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lip lit: Q&A with author catherine noske on her debut novel, The Salt Madonna

(Author Catherine Noske © JJ Gately, 2019) The Salt Madonna (Picador Australia / Pan Macmillan Australia, RRP: $32.99)

This is the story of a crime. This is the story of a miracle. There are two stories here.

Catherine Noske’s debut novel The Salt Madonna is set on the fictional island of Chesil, where a single terrible event begets religious hysteria that threatens to destroy a close-knit community. The book, which was a decade in the making, has been described as “quintessential Gothic literature” and “superbly atmospheric and darkly unsettling”.

We spoke with Catherine about books, her writing process, and her inspiration for The Salt Madonna.


Congratulations on your debut novel, The Salt Madonna. How do you feel since its publication? What was the process from writing to publication like for you?
Thank you! It has been a strange but wonderful time for me! The process from writing to publication was lovely, and the people at Picador have been magnificent. I’ve learned a lot from them, and I really enjoyed the final editing. And of course, it is very exciting to have the book out in the world! But this was ten years in the writing, so it is a little bizarre as well. I’m not quite sure what to do with myself, now. I accidentally started working on one of the chapters again last week.

One of the central themes of The Salt Madonna is the return home, with the protagonist returning to the small island community she left as a teenager because her mother is dying. What is it about this idea of the return that interests you?
I think what interests me most is the way the linearity of time comes undone in a return, particularly a return home. Past and present become entangled, they move through each other, and we become much more sensitive to memory and the imagination.

The concept of home was probably more consciously in the forefront of my writing as I worked, though. The idea of home fascinates me. We think of home as relatively simple, but the way in which we attach significance to home as a place, the emotional investment we have in home as a place, the ways both of these things can fail or be compromised, all this is very complex. It is a rich emotional terrain for writing.

You drew inspiration from your childhood in regional Victoria to create Chesil Island, the fictional setting of The Salt Madonna. What was it specifically about your hometown that inspired you to do so? Was it the place itself, the landscape, the community, individual people…?
It was a lot of things. I love my home. My parents are still there, and I still get back there as often as I can. The landscape is certainly an inspiration, in the sense that the space of Chesil as a place draws heavily from the landscapes of my childhood. But alongside that, I find the reality of regional/rural life really interesting. Small communities have a great energy to them, but they are also in many ways at the frontline of several of the problems facing our society – climate change, social inequity, and the inheritance of colonial trauma. This means there are often high stakes for people in small communities, and a lot of passion. At the same time, isolation makes for co-dependence and creativity. I miss some of that, and I would move away from the city if I could.

The opening paragraphs of The Salt Madonna are quite evocative, particularly in your description of the island from your protagonist’s point-of-view as she approaches it on the ferry. What do you believe makes a memorable first line or paragraph? Are you usually sure of how your story will begin, or does that become more apparent during the writing process?
I usually have a sense of what will be at the centre of a story, and there is often an image or a concept which is compelling my writing, but it is rare that the line I open with in drafting is the first line of the final version. It took me a long time to settle on the opening for Salt and I still wonder about it sometimes, and how it could be stronger. A memorable first line for me is one that embeds you immediately within the world of the text – one that is somehow undeniable, whether that be in terms of the voice or the image or the concept. I don’t think I quite got there with Salt… The structure, too, took me a long time to find, though I’m much more confident about that. A lot was rearranged in the writing process, but there was a moment when it all began to feel natural. I love that feeling.

Generally speaking, are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”?
A little bit of both? I like having something to reach for, or something to write towards, but it is never a very orderly process. Perhaps it could be described as ‘organic’?

Does the idea of a blank page excite or terrify you?
Again, both in equal measure. A blank page is always full of possibilities, but the piece you write never lives up to the one you can feel moving in your head, so the first lines on a blank page always feel a little sacreligious as well – sometimes to the point that every other possibilitiy is overwhelmed and the piece collapses then and there. Blank pages are about accepting failure.

