Portuguese American Journal

| Above the Salt | Katherine Vaz discusses her breakthrough novel – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Katherine Vaz is the author of three novels: Above the Salt, Saudade, and Mariana; and two collections of short fiction: Fado and Other Stories and Our Lady of the Artichokes. Her latest book, Above the Sal ( Flatiron Books/Macmillan) is forthcoming from ASA Publishers in Portugal.

Luso-Americano named Vaz one of the Top 50 Luso-Americans of the 20th Century, and she is the first Portuguese-American to have her work recorded for the Archives of the Library of Congress (Hispanic Division).

As a former Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard, Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute, and a National Endowment for the Arts recipient, Vaz is a brilliant and vibrant voice in the literary scene and the Portuguese community. She lives in New York City with her husband Christopher Cerf, son of Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House. Christopher is an editor, TV producer, and former Sesame Street composer and writer.

Above the Salt Praise

Publisher’s Weekly proudly states, “Readers will be entranced by this ambitious and heartbreaking saga.” And Booklist exclaims, “. . .this sweeping literary novel that is equal parts love story and immigrant experience, showcasing America’s ‘endless space and promise,’ where ‘large people were obsessed with large dreams.’ “

Tayari Jones (author of An American Marriage, Leaving Atlanta, and Silver Sparrow) says, “Katherine Vaz is the sort of artist who makes me wonder why the rest of us even bother. She evokes what the Portuguese call ‘saudade,’ a beautiful, sumptuous longing. Singing sentences and pull-you-in plot let you know that Vaz is the real thing, an American treasure.”

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Katherine Vaz discusses her new book Above the Salt, the historical research on the emigrant experience from Madeira to the United States during the Civil War, and how her Portuguese heritage has influenced her writing and her life.


Q: Does your writing fill a gap in the Portuguese-American literary universe as taking place in Madeira? There are books about Pico and Lisbon but not about Madeira, which seems to not get much love or attention.

A: I hope my novel provides a tribute to Madeira, yes. It must have been a jolt to come from such a perfumed, subtropical, vividly-colored, and precipitous landscape and reside in the snow and ice of the Midwest.

Q: The idea for this book came about when you were at a Portuguese archives. Is that right? Can you tell us how you got the idea?

A: I was giving a talk at the Library of Congress, in the Hispanic Division, and Dr. Iêda Siqueira Wiarda, originally from Brazil, told me there was an exhibit in the Map Room, organized by Dr. Ron Grimm, that I might find fascinating. It was The Portuguese Protestants of Illinois…and so my adventure began.

Q: What did writing this book teach you?

A: I believe in taking a calm but good look at my weaknesses as a writer. Images flow out easily; I worked — and worked, and I hired editors to keep pushing me! — on driving the momentum of the story.

One of my biggest rewards has been readers or posted reviews saying the plot had so many unexpected but logical twists, and it was the story itself that captivated them. This all must stem from character, first and foremost…these have to be souls whom a reader cares about. I am, after all, asking people to spend hours with me and what I’ve written. That means working to give readers as exciting, unexpected, and lively a story as I could.

Q: How did the research for Above the Salt, differ from the research for Mariana?

A: Research for Mariana was centralized. It meant going to Beja. I befriended— they remain dear to me — the Borrela family there. Leonel Borrela, who died just a few years ago, quite suddenly, was a curator at the convent where Sister Mariana resided until old age. Leonel had an enormous, stunning collection of “Marianalia.” His wife, Herminia, daughter Silvia, and son José Miguel assisted me in following the trail of evidence about Mariana Alcoforado, and the convent-museum was a rich source of material. I could not have written that book without my Bejan family.

Above the Salt, on the other hand, is a Civil War novel as well as a Madeiran immigration tale, and so I went to Madeira and to Illinois where the Madeiran refugees were welcomed. I was, so to speak, all over the map. There were war records to uncover in the National Archives in Washington, and the environs of the prairie to explore, and a more complex story to weave.

Q: You’ve said Above the Salt is at its heart a love story. What defines a love story for you as a writer? What’s your favorite fictional love story?

A: It’s hard to boil down a novel to a single element, and calling my book a “love story” is perhaps a way of citing one enormous arc: Will my protagonists be united despite all that’s in their way?

