Rose Sutherland was born and raised a voracious reader of anything she could get her hands on in rural Nova Scotia. She has an overactive imagination, once fell off a roof trying to re-enact Anne of Green Gables, and has continued to be entertainingly foolhardy since, graduating theatre school in NYC, apprenticing at a pâtisserie in France, and moonlighting as an usher in Toronto.
“Living Out a Folktale,” an interview with Rose Sutherland
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Phoebe Nguyen. Of the process, she said, “A Sweet Sting of Salt beautifully captures themes of sapphic yearning, secrets, and courage, set against an enchanting historical backdrop. Impressively vivid and unique, Rose Sutherland’s debut novel, is a testament to storytelling at its finest. I am grateful for her time and voice.” In this interview, Rose Sutherland talks about the research required for writing historical fiction, queer representation in media, and the value of friendships with other writers.
Superstition Review: Your novel is filled with suspense and a captivating mystery. With a pivotal reveal at the heart of the story, I am curious to know how you approached the book’s structure to deliver the most impactful surprise to your readers.
Rose Sutherland: When I was first drafting this book, I decided I wanted to make the story read as much as possible like it was set in the real historical world, and have Jean be entirely blindsided by the discovery that she was, in fact, living out a folktale, and that something she had always believed to be fantasy actually existed—and for readers to make this discovery right along with her. I wanted there to be clues, of course, but I approached them all with the intention that they be far more obvious in hindsight, once readers discover Muirin's secret, than they would be beforehand when you're experiencing them along with Jean. Of course, now most readers come in with a bit of foreknowledge, because the fact that it's a reimagined folktale has ended up being part of the marketing for the book, but my early beta readers had no clue what was coming, which was a lot of fun for me, as the writer! In fact, some of the earliest feedback was that I'd overshot the mark somewhat and surprised people so much that in revisions I spent time going back and adding in even more hints of superstition, magic, and folklore to the earlier chapters of the book, because there needed to be a deeper sense that this world was one where the possibility of something magical happening was a little more likely than in our own ahead of the reveal.
SR: As a reader who grew to love your main character, Jean, I was so glad to see her reconciliation with Jo Keddy and the personal redemption that Jean experienced. Could you elaborate more on the motivation and decision-making process behind this resolution?
RS: It took me quite a while to settle on how I wanted to deal with the question of Jean's "lost first love": I came up with several possibilities for what had happened with Jo after she and Jean were separated, some of which were way too sad for the overall tone of the book. In the end, I decided that since my overall goal with this story was to "give the gays everything they want," as the meme says, I decided to create an against-all-odds happy ending for Jo, too. It ended up paying off in unexpected and wonderful ways because her situation ended up containing so many direct parallels to Muirin's, which served to feed into and reinforce all of Jean's anxieties and fears before Jo's arrival turns her beliefs on their ear in the second half of the book. I think one of Jean's most relatable flaws is how much she takes responsibility for everything onto herself, particularly after losing Jo, because she is so certain that what happened must have been her own fault and that she ought to have done something to help her, so there was something deeply healing in Jo's being able to return and reassure Jean that the fault wasn't hers, and change her understanding of the story she's been telling herself. Their conversation grew with every revision pass I completed, as I kept digging down into the heart of everything that makes Jean "tick," particularly following some brilliant insight from my editors regarding Jean's well-intentioned failure to assign other people enough agency, which Jo calls her out on.
SR: You were born in Nova Scotia and traveled to New York City, where you attended theater school. You also had the opportunity to apprentice at a patisserie in France and work as an usher and bartender in Toronto. How have these diverse experiences, both in terms of travel and work, influenced your approach to writing?
RS: Hoooo, there's a question. In terms of overall approach, theatre school has probably had the biggest direct impact—character analysis and scene study taught me so much about the importance of interesting, complex motivation, and active choices. I tend towards a lot of improvisation as I'm drafting: I hate following outlines, and nearly always end up following the characters off the map. It also where I was introduced to the concept of "sense-memory", which plays into all of my world building: what a place smells like, sounds like, the quality of the air and the light, the temperature, the surface you stand on—immersive detail, made personal. Studying pastry deepened my consciousness of the role food plays in culture, what it tells you about places and people, and now food details are always sneaking into my work. Growing up in rural Nova Scotia, I spent a lot of time outdoors, then I ended up living in a string of massive cities— it's given me a lot of different places and environments to pull on when I write, and yet, at the heart of me, I'm always drawn back to nature when I'm looking for meaning and symbolism. There are also some elements that I've noticed occurring over and over in my writing that I'm sure must come from moving around so much: lonely outsiders and newcomers, language and cultural barriers, the search for connection and people to belong with.
