Today I talked to Katherine Vaz about her new novel Above the Salt (Flatiron Books, 2023).
In 1843-1846, on the Portuguese island of Madeira, five-year-old John Alves lived in jail and starved alongside his heretic mother, who was condemned to death for converting to Protestantism from Catholicism. Finally freed, John befriends young Mary Freitas, the adopted daughter of a wonderful botanist. Both families are forced to flee, and they end up in southern Illinois. John teaches signing to deaf children and Mary works as a gardener for a wealthy man who falls in love with her. She’s torn after she and John find each other again, but he’s off to fight in the Civil War. A mean-spirited trick keeps them away from each other and Mary accepts her boss’s marriage proposal. This is a rich and detailed love story based on the Portuguese community of Jacksonville, Illinois, historical characters, events, and flower cultivation, a courtship that took place in the home of rising politician Abraham Lincoln, and a sweeping view of 19th and early 20th century America.
Katherine Vaz is an award-winning author, a Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard University (2003-09), and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute (2006-7). Her novels include SAUDADE, (St. Martin’s Press), was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and Marlee Matlin (Solo One Productions) optioned it. Her novel MARIANA has been printed in six languages and is currently optioned by Anne Harrison, with screenwriter Sandy Welch. Rizzoli Publishers picked it as one of their top three books of 1998, and the U.S. Library of Congress chose it as one of the Top Thirty International Books of 1998. Her collection FADO & OTHER STORIES won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and two of the stories won her a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. OUR LADY OF THE ARTICHOKES won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and the title story was the springboard for a one-page film idea that was one of eight national winners in the 2014 “Write Start” contest co-sponsored by the New York Film Academy. Her short fiction has appeared in dozens of magazines, including the Harvard Review, BOMB, Tin House, Glimmer Train, etc., and her children’s stories have been included in anthologies by Simon & Schuster, Viking, and Penguin. She was a fiction editor for the Harvard Review and has lectured extensively on magical realism.
Katherine Vaz is the first Portuguese American to have her work recorded for the archives of the Library of Congress, Hispanic Division, and she was on the six-person U.S. Presidential Delegation to open the American Pavilion at the World’s Fair/Expo 98 in Lisbon. She teaches the “Writing the Luso Experience” workshop in the Disquiet International Literary program in Lisbon. A California native, she lives in New York City with her husband, Christopher Cerf, who hails from a publishing family (his father co-founded Random House) and has played creative and executive roles in children’s television, most notably Sesame Street and Between the Lions.
G.P. Gottlieb is the author of the Whipped and Sipped Mystery Series and a prolific baker of healthful breads and pastries. Please contact her through her website (GPGottlieb.com).