Greensboro author Holly Goddard Jones’s The Salt Line, debuting next month from Putnam, has been called “one of the best Southern books of the year” by Southern Living magazine. Yet, there are no fried green tomatoes or steel magnolias in what critics are comparing to The Stand, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games.
I asked the University of North Carolina Greensboro creative writing professor and award-winning novelist why her post-apocalyptic society results not from an attack by foreign power, zombies, or even angry birds, but ticks— an imminently squirm-inducing idea for anyone who’s extracted a tiny six-legged blood-bag from a dog’s ear or their own belly-button.
“The Salt Line began as a horror story, not a dystopian novel,” Jones said. “I chose ticks because I wanted a small-scale ‘monster’ of the kind Scott Smith used so well in The Ruins. Ticks made sense because they trigger gut-level revulsion. They also — and this was particularly useful — inspire dread and paranoia. Once you find one on yourself, you feel them all over. I knew I’d get some mileage out of characters feeling that crawling sensation, or thinking they’ve felt it.” She said ticks were great for a dystopian novel, too, because they carry disease and their prevalence is tied to a host of worrying environmental issues.
Jones said that The Salt Line “takes its name from a text-within-the-text, a children’s book that acts as an allegory for the tick infestation that wreaks such havoc on society and causes the United State to get divided up into quarantined zones. In the children’s book, it’s a literal ring of salt used to keep evil spirits out of a village. The salt line of the outer text is a perimeter that marks off a territory east of the Appalachian mountain range, complete with a highly politicized wall that emits a vibration that’s supposed to help to keep the ticks out.”
While The Salt Line takes place on a larger scale than her first novel The Next Time You See Me, it was inspired by something tiny.
“I started the book one of the summers I was teaching in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I would spend a lot of time hiking the trails,” she said. “Lots of ticks. Lots of nights when I would wake up to that feeling of a tick on my scalp, and I’ve have to jump and yelp and scream at my husband to pick it off me. At some early point, I also had the idea for the ‘Stamp,’ which is the crude device in the novel that is used to extract a burrowed tick. I can’t remember how or why I had that idea now — it’s lost in the mists of time (and over the course of four sleepless years of pregnancy and new parenthood).”Scuppernong Books
A Dystopia, as the name suggests, is the opposite of a Utopia, an imagined place or state in which everything is worse than present-day reality. Remembering Jones’s earlier mention of her world’s allegedly tick-repelling border wall, I asked her if dystopian fiction becomes more popular when an actual dystopia seems imminent.
“I don’t know if that’s the arrow I’d draw, exactly, but I see your point,” Jones said. “Not to diminish the scary times we live in, but in a way, dystopian literature is probably as much a sign of living in an age of unbelievable plenty as it is of our descent into dark days. We have the luxury of being able to sit around and indulge all of our anxieties about what we can’t control. People struggling just to survive—and that would be most people over the course of human history—don’t spend a lot of time thinking 50 or 60 years (or even 10 years) into the future.”
As a genre writer myself, I’m happy she anticipates what would have been my last question.
“I think the popularity of the genre also has to do with a positive trend in publishing,” she said. “That trend is literary writers feeling freer, and more respected, working in genres other than realism. When I was a grad student, you didn’t go around advertising that you’d read the last Stephen King novel. Now, it’s not so taboo. And the dystopian genre is a good place to play for those of us who like character development as well as plot.”
Holly Goddard Jones will be at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro at 7 p.m. on Aug. 31. Her new novel The Salt Line will be officially released on Sept. 4.