Eliza Henry-Jones is the award-winning author of In the Quiet, How to Grow a Family Tree and P is for Pearl.
Arianne recently interviewed Eliza on her latest novel, Salt and Skin, a wild and haunting mystery set on the remote Orkney islands off the coast of Scotland.
Where did the inspiration for Salt and Skin come from?
It’s all very coincidental in hindsight. A good friend of mine sent me ‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot, which is basically a memoir where Amy struggles with addiction in London and ends up going back to the Orkney islands where she grew up. She really throws herself into the natural world and moves further and further away from the town centre on these remote islands. My friend thought that the drug and alcohol side of things would appeal to me because that’s what I used to do for work, and I just fell in love with this place that was brought alive so vividly in her memoir that I dragged my husband there. Until then I had gravitated towards lush, heavily tree’d places, but the Orkney’s are not like that. They’re very open, stark islands between the Atlantic and North Sea. There’s hardly any trees, and a lot of the trees are bolstered up with metal polls to keep them up in the wind. We went to the Church in Kirkwall, which dates back to 1137, and we were able to see the dungeon where many people, predominately women in Orkney, were incarcerated during the interrogations for witchcraft in the 17th century. So, the dungeon is still there, and the hangman’s ladder and the manacles they wore.I became obsessed with this church and these women that were accused of witchcraft. I think what called to me about it was that often the women being accused and executed for witchcraft were from disenfranchised parts of the population. They didn’t have a lot of resources, they were outsiders, and yet these huge powers over the environment were attributed to them, so it was this odd juxtaposition.
I’ve also done a lot of reading and research around climate change. My honours thesis looked at how we represent bushfires in Australian fiction, so I was very acutely aware of climate change while writing. Another big focus of this novel is Luda, the mother. She’s a photographer and she’s been employed to document climate change around the islands after getting a lot of traction with the droughts in Australia. One of the main plot points is that she took a photo of her son in this dam bed, and he wasn’t aware that she’d taken the photo. She attributed it to him grieving over climate change, but he was actually grieving for something else that had happened to him. That all stems from Sally Mann’s work. I read this long form essay about her and I became stuck on this idea – who protects and who advocates for the child when it’s the parent transgressing the boundaries between public and private. So, I kind of amalgamated these two ideas – witches in this Scottish church and this American photographer who took photos of her children.
How long did it take you to write this book? How much research did you do, and what is your research process? Did you write at the same time?
I did a lot of research initially. I started compiling so much that Salt and Skin turned into a PhD. This is the first time I’ve written something that required a lot of research. In a lot of my other work I rested heavily on my existing areas of expertise. So the way I went about this was reading really widely, and then I stopped researching and focussed on the writing. It actually started out as a poem because I couldn’t really write on the keyboard, and normally I have no self-control, so when I have a bright sparkly idea I just launch straight into it, but I had this little baby and I couldn’t sit down and type, and the story began to feel so enormous that I couldn’t find a way into it. Even though I’m not a poet (I read it a lot but it mystifies me), around two or three one night I cranked out four thousand words of verse on my phone, and that’s how I found my way into the story. The whole process has taken me about three and half years, which I know for some people is quite short, but that’s the longest I’ve taken on a novel. I’m actually going through a bit of a grieving process now, because I’ve just loved being in the world so much. It’s a different sort of aliveness, being able to talk to people about it now, but at the same time I can’t go in and tweak and add more scenes.
What was the most enjoyable and challenging parts of writing this book?
A big challenge was imposter syndrome and feeling like I was writing something a lot larger than me. It’s a very big book, it’s quite dense, there’s a lot of stuff going on, a lot of fantastical stuff, and being set so far away was tricky. I actually got funding from the Australia Council to go back to the Orkneys to do field research. I was all booked and then covid hit. The physicality of the landscape is very important to me and I didn’t want the natural world to be a passive backdrop, I wanted it to be active and complex and fluid, and trying to pull that off without being there is really hard.
The part that I always love the most is the editing process. Having someone come on board who’s passionate about the story and willing to immerse themselves in it is wonderful. I’ve been so lucky with the eyes I’ve had on this manuscript. I think this is the proudest I’ve been of a novel, and it wouldn’t be in this shape without all the very wise eyes I’ve had on it.
Do dreams ever play a role in the culmination of your ideas?