Do you find your experience as an editor helps or hinders your writing practice? Are you easily able to remove your editor’s hat—write with the door closed, so to speak—or do you find you’re simultaneously writing and editing?
It definitely helps me. Working as a editor has challenged all the assumptions I held about writing before I began, and opened me to a whole range of styles and points of affect (on an emotional level). I am now often simultaneously writing and editing, but if the piece has enough to drive it, then this isn’t a hindrance. The excitement of writing should be strong enough that the rational brain of the editor is a useful thing in shaping the work which comes. The point at which the editing brain overwhelms the writing brain is the point I know that this piece needs some more conceptual development before it will really work.

How difficult do you find it to kill your darlings? Without giving anything away— no spoilers! —was there anything (or anyone) you removed from the original manuscript that hurt, but you did it anyway?
Oh, I find it quite easy to kill my darlings. They’re very good at haunting me, and they usually reappear in other forms and places later. There were lots of things that got cut from Salt – elements of farm life that were really just self-indulgent, horse scenes which were even more so, people who weren’t necessary and were distracting from the central focus of the work. Being pragmatic is, I think, a skill you develop in editing.

Let’s talk books. What have you read recently? What are you currently reading? And what’s sitting on your TBR pile?
I’m on a new release bender at the moment. I’ve just finished Fauna by Donna Mazza, which was scarily plausible in presenting a future of genetic modification, and Below Deck from Sophie Hardcastle, whick I absolutely loved. Her narrator has a beautiful and unique voice. I’m starting The Yield by Tara June Winch, who is a hero of mine. To be read next includes Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and after that I’m back into some research reading – revisiting the novels of Randolph Stow.

Do you have a reading routine? And how does this fit in with your writing routine? What does a typical working day look like for you?
I don’t really have a reading routine. I read as much as I can, as often as I can. I’m privileged in the sense that my writing is a big part of my work-life, and I’m given space and time in my day-to-day to enable it. There is no routine, though. Working full-time at the university means that I’m constantly moving between teaching and lecturing, research and writing, and other elements of service like schools engagement and the editing of Westerly. It is wonderfully varied and I love every moment. The only time a routine really emerges is when I’m past the initial writing stage of a piece and into the (re)drafting. That demands a steady and consistent space, and means I spend a couple of hours pre-dawn every morning working before I leave home for the day. It’s a nice time – I can hear the waves from the beach from my study, and the world is very soft.

Are there any books or writers you feel you need to steer clear of when you’re working on something of your own because they distract you in some way? What, if anything, did you read while working on The Salt Madonna?
I read a lot of different things while I was working on Salt. Given the length of time I spent writing, I would have gone crazy if I’d tried to limit my reading too much. There were definitely books over that time that chimed for me in different ways, and shaped the work at hand, as well as books I came back to at different points. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was very important to me in the early drafts. The epigraph from that text was something I decided on right back in the second draft. It was a nice coincidence to see it in the last few years to see it come back into popular attention with the TV series and the release of The Testaments. As that happened, it came back into the forefront for me as well, it went full circle, became a book-end for the writing…

What is your earliest literary memory? And did you have any favourite book(s) growing up?
I had lots of favourite books. I’ve always loved reading, and I used to hoard titles. My earliest literary memory is looking at the spines of the books on my mother’s bookshelf, and wondering how The Holly Bibble (aka her mother’s Bible) was related to The Hobbit, which happened to sit alongside. My mother was reading The Hobbit to us, and I assumed The Holly Bibble was a sequel, but I found it pretty slow going, and I couldn’t work out how it connected back to Bilbo. I never got past the first couple of pages. My mother isn’t really religious, and the Bible was there as a keepsake more than anything. I remember being very frustrated that she didn’t get what I was referring to when I asked her about it.

Have any books or writers had a significant impact on your life or your writing?
More than I could describe. There are books that have changed everything. It is both beautiful and terrifying when it happens.

What does literary success look like you to?
I’ve no idea. Perhaps, in writing, simply when something feels right on the page? In reading, for me, it’s when the writing sings.


**GIVEAWAY** Thanks to our friends at Picador, we have one copy of Catherine Noske’s The Salt Madonna to give away to Australian readers. Simply email [email protected] with the subject line ‘The Salt Madonna’ by 5pm Thursday 26th March, 2020 for your chance to win. The winner will be chosen at random. Good luck!

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