SR: As a debut novelist, could you share the most unexpected or surprising experiences you have encountered during the publishing process? What advice would you give to fellow authors who are looking to publish their novels for the first time?
RS: I had no idea how LONG everything would take. "Soon" can mean anytime between next Tuesday and next Christmas...unless you're on a deadline, in which case everything probably needed to be done a week ago. I wish I'd known coming in how often you're waiting on things in an open ended way—at the beginning, people would say "we should know something next week" and then when I didn't hear anything when I expected to my anxiety would skyrocket, but people often aren't in touch until they have real news to share with you, rather than sending a million "we're still waiting on that" emails, because it turns out that folks aren't lying when they say everyone in publishing is perpetually swamped. It's totally okay to check in and I'd have saved myself a lot of time wasted on worrying for no reason if I'd done it a bit more.
SR: The rich settings and enchanting visual descriptions found throughout your novel had a mesmerizing effect. Could you share your creative process for world-building and elaborate on the research required to portray daily life in historical eras?
RS: Sometimes I feel like I cheated a bit with Salty, in choosing a place and time period I already had so much general knowledge of. My research was a lot less extensive than everyone seems to think! It mostly involved looking up and double checking a lot of small details—but sometimes a tiny thing inserted in the right place can do a lot of heavy lifting! There are also absolutely elements of the story where I shrugged and said "Okay this isn't strictly speaking accurate but for the sake of this plot, is this plausible and believable for the average person and in keeping with the overall historical tone? ...It is historical fiction, after all. What I lean on the hardest in my worldbuilding are sensory details— sights, scents, flavours, tactile sensations—that the characters experience while interacting with their world. These are all incredibly specific and personal, and relatable across time in a way that is real, recognizable, and immersive for readers. There's also a lot to be said for showing characters doing mundane tasks within their daily routine and seeing the small ways in which the doing may differ, but the essentials stay the same. With a mixer or by hand, we're still all just kneading bread.
SR: Consequently, when you find yourself deeply immersed in your research and the worlds you are crafting, how do you manage to step away and reestablish that important connection with yourself?
RS: Unfortunately, I am the WORST at this: I have ADHD and can fall deep into what I call the "hyperfocus pit" while I'm writing and researching if I'm not careful. It's not a healthy way to work, and I crash really badly afterward when it happens. Now that writing has become so much the focus of my days, I'm working on developing better strategies to help. I have a friend who calls me every day around lunchtime, and that's my cue to put everything down, eat something, and go outside for a walk. Physical activity and fresh air is where it's at.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some advice another writer has given to you or that you have read that has changed the way that you look at writing?
RS: Other writers are the most valuable help I've had every step of the way. I have a few deeply trusted writer friends that I am ride or die with: In particular my dear friend Janna G. Noelle, who has the most amazing eye for big picture arc issues: Her advice (particularly "you don't have a subplot; you need one") was instrumental in Salty becoming the book it is, and my mentor Maureen Marshall has given me incredible advice on how to sink really deep into a character's POV that I'm sure I'll be leaning on for the rest of eternity. The best advice to writers that I've ever read came from Neil Gaiman... I'm paraphrasing, but it boiled down to "If people tell you there's a problem in your story, they're probably right. They're almost always wrong about how you should fix it." This really keeps me to open to suggestions and constructive criticism, while freeing me to drill right down to the roots of underlying issues in search of the perfect creative solution.
SR: I really love a central theme you have decided on as an author: Focusing on LGBTQ+ characters in historical time periods. What can you tell us about your inspiration to create work with this specific theme?
RS: I have always loved a good "period piece" but when I was younger, I almost never saw queer people represented in films or books, or when I did thigs ended badly for them—unless it was in fantasy. Which I have obviously always loved, but it's not the same thing. A friend gifted me a copy of Sarah Water's Tipping The Velvet about 15 years ago and my mind was blown— I wanted a million more stories like that. There were absolutely folks who managed to find their own quiet happy endings in the past, and just because that's not what becomes well documented in capital H History, doesn't mean that it never happened! At the end of the day, I'm really just writing to my own tastes and interests: A little history, a little whimsy, a bit of adventure, and at the end, the queer people get to head hopefully into the future in whatever way works best for them.