Q&A with Madelaine Lucas: ‘Thirst for Salt’ and the Roots of Desire

Valerie Braylovskiy

Madelaine Lucas’s first novel, Thirst for Salt (272 pages; Tin House Books), centers on an unnamed female narrator and her love for an older man, offering profound reflections on how the absence of affection can still take up space in one’s life. Throughout the story, notions of desire are uprooted by the impermanence of relationships, places, and the self. Lucas writes with a poetic precision that captures the sharp and mellow edges of love, as well as its intersections with grief.

Born in Australia, Lucas now lives in New York, where she is senior editor of the literary magazine NOON and teaches at Columbia University. We spoke by video about her novel, her writing process, and literary inspirations. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

ZYZZYVA: This book is a love story, but it also grapples with topics like motherhood, generational trauma, climate change, and the notion of the self. Did the focus of the novel change at all over the course of your writing process?

MADELAINE LUCAS: Very early on, when I first started thinking about this novel a decade ago, I wrote a short story about a woman, her older boyfriend, and her dog. That kind of triangulation was always there from the beginning, but the themes came into focus over the course of many revisions. I lived alongside the characters and ideas for several years, and in some ways, I think about the book being a map of the things that I found myself thinking about during that period, which obviously changed as I changed. I did know from the beginning that I wanted to write about love as an experience that shapes the self and one’s understanding of the world. I believe that the best love stories—The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, or Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell—are existential in nature and teach us so much about longing, memory, grief, the idea of home, and what it means to be alive.

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As I continued, it became important to me that the novel held other visions of love that are not just romantic. One of the things I was particularly interested in was the ideas of personal mythologies and origin stories, and the way that what we learn from our parents about love comes to affect choices we make in our own relationships. That was when the idea of this generational connection between the narrator, her mother, and her grandmother came more into the foreground, which is why I wanted to show points of connection between their experiences as women over time.

Z: In an interview in BOMB Magazine, you stated, “In a very small domestic sense, I also felt I didn’t have one place of belonging.” I know you are originally from Australia and now teach in New York City. This is not unlike the main character of the book, who sees their sense of place shift throughout their life. How important was setting to you in this book, and how do your own personal experiences influence the way you write about it?

ML: Although the novel is not autobiographical in any classic sense, elements of the narrator’s background are drawn from my own. My parents, like hers, divorced when I was very young, and we moved around frequently during my childhood. When I moved to New York in 2015, this experience of living in a foreign country created this container for a feeling I think I’ve always had: feeling split between two different homes and not being able to reconcile that longing for one or the other. I do see the setting for Thirst for Salt as partly motivated by my own homesickness, as I wrote this novel while I was living away from Australia for the first time in my life. Sailors Beach is a fictional town, but it’s based on the Jervis Bay area of New South Wales, where I spent time with friends and family growing up. All the things that I missed about Australia once I moved away seemed to be most present in that landscape: the calls of morning birds, the smell of eucalyptus, the taste of salt on the breeze, and the proximity to the ocean. Writing the book became a way of getting close to those things again, which is where a large part of that tone of longing comes from. In the novel, it’s not just a longing for a person, but for a place and a moment in time that you can’t access anymore. For similar reasons, I also wanted my narrator to be thinking back on her time in that place as someone who had also left it.

Z: In this novel, not only do you not use quotation marks for dialogue, but the conversations characters have with one another are seamlessly woven into the rest of the story, lending a lyrical tone to the book. What made you opt for these stylistic decisions?

ML: I came to writing the novel through a background of short fiction, so my early drafts were quite minimalist, focusing on silence and quiet moments. I got to a point in the process where I had written a series of short stories I was picturing to be connected, but trying to neatly tie up all these parts wasn’t leaving enough space for messier exploration. So, in 2018, I started from the beginning with the intention of rewriting these stories as a novel, which really cracked something open and changed my voice. I think it was a negotiation between that original subtle minimalist impulse and also allowing this space for complexity and ambiguity to exist.

In terms of other stylistic decisions, I wanted to create a reading experience that would feel as intimate as possible, like you were immersed in the narrator’s consciousness and memories. I didn’t want to use quotation marks for dialogue or give my narrator a name because I felt like these conventions would break the spell and put the reader at a distance. When I was a student at Columbia, I interviewed Maggie Nelson and she quoted something Eileen Myles had once said to her, which was, “In writing, you have to use artifice to strip artifice of artifice.”

Z: Your approach to the passage of time in the novel feels unique in the sense that the character seems to be rooted in the past, present, and future all at once. From the first page, readers know that this love between Jude and the young woman was in the past, but we still can’t help hoping we will be proven wrong. How did you go about approaching the structure and timeline of this book?

ML: My experience of living in the world is very much being in conversation with the past, the present, and the future all at once. It felt natural to me that the novel would contain all of these layers, but coming up with the structure that allowed me to access these dimensions was really difficult. I knew from the beginning that the heart of the book would follow the arc of the narrator’s relationship with Jude, but that retrospective telling was important to me. I’m most at home in the past tense, both as a person and on the page, because I don’t think I can ever really know how I truly feel about something in the moment and reflection is a big part of what draws me to writing. At the same time, I wanted the narrator’s memories of their time together to have that visceral immediacy, so the biggest challenge was trying to figure out where the narrator was in her present and how much time had passed since her relationship with Jude had ended. Framing the narrative with a beginning and end didn’t come together until the final draft that I worked on with my agent. I was really interested in how you could build a reader’s sense of anticipation even when they already know a certain outcome is inevitable. In my mind, this allowed a more interesting question to emerge for the book, which is not whether the relationship will survive, but what are the reasons it doesn’t.

Z: Nature plays a dynamic role in the book. The way water and fire are reflected in the endurance and destruction of the self and relationships is beautiful. What inspired you to make nature such a focal point in the book?

ML: For a long time, I’ve been interested in archetypal imagery and symbols. Fire and water are these elemental forces that help sustain life, but they can also cause destruction. That tension interested me, as well as the idea of fire and water being natural opposites and the way this reflects the tension between two lovers. I’m also drawn to writing that has a vivid, tactile sense of place, so part of my desire to set the book in this landscape was a way to put myself back in touch with it again, using writing as an act of homecoming. My experience of living in Australia with a climate prone to extremes was that nature is ever-present and always intruding, but I think it’s increasingly getting to be that way for everyone as a result of climate change. While I was writing the book, there were periods of living in New York where I watched intense environmental destruction back home that I wasn’t present for—but was at the forefront of my mind—like the bushfires of 2019-2020. Nature is no longer something that can sit in the background as a purely symbolic element in a story, but rather something that we all have to reckon with.

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