Vaz shares an excerpt from her new novel Above the Salt (Flatiron Books/Macmillan) and answers some exclusive interview questions for Ninth Letter online.
I first discovered Katherine Vaz’s work in the late 1990s, when an undergraduate student asked me if I’d oversee a readings course on Portuguese-American literature, a genre which at the time I’d never heard of. A web search quickly brought me to Saudade, Katherine Vaz’s first novel. The story of Clara Cruz—born deaf and mute and canny with survival skills—Saudade is a dreamscape of a novel, where tracing patterns in sugar can become another language, and colors reveal their deepest secrets.
Katherine Vaz’s writing stunned me, so when Ninth Letter debuted its first issue in 2004, there was no question that she would appear in the table of contents, with her story “The Knife Longs for the Ruby.” Years later, in 2010, Ninth Letter published an early excerpt from her then novel-in-progress, Above the Salt, and most recently, in 2019 we’ve featured on our website her elegant and wise story “The One-Hundred-Year-Old Portuguese Cooking Club: A Triptych.”
We never like too much time to pass before we publish Katherine Vaz’s work again.
And now, we are delighted to offer once again an excerpt from Above the Salt, Katherine Vaz’s extraordinary new novel, long-in-progress and now complete, a novel that gathers all her considerable strengths as she sculpts her characters’ interior landscapes into a journey of not one but several revelations. Above the Salt, which launches this month care of Flatiron Books-Macmillan, arrives with critical praise justifiably ringing from all corners.
—Philip Graham, Editor-at-Large
Above the Salt (Flatiron Books/Macmillan, 2023) is based on the true story of the converts to Presbyterianism on the Portuguese island of Madeira who were violently driven into the sea. John Alves grew up in jail with his mother, Serafina, condemned to die for heresy (and later granted a reprieve). The following excerpt covers John’s passage from Trinidad to New York to the haven of Jacksonville and Springfield, Illinois, where he and his fellow exiles were adopted. John will court a fellow Madeiran, Mary Freitas, at the Lincoln household before betrayals and the Civil War upend the rest of their lives.
In the beginning was Trinidad. The Portuguese Protestants took up the labor in the sugarcane fields abandoned by enslaved people freed a decade earlier. John spent his tenth birthday cutting underbrush on an estate lit for parties with pale-green Chinese lanterns, and his eleventh birthday was spent wondering if the sun had baked the sheen clean off his eyes.
God at last decreed it time—He seemed determined to try the faith of the Alves tribe in two-and-a-half-year dosages—to lead them from captivity. He said, Reports of your distress have reached American ears.
A first covenant of jobs will appear like a dream and will not come to pass, but be watchful, despair not, for I intend to deliver you thereafter to the heart of a state that is shaped like a heart, buried in the heart of the country.
In the beginning was New York.
The United Hemp Company in Illinois responded to the American Protestant Society’s search for a solution. Jobs would be provided for these pilgrim souls, along with homes or the land to build them in the frontier, if they first sailed to New York City, whence they would be guided into the paradise at the center of a limitless nation.
One hundred desires, most of which he could not name, galvanized John when they arrived in the river-encircled realm of enormous buildings and fast horses and people hurrying as if from floodwaters, only to hear that the hemp company’s intentions were greater than their abilities, and they were bankrupt. The exiles were stranded. A further message arrived from Illinois: When the cholera along the roadways lifted, the Protestant churches would indeed make the Midwest a haven. Charity was long, and hopes must not be dashed, and the Madeirans would find shelter, food, clothing, and work, mostly in the far-stretching fields.
The refugees waited in New York for so many months it became home. Mrs. Eula Brooks of the Presbyterian Church took Nikka, Rui, and John to the coffee-room at the Park Theater to discover hot chocolate. It was splendor. It dissolved the crystals John’s marrow had become.
Nikka’s fingers laced through his as they hurried to Washington Street and Little West 12th to see where a fort had been ripped down. They learned the word block, as if the city could be broken into immense bricks to move around. At a Fresh Provisions Store, they were enchanted with horror at the metal boxes of meat. Men had invented a way of putting animals into tin so the flesh did not spoil.
