March 03, 2011
Carolyn Turgeon and I met in a rural, rainy corner of East Texas in January 2007. We were surrounded by tiara-wearing, book-sharing Pulpwood Queens. A surreal lovefest of words if I ever saw one. That’s how I got a copy of her debut novel, Rain Village. Whimsical and heartbreaking, the book convinced me that she’d be a writer I’d follow.
Her second, Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story, released in 2009. This is a story of exile and longing, as Lil, once a fairy godmother, remembers what led her to a small Manhattan bookstore. There’s no bippity-bobbity-boo here, yet plenty of charm.
For her third novel, Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale, Carolyn delves into “The Little Mermaid.” A Disney polish, it has not. This is a dark book, in the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen’s original work. It’s also filled with love, compassion, and desire. Lenia the mermaid and Margrethe the princess both make sacrifices to be with the prince, with serious consequences for themselves, the people who love them, and the worlds they inhabit.
Praise abounds. “Turgeon has done a superb job of creating compelling characters and conflict from a story already familiar to readers,” declared Publishers Weekly. “Magical and mysterious, Mermaid’s twist on a classic tale is as ingenious as it is delightful,” said Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You. “Mermaid is one sexy fairy tale, a bittersweet story about the tides that tug the human heart,” wrote Keith Donohue, author of The Stolen Child.
Without further ado, here is an illustrious interview with the glamorous authoress Carolyn Turgeon.
This is your third novel and second retelling. What draws you to fairy tales and inspires you to delve into them anew?
Well, first off, I love fairy tales. I love the combination of all those wonderful, vivid, magical details with all that darkness and strangeness that you find in almost every story. That beauty and pain, mixed together. And they feel like real life to me, just taken up a notch or two. These are foundational kinds of stories, I think, stories you heard as a child, and so to go in and twist them about a bit, I think there’s something profound in that. Taking a story you know, that’s part of you, and illuminating it in a brand new way. I feel like one of the most basic and sometimes most difficult tasks for us as humans is just to be able to get inside someone else’s head and heart, and retelling a story from a new perspective is really just an exercise in doing that.
You kept close to some of the details in Andersen’s tale—the princess’ time in an abbey, the shipwreck and how the mermaid saved the prince, and what the mermaid had to endure to become human. What was your creative process as you remained true to some elements and took liberties with others?
I feel like part of the pleasure of reading a retelling is that recognition, and so for this I definitely wanted a sea witch, and the mermaid’s sacrifice to get to land—all those main plot points from the original story. But the original story is only the mermaid’s story, so I was able to make up the princess’s story almost entirely, save for a few details. I think the combination of known story elements and brand new ones is what makes retellings exciting.
Both Lenia the mermaid and Margrethe the princess have longings to understand the other’s experience of life. You write about the differences with sensitivity and compassion. How did this element of the story develop?
To me, this was the crux of the story, or the retelling as I envisioned it: the relationship between these two women. In the original story, the princess just shows up at the beginning and the end. In the Disney version, she becomes a villain, since she’s the mermaid’s romantic rival.
But I’m not a fan of rivalry amongst the ladies— women hating each other, or being hateful, because they want the same guy. I really really hate that, actually, in fiction and real life! I wanted instead to build a more complicated and ultimately more compassionate relationship between the human and mermaid princesses. Especially since they are more or less mirrors of each other, but from entirely different worlds, worlds that are so alien and yet wonderful to the other. These are two women in a tragic situation. They don’t have to hate each other.
I studied medieval history in college. A number of details tipped me off that you’d done some research. (I resisted squeals of glee.) Why did you choose that time period instead of a modern one, as you did for Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story?
I thought about a modern-day setting, but because I was telling two stories—the mermaid and the princess’s—I knew we’d already have the contrast between the underwater and above-water worlds. I thought it’d complicate it too much to add a modern-day element. Plus there are only so many ways to do that, to move from the past to present and back again, and in Godmother I already had the one narrator who’s living in the present day but remembering the world as it once was, way back when, when she was a fairy.
In Godmother, you have one narrator who’s occupied two different worlds. In Mermaid, you have two main protagonists who come from entirely different worlds. The contrast between fantastical and more “real” worlds is what interests me, and it seemed most efficient to do that in an old-time setting.
Plus, I have to say: The Little Mermaid didn’t seem nearly as easy to translate to the contemporary world as Cinderella did. It’s a pretty weird story! And I did study medieval literature in graduate school, and I like to pretend that graduate school was not a big waste of time and moolah for me whenever I can.
Within the first few chapters, Princess Margrethe lives in an abbey posing as a novice—readers will have to see for themselves why—and visits a nearby village with the Reverend Mother. The abbess chastises a peasant woman for allowing her son to entertain stories of mermaids, stating, “Clinging to the old goddesses, you keep the world in darkness.” How did this connection come about for the story, and what resonance does it have throughout?Well, I liked having the abbey in the book, and having that contrast between heavy duty Catholicism and the mermaid world. In the original story, by the way, the princess seems to be ensconced in a “temple” where she’s “studying the royal virtues.” I thought it made more sense for it to be a full-on nunnery where she’s in hiding. I didn’t go too far with this element in the book, this contrast between the abbey and the mermaid world and what it means for Margrethe, who is as Catholic as anyone else, to see a mermaid and learn that this other world exists… though of course the mermaid’s longing for a soul and salvation is at the heart of the original story and mine as well. But yeah, it seemed to me that your typical villager, fishermen types who know there are mermaids out there in the sea, would still cling to the “old” beliefs in which the sea is full of gods and goddesses…and that this would be at odds with your in-denial abbess type, to whom it would be blasphemous to speak of mermaids and the like. And this tension is present in Margrethe and throughout the book.
You traveled through Europe as you were writing this novel. What influence did that have on the work-in-progress?
