Rona Berg: Several years ago, you wrote a beautiful novel called Mermaid. Can you share a tantalizing bit about what inspired it?
Carolyn Turgeon: I actually kind of sold that book by accident, after a UK publisher bought the rights to my second novel, Godmother, and asked what else I was working on. I made a list of ideas, and they bought one at the bottom—a kids book about a mermaid—but as an adult novel! So I needed a story, and my agent pushed me toward Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” which is much different from the Disney film and felt to me much too strange and sad to do much with … until I focused in on the character of the human princess, the one who ends up with the prince. In the story we know almost nothing about her other than that it’s the prince’s marriage to her that causes the mermaid’s heart to break. I thought about this princess and her role in the story, and I imagined her witnessing the moment when the mermaid saves the drowning prince and pulls him to shore. How magical and life-changing that moment would have been. The whole book unfolded from there.
RB: What do you find so inspiring about mermaids? Why are you drawn to them? What is their allure?
CT: Like many mermaid lovers, I grew up loving Splash and The Little Mermaid, but it wasn’t until I started my own novel that I saw how enchanted people really are by these gorgeous creatures. People, strangers even, started sending me pictures of mermaids, stories about mermaids … and I started seeing them everywhere and having all kinds of synchronicities around them. I was traveling a lot then, and everywhere I looked there seemed to be some mermaid winking back at me. I was staying in Berlin at one point and traveled to Warsaw to see a concert—and was shocked to see mermaids all over that city. The mermaid has been the symbol of Warsaw since the Middle Ages. I had no idea!
As for their allure, mermaids are so rich and complicated. They’re indescribably beautiful yet come from the deep sea and can pull you under in a moment. They’re sexy but sexless, in a way. They’re an incredible symbol of female freedom and power. I’ve been particularly drawn to the many real-life mermaids out there, those ladies who put on tails and swim in the open ocean with manta rays and whales. If you can swim powerfully through the water with these dazzling creatures and hold your breath for minutes at a time and feel a powerful connection with the sea, who’s to say you’re not, in fact, a mermaid? I’m not sure how many other fantasy creatures are as accessible yet still so mysterious and otherworldly.
I was so inspired by all the sea-loving women I spoke with—many for a blog called I Am a Mermaid that I started just before my novel was published—that I myself was inspired to attend mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee in Florida and even become scuba certified a few months later, after forty years of avoiding the ocean at all costs!
RB: The Mermaid Handbook is loaded with gorgeous images, art, recipes, love, and lore. Can you share some of the highlights of putting it together?
CT: Mermaids have such a long, varied history, I wanted to make sure that the art in the book reflected that—and was stunning! I looked through reams of classic, swoony mermaid art, as well as kitschier images of midcentury mermaids from porthole lounges, Weeki Wachee (which opened in 1947), Aquarama (1962), and films like Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. And I worked with Faerie photo editor Steve Parke on a number of images for the book—for tutorials like a mermaid crown, a mermaid comb, mermaid eye makeup, mermaid cocktails, shell mirrors and party favors … all kinds of wonderful things! I really wanted the handbook to be a compendium of all things mermaid and all the best things. I’ve spent a lot of time with these fishtailed ladies, though less in the past few years, so this book gave me the chance to go back in and pluck up everything I thought was most beautiful. Plus mermaid is a lifestyle: There are ways to add oceanic glamour to every aspect of your life, and that’s what the handbook (and this special issue of Faerie) is all about!