The plot of The White Mary revolves around Marika’s quest to find her mentor, renowned journalist Robert Lewis, rumored to have faked his suicide and hidden himself deep in the pestilential jungle of Papua New Guinea. Led by a witch doctor named Tobo, she embarks on an epic journey across the island—searching for Lewis and unearthing her own painful secrets in the process.
Marika’s trip is harrowing, minutely observed, and utterly mesmerizing, all rendered in Salak’s artfully unadorned, fast-paced prose—a style reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, with an ample supply of his bleakness and violence. There are also shades of Heart of Darkness drifting through The White Mary (wait meri is local pidgin for “white woman”)—both books are obsessive searches through inhospitable lands for a lost soul.
On a recent rainy evening near her home in southwestern Montana, Salak spoke with ADVENTURE about the pitfalls of life, spiritual journeys, and the joys of fried chicken.
ADVENTURE: Papua New Guinea has been the setting for two of your books, including this novel. What is it about the country that captures your imagination?
KIRA SALAK: It’s the most untouched place I’ve ever been. No roads. No way to access large parts of the country except by bushwhacking or dugout canoe. That’s really appealing to me. And the tribal culture is so rich; there are more than 700 separate groups. The jungle is spectacular. It’s very remote, very exotic, and very unfamiliar.
A: I take it you’re not a city person.
KS: I like visiting them. Briefly.
A: The last four letters of your protagonist’s name, Marika, is an anagram of Kira.
KS: That wasn’t intentional. But for me, fiction is more autobiographical than nonfiction. I can hide more in fiction, but it also gives me liberty to go deeper into myself.