I wrote a lot of the book while staying in Berlin, Germany, the year before last—I was there for a few months in 2009 and then again in 2010—and meant to have it finished by the time my friend Rob came to visit for a week in late November. We had this big trip to Prague and Vienna planned for then. But tragically, my book wasn’t finished, and it was overdue, and I couldn’t just cancel the trip, as that would have been very rood! So I ended up finishing the book typing frantically on trains and in hotel lobbies that week. What effect that had on the final book, I’m not sure. In Berlin, I mostly wrote in lovely somber candle-lit cafes over long afternoons, and come to think of it those trains were pretty romantic, too, with tablecloths and lamps in the dining cars and the Czech countryside blurring past, so there might have been some influence there.
In the acknowledgments, you thank Hans Christian Andersen “for being so inimitable, so wonderful, and so totally, gorgeously weird.” What delighted you about him?
Oh my, Hans Christian Andersen was just such a character! I mean, a true weirdo, but in the best way—though actually it seems like plenty of people found him to be insufferable, but I tend to be very forgiving of wondrous eccentricity. He was just really over-the-top and a drama queen and always swooning over things and falling in madly in love and dying from broken hearts. And he made little paper cut outs that are really great. He’d just snip snip snip and unfold a piece of paper and there’d be a hangman or a bird or something.And he travelled all over the place and had these massive feet and he wrote the saddest, loveliest stories. What’s not to love?
The demure kissing and innocent laying upon breasts in “The Little Mermaid” gains a mature expression in Mermaid. It is, in fact, crucial for the ending. Is there any way to discuss the importance of this adult turn of events without a spoiler? And would Mr. Andersen approve?
To me, all that was implied in the original already. I think when hot naked mermaids show up on palace steps and young princes find them there, scoop them up and take them in and spend a whole lot of time petting them and telling them how wonderful they are…I just think there is something untoward going on…and I didn’t want to gloss over that. It seemed to me that a mermaid in a human body for the first time, experiencing physical sensations she’s never felt before and having no human morality/sense of shame to guide her. Well, that mermaid would be getting some down and dirty. And the prince—is a prince! He can do whatever he wants. So to me, it was a pretty integral part of the story, the sexual relationship between the mermaid and the prince, something that’s kind of buried in the original that I needed to tease out and explore. And it is indeed crucial for my ending.
As for Hans, I don’t know! Supposedly, he never had sex in his life, and yet he was this furious masturbator who marked down each self-love session in his diary. And he wrote The Little Mermaid in the first place in a fit of despair and repressed/frustrated desire when his good friend Edvard Collin, for whom Hans had very deep affections, was off getting married. So I don’t know. I suspect the conundrum would make him swoon and ask for smelling salts and possibly reach for his diary.
There’s a whole realm of mermaid phenomena out there, and you recently started a blog about it. You’ve cast a wide net (ha) interviewing professional mermaid Hannah Fraser, Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, and The Millionaire Matchmaker’s Patti Stanger, among several others. What have you discovered about the interest in and allure of mermaids and mermen?
Oh, I’ve discovered all kinds of things, all kinds of people who love mermaids and are inspired by them in unique ways. For example, I had been unaware of the sport of “mermaiding,” or swimming around in mermaid tails, and there are a whole lot of people who are into it. In fact, this August in Vegas will be the first annual mermaid convention with professional tail-wearing mermaids like Hannah Mermaid and MeduSirena performing. One event is a gigantic pool party, where tons of mermaids will don their tails and get in the water. How they’ll actually get there, I’m not sure, but believe you me I’ll be there to find out.
I’ve also developed an enormous love for Weeki Wachee and its mermaids, a place that seemed like pure awesome faded-glamour kitsch to me before I started meeting the many people whose lives it’s changed and shaped. I’ve come to see it as a very magical place that holds great meaning for a lot of people.
All the different ways that people create beauty and construct meaning in their lives—well, I am really fascinated and moved by those things.
Recently, you announced that Mermaid has been optioned for a movie. Can you share any tidbits?
All I really know at this point is that Sony is optioning it and how much I’m getting! Film stuff is very mysterious. Godmother is now on its second option, with a big film studio in France, and I am very very removed from that process. Lots of people assume I’m writing the script, or that I want to write the script, but me trying to insert myself would really hinder the process, I think, not to mention probably make these deals fall through due to my lack of experience! So we’ll see. The likelihood of a movie being made is very slim, but it would be pretty amazing if it happened.
And what’s the scoop on the middle-grade book you have releasing this summer?
Well, it’s my first children’s book, a novel called The Next Full Moon about a 12-year-old girl who begins to grow feathers—to her extreme embarrassment!—and eventually discovers that her mother was/is a swan maiden. It’s based on an old fairytale in which a human steals a swan maiden’s feathered robe and takes her as his wife. They have a child and are happy, and then one day, he confesses to her what he’d done. He shows her the robe, and she immediately puts it on, transforms into a swan, and flies away. The Next Full Moon is about that child ten years later, just as she’s reaching puberty and realizing that something really weird and freaky’s going on with her body. I loved writing it, loved combining the awkwardness and angst of being 12 years old with the wonder and beauty of discovering you’re magical. I wish more girls could make that discovery!
I’m also excited because the book’s being published by my friend Julie Merberg, who just launched her own children’s book publishing company this last fall, Downtown Bookworks. And Julie’s husband, my good friend David Bar Katz, will be publishing a middle-grade novel at the same time I am. Except his is as boyish as mine is girly, all about aliens and stepbrothers and intergalactic war. It’s really nice—publishing isn’t always so friend-filled and homey! Hopefully, I’ll be doing many more books with Julie and David.
Author website: http://www.carolynturgeon.com/
Mermaid blog: http://iamamermaid.com/