But the story is also—I hope—about the fight for the spirit of what America should be (freedom for individuals, or building an interwoven community) and how social jealousies and all sorts of conflicts tear us apart. I’d pick Love in the Time of Cholera (by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez) as a model.

I’m enthralled by stories about long separations and how people endure, what strength and grace it requires to go on after heartbreak. That’s certainly the theme in Mariana, since she lived many decades after her affair. (Many people are of the theory, by the way, that Mariana’s famous love letters were written by a Frenchman, but in either case, that novel tells the story of what would very much have been possible whether scholars feel she was real or fictional.)

Q: What’s the difference between “above” and “below” the salt?

A: This is revealed in the Lincoln scene in the novel…I’ve taken to saying during talks that ha, I can’t reveal it; you’ll have to read the book and see!

Q: How would you say that your book fits into the world of other historical fiction that depicts or takes place during the Civil War?

A: The biggest and most important difference, to me, is that there has not been a war story focused on a Madeiran soldier! The war began not long after their arrival. The role of immigrant soldiers in the Civil War is a touching one, not often written about, if at all. They almost universally felt a need to serve the country that opened its arms. We forget, too, that there were very few people at that time who were not touched by this horrendous conflict; almost everyone lost someone close or directly knew someone who did.

Also, thanks to the suggestions of my editor Megan Lynch at Flatiron Books/Macmillan—I kept the war passages succinct. As she put it, we know war is hell; what can you tell me that is different? One thing I uncovered was the Meridian Raid, a dry-run for the March to the Sea. Civil War buffs know of it, but most of the rest of us don’t. My male protagonist, John Alves, was involved in that. It must have been particularly horrific for a refugee, who had fled religious violence in his native land, to be involved in driving out civilians and burning their town to the ground.

I sensed the acute pain of how poor communication was; families could go long spells without knowing if someone was dead or alive.

Q: Can you describe a scene and how you married the history with the fiction in order to tell the story? Or to be more clear? How did you decide which parts to expand and fictionalize and which parts to include as straight history?

A: Well, the Lincoln scene is a good example of taking a fact from an interview given by John Alves that he courted a girl named Mary Freitas there and rendering it with details, which result in a work of the imagination. Lincoln—I read his ledgers and records—did represent a Madeiran whose brother-in-law sought to deny him the right to property based on his race. That is a true case, recorded in my story. But did they have pink cake? I just wanted to mention that fuchsia food coloring was made from crushed cochineal insects! I got a private tour of the Lincoln household and examined the look of the place, the tiny details. This seems a good juncture to mention that people are quite generous when you ask them to help with research!

Q: Is there a paragraph or passage you can share with PAJ readers?

A: Sure. Here are two.

The first is about the protagonist Mary and her father in Madeira:

Sometimes she feels as breakable as a teacup, or a fragile plate that is kept in a cupboard after all the other plates in the set got broken long ago. Her father vows to protect her, and he tucks her into her feather bed while wishing her pink dreams, the Lusitanian way of granting sweet dreams, night rest in the shade of peonies, the raptures of sunrise, the tint of the camellias that got the best of God’s paintbrush…sail into pink and seize it as yours, my living angel, my own dream incarnate.

The second excerpt is when they travel from New York City to Illinois, where they will live:

When the steamship’s wake sent out froth, Mary’s heart erupted with frazzle cracks from an abiding worship of New York. And farther west, onward, there was gold, gold pried out of crevices. She had heard Illinois was very cold and extremely flat. Perhaps the winds there were like curtains that blew all the way to California and dipped into the Pacific, where the gold had run off in rivulets, and then the curtains made of wind blew back to the center of the country, brushing gold upon everyone’s head.

Q: A couple in the book, John Alves (the son of a famous Presbyterian martyr on the Portuguese island of Madeira) and Mary Freitas (from a family whose heritage includes botany and Catholicism) escape Catholic and Protestant conflict on the island by fleeing to mid-nineteenth-century Illinois. What did you discover about Portuguese migrants in Illinois?

