An Interview With Holly Goddard Jones, author of The Salt Line
I am so excited about this book! It has already vaulted up to become one of my favorite thrillers ever and I think it is going to be HUGE. But you have to be careful how you describe The Salt Line: if you mention it is set in a dystopian future crawling with killer ticks, some people are undoubtedly going to recoil as they picture engorged pincer-wielding monsters hellbent on inflicting maximum carnage. I’ll admit I worried when I started the book that it might be the literary equivalent of the campy 1997 flick Starship Troopers. But rest easy, y’all! While a (normal-sized) tick makes an occasional cameo here and there, The Salt Line is not at all the way I envisioned it…although I will say it would make a hell of a movie.
The novel opens as a handful of people gather at a training camp for an expedition headed into the wilds of the abandoned portions of the former United States. Having been ravaged by a deadly tick-borne disease at some point in the past, the remaining population of the country has retreated behind a barrier ring, leaving vast swathes of unoccupied land. Despite technological advances, citizens are divided into haves and have-nots, depending on their level of prestige and the resources available in their particular zone. In this instance, the members of the out-of-zone expedition are all privileged thrill-seekers: a tech industry titan, wealthy lawyers, a rock star and his girlfriend, the wife of a powerful, shadowy underworld boss. Wearing protective suits and armed with a painful tick-extracting device, they set off into the forests of what was once North Carolina, marveling at the clear air and the unmitigated starlight and the occasional abandoned Cracker Barrel.
Well, you know what is going to happen: things are about to go very wrong. But it’s how and why they go awry that will surprise you, as it turns out that there are, in fact, survivors living beyond the salt line—and they have a secret.
You’ll be hooked from the very first sentence. The author, Holly Goddard Jones, does a spectacular job maintaining tension throughout the entire novel: every paragraph is wrought with intrigue, piquing your curiosity to the bursting point. It’s smart and it’s eloquent and it’s perfectly plotted. You won’t be able to put it down.
KM: Your previously published novel (The Next Time You See Me) was a different genre. How did you decide to switch and what was the genesis of the idea for The Salt Line? Naturally, I am wondering if it was related to a gruesome tick encounter of your own.
HGJ: I started fiddling with the story that would become The Salt Line the summer after I finished edits to The Next Time You See Me. I was teaching for six weeks in Sewanee, Tennessee, which is on the Cumberland Plateau, and ticks were on my mind because my husband and I liked hiking the trails, and we always came back home with something, or several somethings, crawling on us. Oh, and around that same time, I was posing for my author photo, and I sat right down in a chigger nest. That made for some unpleasant days, let me tell you! Nothing too gruesome, then, but I spent a lot of energy that summer feeling assaulted by bugs, full of bug-related dread and revulsion.
Then I had this idea about the miner tick—a tick that burrows under the skin and lays eggs—and about the Stamp, which is the extracting device you mentioned. I think this all came together in the space of a morning run, God knows why, and I came back home and quickly pounded out the first 10 or 15 pages of what would become the book.
I thought at the outset that it was going to be a short story, a little horror story. And then I thought maybe it would be a long short story, and then I thought maybe a novella. The dystopian elements began at first as simply a way to explain why this group of people would willingly go into the woods where these terrible ticks could get them. Then I got more and more interested in the dystopia, and that’s when I knew I had a novel on my hands. So I backed into this project in baby steps and felt very sheepish and apologetic the whole time I was doing it. I was convinced I’d have to publish it under a pseudonym with a different editor. But I couldn’t not write the book, because it had this tremendous urgency to it—it felt sometimes like a thing I was unearthing intact rather than a story I was making up as I went along.
KM: TSL is told from the perspective of multiple characters, including Edie, the foxy girlfriend of Jesse, the rocker; Wes; a geeky, hugely successful tech entrepreneur; and Marta, the middle-aged wife of a powerful man with dubious scruples, as well as from an expedition guide and a couple of the out-of-zone survivors. Did you identify with any of the characters more than others? Was it difficult to portray the insights and thoughts of so many protagonists?
HGJ: I really like doing ensemble narratives. That’s the big fun of writing for me: getting in the heads of people, all kinds of people, who are different from one another and different—at least in the obvious ways—from me. At this point, I feel pretty connected to Edie, Wes, and Marta. I gave them each traits that were very close and familiar and even autobiographical, and I paired those traits with characteristics that are completely foreign to me, such as Edie’s casual understanding of her own beauty, or Wes’s narrow sort of genius.
There’s a character in the book, Violet, who started in the drafting as a two-dimensional villain and ended up demanding more and more nuanced treatment. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll say this: I wrote her sections when I was dealing with some depression that took its form in what I guess would be a sort of body dysmorphia; I thought that I looked so ugly that people were staring at me and judging me and questioning my right to be a mother to beautiful young children. I poured those anxieties into Violet. So I identify with her, though she’s a person who has suffered in ways I’ve never come close to knowing.
KM: As a North Carolinian, it was exciting to recognize so many of the settings in the novel: Asheville, Greensboro, Ruby City, and Flat Rock, although I may never look at them—especially Flat Rock— quite the same way after reading this! Why did you select Western North Carolina as the location for the out-of-zone expedition?
HGJ: I’ve lived in Greensboro since 2009, and I’ve driven through western NC hundreds of times, going back and forth to visit family in Kentucky. It’s a journey I know well. The thing about North Carolina, too, is that the I-40 corridor between Greensboro and, say, Hickory, is pretty dull: just the road, and relatively flat terrain, and your view of what’s passing is largely blocked on both sides by trees. Then, around Hickory, you start seeing the mountains, and there’s this sudden and dramatic change in the landscape. When I was a kid, we drove east twice to spend a couple of nights at the Smoky Mountains, and that experience of seeing the dark shape of the mountains in the distance still triggers in me something almost primal. This longing I didn’t even know I harbored was suddenly being satisfied. I used that feeling, and amplified it, in The Salt Line.
