Debut novelist Lisa Duffy took part in one of our online writing courses in 2015, writing a novel with the help of her tutor and 14 coursemates, before securing a publishing deal at Touchstone for her debut, The Salt House.
Set in a coastal town in Maine, Lisa’s novel centres on the Kelly family, as they come to terms with a shocking death in the family. Ahead of its publication on 13 June, we asked Lisa about the process behind writing the novel, and how the workshopping process that’s integral to our creative writing courses helped her complete The Salt House.
You’ve had several short stories published in the past few years – was The Salt House your first attempt at a novel? How did you find the shift between the different forms?
I focused on short stories when I was getting my MFA. When you workshop a novel excerpt, you’re asking your writing peers to read something that’s incomplete, whereas with a short story you can receive feedback on all of the elements, and understand what’s working and what needs revision.
But I worked on the novel throughout, so it wasn’t so much a jump as working on the two forms simultaneously. For me, there’s not a difference between them—they’re equally as challenging. The novel just took longer and I had more space to explore these characters and put them in situations that helped me figure out who they were and what they wanted.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your debut? Was there any one influence behind it – had the characters and setting been milling about in your mind long before you brought them to the page?
I wish I could just sit down and follow some sort of influence or inspiration. That’s not what happens though. I usually start with a voice… this book started just as it is now… with Kat at the dinner party. I didn’t have any idea where it was going. I found the story word by word, sentence by sentence, really just through writing it.
The Salt House addresses big themes of grief and loss. Was it difficult addressing such tough, challenging themes head on?
For me, in the process of writing, I’m never thinking thematically… all of that comes out later when the story is complete. There were challenging scenes to write in The Salt House because many were inherently emotionally loaded – spreading a child’s ashes or recounting a moment of tragedy – so those were a bit of a tightrope.
It was challenging in that I was trying to balance character emotion with action and allowing the reader to be involved without bashing them over the head with whatever’s happening. Or worse, holding back so they don’t feel anything, as though they’re some sort of outsider, looking in.
The narrative is told through the four members of the Kelly family – Hope, Jack, Jess and Kat. Did you decide quite early on that you’d like to tell your story this way?
I knew four chapters in, when these characters had their own voices, that this was the story. To tell it any other way was to write a different book.
Was it a challenge keeping those four voices separate and distinct?
I love writing in various POV’s – especially first person, so that wasn’t challenging. Making sure each character was necessary and had equal presence on the page and in the arc of the story was challenging and it took a lot of revision to get to where I thought it might be finally working. More than once, I printed the entire book, separated and stapled the chapters by POV, and revised them as mini novels first, and then assembled it all back together again, and revised the story as a whole.
When you applied, and were accepted onto the CBC writing course in 2015, what kind of stage was your novel at?
The novel was finished, and I was actively querying agents. I received some detailed feedback in a very kind rejection that I thought was useful, so I decided to take the course to get some fresh eyes on the work, and maybe help me look at it in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.
How did you find the experience of workshopping with 14 other writers from all over the world – what can a course like the one at CBC offer to writers?
It was really an incredible experience – one that surpassed my expectations. Not only was the feedback comprehensive and valuable, but the sense of community was something I hadn’t previously experienced with an online course. I think one of the greatest aspects of the course is getting your work in front of other dedicated and passionate writers who are in this course to not only share their own work with you, but to help you with your own project. And that was 100% the case with my group (we still keep in touch via email and through a Facebook group we started after the course was over).
The feedback from other writers was so thoughtful and detailed and generous – and that’s not to say all positive. There’s such value in thoughtful, well-presented critique. That’s not always present in workshops – and I’ve been in many. The Curtis Brown Creative course breathed new life into my work, as well as into me as a writer, into that space inside of us that can get clogged with doubt and angst and sometimes just needs a little bit encouragement to wash it away.
Once the course had finished, how long was it before you were able secure an agent and then a publishing deal at Touchstone?
During the class, my now agent, who had the partial manuscript already, asked for the full. I asked to her wait until the course was over, as I had some plot points I still was meddling with to make it stronger. I sent the full manuscript when the course was finished and signed with her shortly after that. We sold the manuscript to Touchstone several months later.
What’s next for you – are you working on a new novel?
I’m working on a book that’s a multi-generational story set in a working-class town north of Boston. It’s still new, and I’m getting to know the characters.
It’s was an interesting process spending such a long time with The Salt House. You spend so much time with the characters, and then they go off to publication and they’re gone. Then you’re in a new book – a room full of strangers really. It’s like being at a bad dinner party and all you want to do is go home and get in your PJs and be with the people you like best. But we’ll get there. I like them more each day.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (selective applications process) with participation from our literary agents, our:
6-Month London-Based Novel-Writing Course with Simon Wroe, (deadline for applications is midnight end of day Sun 25 June), click here.
6-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell, (deadline for applications is midnight end of day Sun 2 July), click here.
For people writing for young adults or children, with a children’s writing expert, our:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is midnight end of day Wed 20 Sept), click here.