Please welcome Lisa Duffy to the blog today. She’s the author of The Salt House, our August Book Club Selection. We asked her to share about her inspiration for writing The Salt House, and, as always, the answer fascinated us.
I’m often asked at readings to talk about the inspiration behind my debut novel. Specifically, the spark that ignited The Salt House, a story told in alternating perspectives that traces the lives of a young family in the aftermath of tragedy. Truthfully, the novel began with a writing assignment in a creative writing class…ten years before the novel’s publication.
I think a lot of writers know they want to be writers early on in life, but attempting to make a living at it is a bit like admitting you want to walk on the moon. When I decided to take my writing seriously, I was a thirty-four-year old recently divorced mother of three young children with an unfinished degree. So, with my youngest in preschool, I did the only thing that made sense at the time—I went back to school for writing.
One of my first assignments was to write about setting. Now—all writers have strengths and weaknesses. For me, setting is not one of them. It can take me days to describe something as simple as a room in a way that feels authentic and intriguing.
I completed the assignment, handed it in and when it was returned to me, the professor had scrawled on the back page: Not the assignment, but evocative. Keep writing. You have something here.
The professor was generous, because not the assignment was a polite way of saying the assignment had, well, nothing to do with setting. Instead, it was a scene about a mother in bed with her infant. It’s a snow day, school is canceled, and she can hear her two older children making breakfast and watching TV. As she holds her baby, the mother thinks about her older kids. They had grown so fast that now she can’t even remember the last time either one of them let her hold them, really hug them.
There was a sense of loss in the piece. Nothing specific. But it was the spark—this idea of loss and motherhood and the passing of time.
Over the next ten years, I would pick up and put down the novel many times. It took shape early on with the first four chapters in changing perspectives. I knew then it was going to be a story about a tragedy told through the lens of each family member—how one singular event impacts an entire family.
While I was writing it, my father died, and it was a “truth is stranger than fiction” experience in that it was so interesting to see those closest to me navigate their own grief. In many ways, his death inspired me to dig deeper into the intersections of tragedy and family, heartbreak and hope.
But the first spark that ignited the novel will always live in my memory as an exercise in setting that was not the assignment, but the one I kept writing.