The setting of Cassandra Khaw’s new book The Salt Grows Heavy is one steeped in mythology and atmosphere. The landscape through which its central characters — a mermaid and a plague doctor — move is one that’s been through unspeakable trauma, and yet still has room to reveal new horrors. (One of those is a cult centered around resurrection.) I spoke with Khaw about the creation of this new book, how it relates to their other work, and what’s next.
Some of your highest-profile fiction – the Persons Non Grata books, Nothing But Blackened Teeth – are set in a recognizable version of our world. What prompted such a dramatic shift in setting for this one?
God, I wish I could tell you it’s because of something clever, but it’s absolutely pure whimsy. I love fairy tales. I love myths. I was a quiet kid who grew up mostly in the company of books, and I read voraciously throughout my young life. I also grew up in multicultural Malaysia which, for all of its problems, is also a place where it’s easy to get access to other people’s stories, other people’s legends. You learn a love for the world growing up in a country like that. Anyway, with all that in my background, I’ve always had a soft spot for fairy tales and well, this book seemed the right place to indulge that affection.
The world through which the narrator moves is one with a lot of unspoken history and trauma. What was it like to create this world? And how much of the worldbuilding happened beforehand, rather than as you were writing?
Dream-like, in some ways. The world first started solidifying when I wrote ‘And in Our Daughters, We Find Our Voice,’ which is the story immediately preceding The Salt Grows Heavy. I wanted a fairytale setting, but darker and a little eldritch. I thought it was going to end there, but I found myself coming back to it in These Deathless Bones and then in Mothers, We Dream. And a world formed, along with its conflicts. Have you ever played the game Bastion? The worldbuilding for that setting feels almost like that, with everything coming alive under my feet.
Is this a setting you think you’ll return to?
Absolutely. The Witch Bride from These Deathless Bones needs her story finished, and I also have another novella brewing in that word. That one has you meeting some of the soldiers working for the Abbess of Wasps, and it is an increasingly personal story,
The mermaid at the center of the story shares qualities with some folkloric mermaids and not with others. What were some of the points of reference you looked to when writing this?
Stories of rusalka, of crane-wives and seal-maidens, of melusine and everything in between. She isn’t pulled from any specific piece of mythology, but I wanted to capture how, if you’d excuse the pun, fluid those stories are and also, how many of them feel like an attempt to domesticate the ocean, to make it seem simpler, kindler
I feel like, for understandable reasons, I’ve been seeing more plague doctor imagery now than I did in (say) 2019. Is The Salt Grows Heavy your pandemic book?
Nah. The plague doctor came ages ago, although I do have what feels like a pandemic story.
What appeals to you as a writer about the traditional plague doctor uniform?
The gravity of it. The knowledge that the sight of them meant that things were dire. (I think of them a little like psychopomps, largely because they weren’t very effective at their professions.) Also, I’m a grown-up(?) goth kid. How could I not love plague doctors?
Your next novel, a collaboration with Richard Kadrey, is due out later this year. Was there any interplay between the writing of these two books?
No. They’re vastly different animals. I think most books are ultimately. The Dead Take the A Train is, in its way, a happier novel, more energetic, filled with a sly malice. The Salt Grows Heavy is a quiet, shadow-drenched ghost, full of grief and rage.