I'm very excited to welcome Carrie Callaghan, author of "Salt the Snow," here to A Bookish Affair today! What inspired you to write "Salt the Snow?"
I came across Milly Bennett somewhere in some previous research, and her amazing life story stuck with me. She did everything from going undercover as a maid in San Francisco to chasing a man she loved to Hawaii to running a newspaper in China during the civil war there to picking up her life and starting entirely over in Moscow in 1931. She was so brave but with such a soft, big heart, I knew I wanted to tell her story.
Even better, her story raised important questions about being true to your beliefs and learning to love yourself – themes that still resonate today.
Book number two! What is the biggest lesson you took with you from "A Light of Her Own" into this book?
I was terrified to publish my first book, particularly since that meant “coming out” as a writer. I was sure people would be mean! But the experience was completely the opposite. Everyone in my life was so kind and supportive, and I realized that my fears were more about my insecurities than about anyone else’s views of my writing. So now I’m still scared, but not quite as petrified. Like Milly, I’m learning to love myself.
Milly's Soviet Russia is a huge departure from Judith's Netherlands. How did you adjust to writing in this new time and place?
There was SO much more information, in some ways, it was a little daunting! I had hundreds of Milly’s letters to read, as compared to only second-hand records about Judith’s life (and her paintings, of course). But on the other hand, the culture and life of Soviet-era Moscow was, in many ways, more foreign than 17th century Holland. The biggest challenge there, once I figured out what story I was going to tell, was trying to write the novel in a way that reminded readers that even though we know what happened to the Soviet Union, Americans in the 1930s had no idea what the future held. Particularly since that was during the Depression, and American capitalism seemed, as Milly would say, washed up.
Who is your favorite secondary character in "Salt the Snow?"
Ah, I love Zhenya, Milly’s husband. He was such a gentle and tortured soul. Milly’s archives contain some letters from him, and my heart breaks for what he went through. It’s such a pleasure to take inspiration from the unique characters of history and to try to recreate their complex lives.
What was the most interesting/ weirdest thing that you found out while you were writing “Salt the Snow?”
I was surprised by how sexually liberated Milly was. We often assume men and women who lived before the 1960s were caught in sexual straightjackets, but that wasn’t the case. Milly had more boyfriends than I could reasonably fit into the novel, and she wasn’t shy about writing about her exploits to her friends back home.
What is your favorite quote from "Salt the Snow?"
I love the scene that gives the novel its title. It comes as Milly is walking home through the frigid streets in the middle of the night (and is taken from a real experience Milly had):
She turned a corner, and ahead of her shuffled a bundled figure. Milly slowed, cautious. He had a bucket slung over his arm and a sheepskin cap pulled low over his face. He dipped his hand into the bucket, then swung his arm, bent at the elbow, in a circle. He repeated the motion, scattering salt on the sidewalk like seeds on furrowed ground. As Milly approached, she could see the deep lines of his face, worn by the sun. He paused as she passed by, then continued wordlessly sowing the salt upon the snow of the walkway, as once he had surely sown seeds on some farm. Milly turned and watched as he reenacted that vanished life here in the city, sprinkling salt at midnight to keep the relentless snow at bay.