Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale

Backstory

Read the guest post from Book Chick City 

So Mermaid kind of began by accident. When Headline Publishing [in the UK] bought my last novel, Godmother, a couple of years ago, they asked to see a list of other things I was working on. I told them about two books I was in the middle of writing—a noir, and a novel about Dante’s Beatrice, both still unfinished—and listed several ideas for other books I wanted to write at some point, including one about a mermaid. And that was really the whole idea: that I might like at some point to write about a mermaid. Because I love mermaids. Who doesn’t love mermaids (aside from Warren Ellis)? Mermaids are weird and awesome.

To my surprise, they bought it.

I spent some months working out the idea. I went through a few different storylines and premises before deciding to grapple directly with the original Hans Christian Andersen little mermaid story, which is very dark and strange and didn’t seem, at first, all that accessible. It was my agent who suggested entering the story through the perspective of the princess—who barely appears in the original tale. I toyed with this idea for a while until I hit on one moment that captured my imagination so totally that I knew I could build the whole book from it.

In the original story, the mermaid rescues the prince from shipwreck and carries him to shore. The princess, who is staying in a convent nearby, finds him on the beach. He wakes, and falls in love with her, but nothing happens. Later, his father arranges a marriage between him and a foreign princess, but his heart belongs only to the girl at the convent—much to the sadness of the little mermaid, who is attempting to woo the prince in her now-human form. But then lo and behold, this foreign princess turns out to be the very same girl from the convent. They marry and the devastated mermaid turns to foam. Those are the bones of the original story.

So I thought of that original moment, the moment when the mermaid arrives at this shore with the almost-drowned prince in her arms. And I thought: What if the princess witnesses this event? Imagine: she’s standing on a cliff in the wind and snow, looking out over the gloomy sea. She’s in hiding, far from her family and world. And then there, in the midst of this desolate scene, appears a mermaid from the sea, glittering and beautiful and strange. Holding a man in her arms, a man with whom she is clearly and radiantly in love.

Wouldn’t that be a moment that would change your life?

After that, the book began to fall into place. I decided to tell both women’s stories, in alternating chapters, building on that strange dynamic that’s set up in that first scene.

Another funny thing happened, though. As soon as I started telling people I was writing about a mermaid, they got excited. One friend told me she got goosebumps thinking about the book—and all I’d told her was that I was writing about a mermaid. People like mermaids, I realized. People also started sending me mermaid stuff, posting mermaid pictures on my Facebook wall, emailing me links, even sending the occasional gift through the mail… And then last spring I was going to Florida and planned a day trip to Weeki Wachee Springs, the city of live mermaids built in 1947 as a glamorous roadside attraction, and a couple weeks before leaving I received an email from one Julie Komenda, telling me she liked my books and mentioning that she’s the artist-in-residence at a place called Weeki Wachee. Julie ended up meeting me, my sister and mother and uncle and grandmother there and showing us around and even taking us “backstage” to see how the underwater mermaid shows work.

Other coincidences happened. Last October I was in Berlin and decided, randomly, to take a trip to Warsaw to see Leonard Cohen. The first night there, my friend Jen and I walked around Old Town and came upon the central square. There’s a big statue/fountain in the center of it—and to my astonishment, I realized it was a twin-tailed mermaid, holding a sword and a shield. Later we walked down a side street and came upon this televised window display—showing image after image of mermaids. It turns out that the mermaid has been the symbol of Warsaw since the middle ages—and they’re everywhere in Warsaw. Every street lamp in the city, for example, has a little mermaid stamped on it. It kind of blew my mind.

So what to do with all this mermaidliness, I wondered. I decided to start a blog, iamamermaid.com (my friend Eric came up with the name one afternoon over coffee in Berlin), to put everything, and then I thought I could interview a few people about mermaids, too, and I started sending emails and doing research and uncovering all kinds of mermaid things… and so many people responded with a “yes” that so far I have posted nothing but interviews, and have tons more in the pipeline. And in the process I’ve discovered all kinds of weird, amazing ways that people infuse their lives with magic and beauty through mermaids… and I’ve visited with Weeki mermaids, and mermaid tailmakers, and mermaid professors, and mermaid convention organizers, and mermaid burlesque girls, and by the time I’m done I may very well have met every aspiring mermaid in America and possibly Europe, too.

So anyway, it all started by accident, and now these strange, beautiful, dangerous, wild half women half-fish have lured me in completely, too, as they’ve done to so many before me, as if we were all sailors of old.