Luda, a photographer, and her two teenagers move from Australia to the Scottish Northern Isles to make a new life. The teenagers forge connections, making friends of neighbours, discovering stories about witch trials, selkies and seeing people’s scars. But their mother – fallible, obsessive, distracted – comes up hard against suspicion. To celebrate the UK release of Salt and Skin, we chatted with Eliza Henry-Jones about the story behind this brilliant title.
Why did you decide to write a book that highlights salt and skin? Did you start writing this book with these two keywords in your mind or did they come later?
I knew the story would be called Salt and Skin right from the very beginning. As I wrote about this family moving from Australia to a collection of islands inspired by Orkney, as I wrote about the witch trials, about the foundling boy so many thought to be a selkie, the two words became a touchstone for the themes I wanted the novel to explore. For me, the words ‘salt’ and ‘skin’ speak to the selkie stories woven throughout – the ocean, the sealskins and the human skins beneath. ‘Salt’ speaks to grief, to the ocean, to exertion, to sex. ‘Skin’ speaks to the boundaries between a body and the rest of the world, to physicality, to what is seen and what remains hidden. I suppose it’s ultimately about what exists in the blurred boundaries between the living and the dead, the real and the uncanny; the ocean and the land; the past and the present.
The idea of seeing people’s scars is so interesting. Where did the inspiration come from?
I’m quite fascinated by scars, by the stories they tell, and also by our amazing capacity to heal. I’m perpetually surprised by what everyday injuries end up scarring my own skin, and what ends up fading. When I was a teenager, I watched a superhero movie where a character was able to immediately heal from any injury, and it started me thinking about what the inverse of that would look like; what it would mean to have our pasts so physically present on our bodies. It felt like the sort of thing best explored on a small scale, so I ended up writing about a tidal island where every scar a person has ever sustained is made visible.
I explore trauma a lot in my work – not in a dark, sensationalist way, but the insidious ways that trauma weaves into the fabric of our world and exists almost like a ghost cast over our everyday lives. Really, the scars in Salt and Skin were a way for me to explore the juncture between psychological trauma and physical trauma.
And if we can actually see others’ scars in real life, do you think people would be kinder or less kind to each other?
I think if we could physically see what the people around us had been through, our response would be complicated. We all have within us a capacity for gentleness and viciousness, and seeing someone else’s vulnerabilities can bring out either side of us. However, Salt and Skin is largely a book about love, and connection, and seeing one another, and in that sense I would like to think that we would be more likely to act with kindness than with unkindness.
You touched upon climate change in Salt & Skin. What was the key to not sounding too preachy about it?
As someone who lives on a seasonal farm, I am constantly confronted with the tiny shifts being wrought by climate change. A cold snap in mid-spring that wipes out hundreds of hives in my area; the blueberries in my orchard flowering in autumn instead of spring; roses blooming into winter; dahlia tubers and trees in the orchard rotting in sodden soil well into summer. Like most of us, the reality of it overwhelms and exhausts me, and I am honestly rarely in the mood to read about it. Timothy Morton’s term ‘hyperobject’ comes to mind – something so shockingly vast that it defies our efforts at comprehension. I didn’t want Salt and Skin to explore climate change in a way that was exhausting. I was conscious of it being a single thread in the story; of entwining it with the stories of the women accused of ‘calling in storms’ and ‘promising fruitfulness in nature’ during the 17th century witch trials. I also let the characters themselves grapple with it – does the urgency of climate change justify a parent violating the rights of their child? Or someone else’s child? Does the urgency of climate change justify destroying relationships, or wounding the already hurting? Do we progress, when faced with seismic changes? Or do we fall back to patterns seen throughout history?
The atmosphere is done so well. Did you go to Scotland to research this book?
Thank you! I had the initial ideas for the story after a trip to Scotland in 2017. I actually received funding from the Australia Council for the Arts to head back over and do research in 2020, but with COVID and lockdowns, I had to rework the research into things I could undertake digitally.
Salt and Skin was largely written during COVID lockdowns – in Melbourne we had some of the longest periods in lockdown in the world. I found that working on Salt and Skin became a much more immersive experience than when writing my other books, because I didn’t have that usual baseline of outside stimulation. Apart from walks in the forest and getting click and collect groceries, we really weren’t physically interacting with the world beyond our farm, which meant I had the space to craft the world in Salt and Skin with particular care. I think it may have had quite a different feel if I’d written it outside of lockdowns.