on it and do things to it that, within the short space of a poem, you can't repair if it's gone wrong from the beginning.
It's been very interesting. I've heard Robert Morgan pontificate on not putting poetry into fiction. This was his theory, that the author should not be poetic, that any poetry in fiction should come out of the mouths of the characters. Well, of course, he doesn't always do this. The best scene in Gap Creek is, from the point of view of the author, is when Julie goes up in the autumn where the leaves are falling and everything. I don't agree with him about that at all. Now, I would not strive to make fiction poetic, but I wouldn't try to take it out if it was coming in naturally, if I felt it was appropriate.
PS: Well, I think that's, that comes through in your book, I think in the writing of the book. How did you get started on this particular novel? What was the impetus for writing Salt?
IZ: It's basically structured around the events in my father's family. I inherited a packet of letters. My great-grandmother wrote to my grandmother, and I thought I was going to do a family history—everybody thinks they're going to write what happened to their family. And there just wasn't enough stuff there. I got some stories from my aunts and uncles, and quite a few things from my father, but there wasn't enough to do a real biographical sort of thing. So it turned into fiction, it turned, became imaginative.
Some of the things are true, I was telling them this afternoon, the night rider scene, that really happened, the molasses mill incident happened—these things they remembered to tell me. And there was a storekeeper who came into the community and had a set of Wilkie Collins novels. But other than that, I had to make up just about everything. Particularly Martin. I was at a book club the other night and one woman said, "Well, I just can't condone adultery, but in this case—"
PS: Yeah, poor Anna. She had a hard life. Did you always want to write a novel, was that something you wanted to do?
IZ: Oh yes, I started one when I was seven years old. I wrote two whole pages about something I knew absolutely nothing about, the war between Texas and Mexico. I was about seven or eight years old.
PS: How much research went into writing Salt?
IZ: That's a difficult thing to say. I wrote a whole article for the North Carolina Writers' Network newsletter saying that I didn't do a whole lot of research, and that is true. And then when I started thinking about the things that I did look up, there were a lot of little peripheral things that I did study. But I grew up knowing an awful lot of this stuff. The names for tools and implements and that kind of stuff. Watauga Canyon was still very backward when I was growing up, and we had a lot of relatives that we visited. And my father used to say that he was born in the seventeenth century and catapulted into the twentieth, so he knew a lot of really basic stuff that I needed. I used to beg him: "Tell me something old-timey." He would—he was good. He was good to tell stories.
PS: Well, I was wondering if that was part of the reason for the impetus for stories playing such a big, important role in the novel, too. Was that it was something you were familiar with maybe growing up, and you'd heard a lot of stories—and these were passed down.
IZ: Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh, yes, I think so. I think so. Definitely.
PS: What about the title? Where does the title come from?
IZ: Kay Byer, whose poem is in the first of the book ["Empty Glass," from Wildwood Flower, by Kathryn Stripling Byer], had a cycle of poems called In Search of Salt Woman. And she had researched salt, which has lots of connotations—stands for hard work, sorrow, perseverance.
PS: Salt of the earth.
IZ: Preservation. Even wisdom. And I thought, that's a perfect title; everybody can spell it. It's short. They'll remember that! Little did I know that Mark Kurlansky was going to come out with that big tome on salt [Salt: A World History]. At least I'm not confused with his other book, which is Cod, but that's the reason for that. The working title, I was telling them today, was Anna and John. And that—no. No, no, no, no, no . . .
IZ: Then I had a whole page of possible titles that just didn't work. So I'm hoping for something for the next novel because I'm stuck on a title for it, as well.
PS: So you found, did you find the poem after you had been working on the novel?
IZ: No, no, I knew that poem. I knew that poem from her early collection; Kay and I had been friends for many years, and I knew that poem well.
PS: And had you chosen that to be the epigraph, or to be the beginning part of your novel.
IZ: Yeah. You know Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith? You know the poem at the beginning of that?
IZ: That's Kay's, too. That's another beautiful poem, too, Kay's a wonderful poet.
PS: And then just one last question—can you talk a little bit about the italicized sections in the book that come in between chapters?
IZ: Are you talking about the little quotations about salt, the section dividers?
PS: Not the section dividers about salt, but the sections about the interior thinking of . . . there's some from Anna . . .
IZ: Patty, I just didn't know what else to do with those! You're talking about when the children are running on the mountains in the first one, and the section about John's dying, and places like that?
PS: Yes, right. Correct.
IZ: In some cases I just didn't know what else to do with those. They were things that I'd written that I loved, that I liked the writing, and I just couldn't find anywhere to plug them in. So I just put them out by themselves.
PS: Okay, thank you very much.
IZ: Thank you.