A: I met a number of them! They remained exceptionally proud of their heritage; there’s still “Portuguese Hill”—or “Madeira Hill”—in Jacksonville, Illinois. I’ve had readers of Above the Salt write to me, excited that someone had in fact written about their history. These descendants that I met had collected old hymnals and Bibles and memorabilia, including church-society notes, newspaper clippings, and historical records. It is ironic, of course, that if the Presbyterian converts in Madeira met opposition, Catholics in the USA were facing it at the same time.

Q: How does Abraham Lincoln fit into the novel?

A: Abraham Lincoln is such an overwhelmingly powerful presence and force that my publisher and I agreed to keep him as a strong cameo. His influence permeates a lot of the Illinois scenes, and certainly the war…but it’s easy to get diverted off the major storyline if the novel became “about” Lincoln. The point was, instead, that some poor Madeiran immigrants suddenly found themselves sitting with the “Great Man,” as they called him, in his house. What an incredible thing! And incredible to realize that a man headed for Washington (it was not yet called the White House) would open his door to them. At the end of the book—this doesn’t give anything away—John goes to Lincoln’s grave.

Q: The classic choice of Love or Country. How did you decide?

A: It would have been impossible not to have John join the army for his new nation. He did not have the money or influence to do otherwise. There were a lot of broken love stories adding to the hardships of soldiers, then as now.

Q: What sacrifices are important to make for love and what sacrifices are unacceptable?

A: My characters John and Mary reach a maturity of realizing that hurting another man—Mary’s husband, Edward—is not something their broken spirits can bear. Edward is innocent of wrongdoing; he did not win Mary unjustly. (I am trying to avoid spoilers by spelling out too much!) The big sacrifice lovers make in life and fiction is in giving one another up for the sake of decency or some greater good. Unacceptable sacrifices are always in the nature of surrendering a sense of self in a relationship, of not honoring one’s own life. But none of us get everything we want or think we want. And we bear up, and we learn how to love, and we follow our altered path. A theme in the book is how descending into bitterness can rot the soul.

Q: What was your favorite part about writing the novel?

A: After fifteen years—ha—the best part was having an editor love it and buy it and tell me that People Magazine was making it a Book of the Week. More seriously, my favorite part was the elation I felt as I worked with terrific editors in honing the story. I learned so much! And I had a blast with the research, meeting so many wonderful people…one example was Dr. Lawrence Zettler, a botanist at Illinois College in Jacksonville, where I had a one-semester fellowship: He took me to discover ghost orchids on the prairie. We found some! Those were adventures. But I’m also a writer who treasures days of getting to stay at my desk, working on sentences. I’m 70 pages into a new project!

Q: What was the worst part?

A: I lost both my parents during the composing of my book. I promised my dying father I would finish it, for him. That kept me going. This is the first of my books that will not have, as a coda, a long letter of congratulations from my mother.

Q: Do you have readings or events coming up?

A: Yes!

  • May 30th at 6:30 p.m. at City Lit Books in Chicago
  • June 4th,7 p.m. Zibby’s Bookstore, Santa Monica, CA, in conversation with author Laura Warrell
  • June 8th, presentation at Dia de Portugal in the afternoon (time TBD) at History Park, San Jose
  • June 9th, 2 p.m., Castro Valley Public Library, sponsored by Books on B, Hayward: a slideshow

Starting June 17th, I’ll be in Lisbon to do publicity for the Portuguese edition. Also, Mariana is being reissued there. Sandy Welch of London, who does marvelous BBC adaptations (Emma, Jane Eyre, Our Mutual Friend, etc.) is attached as screenwriter for a new option.

Q: The $10,000 question: Have you ever brought contraband from Portugal (like your character Mary’s miracle berry)?

A: I have bought my share of filigree jewelry and ceramics and paid in Customs…I fear I don’t have a dramatic story involving contraband. I once smuggled my small dog into a hotel that didn’t take pets…does that count?

Book Details

Author: Katherine Vaz

Title: Above the Salt

Publisher‏: ‎Flatiron Books

Publication Date: November 7, 2023

Language‏: ‎English

Hardcover‏: ‎ 432pp

Available @ Amazon.com


Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, including Through Grainy Landscape and Quarantine Highway (Honorable Mention at the Latino Book Awards 2023). Her awards also include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant), and Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal). She works as a writing mentor and teaches poetry workshops. She also curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series

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