Kira Salak made her name as a chronicler of her daring adventures in the remotest corners of the globe. In The White Mary, she gives us Marika Vecera, an explorer who ventures into the jungles of Papua New Guinea and confronts the perils hidden within her own heart.

After so much success with nonfiction, what inspired you to turn to fiction?

While I love writing nonfiction, I've always had a passion for fiction writing. I'd been able to pay the bills by writing articles, but I took a year off from journalism, used up my savings and worked on this novel. I love writing fiction, I love the process of it. I don't wake up and say, “Oh, no, I have to write fiction!”

What made you want to place the novel's central action in Papua New Guinea?

I've been to a lot of jungles. Papua New Guinea is just special, in my opinion. The [people] have a very rich tribal culture and very few roads, so the only way you can travel through country is by roughing it: traveling up the rivers, cutting a path through the jungle. It's pristine. That was attractive to me.

Your main character, Marika, is a travel journalist and adventurer. How much of her is based on your life?

Marika reports on the war in the Congo, and her experience is based on my experiences in that country. I also feel that Marika's journey, her inner journey, the realization she comes to at the end of the book, paralleled where I was in my life. But on another level, she is a product of my imagination. I pull from my experiences to give resonance and authenticity to the book.

Despite all the tragic things in the book, do you feel Marika's inner struggle has a redemptive message?

I would hope that people would realize that no matter what sort of tragedy or suffering they may have gone through or that others may have gone through that affected them, that suffering doesn't have to rule a person's life. The ultimate journey is to find a path out of the darkness and despair, to find the light and the joy. In my experience, that's the hardest journey in life, to transcend those experiences from our past that have dragged us down.

What inspired the character of Marika's hero in the book, Robert Lewis?

He spontaneously entered my mind as a character after an experience I had in New Guinea, with a refugee who had fled from East New Guinea. I heard about how he'd been tortured, his loved ones killed. I had a feeling of great helplessness—there was nothing I could do but listen. Out of that came Robert Lewis and I started writing scenes with him. Lewis represented to me the person who has experienced such tragedy that it becomes more than he can bear.