So you probably know Michelle Tea for her kick-ass memoirs and poetry and novels and anthology collections featuring girls (often herself) who are radical, cool, brave, modern-day Joan of Arcs; in other words, she is, as SF Weekly says, the “literary purveyor of fucking bring-it.” She’s received a Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction and she co-founded of the all-girl poetry roadshow Sister Spit, and she’s done plenty of other things besides that you can read all about if you are not too lazy to use Google and or click on the link I’ve helpfully provided above. Now Michelle has a new novel coming out from McSweeneys, her first YA fantasy and the first of a trilogy about a girl in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and the “filthy, swearing mermaid who comes to her when she’s unconscious.” As filthy, swearing mermaids tend to do. Here is the cover of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek:
And here is a completely charming photo of Michelle by Amos Mac that makes me want a Popsicle immediately, but then again when do I not:
So of course I had to ask Michelle all about Mermaid in Chelsea Creek and mermaids generally, and it turns out she was inspired by the Polish Syrenka, who is pretty much the most bad-ass mermaid out there, watching over Warsaw with her twin tail and her sword and shield. Our illuminating interview follows!
So what is the concept behind your novel Mermaid in Chelsea Creek?
I just wanted to write something fantastical that played with magic and myth. I had learned about the great salt mine in Poland and it really captured my imagination. I’m Polish, so it inspired me to investigate Polish folklore and pagan traditions, and that’s how I learned of Syrenka, the mermaid who lives in the Vistula and protects the city of Warsaw.
Why a mermaid? How did you come up with the idea to stick a mermaid in Chelsea Creek?
I’ve always loved mermaids, and I got sort of obsessed with Syrenka and she became part of the story. The idea was that Sophie, my main character, had this old-world magic but she had to return to her ancestral home to learn about her powers. So I had Syrenka swim from Poland to get her.
Your mermaid is described as “filthy” and “swearing.” Can you tell us more about her?
Well, the oceans are dirty, so I imagine after a long trek through it a mermaid would be pretty grimy. I also needed Syrenka to have a very Polish disposition, and Polish people are tough. They don’t smile, and they think you’re up to no good if you smile at them. Living in the river in Warsaw through the ages she would have seen many horrible things, and that has hardened her. I wanted her to feel real and complex and tough, the way I believe such a creature would be.
I understand you have a love of magic, horoscopes, tarot, and witches. Do mermaids fit in there as well?
I am very charmed by magic and otherworldly ideas, and it’s true that mermaids have their place among tarot cards and the myths and rituals of magic!
Have you ever identified with them yourself in any way?
Yeah, totally! When I was a teenager dying my hair blue and lavender I was definitely going for a faerie/mermaid magical girl look. I was really different from everyone in my city and got really harassed for it, and was attracted to stories of girls who were noble and beautiful and different and punished for it, like mermaids and Joan of arc and other saints. And as a little girl I’d play mermaid at the beach and in swimming pools.
I don’t think you normally write about fantastic, tailed creatures. Did you find it challenging and/or liberating and/or something else?
I have found it totally liberating to write about fantastic things in general after writing so much memoir. It’s been really inspiring to just get to follow my imagination and make stuff up, but also way more challenging. With a memoir the story is already there, so that’s half the battle. Having to create a whole world and its creatures from scratch is really daunting!
I understand you visited Poland and did some research on the Warsaw mermaid. Can you talk about that?
Visiting Warsaw was really amazing. I was teaching a feminist writing workshop and the women I worked with were so tough and cool–Poland is harsh, it has a communist hangover, and as a catholic country it is very repressive. I actually found it to be very depressing, but also I had a bad cold and was at the start of a break up and didn’t bring warm enough clothes, so maybe it wasn’t depressing but I was depressed! I did stumble across this small public exhibit showing images of the Warsaw mermaid through time, which was amazing. Sitting on the bank of the Vistula was really great, and visiting the statues of her. With some friends I’d made we took the train to the Wieliczka salt mine and did the epic tour. It was so beautiful, and will show up in the next books in the series.
Why do you think people like mermaids so much, anyway?
The ocean is so vast and mysterious, to think that there could be creatures so similar to ourselves living in the depths is really dreamy and exciting. And tails are so beautiful and swimming feels like flying. To be at home in the ocean, a place so perilous to humans, that is I think the most alluring part of it.
Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
Hmmmmm . . . Make your own mermaid mythology. Remember that history gets written by the winners, and what we know about mermaids comes from people who probably didn’t understand them properly. They’re not just pretty, long haired seductresses. They’re fierce and intelligent and full of wisdom and experience, just like you.