Adelia Saunders’s first novel, Indelible (Bloomsbury USA; starred review, LJ 1/17), is the wildly inventive story of Magdalena, a young woman from Lithuania, who sees people’s histories literally written on their skin. Here, the author discusses the book’s unusual plot and her previous careers.
What inspired the skin-writing aspect of Indelible?
My husband and I had been doing research in the Lithuanian central state archives, and I’d gotten interested in the idea of documents and how just a few bureaucratic data points were left in the official records to tell a person’s story long after they died—a birth certificate, census records, maybe a school file, a passport. That was it. Sometimes those documents hinted at a story that was much more complicated. I wondered what it would be like for a character to be confronted with all that information every time she looked at another person. From that came the idea that Magdalena would see people wearing the contents of their life’s “files” on their skin.
It was important to me that the writing Magdalena sees included things that are as banal—or tragic or profound—as the things found in archival records. Much of what she sees is uninteresting, but then someone pushes up their sleeves or brushes the hair off their face and she reads the text of an arrest warrant or an autopsy report or a Valentine.
Coincidences and subtle clues that do not foreshadow the story are tricky to pull off in literature. How did you make them work here so well?
Well, I hope they work! I wanted to write an adventure story set in the archives. There is plenty of excitement to be found looking through dusty documents where discoveries are the accumulation of little clues. All three main characters are trying to solve a puzzle that is central to their lives, and the “clues” are there all along in files gathering dust or in their own memories.
The intricacies of this book are extraordinarily bold and complex. What were some of the surprises you encountered during its construction?
So much happened in my life during that time. It started as a vague idea, not a novel. It got unwieldy and had to be restarted. I didn’t know where things were going, but it was exciting to figure it out as I went along. I finished the book a more mature writer than I’d been when I started.
Did your master’s degree in international relations influence your work on the novel?
It made it take longer! I started it while my husband and I were living in Paris and I was getting ready to go to graduate school. Then I spent two years getting a degree that is almost completely unrelated to fiction writing, and then I had two kids, and then I finally finished it.
My degree taught me the importance of understanding assumption-free facts (which became a theme in this book). My degree and the work I’ve done since have anchored me in the very real world of war and peace and economics. I hope as a fiction writer, I’ll always have my feet on the ground.
How did your path from writing for a UN newswire service to teaching English in Paris bring you to fiction?
I loved working at the UN. I wrote for an odd little news service that covered development in the least developed countries. I hung out at Security Council “stake-outs” where a bunch of shaggy journalists wait around underneath the Picasso mural of Guernica and then shout questions to the diplomats when they come out. Some of the work I did at the UN made its way into Indelible.
After the UN, my husband and I were living in Paris when I started writing this book. I was giving English lessons to several young girls, which is why some of Indelible takes place when Magdalena is very young. I had a sense from my French students of the [giddiness] and utter seriousness of being eight years old.
What are some nonfiction books you’ve enjoyed recently?
Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith weaves in so much history and sadness that the book itself almost has the texture of [Vincent] van Gogh’s paintings. I read the first volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill [The Last Lion]. Every parent should read it. Little Winston was such a disaster; he failed at almost everything and was completely hopeless in the rigid culture of English boys’ schools. It’s a reminder that what we are as children doesn’t define us, and that sometimes a difficult kid may just need to get out of Latin class and go save the world.
What are you working on now?
I have a secret project; it’s about water.