Reading with... Madelaine Lucas

photo: Kylie Coutts

Madelaine Lucas is a senior editor of NOON and teaches fiction at Columbia University. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the Believer, Literary Hub, Paris Review Daily and elsewhere. She is from Sydney, Australia, and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her debut novel, Thirst for Salt (Tin House), is a coming-of-age story about desire.

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

It's a novel about cautious daughters, wayward mothers, the wounding allure of an older man, beloved long-dead dogs and the curative powers of the ocean.

On your nightstand now:

A Life's Work by Rachel Cusk, Real Estate by Deborah Levy and two volumes of Helen Garner's diaries are at the top of my ever-expanding TBR pile. There's an idea that family life is antithetical to creative life (especially for women), so I'm always interested in reading about how writers who are also mothers have navigated these competing desires and, despite the challenges, made it work.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The first books I loved were the ones my father read aloud to me, like Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and the entire Oz series by L. Frank Baum.

Like a lot of children, I was drawn to tales of animals and adventures in faraway lands--Martin the Warrior by Brian Jacques was another favorite. But even from a young age, I remember also looking to books to help me understand my own experiences. For that reason, I was drawn to the slightly less popular Ann M. Martin series, Baby-Sitters Little Sister. The main character, Karen, was closer to my age than her teenage stepsister Kristy, and, like me, she had a blended family and went back and forth between two households.

Your top five authors:

An impossible question, and I hope the answer continues to change over the course of my life. But five authors particularly important to my thinking through the themes of intimacy and desire in Thirst for Salt were Garth Greenwell, Rachel Cusk, Yuko Tsushima, Sara Majka and Helen Garner. I'll read anything by these writers, because what I love best about them is the insights of their particular minds at work.

Book you've faked reading:

Gosh! A shameful number of classics that I'm sure I have referred to knowingly in conversation, their plots so familiar to me from pop culture, studying literature and movie adaptions, though I've never actually read them.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, which I apparently mention so frequently in conversation that my husband has started to tease me about it. No one captures both the absurdity and fragile beauty of being alive quite like Johnson. The cast of Jesus' Son are down-and-out drifters and addicts but Johnson allows these characters to inhabit a full range of emotions--moments of tenderness, violence, grief, and revelation are all equal parts of our narrator Fuckhead's experience of life on the margins. The collection is full of single sentences that will crack you open, like: "She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she'd done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother."

Book you've bought for the cover:

So many! I love a book that is also a beautiful, decorative object. Sometimes I'll even buy a different edition of a title I already own if I like the design. One of my favorites is the paperback mass market version of Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer, which features a woman's manicured hand flicking a silver cigarette lighter and gaudy gold type.

Book you hid from your parents:

I suppose you could say my own! I didn't hide the fact that I was working on a novel to my parents, but I also didn't want to share it with them until I knew it was finished. I am intensely private in the early drafting stage--maybe going through an MFA program with two years of constant feedback has made me wary of too many cooks, so to speak. It's a natural impulse to want to show what we make to those we love, but when I feel this urge, I try to question it. What am I looking for? Do I genuinely want feedback, and am I prepared to hear it? Or am I just craving validation? If the latter, I try to resist, because I know that even a well-meaning comment has the potential to set me off course. It's a delicate process, and easy to lose one's nerve, so I try to protect my creativity as much as possible by not sharing my work until I feel ready to meet a reader's reactions.

Book that changed your life:

Since 2015 I have been part of the small editorial team helmed by Diane Williams at the literary annual NOON. Although not a book per se, each NOON I've worked on has had an impact on my life. Putting together each edition is an intimate, collaborative process. We read all submissions under consideration aloud together, and until the pandemic forced us to go remote, this took place around a kitchen table in Diane Williams's apartment. Working at NOON has given me sharper editorial eye and ear, and made me a much slower writer and reader, but it's also encouraged me stay alive to the pleasures and possibilities of language. It's a privilege to be trusted with another writer's story--and a healthy practice for all artists, too, I think, to spend time investing in the work of others and championing it. I'm grateful that my work as an editor and teacher gives me an opportunity to do this.

Favorite line from a book:

I could pick almost any line from Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, but this sentence lingers in my mind, like music: "For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?"

Five books you'll never part with:

Five books that have lived on my desk at one point or another, so they might be within an arm's reach, are: Actual Air by David Berman, Cities I've Never Lived In by Sara Majka, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepard and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. These books are talismans of sorts, and I've returned to their pages often for comfort, good company and renewed courage to write the world the way I see it.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

I'm a big believer in rereading, and the books I love the most have continued to reveal more to me each time I've revisited them. I have an ongoing relationship with them in this way, and so it's not often that I find myself wishing to recover that initial reading experience. There is always more to learn, and to gain, beyond that first encounter.

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