Mrs. Brooks was impressed by how well many of them spoke the language, thanks to the Reverend Kalley, who was busily chatting with great leaders in Illinois and praising this land of bounty. It struck John anew that everyone, including his mother, always used his English name, had done so ever since he could remember, because the British had a devil of a time pronouncing “João.” Missionaries in New York lectured about men of accomplishment who hailed from elsewhere, and a rhapsody about John Jacob Astor—a German immigrant who had risen to the highest wealth—caused John to insist that his friend Francisco join him in breaking into Astor’s mansion, to search for clues as to how he had gone from nothing to everything. Astor had died not long before their arrival, and maybe he haunted his property, ready to divulge the secrets of becoming rich enough to pay for one hundred years of whatever Mother needed.
Francisco’s skills with picking locks were tested at the sumptuous door, and passersby eyed two ill-clad boys pretending to wash the façade with rags. Francisco with his liquid eyes and long lashes said, “I don’t want to get shot.” His genius with locks had been used to break into a lord’s manor in Trinidad to steal some Warburg’s tincture when Nikka was ill, and they had sprinted away under rifle fire.
“We’re just going to look. Hurry up.”
“You want to try?”
“All right. All right! Sorry.”
Francisco angled the wire he had brought along, and a snap admitted them to the palace of the dead richest man in the city. They tiptoed up a curving staircase to the grandest room in the universe, and John slid on the polished floor below a chandelier of a thousand glass droplets. Drapes covered statues in niches.
There were so many corridors and closets. A dressing area offered top hats, and John tried one on. “Well, well,” John boomed, grabbing Francisco’s hand for the grip-shake Americans did. Mrs. Brooks had explained it evolved from a wish to prove no weapons were carried. John twirled a walking stick, and Francisco, though wary, put on a top hat too. They entered a parlor with prints of birds, including a Roseate Spoonbill. John had never seen a floor with dark strips of wood containing lines of paler wood. America must have a tree with different colors entwined. All at once he jumped, and his top hat spilled off, and so did Francisco’s, as their collars were seized by a humorless caretaker.
In the police station, Francisco’s skills with English deserted him and John’s were sorely tried, though he protested that they had only wanted to pay their respects to Astor.
“No one taught you boys to stay out of homes that aren’t yours?” asked the officer with eyebrows that reminded John of Tónio’s. Iron doors clanked nearby.
“About Astor we think a museum, that it to be a museum, sir,” said John.
“What? Where are you from?”
“Sorry.” But he did not regret finding the gleam of those floors, the smoothness of the hat, or the watercolor of the pink bird signed by Audubon, whom Mrs. Brooks said was another immigrant to find fame.
When Serafina Alves entered this locale of justice, her face stayed immobile over disappointment with him but also fear as an officer sized her up as penniless. John had stamped the new world with a reminder that imprisonment would always threaten. Her English broke into pieces as she smiled at the officer, and John detected the tremor as she said, “So much to see, my boy make a mistake, ai nice houses here and wrong to go in say sorry John. Francisco.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said John.
Francisco echoed John’s apology.
“We should put them behind bars, teach them a lesson,” said the officer. The walls were greenish, and a bellow of someone unseen entered this anteroom.
“I pay you for I take them home.” She fumbled in her pocket for coins.
The policeman laughed and told her to keep her money but stay out of trouble or they would get sent back where they came from. Mother ushered them out, and when John tried to thank her, as they shuffled in chilly air past one grand home after another, she snapped in Portuguese, “Have the decency to keep quiet.”
Shame began slashing his muscles and worsened when she went missing the next morning from their temporary home at 25th Street and 7th Avenue.
He found her in her favorite spot for praying, near the Hudson River. When he perched beside her on a low wall, she pointed toward some buildings and said she loved how immense they were and how tall he was, so much taller for his age than most Madeiran boys. And it seemed glorious to build something so towering that when you sailed to heaven, and God asked what you had done to help with creation, you could point to what you had made, and He could see it from where He was and be well-pleased.
“I’m sorry for looking inside Mr. Astor’s house,” John said. Nikka had spent breakfast-time calming him; no, Mother was probably on a walk, not under arrest. But one day she would be gone forever. That this should dawn with the heft of a surprise was itself the surprise. They fell into that lullaby she invented when he was a child frightened that Tónio would hurt her. Who is my canary-pet? she would whisper, and as they sat near the Hudson, she repeated the words of her old consolation. Shall Mother tell you how she will never leave you? Will you know how to find me when I die, my love? It is so simple. It will be the first time Mother will be grand, so you must rejoice when my spirit moves over the waters.
