So Brenda Peterson is a very accomplished and fancy National Geographic (and otherwise) writer who’s written 17 books, most of them having to do with the natural and usually aquatic world and even with cool oceanic characters like the gray whale and the dolphin and, more recently, the glamorous, shimmering mermaid. In fact Brenda has a spanking-new mermaid novel called The Drowning World, which comes out this month and also has one day left of a Kickstarter campaign, the supporting of which will get you perks like a signed book, a character named after you (in the sequel), or even a manuscript critique for all you aspiring mermaid authors. Here’s a preview of the first two chapters. Brenda also attended MerPalooza and wrote about it for The Huffington Post, generously advising regular humans everywhere on how to attain mermaidly allure.
Below, I talk to Brenda about The Drowning World, sea creatures in need, and fancy author things generally.
What made you decide to write about mermaids?
My fourth novel, the environmental thriller Animal Heart, was reviewed by a book critic from Library Journal who wrote, “one can hardly imagine a more heartfelt work or a more unusual love story than this one.” Hmmmm, I thought, “unusual love story.”
What would be more unusual than two people from an underwater cosmos and our world trying to find love together? Mermaid and human. Every taboo or prejudice that we experience in inter-racial or interfaith love would be magnified. My own decades studying dolphins had left me feeling half-human, so why not explore this hybrid or mixed relationships in a love story? The Drowning World is set both in Aquantis, an underwater advanced civilization of merpeople, and in a future Florida, called SkyeWorld, circa 2020 and 2030. Marina, a highly trained mermaid, is on her first spy mission to SkyeWorld. On the beach she meets Lukas, a proud Cuban refugee who is helping his father rescue sea turtle eggs from an oil spill. Marina saves Lukas’s life with her magical skills, but can she save herself from a life-long nemesis from her own world?
So can you tell us a little about yourself and your books? What draws you to the oceans?
I’ve published 17 books—novels, memoirs, essays—and almost all of them have something to do with our blue planet’s underwater realms. In fact, I’ve drowned twice. Those near-death experiences left me with a profound devotion to our seas. “Maybe fathoms deep in the sea is where all the old and the new souls are dreaming and changing and being born again,” I conclude my 1990 essay “On Drowning” from Living by Water.
As a National Geographic author, I’ve also spent two decades underwater studying whales and dolphins. Cetaceans are my inspiration for The Drowning World because my merpeople are really half-dolphin and half-human. So there is a real animal nature and intelligence to my amphibious hybrids, called Aquantans. They are Shape Shifters and Go Betweens in many worlds. I’ve been working on building my underwater cosmos in The Drowning World since 2003. In fact, my address since email was first invented was always “Mermaid Ink.” Imagine my surprise and delight when suddenly all these mermaid books surface, just as I finally finish my own novel!
Can you talk about Seal Sitters and any other marine-related activism you’re involved in?
It’s never been enough for me to just be an artist. My five years in the editorial department of The New Yorker magazine when I was in my twenties taught me that “art for art’s” sake was not my path. I am grateful for the literary apprenticeship to writing from those New York years; but I knew I wanted to connect my work to the natural world. So I returned to my native West Coast and have lived in Seattle since 1981. My first memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, was my way of engaging with other animals as an activist-writer. So all of my journalism and non-fiction is always in service to something greater than art. I’ve lived on water for so long that the tides, birds, marine mammals, all seem a part of my own body.
My co-founding of the grassroots volunteer Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network began as just a few neighbors sitting on our backyard beach keeping watch over the seal pups while their mothers fished far out in the Salish Sea. Call it day care for Seal Pups. My first children’s book, Leopard and Silkie: One Boy’s Quest to Save the Seal Pups, is just out from Henry Holt for Young Readers. [Here’s a link to an ABC News interview on Seal Sitters.]
You recently attended MerPalooza and wrote about it for the Huffington Post. What did you think? What kind of reaction have you gotten?
My brother lives in Tampa where this summer’s MerPalooza was held. So I had a perfect excuse to attend. When I told my literary agent, Sarah Jane Freymann, about the mermaid convention Sarah Jane said, “I’m there!” I call her my WaveMate because we travel on book tours together and always take time out to swim in the nearest ocean together. When my brother, and Sarah Jane and I attended Merpalooza we were amazed at the professional mermaids. Those elegant tail flukes and the commitment to marine conservation won me over. My Huffington Post article focused on Mermaid Enakai, a young mermaid who is devoted to shark conservation and also beautiful mermaid design. I also was very moved by Stephanie’s story of her grandmother, who ran away from home in the 1940s to become a real mermaid in the Weeki Wachee roadside shows.
Brenda encountering a mermaid at MerPalooza
Why do you think mermaids are so appealing to us, anyway?
Mermaids swim through all of our myths and folklore. Like you, Carolyn, I much prefer the powerful, sexy, soulful, and darkly complex mermaids that authors are creating for the 21st century. The psychologist C. G. Jung always asked, “Why this dream now?” So I wonder: Why this mermaid trend now?
Is it because we intuit that we are all bound for a MerWorld as seas rise and coastlines sink? Is mermaiding a way of adapting, first in our imaginations, before we finally face the facts of climate change? Maybe it’s simply time for women to make and reclaim their own mythology. We no longer believe the prince will save us or give us a soul. We realize that, like Venus rising from the sea, women must find our own destiny—even if it means running away from home.
Can you talk about The Drowning World, your Kickstarter.com campaign, and how people can join in/order the book?
I turned down a publisher’s offer for The Drowning World because I wanted complete artistic control—from cover design to choosing my own professional editors, some of whom worked with me on other traditionally published books. It’s a ton of editorial work but also an exhilarating experience to produce an indie book. I’m so grateful to my many Kickstarter bakers who are part of my Publishing Pod. They will receive special rewards this month, including signed copies of the book, characters named after them, having their name in my Acknowledgments, private Book Club visits via Skype or FaceTime. The book is now finished and at the e-book conversion lab and my designers for the paperback. Both editions are due out this month!
Anyone who wants to join our Kickstarter publishing project has until September 5th at 8 p.m. ET to back The Drowning World. We are already 103% fully funded but there is still time for more backers to dive in with us and swim with the Publishing Pod!