I have very vivid dreams where I’ll dream something and I’ll think it happened, and sometimes I do write them down and try to turn them into a story, but sometimes I feel like I can’t gauge whether it has legs because I’m so enmeshed with it and it’s emerged so viscerally from my subconscious. I’ve got a novel sitting in one of my laptop folders at the moment. It’s about sixty thousand words that came from a dream, and I’m pretty sure it’s crap but I feel attached to it. So the short answer is I do, but not very effectively.
Do your characters ever speak to you?
Absolutely. The central romance in Salt and Skin is between Darcy and Theo. I didn’t really have any romantic intentions for any of my characters, but they just decided they really liked each other, so there’s a huge focus throughout the manuscript of them basically pining after one another. And some characters, like Tristan the archaeologist, jumped off the page straight away. He was so easy to write, and I found him quite funny. Other characters like Luda I really struggled with, and I think part of that comes down to our lack of tolerance for difficult women. That’s something that really bugs me in general. We can have these terrible men with no redeeming qualities, and we’re like, ‘yeah that’s cool,’ and then there’ll be a woman who’s just slightly flawed, and everyone’s like, ‘oh no she’s terrible no-one will want to read about her.’
What is the most important element for character creation?
I find characters quite elusive. I started writing novel-length manuscripts when I was fourteen, and I used to fill out the whole character profile and know absolutely every detail about them. Now I go a lot more on gut, but part of that is whatever situation I put them in, I need to know how they’d react, and I find it really hard to write without having that knowledge around who they are. I’m often not clear on what they look like precisely and have to put that in later. I might not know what their favourite music is or what their ambitions are, but I need to know how they’d react if a car accident happens in front of them, I want to be really clear on how they’d respond. And I think my characters in this novel evolved a lot. Min was also quite difficult to peg down. I went through one of the earlier drafts, and I was looking at the dialogue, and a lot of Darcy’s and Theo’s dialogue was similar between the drafts, but Luda’s and Min’s were completely different. It’s such an evolution. And I’ve got to have their voice, I’ve got to know how they sound and how they think and what they notice. This book has been very hard to write because it’s third person but from the perspective of Luda, Darcy, Min, Theo, Cassandra – five people. Normally I write in first person or close third, so I’ve never had this many perspectives, and it’s been really interesting because as I’ve settled into who the characters are, I’ve gone, ‘okay well in this scene this character wouldn’t notice that but they’d notice this,’ and going through and tweaking things. Characters are tricky and I feel like the more I learn about creative writing the less I know. I’ve been teaching creative writing at uni and I just threw myself into books on craft and journal articles on creative writing pedagogy. The more I learn the more elusive it feels.
I think what worked really well for me was that I was such an anxious and overwhelmed baby writer that I steered clear of anything craft related because I found it absolutely immobilising. And in a way it’s actually been good coming back to it as a slightly more established writer because I feel comfortable enough in my own practice to delve into it with open eyes and recognise my weaknesses and know what to take on board as part of my own practice and what to discard as not useful to me.
What is the best piece of advice for editing a novel?
I don’t know where I got this from, but my little mantra for novel writing is: your number one priority has to be to preserve and cultivate the joy in creating, because it’s such a huge investment. When I say joy, I don’t mean you’ve got to be always typing away with a big grin on your face, but there needs to be elements that engage you, challenge you, push you and haunt you, and I just think that the genesis of that is, write the book on the shelf that you wish you could read. I was quite young when I signed my first book deal, and I had a bit of a
crisis navigating it. I had really bad social anxiety at school. I used to just stay at home and write and I never told anyone. It was this incredibly personal private thing. I did some creative writing units at uni but my major was psychology, and I didn’t go back and do honours until after I’d got my book deal because I didn’t feel like I was good enough. My game plan was always to get a short run in a small press and then eventually be able to justify a couple of days a week writing. That was my long-term plan. Going from writing being this very personal thing I did after work to suddenly having the weight of expectation and sitting down to write with an agent and marketing team and publicist, feeling like they were sitting behind me. I think that’s a pretty big transition for most writers. I’ve just done everything I can to recreate that sense of freedom in this next book, and I’ve really gone nuts. I just went, I’m going to write what interests me and tried to put anything related to being published aside for later, and that worked really well.
Have you started working on anything new?
I’ve got about five on the go. I keep working intensively on them and then going, ‘this is boring now’ and starting something else. I’m having trouble settling into my next story. I’m kind of working on it, but mostly just tearing my hair out and going round in circles.
TasWriters thanks Eliza for taking the time to speak with us. You can read more about her work here – https://elizahenryjones.com.au