KM: There are some possible Trumpian parallels to one of the secondary characters in the story. Did current politics have any influence on your writing? And as a side note, since you’ve written about a fictional catastrophic pandemic, I’m wondering if you’re now in a full-blown panic attack at the recent proposed billion-dollar funding cuts for the NIH and CDC? How much research into infectious diseases did you do to write your novel, and are you scared that a previously unknown infectious disease could take us down?
HGJ: I was wrapping up the last substantial revision to the book around the time Trump took the Republican nomination, and I finished doing line edits just before he was elected. David Perrone—the crime boss with political aspirations—has existed in the book since I started writing it in 2012, but he was certainly shaped by the political events I was witnessing. I was most intrigued by this idea of political ambition for its own sake—ambition that isn’t driven by some obvious ideology. All that time, I didn’t really think Trump would be elected, and I don’t know if I could have brought to the project that sort of removed intellectual curiosity if I’d started it after November 2016.
To give you a sense of where my head is now, my 2016 looked like this: in October I finished line edits to the book; in early November, Trump was elected; in late November, I gave birth to my second child, a daughter. The election primed me for some bad PPD and anxiety, and for about six months I dropped off the internet, shut down my Facebook account, and avoided the news—any news, all of it. I was on maternity leave, and I mostly hid out at home and streamed non-threatening TV, like four or five seasons of Project Runway. I’m just beginning to venture out again, and so that’s a long way of saying that I didn’t know about those proposed funding cuts—thanks, Kimmery!—but nothing surprises me anymore. I have so many sources of anxiety connected to this presidency that this one is more of the same. I want to throw in here, though, that I think The Salt Line is ultimately a hopeful book, and I’ve had to cling hard to hopefulness to raise my two young children. These funding cuts are terrifying; on the other hand, I’m glad I live in a time when the science is sophisticated enough to even tackle the challenges of infectious disease.
I didn’t actually do a whole lot of research on infectious diseases, because I gave myself the out of having invented a disease that could operate by any rules I wished it to. I looked a bit at Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, of course, and that helped me to sketch out what a tick-borne plague might look like.
KM: How much of the story did you plot before writing, and how much was a surprise to you? I’m also curious if any major plot points were edited out of the novel prior to publication.
HGJ: As I mentioned before, I thought at first I was just writing a horror story, and so my initial plan for the book was to do something like Scott Smith does in The Ruins: send a group of people into the woods and start picking them off one by one in gruesome ways. When I had the idea for what the group encounters beyond the Wall—a threat that doesn’t involve ticks—I started to get a vague sense of what the shape of the rest of the book would be like, but I still, mostly, had to write my way from moment to moment, figuring things out as I went along. But again, this was a strange project for me, in that my subconscious seemed to be delivering up these plot points just as I needed them, and I’d find that some detail I’d planted early on—mostly by feel—would somehow pay off later in the writing, as if I’d intentionally planned it that way. Maybe it just seems like this now because I’m reflecting on a writing process that took place across two pregnancies and the first years of motherhood! Just as you rise in the night to sleepwalk through feeding and comforting a baby, I wrote swaths of this book in a sleep-deprived trance.
I didn’t edit out any major plot points, but I did edit out some points of view. The first draft went into David Perrone’s head and into the head of Tia, one of the tour group leaders. When I revised, a shifted a lot of that material over to other characters. My biggest weakness as a writer is not knowing what to leave out. I tend to put everything in, and then some, and when I revise I need to do a lot of cutting.
KM: Tell us about how your writing techniques and habits, and whether they’ve changed substantially since your debut novel. Do you have any major literary influences?
HGJ: Oh, man, I feel at this point like I have neither techniques nor habits. I write in bursts, when I have time, and then I’ll go for days or weeks and do absolutely nothing. That was true with my first novel, too, but I didn’t have kids then, and I wasn’t writing on a contract, so I was worse, if anything. I had more time to waste and to feel sorry for myself.
One way that having kids has been good for my writing is that I’m less willing to waste the time I have. If I’m going to put them in daycare, and pay money so that someone else gets to be with them while I don’t, I’m going to try to maximize that time. What’s more, I’m going to write something that I really enjoy doing and not the thing that I think people expect me to do. That’s how I ended up with a book about killer ticks, I guess. I wasn’t going to have any fun working on an Important Novel.
My biggest literary influence? Well, Stephen King imprinted on me when I was young and impressionable—I’m sure his novels had something to do with my weakness now for books with big casts of point-of-view characters—and Margaret Atwood is the writer I’ve most admired as an adult. I love her not only for her skill and her wit but for also for her fearlessness; she has had such a varied career, and yet everything she makes is recognizably hers.
KM: Finally, what are you working on now? Will you continue to experiment with different genres?
HGJ: I just signed a contract to write a novel that is connected to The Salt Line. It’s not a sequel, but it takes place in the same world, on an earlier timeline, and introduces a new set of characters. I pitched it as a dystopian Stand By Me with an all-female cast. I’m having fun with it so far. And I think there’s a third book that ties the first two together, but we’ll see how The Salt Line does first.
Holly Goddard Jones is the author of The Salt Line, The Next Time You See Me and Girl Trouble (stories). Her work has appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, New Stories from the South, Tin House magazine, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of The Fellowship of Southern Writers' Hillsdale Prize for Excellence in Fiction and of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. She earned her M.F.A. from Ohio State University and her B.A. from the University of Kentucky. She teaches creative writing at UNC Greensboro and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Brandon, and their children.
You can buy The Salt Line HERE