Listen, John. It does not matter that spiders eat us after we’re buried. Do you know why it would grieve me to think of you crying? I’ll be inside those spiders, and when they spin their webs, across doorways and in corners where walls meet other walls, or when the webs get hung as earrings on cattle or draped across space to your collar while you lie in the grass—get up and walk through me. Walk through cobwebs, since that is how I’ll kiss your face. If you’re wounded, use cobwebs, mashed up the way Nikka showed you, to stop the bleeding. That will be your mother to your rescue.
Because Mother had remarked upon tall buildings, the Lord reminded him that kings and nobles always built monuments dedicated to God, their names on plaques, so John declared, “I’ll help you build a church in this country, Mama.” Such a purpose would keep enormity from swallowing them.
“Yes. It’s a sin not to be grateful.”
The message of the gulls overhead translated into Hearken! Listen to this land’s music of welcome.
He could hear the citizens far away in Illinois scurrying around for them:
Our Christian duty is more than lip service. Pots with dents hammered out and cloth wearing what looks like a mist of itself lifting off, a kind of cloth meant for Midwestern weather, hurtle into the mass of goods being assembled. The women of Jacksonville and Springfield are in a flurry, preparing for the newcomers, lighting lamps tipped off with whale oil, and so the smoke, the vapor of the dead out of the sea, fill the nostrils in the prairie with leviathan fantasies. Jars of pumpkin chips swimming in syrup shall be bestowed, and cucumbers pickled white and green, and tongue in aspic—such unheard-of things emerging from cupboards for the Portuguese Protestants, along with hats that are thick; Americans wear a nearness to the size of cats on their heads!—and hollows of fur called muffs that eat the hands of women—how does invention follow dream, and how does it come to belong to others? The spirits of the whales shall rise non-stop out of lamps like the genie in the story about wishes that Nikka once read to him, the flames going strong because Americans demand, must now have, light beyond God’s daylight. Women with the heat of stoves biting their faces crimson are speeding to receive the exiles. Here praising God is action. Here praising God is about putting everything to use. Take this rushlight: a stalk soaked in grease and burned in a minute stand in place of a candle, poor man’s light.
But first: Dusk bathes New York, with wrens and jays glad-swooping to join the gulls, trilling so as to make him clutch his mother as if that would cure all that besieged her, and the song was:
Twilight is a paint spill, all jeweled, and here you are, and here you are born.
In yet another beginning was the funny train they rode slowly over the wooden tracks. The cars were open and flat, and the air was so freezing that everyone’s words came out white. Cold is white. Sounds have colors. The Reverend Daniel Lathrop, their escort, said they could not be expected to guess it was unusually warm for a November in Illinois. John knew from New York that breathing can be white, but he had never seen it amassed like this. Almost three hundred and fifty of them filled the twelve cars of the train. Refugees were shrouded with blankets. Did exhaling this much white mean their spirits were leaving their bodies, and did that prove they were very alive or very dead? Surrounding them was nothing, nothing but the train; he had never seen nothing before. Exhalations rose and dissolved to form an enormous, chilled curtain the shade of gauze, and the train kept piercing it.
They had taken a steamship out of New York City and assorted canal boats before boarding a lake steamer to Chicago, followed by more canal boats down the Illinois River to Naples for the purpose of riding these Wabash rails. He whispered to Rui that they could get to Jacksonville faster if they walked. On crutches.
Feathers of laughter blew out of their mouths.
A missionary lady with hair the tint of pineapple was distributing shawls, and Mother got draped with one stitched with a design of bamboo, and Rui brushed her with its tassels as if she were a lady being dusted with rice-powder before a party.
She grinned and said, “Oh…you.”
John sat and rested a hand on her clavicle as the train clanked, and God warned him: I charge you with guiding her if she becomes afraid due to her shock at a vastness unlike anything they had seen. To the west the land was so flat he wondered why the citizens had chopped down the hills. There was one distant line where the sky met the land. If you sliced open that line, maybe the hills jumped back out.
The Reverend Lathrop at last strode into their car to shout that they were in Jacksonville. A platform held the group ready to receive them, including musicians, with a tuba coiled around a man who was like an excited stamen inside an American-sized golden metal flower. The wheels screeched from the pain of braking, and the travelers knocked into one another from weariness. Rui pointed out a man in a top hat and a suit who consulted a watch attached to a fob that shone in the frigid light. That had been a discovery in New York, that in addition to having good teeth, people were in constant need of knowing or, even stranger, wearing the time.
