Erin Craig's fantasy-horror YA novel "House of Salt and Sorrows" tells the mysterious story of 12 sisters facing a deathly curse
House of Salt and Sorrows, a fantasy-horror young adult novel, opens with a funeral and a grim question: which of 12 sisters will be the next to fall prey to a supposed curse and die?
This first novel by Erin Craig, a graduate of the University of Michigan, stars a strong female protagonist, Annaleigh Thaumas, who is the sixth of her siblings. As she ponders the latest death -- that of her sister Eulalie, who fell from a cliff -- Annaleigh imagines, "her falling through the air, the look of confusion on her face turning to horror as she realized that there was no escaping this, no way to go back and make it right.”
Annaleigh, however, begins to suspect that foul play is at fault for her sisters’ deaths, instead of a curse. She becomes determined to figure out who is behind the madness before more tragedies overtake her family. Eulalie’s sudden demise prompts Annaleigh to consider that, “Though it was all conjecture, I felt I was on the right path. My sister’s death had not been an accident. It had not been part of some dark curse. She was murdered. And I was going to prove it.”
Following Annaleigh on her search for answers becomes as tempestuous as the seas on which the Thaumas family lives. Along the way, Annaleigh falls in love, dances at balls both magnificent and grotesque, and sees ghosts and gods.
Throughout House of Salt and Sorrows, it becomes increasingly clear that people and places are not what they seem at first glance -- or even at second glance. Whether it all can be righted again is an ongoing question as tragedies continue to befall the Duke of the Salann Islands and his many daughters.
Craig’s novel was published last year. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and is planning a return to her Michigan roots. I interviewed her by email about her connection to Ann Arbor, opera background, writing process, reading, and upcoming plans.
Q: You studied for your BFA in Ann Arbor, and you identify yourself as a Wolverine. Are you from Michigan? Tell us about your time in Ann Arbor.
A: I say that I am mostly from Michigan! I grew up in Texas, but we moved to West Michigan just before I started junior high. I went to college in Ann Arbor (hooray Class of 2005!) and will always adore that town! I lived at the Martha Cook residence hall for all four years (I was even the Tea Chairwoman!), so I was perfectly situated to enjoy the best of Central Campus. I loved walking down to Stucchi’s for ice cream every time there was a big snow. I spent a lot of time at Dawn Treader Book Shop and watched the Lord of the Rings at the State Theatre way too many times! It’s always such a treat to go back to my home away from home and see the changes -- no more Frieze Building! Or Borders! Or Steve and Barry’s! -- as well as all the things that have stayed the same. I still feel like I could while away an afternoon in the grad library stacks, slip into an art history class at Angell Hall, and yell myself hoarse at the Big House. And ... we are moving back this year! It will be amazing to be closer to family and to live that Pure Michigan life!
Q: How did you transition from managing operas to being an author?
A: After college, I bounced around the country working as a freelance stage manager. I got a job as an assistant at Opera Memphis in 2007 and, after a few years, took over as director of production. When I found out I was pregnant, my husband and I discussed me taking a bit of a stage management hiatus. Newborns and tech week schedules do not mix well! I absolutely love being a stay-at-home mama, but it was really weird not working, and I wanted my daughter to see that I could do big, grand things, too. I’ve always toyed around with writing stories and had finished a novel before she was born. I was never one to sleep when the baby sleeps, so I started revising while she napped. I really loved it and began dipping my toes into the querying process. I learned so much during that time and, while waiting on responses, started daydreaming about what turned into House of Salt and Sorrows.
Q: In House of Salt and Sorrows, the main character, Annaleigh Thaumas, provides a smart, discerning narration of the horrors happening to her family. Her curiosity and skepticism serve her well in figuring out what’s going on. (I’m trying not to give anything away!) How did you create her?
A: Annaleigh is a combination of so many of my favorite literary characters, a little dash of myself, and someone I wanted my daughter to one day read about and befriend. I wanted her to be strong and smart, dreamy, and a little naïve. People are never just one thing -- there are so many facets that make up a personality. I loved that Annaleigh could be horrified by her situation, fight to save her sisters, and still be excited to twirl around in a pretty dress.
Q: House of Salt and Sorrows contains many plot twists. How did you go about writing the novel? Did you outline it ahead of time, or discover what happened as you wrote?
A: I’m a big outliner! I usually have one journal set aside for world-building and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown that shows where the story is going. That’s not to say that the plot is set in stone -- so many things changed during the course of drafting and revising -- but having a solid skeleton always helps me to see what is coming next and what to work toward. Once the outline is finished, I start drafting. Now that my daughter is in preschool, I get three days a week when I have a couple solid hours to work, but I also love squeezing some writing into little pockets of time -- scribbling out an idea while waiting for water to boil or reading and revising a chapter before bed. It’s amazing how little moments can add up to create something big!
Q: I loved the novel’s setting of Highmoor, as well as the Salann Islands and all of Arcannia. This place sounds so picturesque and also intense, with its distinct seasons. Did you enjoy building this world? What were your inspirations?
A: When I originally began dreaming up this story, I wanted it to be a fleshing out of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” It was so much fun building upon his “kingdom by the sea.” I loved envisioning the details of the architecture, wondering what customs these seafaring people would create, who they would revere, how they’d spend their days. I’m a huge fashion history geek and got to pull out all of my old college textbooks for research. I also spent way too much time on Pinterest, trying to hone the mood and atmosphere of the book.
Q: The acknowledgments mention that you used a notebook and pen to write. Tell us about your process for writing this novel. Do you write by hand?
A: I do all of my world-building and outlining by hand. My office is stacked high with piles of notebooks! My earliest versions of chapters are usually written out in quick, broad strokes, which I flesh out as I type them up. While writing House of Salt and Sorrows, my daughter was still waking up every few hours to nurse, so I actually did a lot of writing on my phone in a very dark nursery! My favorite memory of that was drafting the gallery scene. No spoilers, but something especially spooky happens, and after I’d finished it, I was covered in goosebumps. When I looked up, there was a pair of giant glowing eyes glaring at me from across the room. I almost screamed before realizing it was the light from my cellphone reflecting off the eyes of my daughter’s stuffed Cookie Monster! Thankfully, she slept through it all.
Q: What are your favorite kinds of books? What are you reading currently?
A: Unsurprisingly, I love reading horror novels! I started sneaking Stephen King books home from the school library after I grew out of Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I really love quiet, understated horror -- Shirley Jackson, Laura Purcell, and Riley Sager. But my bookshelves are also chockful of royal romances! I am so excited for Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s The Heir Affair to come out later this spring! Right now, I’m in the middle of Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap and Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters. I recently read fellow Ann Arborite Erin Hahn’s More Than Maybe, and it made my heart sing and break in all the best ways.
Q: House of Salt and Sorrows was published in 2019, and it’s your first novel. What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently revising my new young adult standalone, Small Favors. It’s a prairie gothic reimagining of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, with notes of Stephen King’s Needful Things and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Ellerie Downing and her family are beekeepers in the secluded mountain town of Amity Falls. When strange activities plague the community, all signs point to a tribe of devilish and mystical creatures who promise to fulfill the residents’ deepest desires, however grand and impossible, for just a small favor. Ellerie finds herself in a race against time to find their leader’s name before all of Amity Falls, her family, and the boy she loves go up in flames. Delacorte Press is set to publish it in the summer of 2021, and I can’t wait to make y’all shiver!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.