Aimee Bender is one of my favorite writers, writing about the real world in a way that’s always slightly, magically off-kilter and occasionally populated by mermaids. The wonderful “Drunken Mimi”—from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, for example, features a high-school mermaid who walks around with a crutch and is wooed by an imp. Here’s how it opens:
There was an imp that went to high school with stilts on so that no one would know he was an imp. Of course he never wore shorts.
One thing he didn’t know was that there was a mermaid at the school; she was a sophomore as well. She wore long skirts that swept the floor and one large boot covering her tail and she used a crutch, pretending like her second leg, which of course didn’t exist, was hurt.
She was a quiet one, that mermaid; she excelled in oceanography class, but she also made an effort to not be too good; she didn’t want to call attention to herself. On every test she missed at least three. (What is plankton? A boat, she wrote.) She was very beautiful; hair slightly greenish which everyone attributed to chlorine. Eyes purplish which everyone attributed to drugs. The girls called her a snob. The boy shoved each other and agreed.
I know. Aimee’s last novel came out in 2011 and has what I think is one of the best titles ever, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; it’s about a woman who tastes emotions through food. Check out some of her other writing here, and if you haven’t ever read Aimee before you can later thank me with a note or even a nice pile of cash.
I recently asked Aimee about urgent mermaidly matters:
What attracts you to magic and the fantastic/inspires you to feature it in your own fiction?
Something about telling a story in a a skewed way really draws me—as a reader and a writer. I can see the real world more clearly through an unreal lens.
Can you talk about “Drunken Mimi” and what inspired it?
It was very freeing to write a story about a mermaid and feel like it could “count.” I don’t remember the exact inspiration but I do remember how shocking and fun it felt to put the word “mermaid” on a page and move from there. After that it felt like any word was open and available.
What do you think of mermaids and their continual appeal?
I find them fascinating because they are so beautiful and so mysterious and alluring but they can’t have traditional sex.
In what ways does the figure of the mermaid appeal to you personally? Do you identify with them in any way?
I’m a terrible swimmer so I like the idea of a woman who can swim and who can traverse land and sea so easily. I also am intrigued by the sirens, the voices of sea creatures who would lure boats and then crash them. I don’t identify with that so clearly but I think it complicates the mermaid in a good way to have her as a figure of both beauty and also destruction.
I know you teach fairy tales, including The Little Mermaid, at USC. What do you think the allure of fairy tales is? What is your take on the Hans Christian Andersen story?
I love the story and I love the sadness of the ending; students are sometimes shocked to find out what happens to the original “Arielle.” His writing is so much about sacrifice so it makes sense there’d be a wholly different angle. Fairy tales—the allure—I think it’s something very primal, like DNA-level primal. Since they show up in every culture, it seems we need fairy tales to be human, which I find wonderful.
Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
I personally would like to see a mermaid with very short hair. Why not? Subvert the look.