The band swelled with The Race That Long in Darkness Pined, and even the older exiles knew hymn-English and Lord’s-supper-English and sang a little.
After the nation’s anthem, the song-marked wind was crying lightly as everyone cleared a path to let Mother be the first to step onto this new earth. The man in the top hat and other gentlemen approached, along with women resembling friendly bears in their ample coats, all the faces so pale they looked like biscuit dough rolled thin. They were all doing the American smile as they clasped Mother’s forearms to assist in lowering her from the train.
As reporters ventured closer, Rui let John step in as Mother’s translator, saying, “You were the one hungry with her. Go on.” The journey was burning upward through everyone’s donated shoes and the soles of their feet, riding the rails of their nerves as the trip spun in a circuit inside them. He peered around to spot Francisco, but the de Melo family was on a different flatbed car.
One reporter had such slight features that he looked partially erased. Another had a handlebar mustache like the kind worn by a gleeful villain on a stage in New York, and he asked, “Many converts were jailed, Mrs. Alves, but why were you the only one sentenced to the gallows?” He pronounced their name ALL-vez instead of the Portuguese way of one syllable with a shh sound at the end.
When a priest had insisted that Mother believe that the communion loaf was the actual flesh of Christ, she had snapped, I would not even call that good bread, much less the body of the Lord God.
John shouted this without waiting for her to speak, and he felt bad that she stiffened as amusement rippled through the crowd. First chance to guard her, and he had failed, and despite his amazement that they were being preserved forever in words in newspapers, his eyes were going blind from exhaustion and his ears were shutting down. Rui caught John as he collapsed and told him later that the man with the top hat had been the Governor of Illinois. The train had pushed onward, taking the other half of their group to their new lives in Springfield.
John awakened inside their cabin in the undulating lands north of Barton Street in the patch of Jacksonville newly christened as Madeira Hill. The porch was covered with dead squash vines. Stalks leaned against each other in the yard.
On the table, a bowl was filled with eggs smooth as river stones.
That gauze-like screen made up of everyone’s breath continued filling the sky. He imagined people cooking and chopping wood and comforting their babies, all with that backdrop. Mother perched with John on the single step leading to the porch and said, puzzled, “I’m cold, but my feet are burning.” He told her he felt the same. Maybe this was how a person came to live in America: With a chill that set you on fire, while everybody moved around on white film.
It took a few years for the Reis family to translate their name to King and for Diogo Teixeira to turn into James DeShara. The Pereira clan became the Perrys. There was so much English still to learn: Snow. Slavery. Stun.
Weasels live in the grasslands, and rainwater collects in the wallows formed when bison roll around to scratch themselves.
John pictured the numbers filling the days: Town was 1.8 miles away. Hundreds more Portuguese Protestants continued flooding into the heartland. When the exiles first rode into Jacksonville, the rickety Wabash had been the only railway in Illinois, before the state’s face combusted into a mass of iron suturing as French calico, kettles, awls, gun flints, cotton and list cloth, buckwheat flour, sewing machines, and cattle traveled up and down and in Xs, Chicago to East St. Louis, Galesburg to Champaign. Like a Colossus of Rhodes, Raimundo Silva—Ray Silva—stood astride these streams and reeled in items to start his business, comparing this to fishing, a Portuguese talent. He spent $800 on a Chickering’s piano to celebrate his General Store’s success. Americans created buildings called banks owing to such overflow of prosperity that they required temples to store it. What an exaltation of things: The Dr. Keller’s Rheumatic Lotion that Mother needed cost 37 ½ cents a bottle at Corneau & Diller’s Drug Store, thirty-three miles east in Springfield. John longed to harness the velocity of the wind, grass-cologned and unimpeded as it tumbled over the prairie, to lift his mother into some safety he associated with the air.
