In “Break,” the original collaboration between novelist Carolyn Turgeon and painter Siolo Thompson in The Better Bombshell, the two women looked at feminism through a decidedly fishy lens: Mermaids. In this interview with Turgeon, a self-proclaimed mermaid expert, we peeked behind the scenes at their collaboration.
BB: In your piece for The Better Bombshell, you wrote about a middle-aged woman who has a beautiful secret: a mermaid’s tail. It’s a story of dreams and aging and escape and the magic in this and other worlds. What was your inspiration? Can you tell us how you found your way into that heroine’s head?
CT: When I was writing my novel Mermaid, which came out in 2011, I started getting a lot of emails about mermaids from friends and fans, and encountering mermaids everywhere in my travels. So I created a mermaid blog, and began talking to people, and I discovered that there’s a whole mermaid culture out there of mostly women who identify as mermaids, who put on walking tails and march in parades or perform in burlesque shows or who put on fabric, neoprene or silicone mermaid tails, and swim in oceans or rivers or their backyard pools. My novel itself was about an actual mermaid, but now I was encountering a completely different kind of real-life mermaid that I found completely inspiring. When I was thinking about what to write for The Better Bombshell, it occurred to me that I’d never actually written fiction about one of those real-life mermaids out there.
So that was the inspiration, and I imagined a woman whose life has been disappointing and who uses her mermaid tail as a way to escape and draw strength and get in touch with an earlier time when her life seemed more wide open. I’m in a better position than my protagonist, to be sure, but it’s not really hard to imagine a different path with more obstacles and fewer dreams coming true. And with age I think comes that inevitable sense that the world is no longer wide open to you, at least not in the way it was before.
Why write about mermaids in a non-fantasy setting?
I’ve been really inspired by these real-life mermaids, in a number of different ways. There are some pretty hard-core ones out there, like professional mermaid Hannah Fraser who swims in her tail in the open ocean with sharks and whales and manta rays (and there’s some amazing footage of these things), or Linden Wolbert who can free dive 100 feet and hold her breath for nearly five minutes. When you put on a tail (which is usually designed to make you swim much more powerfully than you could otherwise) and dive in the open ocean and can hold your breath like that, you’re really awfully close to those mermaids of fantasy and myth!
I’ve also come to know and love many of the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, where I even went to mermaid camp a couple of summers ago and got to swim in a tail myself (and with a wild manatee who joined us for the afternoon!). There’s a group of “former” mermaids who run the camp, ex-Weeki Wachee mermaid in their 50s, 60s, and 70s who also perform once a month, and they all talk about the water as this magical thing, where they’re suspended, weightless, as if no time has passed at all.
In general, I love seeing the creative ways that people incorporate beauty and magic into their everyday lives. And there are plenty of mermaids out there in smaller towns, who appear at birthday parties or at store openings, or who just wear mermaid tails for their own pleasure as a way to become a more beautiful or glamorous or powerful version of themselves. As I’ve learned about this world and met these women, I’m probably more inspired by them than by the mermaids in storybooks.
The woman in the story looks in the mirror and is surprised to see that her reflection looks older and more tired than she remembers. It made me think about mermaids, and how they might age. In your imagination, what issues would a middle-aged mermaid be facing?
I imagine that mermaids are a bit beyond time, not subject to the same effects of aging — and accompanying worries and anxiety — that humans are. I think of those Weeki Wachee mermaids immersed in that crystal-clear natural spring, feeling exactly the same way they did when they were 17 and floating in that same water, unbound by gravity. Water erases pain that can plague us on land, and mermaids are, after all, half fish.
Are mermaids a girly subject? Are they a feminist subject?
I think they’re both. One cool thing about the mermaid culture is that it is so female-dominated; the mermaid is such a strong and alluring symbol, and the merman is a little less so. And I think part of the reason the mermaid is so appealing is because she’s dangerous, she comes from the ocean, she’s wild, she has this powerful tail, she is literally unattainable, impenetrable, and she’s associated with the deepest sea, and therefore with death and birth and the subconscious. All of that. She can sing beautiful songs to you but she can just as easily drown you as she can save you. I think many women who put on a mermaid tail immediately feel that strength and wildness moving through them, a connection to the ocean, and mystery, and their essential selves. And that’s a very intense thing, and I think something that women crave, something that calls back the mystery of ancient priestesses, of goddesses, and so on.
