Thursday, February 1, 2024

Q&A with Jo Salas




Jo Salas is the author of the new novel Mrs. Lowe-Porter, which is based on the life of writer and translator Helen Lowe-Porter (1876-1963). Salas's other books include Dancing with Diana. She is also the co-founder of Playback Theatre. Born in New Zealand, she lives in upstate New York.


Q: What inspired you to write a novel based on the life of Helen Lowe-Porter?


A: The belongings that my mother-in-law Patricia Lowe left when she died included a file box of her research for an uncompleted biography of her parents, the translator Helen Lowe-Porter and the scholar Elias Lowe.


Reading Helen’s letters and poems was like meeting Helen herself. She seemed very different from the way Patricia had described her. The more I read, the more I liked her.


I wanted others to meet her as well, and to know her story: a gifted woman writer in the shadow of two illustrious men, her husband and the great German novelist Thomas Mann, whose works she translated.


The other spark was just an image: Patricia once described going to see her mother in her old-age home and finding her dressed in her favorite pajama-like black silk outfit, somewhat demented but still strong-willed. That’s where I started: a scene of Helen at the end of her life, visited by her daughter.


Q: How did you research her life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: In addition to Patricia’s research, a biography of Helen written soon after her death was extremely helpful. In Another Language by John Thirlwall (now out of print) mentions a novel that Helen wrote in her late 70s, praised by Mann but never published.


I hadn’t known about this novel, and no one in the family remembers seeing the manuscript. A tantalizing, poignant mystery.


Thirlwall’s book includes two long essays written by Helen: “Doctor Faustus” and “On Translating Thomas Mann.” Both show her stunning brilliance of mind and her graceful, fluent writing.


Patricia’s files held many copies of letters between Helen, Mann, and their publisher, Knopf, as well as between Helen and Elias, some original.


I’d heard about their later marital estrangement and it surprised me to see how tender they were with each other earlier. She always addressed him as “Dearest” or “Darlingest” and signed herself “Thy H.” This changed abruptly after his mid-life affair with a young friend of the family.


Her letters also spoke very lovingly about their three daughters, another surprise in view of the consensus within the family that she was remote and un-motherly.


I spent hours in the Morgan Library with Elias’s pocket diaries, which yielded up some secrets.

I visited the street in Oxford where the family had lived, and Corpus Christi, where Elias taught. I summoned my own memories of the tall cottage on a Maine island where Helen wrote in long-ago summers and where my family has visited many times.


Q: The writer Adam Thorpe said of the book, “How does Helen retain control of the central challenge of being Mann’s translator without losing herself in his overwhelming grandeur as a world-famous novelist? Jo Salas captures brilliantly the shifting depths underfoot.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m glad Adam Thorpe saw this as the crux of the book—Helen’s absolute commitment to translating Mann, for whom she had profound respect, in tension with her commitment to her own writing, sabotaged by her self-doubt.


She attempted to combine translation, creative writing, and motherhood, at a time when most middle-class women, especially mothers, didn’t work at all. It must have felt impossible at times. No wonder her daughters sometimes felt she was remote.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you worked on the novel?


A: Finding a balance wasn’t easy! It still seems paradoxical to me. My main characters are and are not their historical counterparts.


I didn’t want to write a biography. I wanted to write a story that conveyed what I understood as Helen’s dilemma, rather than recounting everything that happened in her life. I wanted to depict key events, sometimes using Helen’s actual words.


The narrative doesn’t depart significantly from what really happened, but I’ve left things out and conflated others. A few events and characters are invented. Dialogue and thoughts of course come from my imagination, often sparked by a line or two from a letter.


Some details come from my own life. The episode where a male customer in an Oxford tearoom insults Helen is based on an experience I had in England, pregnant with my first child.


In a laundromat, a man looked from me to another young woman with a baby and a toddler, and said with disgust, “They breed like rabbits around here.” I remember my hot embarrassment and anger, and gave them to Helen.


And I gave to Helen my experience of being a writer and mother: the snatched opportunities to write, the thrill of artistic creation, the secret hope, the disappointments, the refusal to give up.


However, in the novel, Helen’s great success with her play Abdication is, I’m glad to say, completely factual.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m always busy with nonfiction writing relating to my work in Playback Theatre. Meanwhile I’m hatching an idea for another novel.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This whole project has been interwoven with family for me. I’m in constant mental conversation with Patricia, often missing her sharply. I’ve been grateful for the interest and support of some of Helen’s grandchildren, including my husband.


My own daughters and grandchildren are also Helen’s descendants, giving me and Helen a sort of retroactive blood relationship. And I feel a connection to Helen herself: a one-way, imaginary, but treasured bond.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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