It would turn out to be Rui who would most reveal to John how their years in Illinois were slipping past. From the outset, as the years away, Rui plowed the furrows where he got hired, from what the natives called the can’t-see of dawn to the can’t-see of nightfall, and each passing year he wafted to a more distant field until, from where John gazed out, his brother shrank to the size of the little roosters inside those peek-hole Easter eggs that were coated with glitter and trimmed with ridges of pastel frosting. If you looked inside, you saw a tiny farmhouse with a tiny heart on its roof, and those minute barnyard hens and chicks and that rooster beside it, and who could say why it touched you so. Something had happened to Rui in Trinidad that he refused to talk about. One day John discovered him in an abandoned shed on the other side of a cornfield abutting their yard, where, before shutting the door in John’s face, Rui stated his wish to be left alone in order to invent the finest perfume in the history of the world.
Katherine Vaz and Ninth Letter discuss the journey from writing to publishing, the joys of research, and staying engaged with the world. Read the interview and check out the audiobook excerpt for another preview of Above the Salt.
Jason Pfister: In preparation for these questions, I read your interview with Maggie L. N. Felisberto in Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies in which you expressed relief in having just completed Above the Salt after twelve long years. Now, a few years later, with the book finally slated to be released this November, I wonder if you might share some of your experience about the journey it has taken to get to this point, and perhaps offer some insight into the patience and perseverance that this project required.
Katherine Vaz: Yes, what a long, long labor it has been! The incarnations, the characters and subplots killed off, the edits taking it from over 500 pages, at one point, to closer to 400…a lot of drafts and life-things occurred, but underneath it, I suppose I just stayed dogged. I’ve always known I’m a writer, so it has never occurred to me to give that up. But was I tempted, often, to abandon ship with this one? Absolutely. But a funny thing happened early on: I requested the Veterans Administration papers of John Alves, the real immigrant and soldier who had inspired me, and the first thing I saw was his plaintive line: “I have no one to take care of me.” That, believe it or not, kept me going. Also, in a newspaper article when old, he speaks of returning to the Lincoln household where recalling “Mary” made him shake so badly he could not sign the Lincoln Ledger guestbook on his own. That trembling hand kept me going as well.
My beloved father, August Vaz, died several years into my efforts on the book, and grief staggered me for over a year before I could gather the strength to honor him by pushing onward. (He was from the Azores, and telling Portuguese stories was something he championed my doing.) Then, as I crossed the finish line, I lost my mother. I won’t receive the usual extensive letter from her in congratulations. But maintaining some kind of forward motion is a hallmark of grace or maturity, registering our common fates but going onward. I don’t know that I have brilliant insights, but I believe that giving up means for sure something is ended. I also believe—see the third reply!—in asking for help. Sometimes the characters themselves will speak up. The third-wheel character in the book, Edward, required many drafts before he emerged as flawed but likeable. In a perverse way, I guess my advice is to slow down, not speed up. Don’t push and eye the finish line. Sit with the characters, a chapter. Fall in love again. Remember the exhilaration when a remedy or passage in writing works: That sensation makes it all worthwhile.
JP: I’m always fascinated by writers who have their work translated into multiple languages. Having reached that point in your career, and as a Portuguese American writer, do you anticipate gaps in the way your work will be received by different parts of the world? Is there anything that surprises, excites, or maybe even frustrates you about the process of seeing your work interpreted by such a wide audience.
KV: Readers complete the act of writing. Their reception of it in their hearts, their emotions and histories, add to the work. That’s the beauty of art, not just absorption by the recipient but addition. Like everyone, I’d prefer to be madly loved by all, but that’s not realistic, so I don’t get frustrated, don’t get obsessed by that. Yes, I don’t especially want to read a bad review, but there are plenty of great ones. In terms of translations: As a writer, I’m fascinated by how other languages work. My Portuguese translator for Above the Salt, Tânio Ganho, was sitting with me going over some puzzles. There’s no expression that matches “widow’s peak,” for instance, and I have a “spray” of gladioli that was also more problematic in describing. It’s fun to make these discoveries. It’s like studying at notes in a symphony. In a broader, bigger way, I loved when my second novel, Mariana, was published in Italy, and many of the interviewers said, “We had to read about the nun of Monza in school, who carried on about her love affair being a terrible sin, so how great that Sister Mariana is never sorry she fell in love!” That was quite wonderful.
JP: I was struck by many strange and lovely moments in Above the Salt where a hint of magic unexpectedly arises, especially in times of seeming bleakness. For example, when it becomes so cold on a train car that “words come out white” followed by the wonderful revelation that “Sounds have colors”. You’ve said that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera was an inspiration for this book. Will you speak a bit about writing with that inspiration in mind and what it felt like to intentionally enter into conversation with a work like Cholera?
