Excerpted from The Salt Road by Jane Johnson. Copyright © 2011 by Jane Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
20 Writerly Questions for Jane Johnson
1. How would you summarize your book in one sentence?
The salt roads cross the desert like the lines on a hand, tracing the hard path between life and death, the path that two women from vastly different cultures must walk if they are to find love and freedom, and the answer to a mystery that spans continents and generations.
2. How long did it take you to write this book?
Nearly two and a half years: half of which was research – books, internet, interviewing family members and contacts, travelling in the desert.
3. Where is your favorite place to write?
I like to write the first draft long hand and outdoors too, preferably by the sea or in the mountains, anywhere there’s lots of wide open space, which lets my mind roam free. My Cornish cottage is so tiny it doesn’t have room for a study; in Morocco, I often sit on the roof terrace of our apartment, or walk out into the wilds with a notebook.
4. How do you choose your characters’ names?
Usually when I’m researching they leap out at me, demanding to be chosen. Tuareg names are complicated and very foreign, though, so I was careful to choose only those I could pronounce!
5. How many drafts do you go through?
As an editor, I self-edit all the time, which is a danger in itself: sometimes it can be hard to gain forward momentum, which is one of the reasons I force myself away from the computer in order to write outside. Once I have the first draft of a scene in long hand I then type it into the laptop, editing as I go. Then I’ll return over arcs of narrative when the shape is clear in my head, and then again at the end with all the ‘go-back’ points I’ve accumulated.
6. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be?
Ah, an impossible question! There are so many books I admire, all for different reasons. But maybe The Persian Boy by Mary Renault: the balance she achieves between superb characterization, emotional power and impeccable research is simply stunning.
7. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it?
Fantasy casting, what fun. For the young Mariata, maybe Natalie Portman, or to be properly authentic, Aminata Goumar, from the Tuareg group Toumast, who has a classic Tuareg profile and strong bone structure. For Izzy, maybe Jennifer Connelly, though her skin needs to be darker. For Amastan, Johnny Depp – or Algerian actor Salim Kechiouche; for Taïb, perhaps French-Tunisian actor Sami Bouajila … or my husband, Abdellatif!
8. What’s your favourite city in the world?
I am not generally a great lover of cities; but recently I have been reconnecting with London, having lived away from it for 5 years, as I carry out research of Restoration London sites for the new novel, The Sultan's Wife, which is set partly in Morocco and then follows its embassy of 1682 to the court of Charles II. It’s been fascinating getting behind some of the famous, and not so well known, facades I’ve passed in cars and buses for most of my life without any idea of what lay within.
9. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?
These are hard questions! I loved Wolf Hall and it would be wonderful to sit down with Hilary Mantel and compare notes about the pitfalls and problems with characterizing real historical figures. And what fun it would be to be able to go back in time and talk to the 14th century Moroccan explorer and writer Ibn Battuta.
10. Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind?
Generally, I don’t, since I either listen to it and then don’t write; or if I’m concentrating I simply don’t hear it.
11. Who is the first person who gets to you read your manuscript?
For the Moroccan sections, Abdel will read to check my cultural references; then I have a little bank of readers, including two professional publishing friends (who shall remain nameless) and a couple of devotees of historical fiction, who do me the favour of giving me honest feedback. Then of course it goes to my editors!
12. Do you have a guilty pleasure read?
I don’t believe in this as a concept: all reading should be about pleasure, otherwise what’s the point? I don’t ever feel guilty about reading!
13. What’s on your nightstand right now?
A bit of a tottering pile! I’m happily rereading A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (which I published in 1994) ahead of the big Sky dramatization in spring 2011; a biography of Charles II; the diary of John Evelyn; and A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman.
14. What is the first book you remember reading?
I was happily engrossed by all sorts of comics from the age of three, do they count? As for actual books, I have very clear memories of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth.
15. Did you always want to be a writer?
I’ve always been a book addict and I wrote stories – long stories – from the age of about 7, and told them to classmates too, but I never planned to become a novelist. In fact I never planned to be anything in particular and fell into my publishing career (20+ years as an editor with HarperCollins)
16. What do you drink or eat while you write?
When I’m caught up in the writing I can forget to eat or drink; but those are rare times. Usually I’m wrestling with sentences or structure, fuelled by herbal teas and coffee. Lunch tends to be whatever comes immediately to hand – soup, salad, bits of bread. And luckily my husband is a chef or I’d probably go on living from hand to mouth all the time (I am a lazy cook).
