When I wrote this book,” Gabriela Garcia says of her debut novel, Of Women and Salt, “I had the ambitious idea of combining all these different threads I was obsessed with: Cuba, America, detention, deportation, addiction, privilege.” She also knew she wanted to write a book with all the voices being those of women, and she has.
The story begins with Maria Isabel, who in 1866 Cuba was the sole woman working in a male-dominated cigar factory. Moving back and forth in place and time, from Cuba to Miami to Mexico and from the 19th century to the present, Garcia spins tales of generations of Latinx women bound by blood and heritage and trauma: Carmen, a political refugee from Cuba who’s become successful in the U.S.; Carmen’s daughter Jeanette, addicted to drugs and an abusive man; and Gloria, a Mexican woman separated from her daughter when she’s taken into custody by ICE.
Garcia, 35, is the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Cuba and grew up, she says, in “the overwhelming Latinx community in Miami.” She adds, “I was aware of the factions that existed—race and class, and what Latinx means in that community.” But while there are elements of her life in the book, her background is very different from that of the wealthy family in Of Women and Salt.
Garcia tells me she had a variety of jobs in music, magazines, newspapers, and social justice organizations but did not take her creative writing seriously until “I realized it was all I wanted to do.” She went to Purdue University for a three-year MFA program, where she studied with Roxane Gay, whom she calls “a mentor and a great supporter who championed me.” When Gay tweeted about Garcia’s work (the book was her MFA thesis), agents took notice.
PJ Mark, a partner at Janklow & Nesbit, and Marya Spence, an agent there, are co-representing Garcia. “It’s an unusual situation,” Spence says. “It started because there were different avenues of discovering her.” Spence saw Gay “wax poetic about Gabriela as a writer” and reached out.
Meanwhile, Brian Leung, the director of the creative writing program at Purdue, put Mark in touch with Garcia. “He told me Gabriela was ‘the real deal’ and about to receive a major prize” Mark says. Leung wouldn’t reveal which prize (it was the 2018 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award). So both agents, who first heard about Garcia in July 2018, were reading the manuscript at the same time. Both were loving it; both got in touch with her.
“PJ and I work really well together,” Spence says, “so we decided to join forces in a complementary way.”
Mark adds that he and Spence have worked together on many projects, but this is the first time they’ve collaborated as coagents. “We have an intuitive shorthand, so this was our getting back together,” he says. He stresses how “fiercely Garcia brought these women’s lives to bear, emphasizing the theme of force reverberating through generations of women: force as revolution, force as reproduction.”
Spence was immediately aware that Garcia is first and foremost a poet and of how that shows in her fiction. “Gabriela talks about women’s struggles, which are shown in poignant vignettes, yet there’s continuity,” she says.
Garcia signed on as a client with Janklow & Nesbit in October 2018 and in March 2019, the manuscript was sent to publishers. Within a week, there were 10 interested editors, which led to a heated auction. Megan Lynch, then editorial director at Ecco, won North American rights.
“I found Megan easy to talk to,” Garcia says. “I felt like she got my vision for the book.”
And there was the “good advance”—close to seven figures, according to Mark.
Of Women and Salt was Lynch’s last purchase before she went on maternity leave. “I was not taking on any books,” she says. “But I read the manuscript from two of my favorite agents and was so taken with the firepower and emotionally compelling characters, I had to have it. It engaged my brain and my emotions. I sent off my edits hours before my leave, which was perfect. Gabriela had three months to work on it.”
Lynch was tapped to be the publisher of Flatiron Books last November, and in another unusual and, she notes, fortuitous situation, “the book followed me over.” Of Women and Salt was her first presentation at Flatiron. “It was exciting, and there could have been no better book to introduce me to the imprint,” she notes. She also says it’s been interesting to work on the book during the pandemic: “So many video chats, so much experimentation. We are learning that there are things we don’t need, but we need each other.”
Flatiron will publish Of Women and Salt in April 2021, and it will be released simultaneously in the U.K. by Picador. Rights have already been sold in eight territories.
Garcia says in writing the book she wanted to challenge herself—to look at how history shapes our lives in invisible ways and to explore the complexity of mother-daughter relationships. “My general life philosophy,” she admits, “is to expect the least, so it shocks me to have this much interest in the book.” Absolutely exciting, and fortuitous.