KV: Citing Cholera was my way of maintaining a sense of the arc I’d use: After much life, many travails, the main characters end up together. That’s the far reach, which I kept as a guiding scheme. In terms of the actual odyssey of arriving there, it was an adventure filled with misdirection! Many plot changes and refinements. The truth is that, as with a lot of writers, lyricism, a certain beat or rhythmic process, simply emerges from me, and my challenge—a large one, and one I’m clear-eyed about—is that I want readers to remain engaged. I want to tell a story that makes people wonder what will happen next. It does surprise people that I use outlines, and that I study screenplays for lessons in how to hone a spine of a tale.
Still, I needed help. I worked with a freelance editor recommended by my agent, Ellen Levine of Trident Media; Randall Klein was quick, smart, fun, and ingenious in helping me preserve my musicality while keeping the momentum. Then I further honed with my editor, Megan Lynch of Flatiron Books. (In both cases, I put my best work forward and thought it was as rich but on-flowing as I could make it, but I am aware that I need excellent advice in this regard. I listen to good counsel.) The result is that some advanced readers have commented that the novel is highly poetic but also with an agile plot full of unexpected twists and turns that remain totally moving and believable. All the years of work to hear someone say that is worth it! I did draft after draft, often being ruthless. It is a terrible error to think of plot as this separate thing, a girder or brace to hold the ornaments. Characters and story are organic; actors are their actions.
In real life, I am tone-deaf beyond rescuing. A nun in choir in school once said to me, “Katherine, stop singing. You’re hurting God’s ears.” Wow…no scarring there. And hilariously enough, I live with Chris Cerf, a Sesame Street composer, who can pick out a tune on a piano after someone hums it.
JP: In a lecture at Hunter College in 2016, you spoke a bit about your research process. I found it surprising, but also affirming, to hear the weight you gave to things like being moved by experiencing the color in a photograph and the flatness of the Illinois landscape. I have always imagined (it seems naively) that researching for a historical novel of this scale would be a rather dreary, technical business, done hunched over a desk in an archive somewhere. Can you speak at all to the joys of research and its relationship to inspiration?
KV: I am an enormous advocate—in research and adamantly in actual life—of pushing away from a desk, closing a laptop, and going out and being open to surprises with research in particular, but also with the practice or craft of writing, too. To be vivid, to be alive, one absolutely must let go on occasion of discipline and will, though these are important, and open the spirit, heart, mind, and soul to the possibility of inspiration, discovery, magic, and changing one’s preconceived notions. Yes, magical things can occur in writing, in looking up data. But I agree with Walker Percy, who once said something along the lines of “one must feel a place on one’s skin.” How did people from a subtropical island feel coming into Illinois in November? How did they deal with the cold and the sheer vastness? How did their sense of vivid color, volcanic landscapes, square with suddenly being on a more monochromatic prairie?
Insights, details, and sentences themselves can sometimes only spring from meeting people, staying engaged. I was in a Jacksonville, Illinois, library, for instance, and saw a nameplate: Steven Goveia, so I immediately asked him if he might be descended from the Portuguese Protestants. (“Gouveia” is a common Portuguese surname.) We had a wonderful chat that led to other introductions. This is the attitude that invites what James Joyce once described as the condition or rhythm, the flow, by which a piece of paper can blow to one’s feet outside and it’ll contain the exact word you’ve sought. The troubling part of creativity is this one: We know how to push and puzzle and force, but sometimes we need to let the process take over. We all know that sensation of trying hard to figure something out, but then we go for a walk or take a shower, and there it comes, the answer.)
