This week, Evie Woolmore discusses her new historical magical realist novel, The Salt Factory.
I was chatting to a friend the other day about my books and she asked, as people sometimes do, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I was able to answer, quite honestly, that the original idea for The Salt Factory came so long ago, that I can hardly remember. But it is a novel that, despite the agonies of plotting and rewriting, I have absolutely adored throughout.
As a reader, it is just the sort of novel I enjoy. It is a bubble of a world where time slows down and all the things we took for granted slowly stop being true. It captures that feeling of falling in love, of permanent change, of the dawning of a completely new perspective on the world. All those things happen to Thelonia Jones in one way or the other, and yet the novel isn’t really about any of them. It is, in the manner of all my novels, a book that seems to be about one story and ends up really being about another.
As Lector’s Books pointed out in my interview with them a couple of weeks ago, my novels do tend to have a twist in the tail, not in the sense of a thriller or a crime novel but in a subtle slide in the way the world is revealed. Unlike the writers whose magical realist works I admire, such as Erin Morgenstern or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I do not simply present my alternative world as is, without explanation, because for me the explanation is part of the interest. It is the ‘what if?’ that I find so engaging as a reader and invigorating as a writer. It is the simplest notion expanded into the lives of my characters, a notion which I never reveal in the blurb or the synopsis, because it is like the gold at the end of the rainbow. All of which makes it very difficult to talk about where I get my ideas from!
The Salt Factory is though, from a writer’s point of view, a great example of how many different incarnations a novel can have from its core idea. At the heart of the story is a little girl with extraordinary healing abilities. But the novel she originally appeared in is a shadow of the novel she now lives in. This novel is also an excellent example of the lesson that all writers should learn, be they print or indie published: that unless you have done the best possible justice to your central idea, the novel will never quite be right. The original version of The Salt Factory, written over seven years ago, was much loved by everyone who read it, including some editors at London’s leading publishing houses. But it wasn’t the best it could be. I knew it, and it pained me. And it’s why none of those editors picked it up. Yet while with time I grew irritated with some of the characters, the little girl remained quite unchanged. From her re-grew this final version. The book has changed around her, but she has not.
And that is why the best answer to the question my friend asked is another question: ‘You mean, where do I get my characters from?’ My novels are largely populated by women, not because I want only to write about women (because I don’t) but because the periods I write about are such interesting times in the lives of women. Equilibrium allowed me to share my fascination with the history of spiritualism, within the explosions of independence as early Edwardian women began to establish their individual identities outside marriage and the home. In Rising Up, I wanted to capture the echoes of Warsaw’s tragic past by exploring the way that war gives women challenges beyond what they had before, both professional and moral.
The Salt Factory continues that discovery. I have enjoyed many histories and biographies of pioneer America, about the journeys endured by people in environments that were harsh and unfamiliar, in society that was both traditional and yet was built from the sort of indomitable spirit and resourcefulness that women so often have in abundance. Paradoxically, it was possible for women on the frontier to break some of the social rules which were still so prevalent further east, and I liked the idea of a central character, Thelonia Jones, who seems to find it very easy to break those rules, to uphold the law while also never being afraid to fire her gun. But the curiosity for me was not merely in Thelonia’s independence. I was also interested in why it might be that she finds it so easy to be the way she is? What is it in her personality, rather than her circumstances, which gives her this particular ease in the world? And what happens when that ease is called into question?
Most novels are born of the collision of two or three different ideas, phrases, notions, possibilities. In my novels, one of those is always of a paranormal type, which is what makes my fiction magical realist. It would be spoiling the punchline to explain what the collisions are in this or any of my other novels, so I’m afraid you will just have to read them to find out! But, as I said in my interview, the restoration of the equilibrium is one theme which very obviously runs through everything I write. Thelonia believes she has restored the equilibrium by paying off an old debt to her half-brother. But when he gets into trouble with debts of his own, she is dragged back into the family she had left behind, and she finds that her assumptions about that family are not entirely valid. As so often happens when we learn new things about ourselves, the carefully constructed balance of her life starts to slip and slide out of her control. And Thelonia must question everything she knows about herself.
Which reveals the other theme in my novels: family. Every family I write about has been split in some way, fractured by circumstances that bring its members not necessarily into conflict, but certainly into sharp relief against each other. It is an old cliché that blood runs thicker than water but, in The Salt Factory, what does happens to that cliché when stepfathers and half-brothers are involved? Is that loyalty and conflict contrived, expected, or is it truly innate?
The Salt Factory has another beautiful cover by the fabulous designer Chris Wells, who has declared this the favourite of his three Evie Woolmore covers so far. I’ll be posting links to sample chapters and audiobook samples on The Salt Factory page in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, go over to Amazon, download the book, and enjoy.