It's rare to feel personally connected to a critically-acclaimed novel. Over a year ago I 'met' the lovely Lulu Allison via Twitter (I contributed to her 'Haturday' project with a Fimo hand – you can still support her in raising money for RISEuk, a refugee charity) and was entranced by the idea of Salt Lick – the novel she was crowdfunding through Unbound. As one of the 'super patrons' in the first few pages, I was especially excited when I heard that this marvellous book had been longlisted for the Women's Prize For Fiction. The first Unbound book to receive such acclaim, it was wonderful to be a tiny part of the existence of this brilliant book.
From the outset we are immersed into a strange yet eerily familiar world. Allison's imaginings of the UK in the not-so-distant future are just recognisable enough to make them feel all too possible. The impact of climate change, an over-reliance on foreign markets and a series of pandemics (spooky that this was written pre-Covid) has rendered the countryside largely uninhabited and people even further fragmented from each other, politically and physically.
Allison is also an artist – gorgeous stuff to go with the book!
But this book is so much more than a 'dystopian novel.' It explores human interactions with the natural world, the possibilities of community and how the natural world would respond to a decline in human habitation. I found myself completely absorbed by the narratives that weave us through the past and present of this imagined world, and entranced by the lyrical style that verges on poetry in places. It's gorgeous, sad, hopeful, and angry. Its characters and words will leave a lasting impact.
I wanted to find out where the idea of a cow chorus came from, and how Allison managed to not get tangled up in her multiple narratives. Read on to find out more!
I loved the way your story linked people so closely to the earth, and offered a very realistic-feeling scenario of what we might be facing in the very near future if the climate crisis continues. Why were you drawn to these ideas particularly in your writing?
Because it IS a realistic scenario of what we are facing. To be honest, I think we might stuff it up. I don’t want that to happen, but have this idea of our own nature being fulfilled, drastically, as it somehow must be. So, it might not work out for humans, but nature doesn’t mind. Nature will reform and prosper in the gaps we leave.
Part of the inspiration for Salt Lick was a song by The Handsome Family called Peace in the Valley Once Again, it is about nature reclaiming a shopping mall. The things that are wrong in this world can be overwhelming (I don’t like the term dystopian because as I see it, it always is and always has been dystopian for some in this world) but I still believe in conscious hopefulness and that is at least as important for me as the negative predictions of how things might evolve. The future is beautiful too, as I say in the dedication to my daughters.
The voice of wisdom comes from the animals themselves
You intertwine a huge amount of plot in terms of generations and characters. I loved the way we saw the same characters at different times in their lives. How did you go about mapping out so many different characters' plotlines and which did you find the trickiest?
I wrote it as a linear timeline and had fantastic help from my editor to interweave the sections. I don’t think I’d have managed it on my own. I’m not organised at all, and keeping track is quite hard. I try to get to a point when I know the characters well enough that I can set the barest of maps for the outcomes and then with confidence, know they will get there; I can put my trust in them a bit to help me keep it all in shape!
I always imagine that one of the trickiest things with writing novels set in the future is the world building. It felt very effortless in the book, but how much behind-the-scenes planning, structuring and ideas went into creating the dystopian world the book is set in?
I didn’t have to build a world, I just looked at what is already there and extrapolated. But I did write quite a lot that wasn’t exactly behind-the-scenes planning, it was just the unnecessary stuff I included up front before I’d worked it all out properly and then culled it. For example there was a manifesto for the Claimants that lurked around for a while.
I have to ask about the cows... It felt like the natural world was calling out to humanity in their time of difficulty. Where did the idea of using a chorus come from and why did you decide to use cows?
The chorus was going to be a part of it from really early on. I am not completely sure why the idea came up, but ideas know more about themselves than we do sometimes, and with hindsight it was a way of connecting the pieces not just across the swathes of land but in another direction, through time as well. For a while it was going to be wild dogs, or the pedlars, but I felt like the cows occupied the perfect position, tied to our story as they are, to oversee and chide with gentle care.
Imagining Isolde, a collage
How have you found the process of publishing with Unbound and what has it been like since the longlist for the Women's Prize? What words of advice have you been given or would you like to pass on to other writers?
Fundraising was hard work, but also enormously uplifting – people being willing to take a risk on you is a real tonic. Unbound have been brilliant. I feel like I am in very good hands, and that is born out by the Women’s Prize longlist nomination. I’ve been very lucky. But it is also quite strange; it feels like a sudden uptick in scrutiny, which I always imagined was just what I wanted, but it’s taking me a beat to get used to it. Most people have been amazing, but to be honest I’ve stopped reading what people say on Goodreads!
It has mostly though, been exciting – albeit still somewhat unbelievable! The time I feel proud to be there, in a really uncomplicated and grateful way, is when reading some of the other books on the list. So far, The Bread the Devil Knead and Creatures of Passage have been my favourites and I feel privileged to be included alongside them.
Best advice - no one needs your book and no one needs to care about your book, though of course they might. Do it because it feels good to do it. This is not a negative, it is a break for freedom.
Lulu Allison has been a visual artist for most of her life. In 2013 what began as an art project took her into writing and she unexpectedly discovered what she should have been doing all along. Her first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark was published in November 2017 by Unbound. Her second novel, Salt Lick, was published on September 16th 2021.
She lives in Brighton with her husband Pierre Halé. She teaches art via her company, Middle Distance Arts and is working on novel number three, a take on Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. It is called Beast.
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