Hala Alyan is the author of the new novel Salt Houses. She also has written three poetry collections, including Hijra, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Guernica. She is a clinical psychologist, and she lives in Brooklyn.
Q: You've said that your novel started as a short story. At what point did you decide you would write a novel about your characters, the Yacoub family?
A: I don’t know that I ever actually made the active decision to write a novel. The very term terrified me and whenever I described what I was writing, I used the phrase “longer project.”
Rather, I think that I just became very curious about the other family members and was excited to try to give them each a chance to tell their story. I kept chasing that desire until, eventually, I had accidentally written a novel!
Q: You write from the viewpoints of many different members of the family. Were there particular characters you particularly enjoyed writing about?
A: I loved writing Linah’s chapter, because the perspective of a child is such a challenging thing to replicate. I also always enjoyed writing about Alia and Souad: their decades-long bickering was always enjoyable to witness (and create…).
Q: How did you choose the book's title, and what does it signify for you?
A: I initially had a different title and my agent told me I needed to change it. While I was initially reluctant, I am so grateful she encouraged me to branch out, because the current title is a million times better.
At the time, I just made a list of all the things that I mentioned a lot in the book, objects that I felt reoccurred throughout the chapters. “Houses” instantly grabbed me as an obvious choice, and then I brainstormed until I thought of “salt.”
Q: You've said that "one of the implications of a post-Trump America is that [immigrant] stories will become more urgent and necessary than ever before." Can you say more about that, and where you see Salt Houses fitting into that sense of urgency?
A: More and more, we’re seeing the attempt at negating, erasing or undermining the narratives of immigrants. I think books that challenge those norms, and portray immigrants in a non-dehumanizing, three-dimensional way are imperative in that process.
I hope that Salt Houses will be joining the tradition of literature that gives the reader an alternative perspective on the emotional costs of immigration and displacement.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I like to work on two projects at once, so I’m working on a new poetry manuscript and a new novel about a Lebanese family of expats that return to Beirut to sell their ancestral home. It’s tentatively titled The Arsonists’ City.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This is still very surreal!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb