So Jane Yolen has written about a zillion books and won a ton of awards and been called the “American Hans Christian Andersen” by Newsweek and a “modern day Aesop” by the New York Times and she knows all about myths and fairytales and folklore and fables and, of course, mermaids. I met her at FaerieCon last November when I was on a panel or two with her and she sat there all sage and glamorous saying all kinds of smart things, which was really very obnoxious of her, almost as obnoxious as receiving six honorary doctorates in literature,which she’s also done. I mean really.
She’s the kind of lady you want to sit down in front of a fire with on a dark night and listen to her spin tales and tell you all kinds of secrets while you drink hot cocoa and watch them stars glitter above you. But much as I would have liked to have done this – and to have brought you along with me – I was forced by the cruelty of the modern world to send her a few mermaidly questions over Facebook instead. She graciously answered as follows.
I understand that you have actually seen a mermaid. Can you tell me about that?
Well, not a real one, but one of the Malysian mers that the native people constructed, sewing a monkey’s head and torso onto the tail of a very large fish, possibly a carp. They then sold these to believing young British tars in Victorian and Edwardian times as “mermaids washed up on the shore.”
I was in Greenwich, England, and had found a wonderful antique store and was pottering around. There in a large glass case with brass fittings was this horrific stuffed creature staring glassily at me. I gasped, said, “My God, a Malysian Mer!” and the shopkeeper suddenly materialized by my side, “You know what it is!” he whispered in my ear. Luckily it was already sold. Don’t know WHAT my husband and kids would think if I’d shipped the thing home.
I took a photo, though alas I have NO idea where that is now. Had it pinned to my bulletin board for years.
Can you tell me about some of your mermaid fiction, and what inspired you and continues to inspire you to write about mermaids?
I love mermaids as one of the great metaphors, mermen as well. Swimming in the world’s amniotic fluid. Sexy and mysterious and sometimes vituperative, and often predatory. Ah yes.
Wrote a number of stories about mer creatures, including several about selchies. I have always lived near bodies of water, am drawn to it. The Hudson in New York as a child; Long Island Sound as a teen; now the Connecticut River is a block from my house and I love walking there. And my house in Scotland is only a few minutes from the North Sea.
In your research, have you come across any surprising mermaid lore?
Certain merfolk are extremely predacious, especially in Slavic stories, and while they shouldn’t have surprised me, it did. I was also surprised by the number of mermen stories around, and ended up writing a book about it, called THE FISH PRINCE and other mermen stories.
What do you think about mermaids in popular culture?
I think we need to remember that, as with all magical creatures, thinking of them as simply pretty and cute is a mistake. In the old tales, they are tricksy, seductive, amoral, uncaring. They are simply. . .NOT human, and we shouldn’t try to make them so.
How would you describe the allure of mermaids generally?
It is the allure of the beautiful, unattainable, mysterious Other. In every culture in every clime, there are stories of such creatures in the oceans, rivers, ponds, wells. Water is such a mutable, magical substance itself, the human imagination simply cannot believe it’s not peopled as the earth is. We WANT there to be such underwater civilizations and – not finding them – we invent them and then turn around and believe in our own invention. I love that.
Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
Learn to swim.
Watch out for Man-of-wars and sharks.
What you don’t know about the water CAN kill you.