At the same time, mermaids are typically very beautiful ladies with bare or barely covered breasts and curving tails, and the whole thing can be a little cheesecake-y, too. I went to MerCon in 2011, the first mermaid convention that was held in Las Vegas, and there were all these mermaids there and it was beautiful, it was amazing, but there were a lot of men running around taking pictures of these gorgeous half-clad women, and Joel Stein was there writing a story for Business Week and at one point said to me that he felt like he was at a taping of “Real Sex” for HBO. And I knew exactly what he meant. So there’s that.
I guess slipping on a shell bra and a tail isn’t inherently feminist or un-feminist or just girly. It’s maybe all of those things or each of those things at different times. But if you hang out with Hannah Fraser in the open ocean, or with that group of former mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, I think you’ll feel that something pretty magical is happening.
What are mermaids afraid of?
Probably humans, more than anything. Those mythical mermaids have to watch out for spears and fishing nets, while the more human ones have to continue to nurture their fantasies and dreams, not let them get crushed or forgotten in the drudgery of everyday life.
In the story, your character puts on a neoprene mermaid tail. Do you have a fake mermaid tail?
When I was at mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee, the Mertailor Eric Ducharme (a wunderkind in his early 20s who makes his living making gorgeous silicone mermaid tails) gave me this black sparkly fabric tail he’d made some time before, and that’s what I wore at camp and now have stored in plastic in my bedroom. I think I wore it again when former mermaid Barbara Wynns took me up to Crystal River to swim with manatees, but that might be it. But you never know! I’ve actually become much more enamored of the ocean as a result of all this mermaid stuff. It’s hard to talk to women who have such an intense passion for the ocean regularly (and almost all these mermaids do some kind of ocean advocacy) without getting a yen for it yourself. I went snorkeling for the first time right after mermaid camp, and then got scuba certified in Nicaragua that fall. I’ve been on a few diving trips in the Caribbean now, and will do some diving in Thailand this summer. Before all this, I hadn’t set foot in the ocean for at least 20 years!
My character’s tail was inspired by the tails that Hannah Fraser makes herself out of neoprene and hundreds of hand-painted scales. And there’s a very popular Youtube video by Sasha the Fire Gypsy where she leads you step by step through the process of making your own tail, though I don’t remember what fabric she uses (and am not nearly crafty enough to want to make my own tail!).
You’ve written about Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Can you name one fairy tale character you have the least interest in writing? Why?
Well, my interest has really been in exploring the female characters from the most popular tales that I grew up watching on film and television and reading in books. I like looking at complicated female relationships within those tales: the fairy godmother and Cinderella, the little mermaid and her human rival, Rapunzel and the witch who raises her, and Snow White and her stepmother. There are tons of fascinating, more obscure tales, but I’ve been less interested in them because to me, exploring and rethinking and rewriting those stories that helped to shape you, that live in your blood and bones, is just more powerful.
So to be honest, I guess I’m less interested in tales that aren’t well known, and generally less interested in the male characters.
I’ve read all of your novels rapturously, and I’m dying to read The Fairest Of Them All. If we promise to keep it a secret, will you tell us what your next project will be?
I think The Fairest of Them All might be my last fairy tale for a while. Right now I’m working on a book about Dante’s Beatrice, set in 13th-century Florence. Rather than exploring the point of view of a lesser-known character in a popular story, this time I’m looking at a woman out of history, a woman who’s famous for being the subject of Dante’s poetry, and imagining what her own story might be. I think I’ve come up with a good one!
Read Carolyn’s story in The Better Bombshell, a newly released anthology that is available in stores and online. We’re so grateful to Carolyn for sharing her time in this interview! Read more over on her mermaid blog, “…a delicate, ladylike blog for mermaids and the humans who love them.” Her newest novel, The Fairest Of Them All, is coming out in August from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.