So a brand-spanking-new novel with a mermaid silhouette gracing the cover entered bookstores this past Tuesday, as I’m sure you’re well aware, at least in your hearts if not your conscious minds: Amy Shearn’s The Mermaid of Brooklyn. Look:
Here is Amy at a bookstore in Brooklyn with The Mermaid of Brooklyn:
The novel is actually about a struggling mother of two young children in Park Slope, Brooklyn, stretched way too thin and at a breaking point, especially once her no-good husband vanishes as no-good husbands tend to do, who gets saved in part by a mermaid. Who may or may not be herself. I love the reason Amy gives, the way she equates mermaidliness with motherhood and women’s magicalness generally: “I wanted to write something about mothering that captured how it feels: epic, magical, often entirely surreal.” Here is a sample from the book: “Her eyes were entirely black, which for some reason did not immediately strike me as being alarming. A cape of sea-dark hair the length of her body billowed behind her. She was naked from the waist up, her breasts buoyant in the water, her torso forties-starlet curvy, and from the waist down–I’m not kidding–she had a gold fishtail with which she muscled her way around. I know how it sounds. I know. But let me stress that at the time this seemed totally unsurprising. There was something soothing about her, nurturing in a slightly aloof, sex-kittenish way. She smiled as if we’d known each other our whole lives and swam close, somehow managing to swing her hips as she moved, winding her long, pointed fingertips into my hair. I closed my eyes and let her.”
You can win a copy of The Mermaid of Brooklyn by entering this contest on Redbook.com, though really you ought to stop being so cheap and go to your local bookstore and buy a copy. I’m not sure you’ll be able to resist, anyway, after this sparkling interview:
So what is the concept behind your novel The Mermaid of Brooklyn?
You know, I just described it to my four-year-old in a way that I think might be the best summary I’ve come up with yet: A lady is in trouble and gets some help from a mermaid, only to realize she didn’t actually need help after all, and that she’s okay by herself.
What is a rusalka, anyway?
The rusalka is the proto-mermaid of Eastern European lore, a sort of spooky, malevolent siren-spirit. They are the spirits of wronged women, of illegitimate mothers, brides left at the altar, suicides by drowning. But watch out, because they are also known for dancing in meadows and hanging out in trees during the full moon. And they love seducing (and drowning) sailors.
In my book, a rusalka from the East River inhabits a Brooklyn mom’s body, which I’m pretty sure was not the official folklore version.
How did you come up with the idea of using a mermaid the way you do?
I can’t even remember what I was reading, but it was some survey of Slavic folklore that mentioned the rusalka. This was probably ten years ago. Around this time my grandmother told me a story about how her mother, Jenny, once considered jumping off a bridge but had her life saved by a pair of shoes, and the two strands—Jenny, rusalka—became intertwined in my mind. I couldn’t figure out my way into the novel for some time though, so they just kind of marinated in the back of my mind for a while.
Have you ever felt you had a secret (or not-so-secret) mermaid identity yourself?
Well, in my book the rusalka is kind of this id-like force, an inner voice that helps Jenny to find herself, to listen to herself, to fight for her life. I think every woman has this kind of rusalka inside her. But these rusalka-voices are seldom polite and often unpleasant, so most of us—for better or for worse—don’t always listen to them.
Mermaids and Brooklyn have a history. Have you ever been to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade?
I haven’t! Isn’t that odd? I love the idea of it, and I always love looking at the pictures, and every year I think of going and then remember that I hate parades. I’m one of those New Yorkers who doesn’t do well in crowds, go figure. I think it’s because I’m short, so being in a crowd in the summer just involves a lot of armpit-facetime.
What do you think the appeal of mermaids is, anyway? Have they always had a particular appeal to you?
There’s something inherently fascinating about creatures that are half-human, half-magic, about the uncanny nature of the almost-plausible mythical beast. Then when I was pregnant for the first time, what with all of pregnancy’s surreal aquatics, it became clear to me that all women are actually half-human, half-magic.
What would you say to women who feel there might be a secret mermaid inhabiting them, too?
I would say to enjoy it, but also to remember that a mermaid on land can be a little bit like a recent divorcee, consumed with physical pleasure and not all that responsible.
Have you been surprised at all by peoples’ reaction to the mermaid in your book?
I have been! I don’t want to tell anyone how to read the book, and I love different readers’ different interpretations, but I’ll just say I’m surprised at how many people have taken the mermaid at face value.
Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
Stay away from the East River!
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a short story, because I think I forgot how to write short stories but I want to remember how, about a case of mass hysteria amongst a group of teenage girls. And in theory I’m writing a novel that’s a ghost story, even though I know nothing about ghosts and never read ghost stories. But in reality that novel is still very much lists and notes and research and scribbles. In other words, it’s still perfect.