I have wonderfully amusing anecdotes in this regard: What are the odds that Illinois College would offer a one-semester teaching fellowship? (See above James Joyce comment!) They were flabbergasted that someone was working on a novel featuring their town of Jacksonville, with numerous appearances on the pages of the old College. (The first President, by the way, was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, no less.) While there, I met Dr. Lawrence Zettler, a botanist who took me on excursions to the prairie to hunt for ghost orchids. How in the world would I have known of this otherwise? He was also developed a perfume from them, and last year, delightfully enough, I met up with him after many, many years at the Royal Horticultural Show in London, where he gifted me with a vial of the finished product. Further, I was there when there was this ghastly raining down of bugs…he was amused I’d never seen the awakening of a cycle long-dormant cicadas. Both those things made it onto my pages. (California-girl here also had no idea how rough and buckled a prairie can be…)
One must get the blood moving so the prose will do the same: A last example was that the character I drew from real life in a newspaper interview, John Alves, had army papers indicating a twenty-day punishment/court martial. Uh oh. Though I was writing fiction, I really did not want him to have done anything terrible. I was at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Drew Faust’s last year there, and she put me in touch with Trevor K. Plante at the Old Military Records Archive in Washington, D.C. What are the chances that I’d walk in and see my old pal Alan Taylor, who lived in California at the time, who has won two Pulitzers for history and happens to be one of the best researchers on the planet? He was surprised to see me, too. When I told him I was hoping to pinpoint what my character might have done, he concurred with Trevor, and Drew, and everyone: This was a needle-in-a-haystack pursuit. But three hours into pulling off the ribbons on the heaps of documents targeting Alves’s Illinois troop at the right time…I found it. What he, and others in this company, had done. Again…I’ll let readers discover it in the book. But let’s just say you’ll laugh, as I did. A bonus was getting to wave the applicable document under Alan’s nose and having him nod and wonder if I would now come over to the dark side, meaning turn to research and history versus fiction. No, but what a fun victory.
That could only have happened by doing the physical, emotional, even spiritual work of going out, finding out, being open…in other words, enjoying the world in order to more richly tap into writing about it.
JP: Titles are tough! I love the title Above the Salt, but I know (again from listening to your Hunter College lecture) that it has been a bit of a journey to nail that down. Would you mind speaking about how you arrived at Above the Salt over some of the other options you were considering?
KV: Landing on a final title was excruciating! I’ve had good fortune with titles in the past; I did a poetry book with Isabel Pavão, an artist, and The Heart Is a Drowning Object burst out of my head with ease. I once even came up with a title—“Add Blue To Make White Whiter”—and then figured I needed a story to fit it. But I agonized about Above the Salt. At one maddening, frustrated point, it was below the salt. I had a completely different title at yet another time that caused my lovely agent to say, gently, “Uh, Katherine? I’m thinking this one isn’t doing you any favors.” So I rounded back to Above the Salt as a way of emphasizing the Lincoln scene—a full explanation of the meaning of this phrase is contained in that passage, and I’ll let readers discover it versus issuing a spoiler alert!—and it highlights the expression’s significance regarding immigration. But I also made sure there was sufficient metaphorical and realistic patterning to support “salt” as related to tears, ocean travel, sweat, hunger, etc. Plus it adds a touch of sensory weight, a taste. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa has some superb lines about the sea being salty from all the tears shed on the beaches of Portugal, meaning it is a culture of leaving and longing. I’m delighted you love the title! My own sweat and tears over it don’t show, I hope.
Katherine Vaz has been a Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard University and Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is the author of three novels, Saudade (a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection), Mariana, published in six languages and picked by the Library of Congress as one of the Top Thirty International Books of 1998, and Above the Salt, to be published in 2023 by Flatiron Books/Macmillan.
Her collection Fado & Other Stories won a Drue Heinz Literature Prize and Our Lady of the Artichokes won a Prairie Schooner Award. The Love Life of an Assistant Animator & Other Stories was published by Tailwinds Press and The Heart is a Drowning Object, a collaboration with artist Isabel Pavão was released as a multi-media artbook with Artists Proof Editions.
Her children’s stories have appeared in anthologies by Viking, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster, and her short fiction has appeared in many magazines. She won a New York Film Academy and Writer’s Store national contest for a screenplay idea based on one of her stories.
She is the first Portuguese-American to have her work recorded by the Library of Congress (Hispanic Division) and teaches “Writing the Luso Experience” each summer in the Disquiet International Literary Conference in Lisboa, Portugal. Other honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a citation as a Portuguese-American Woman of the Year, an appointment to the six-person Presidential Delegation (Clinton) to the World’s Fair/Expo 98 in Lisboa, and a 2022 citation by the Portuguese-American Leadership Council of the U.S. as one of the all-time most influential women of Lusa heritage. She lives in New York City with her husband, Christopher Cerf, an Emmy- and Grammy-winning TV producer, composer for Sesame Street, and author.
(Author Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan)