Interview: June 20, 2013
Bestselling author Barbara Delinsky returns with a new novel just in time for the summer. SWEET SALT AIR is the story of best friends Nicole and Charlotte, who have grown distant over the years as each clings desperately to her own secrets. When they reunite one summer to work together on a cookbook, they find that sharing their hidden histories might test the limits of their friendship --- and ultimately set them free. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Alexis Burling, Delinsky talks about the themes that drive the story forward: friendship, loss, and the inspiration to grow despite past pain. She also opens up about how her own experiences color her worldview, and explains why it’s important to embrace life’s imperfections.
Bookreporter.com: SWEET SALT AIR is set on a remote island off the coast of Maine. Like many islands that aren’t that easy to get to, Quinnipeague is full of proud locals who enjoy a good tourist season, but prefer their own rather than nosy newcomers. Is Quinnipeague modeled after a particular island or far-off place that’s close to your heart?
Barbara Delinsky: Since Maine is one of my very favorite places, I’ve visited many an island there, the most recent being Isle Au Haut. Since I’ve always been intrigued with island life, though, I’ve read about many more. Quinnipeague represents an amalgam of these islands, though I do believe that any vacation spot fits the description you give above. We have a camp on a lake in New Hampshire, and while the local economy depends heavily on summer visitors, come Labor Day, you can feel the relief of locals as the parade of cars moves out.
BRC: Nicole’s father has already been dead for seven months when the book begins, yet his presence is felt in each of the characters’ lives, even when Angie reveals she’s trying to move on. Coping with illness, death and loss is a common theme in your books --- in WHILE MY SISTER SLEEPS, THREE WISHES and others. What aspect(s) did you hope to explore in SWEET SALT AIR?
BD: One of the themes of SWEET SALT AIR is resilience --- the idea that you can’t let yourself be held back by twists in life that you can’t change. Charlotte had to accept this 10 years before, when she found herself in trouble and had to somehow deal and move on. Nicole has to learn it if she hopes to save first her husband, then her marriage. Her mother, Angie, is able to help her precisely because she’s just lived through her husband’s death. Death is, after all, the ultimate irrevocable loss.
Coping with illness, death and loss is a subject I deal with largely because I’ve had to deal with it in real life. My mother died when I was eight. Alone and (figuratively) at sea, I had to be self-reliant to survive. I had to learn to be positive and move ahead. I often write this kind of growth into my characters, because I so believe in it.
BRC: In his or her own way, each character in SWEET SALT AIR is clinging to some sort of ideal they don’t want to budge on. Can you talk a bit more about the notion of compromise and how it relates to your characters’ growth?
BD: Life isn’t perfect. When a woman thinks about the man she wants to marry, for instance, if she holds out for utter perfection, she may never marry at all. If she chooses to be single, that’s right for her, and she accepts the downside. The point is that trade-offs are an important part of life. This doesn’t mean settling for second best. Oh no. It simply means that in a real life, real world, we should prioritize in a way that optimizes our chance for happiness.
That’s pretty much what I taught my sons. They’re all gainfully employed. But I’ve always told them that no job is 100% perfect. If they love their work 70% of the time, that’s success!
BRC: At one point, Angie tells Nicole to “make it work” with her husband, to “look at the hand you’re dealt and be creative.” Do you feel that people are too quick to walk away these days and instead should “work” on it more?
BD: Absolutely. I’ve always considered marriage the most unnatural relationship in the world. Think about it. No two people are exactly alike. Put a couple together who have individual (and often disparate) backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses, work styles, likes and dislikes, and they’re bound to rub each other the wrong way from time to time. Okay. Sometimes they do it more than from time to time. And maybe they weren’t meant to be together. But how do they know that if they just toss in the towel at the first set-to? Marriage is hard work.
BRC: The book’s two female protagonists --- Charlotte and Nicole --- are best friends, but they’re both keeping fairly significant secrets from each other. Even after Nicole spills hers and Charlotte eventually spills hers, there’s still a lot that goes unsaid. How do you determine when it’s time to reveal a mystery in the plot? And did the timing on these “reveals” change as you worked out the story?
BD: I never pre-plan the timing of reveals, mainly because I don’t know the details of the plot when I first start the book. I know the general elements and twists, and I know where I want to end up, but it isn’t until I get to know the characters and let them take over, that I know what’ll happen in a given chapter.
That said, my characters don’t have an overview of the book. I do. My instinct as a writer tells me when it’s time to tell a secret. It’s all about pacing. If I don’t keep my reader guessing by doling out secrets at just the right time, I lose her. That’s the last thing I want.
BRC: And speaking of secrets…whoa, nelly! The only word to describe the situation involving Charlotte, Nicole and Julian is complicated. Or, maybe, awkward. Yet there are many ways to judge each of the characters’ decisions and see that none of them are 100% right or 100% wrong. Would you agree, and is there an inherent message in that to which you were alluding?
BD: There’s definitely a message. Just as life isn’t perfect, life isn’t all black and white. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a character who was all bad. It’s a matter of grays. And yes, if you look at characters from different angles, you see these grays.
BRC: Julian’s character has Multiple Sclerosis, a terrifying and potentially debilitating disease. What research did you do to be able to fill in the details about the disease and its possible treatments using umbilical cord stem cells?
BD: My kids had their kids’ umbilical cord blood frozen at the time of their birth, and since it is becoming a more common practice each year, I knew I wanted to write about this. I was fortunate enough to make contact with a doctor who is preeminent in the field. He was the one who suggested MS as an illness that would one day be helped by UCB stem cell treatments.
Researching MS? Sadly, it’s not a rare illness. Between the people I know who have it and Web research, I got what I needed to make my characters real.
BRC: Leo is one of the most interesting characters in the book --- full of contradictions and depth, noble, independent and surprisingly stubborn. What feelings do you hope Leo inspires in your readers?
BD: Leo is a survivor. He grapples with life issues that become magnified in the course of SWEET SALT AIR and, by the end of the book, feels enough and cares enough to muster the strength to dare to change. It isn’t easy. He’s terrified. But the rewards for him are great. So, if my readers take inspiration from anything, I hope it’s this willingness, despite the pain involved, to try to grow.
BRC: Because Charlotte and Nicole are working on a cookbook together, there are so many delicious-sounding food references in the book: Herbed brioche. Marble macadamia brownies. Seafood chowder. And, of course, all those “magic” herbs from Cecily’s garden! In order to write all this, you must be a whiz in the kitchen. How did you decide which dishes to describe in both SWEET SALT AIR and the girls’ cookbook? How about the medicinal properties of the herbs?
BD: I’m a horrendous cook! Actually, no. That’s wrong. I just hate cooking (all that hard work, and the food’s eaten in two seconds flat!), so that what I do cook rarely has three ingredients and more than five minutes of prep time. But I do love to eat coastal New England food, and I do love to read cookbooks --- all of which made choosing dishes for SWEET SALT AIR a cinch. As for the herbs, that was pure research. I now own dictionaries of herbs and flowers, and what info I didn’t get from those I got from the Web.
BRC: SALT is a book both the girls are reading, as well as every other woman on the island, it seems. Explain how you came up with the plot for SALT. Was it like writing a mini-version of a new novel?
BD: Not really. A few early readers say they want to read SALT now, but I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to write that whole book. I also knew that I wanted it to be semi-autobiographical for its author, which meant that once I plotted the life of said author, I had a leg up on the book itself.
BRC: The author of SALT (I am not naming names so as not to spoil the secret!) complains about “the interruptions” that come with writing a bestseller --- “doing stuff on the Web to promote SALT.” How do you feel about all the extras that now come with being an author --- Facebook, Twitter, keeping a blog, etc.? Do you find it all to be an enjoyable interruption, or do you wish the PR could be kept in the hands of your publishers, like in the old days?
BD: That was totally me speaking when the author of SALT (I’m not naming names, either) made that remark. I did many an author tour, city to city for several weeks at a stretch, and while those were tiring, they didn’t entail nearly as much actual work as today’s extras do. That said, I love this new stuff. The Web allows me to reach so many more people, and the interruptions are a naughty indulgence. I mean, who wouldn’t want to make a posting on Facebook and read the responses of people who praise her work?
Not that I don’t cherish a day when I have nothing, absolutely nothing to do but write my book…
BRC: Along those same lines, the author of SALT chooses to stay anonymous to the public, despite offers from publishers, potential movie deals, etc. Was writing this plot line your way of fantasizing about being famous but anonymous? Or do you prefer the limelight?
BD: What an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about it before, which tells you how powerful the subconscious is. But no, I don’t like the limelight and would infinitely choose fame with anonymity over the other. That said, I’m quite good (I’m told) at speaking in front of large groups of people. Mostly those talks are on breast cancer, which is my personal cause. There is nothing --- nothing --- as wonderful as standing front and center in a ballroom packed with 1,000+ breast cancer survivors and discussing the power of a smile!
BRC: Leo asks Charlotte how she knows when a piece of writing she’s working on is right. She responds by saying, “I’m not the best writer in the world, but I’m a picky reader. When I reread a piece and feel like my subject has come alive, I’m done.” Did you craft that response from personal experience? Anything else to add?
BD: Definitely personal experience. I am my quintessential reader. When something I’ve written works for me, I know it will work for my readers.
Let me add this. When I talk with aspiring writers, they often do ask how to know when a piece is finally done. The truth is, you can edit forever. And there are any number of different versions that will work. That’s why I apply the criterion from your original question, from SALT, actually. Assuming I’m satisfied with content, vocabulary and flow, if I feel my subject has come alive, I’m done.
BRC: What’s next for you?
BD: Oh, I’m writing another book. What else would I do???? This one is a family drama, focused on a situation in which mother and daughter are pitted against each other for a job they both want. Daughter adores mother and needs her emotionally throughout the book, particularly when she unexpectedly --- overnight --- becomes a mother herself and hasn’t a clue what to do. Clearly, motherhood is a theme here --- what it takes, how to be a good one, how to juggle parenting and work and love. But age is also a theme. As women get older, opportunities often close up, not because they can’t do the job, but solely because they look their age. This infuriates me. I’m guessing it’ll infuriate others who may have experienced it, as well as those daughters who so respect and need and depend on the advice of their moms when they become mothers themselves.