17. Typewriter, laptop, or pen & paper?
First draft usually pen and paper; then laptop. I am a rubbish typist – had a typewriter when I was little and used to bash away with two fingers, and I’m afraid that bad habit stuck and I never learned to touch type, or even type accurately. I went to typing classes after school for a while: it was sheer torment. So I spend too much time correcting my errors if I write on a laptop, and that gets in the way of the creative process.
18. What did you do immediately after hearing that you were being published for the very first time?
When I heard from my agent that The Tenth Gift had sold, I was sitting peeling potatoes in the kitchen of my husband’s restaurant in Morocco and had to ask him to call back later since Abdel was gesticulating furiously for his vegetables! When I sold my first children’s book (The Secret Country) in 1999, I just sat at my dining room table staring at the phone long after my agent had rung off, simply not believing what I’d just heard.
19. How do you decide which narrative point of view to write from?
It never feels like much of a decision: I can always hear the character’s voice in my head. Julia from The Tenth Gift and Isabelle in The Salt Road are familiar enough; but then there is Mariata, that determined, headstrong Tuareg woman, and The Sultan's Wife, which I am working on now, is largely narrated by Nus-Nus, a eunuch at the court of the Moroccan sultan.
20. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
Time, and a quiet space in which to think and write. If I could buy time, I would spend all my money on it…
From the Hardcover edition.
THE SALT ROAD
Unusual events carried me to a remote corner of the North African continent, events that were to change my life completely.
I had travelled to Morocco (my first time ever in Africa) in order to research piece of family history. In a raid in 1625 an ancestor of mine was stolen, along with 59 other men, women and children, out of a church in Penzance by Barbary corsairs and sold into the white slave markets of Salé/Rabat in northern Morocco. (The subsequent novel was published as The Tenth Gift and sold in 24 countries.) A curious combination of coincidences carried me to a remote Berber mountain village in the far south-west of Morocco.
My travelling companion was my rock-climbing partner, with whom I had scaled cliffs and outcrops all over Britain, and especially my native Cornwall. I had come upon a climbing guidebook to a place called Tafraout which offered not only a myriad of challenging routes in a spectacular mountain environment but also a chance to experience the authentic Morocco – the ancient Berber culture of the country, now to be found in unadulterated form only in a few largely mountainous communities.
And there, in a village 800 miles away from my primary reason for visiting the continent in the first place, I met and fell in love with Abdellatif, a local Berber tribesman. The circumstances of our meeting and burgeoning romance are told in greater detail on my website (www.janejohnsonbooks.com). It started with an epic climbing adventure in which I nearly died (and vowed to change my life if I survived) and culminated in a 3-day wedding barely 6 months later. Shortly after that first visit I returned to the UK, quit my job as a full-time publishing executive chained to a desk, sold my flat and shipped the contents to Morocco. It was a dramatic shift of lifestyle, and identity. From being Jane Johnson, Publishing Director of Fiction at HarperCollins, I was suddenly Mme Zaina Bakrim, the only European woman to inhabit my husband’s village.
The germ of The Salt Road was born at the same time as that research visit for The Tenth Gift, and felt like a gift in its own right. My husband, Abdellatif (Abdel for short), is a Berber of the Chleuh tribe, but one side of his family were nomadic traders from Mauritania. I knew little about the mysterious veiled traders known as the Tuareg before I met Abdel: but I was fascinated when one day, cleaning the old house where his elderly mother still lives, Abdel brought me what looked like a big stone. “What do you think it is?” he asked me (in French, our lingua franca).
It looked like a chunk of rock crystal, and I said so.
He laughed. “It is salt, from the Taodenni salt mine in the deep Sahara,” he told me. “My grandfather traded in salt.”
And then he told me about the salt roads – the trade routes followed for centuries by the Tuareg traders across the desert to reach the market towns of Morocco, and thence the Mediterranean coast. Caravans of camels plied these routes bringing salt, slaves, gold and silver, animal skins, amber and ostrich feathers. It was a dangerous business: as well as the desert’s own well-documented perils – sandstorms, shifting topography, lack of water, murderous heat – there were also bandits and foreign soldiers to contend with.
The Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa, pre-dating the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Islamic invasion of the 8th century; those Berbers who fled the invaders and headed out into the deserts became known as the Tuareg, a perjorative term applied to them by the Arabs, meaning ‘the abandoned by God’. The Tuaregs prefer the use of the terms Imazaghan – the Free People; or the Kel Tamacheq – ‘Those who speak Tamacheq’. Legend has it that the first Tuareg communities were founded by a young Berber woman called Tin Hinan who walked 1500 miles from her home town in the Tafilalt in southern Morocco out into the desert to avoid being married against her will to the son of the local Roman governor, and there founded a settlement outside what is now Abalessa in the south of Algeria. Her gravesite (dating from the 4th century) was excavated in the 1930s. In the grave there was found a wooden bed, a tall female skeleton decorated with massive bracelets of gold and antimony and a splendid necklace. Among objects beside her was a bowl filled with coins bearing the effigy of the Emperor Constantine.
The Tuareg still venerate Tin Hinan, and trace their lineage back to her. Their homage to her is enshrined in the culture. It was a remarkable feat: the bravery, determination and fortitude shown by Tin Hinan still forms the basis of Tuareg values; in addition, traditionally and very unusually, they are a matrilineal culture, both status and possessions being conferred via the female rather than the male line. In Tuareg society the men go veiled and the women do not (quite the opposite to all other Muslim peoples); and women enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom and prestige. The men’s veil – the tagelmust – a length of indigo cloth wound about the head and face leaving only their kohl-rimmed eyes and the top of the nose exposed, protects not only against the harsh desert sands but also serves to ward off the evil eye and malevolent spirits. Throughout history, the image of a veiled Tuareg man astride his camel, robe rippling in the wind, has been an iconic image of the Saharan landscape.
Up to the 19th century the Tuareg fit this romantic image: they were the kings of the desert, roaming far and wide across the Sahara with their flocks and herds, governing the trade routes and the hidden wells without which no one can survive in the desert, free from interference or influence from the modern world. Gradually their rights and territories have been eroded; their way of life has been threatened, their lands appropriated by mining companies and governments; they have been corralled, abused and marginalized. In the 1990s they have been the victims of attempted genocide, something barely spoken of outside the African continent. Everyone has heard of the atrocities committed in Rwanda, the Congo, Darfur; but have you every heard about the massacre of Tuaregs at Tchin Tabaradene?
Despite their proud heritage, today the Tuareg are fighting for survival. The UN has designated them a ‘Fourth World nation’: by definition an internationally unrecognized nation maintaining a distinct political culture within the states which claim their territories. The Tuareg are engaged in a struggle to gain some degree of sovereignty over their traditional homelands: their struggle has led to many incidents defined as terrorism by those opposed to granting the nomads their territorial and human rights. It’s a struggle largely invisible to the outside world: but at one iconic moment saw a rebel band of Tuareg warriors face up the full might of the army of Mali, tanks and all.
Researching The Salt Road has not only opened my eyes to another culture but has also afforded me invaluable insights into my husband’s family history. It’s introduced me to the music of Tinariwen and Toumast. (YouTube links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MHAKNL-Vkg&feature=related and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRqiqHZhKOM&feature=related)
In 2008 I fulfilled a long-held dream: to sleep beneath the desert stars, when in 2008 Abdel and I trekked for 3 weeks in southern Morocco, including for some time with a nomad family and their camels as I prepared to write The Salt Road. It is an experience that will remain sharply etched on my memory for ever (as will the physical effects on my hindquarters on learning to master a bony old camel!).
Link to photoset on Flickr:
"Jane Johnson has written a beautifully crafted story that paints a vivid picture and captures the imagination. . . . [The] reader can see the colours of sunsets, feel the grittiness of the sand, taste the spices in the bazaar and smell the camel hair blankets in the goatskin tents. . . . The Salt Road is a book you won’t want to end, yet at the same time, you’ll be yearning for a satisfying conclusion. [This] novel will not let you down.”
— Liz Read, The Women’s Post
“The Salt Road, like all powerful stories, is about change. . . . For readers looking to experience a shifting, disappearing world, and to be introduced to an exotic culture with evocative descriptions, The Salt Road is an exhilarating ride. Part historic and part contemporary, with universal themes of betrayal, love, and the anguish caused by human greed, it has an ending rich and fulfilling enough for those who like all their questions answered.”
—Linda Holeman, The Globe and Mail
“Jane Johnson (The Tenth Gift) re-works her irresistible cross-cultural magic . . . in The Salt Road”