The Mermaid of Brooklyn

The Mermaid of Brooklyn

The Mermaid of Brooklyn is the story of a young mother who finds herself on the brink of losing everything, only to receive help from a source she never would have expected: a mermaid. Well, a rusalka, really, which is the spectral mermaid of Slavic lore, only this one happens to have been living in the East River, between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The novel is about how sometimes you need to be possessed in order to change your life. It’s also an ode to the epic highs and lows of parenting.


You are a graduate of the University of Minnesota's MFA program, so how much has this affected your writing?


I was lucky to have as classmates a group of smart, sensitive realists, who held me accountable during even my wildest fits of fancy. “Yes, but what is it LIKE to be inhabited by a mermaid?” I could almost hear them ask as I wrote this book. In my MFA program there was a wonderful attention paid to character and truth. They saw right through stylistic tics and surreal twists. It was really a great counterbalance for me, since especially as a grad student I was so in love with language that plot scarcely crossed my mind.


And of course I must mention my wonderful teachers there, including my thesis advisors Charles Baxter and MJ Fitzgerald, who truly put me through novel-writing boot camp.

Your work has appeared in many publications such as The Millions, Poets & Writers and The L Magazine, so which has been the most memorable experience for you?


An essay of mine on writing and motherhood recently appeared in the New York Times, and this was quite an experience. I was writing about how I think it’s possible that being a writer makes me a better mother, but the essay was taken by some in a different way (possibly because of its headline, “A Writer’s Mommy Guilt”. I’ve heard rumours of a rather vitriolic stream of comments online that I have stayed away from, but I have been privy to some of the reaction the gist of which is: all one has to do is mention the word “mommy” and opinions will be shared in generous doses.


Jenny has two children, as do you, so how much of your experiences of being a mother are in this book?


What’s funny about that is that when I wrote the first draft of the book, my older child was a baby. (Though it might not seem so at the time, having one baby is a piece of cake.) I stayed at home with her, and became ensconced in the Brooklyn mommy-culture, which struck me as a fascinating and often hilarious sub-culture of hyper-scheduled toddlers and smart women who (sometimes without realizing it) focused all their brilliance on choosing between types of cloth diapers and organic baby food. I knew I wanted to write about an extremely overwhelmed mother, though, so I added another kid in there just to make her life feel crazier. The moral of the story is to be careful what you write: A few years later I too had a baby and a toddler and knew viscerally how overwhelming Jenny’s days were! At the last minute I revised a bunch of the kid-tantrum scenes, once I knew more what that brand of insanity was actually like.

Why did you want to focus on parenthood in this book?


Mothering small children is incredibly epic and surreal and magical and legendary all at the same time, but I didn’t feel like I had read that many great novels that dealt with early motherhood the way I was experiencing it. Being a mother really pushes you to your most extreme limits in every way – which is after all an interesting place for a character. Parenthood is so amazing and awful, so inspiring and exhausting, that I think every mother can relate to this idea of needing something slightly magical to get you through. 


This book was inspired by your great-grandmother’s story, so please can you expand on this for us.


My great-grandmother Jenny was, in recent memory, a tiny, wizened crone known for being exceptionally mean. So I was fascinated when my grandmother said to me, as we were shopping for shoes for my wedding, “Did I ever tell you how a pair of shoes saved my mother’s life?” The story went thus: Jenny Lipkin, young and depressed, took off her shoes and prepared to jump off a bridge. Then she looked back at her shoes and thought that no, she didn’t want to leave them behind. She didn’t jump, she lived, and she eventually emigrated to Chicago with her ne’er-do-well on-again-off-again husband, and supported her three daughters with her virtuosic sewing, and because of all that I am here today. Jenny was a tough, strong lady, faced with problems most of us contemporary mothers have never even considered. I loved the idea that this fairy-tale-ish moment had changed the life of this woman, and it just seemed like something out of a novel. So…well, you can guess the rest.


How can woman who don't have children appreciate this book?


One of my favourite all-time novels is Moby Dick, and I have never been on a whale ship, nor do I ever hope to ne. I also love The Sun Also Rises, and I am not an expatriate and I have never seen a bullfight. I adore The Cather in The Rye, and yet, I am not a young boy running away from boarding school. In fact, I think one of the main reasons I read is to experience worlds I may never actually live in. So I would guess that other people read to have their imaginations stretched in much the same way. And I also think that every woman who’s ever felt a little out of place in her own life can relate to Jenny.


Who are your favourite reads?


The writer I am always, always going back to is Virginia Woolf. She tried so many different things, and was really much funnier than people remember. More contemporarily, I’ve recently read wonderful books by Maria Semple, Meg Wolitzer, Holly Goddard Jones, Leah Stewart, Jennifer Cody Epstein, Jessica Francis Kane and J. Robert Lennon – exciting writers, all! And more I’m not thinking of right now, I’m sure.


Do you think it is essential for writers to undergo some sort of training to publish books?


I think that answer is different for every writer. In my experience, the work I did in my MFA program made me a better writer, more conscious of readers’ reactions and, crucially, much more thick-skinned about taking criticism. I was still pretty unprepared for what actually happens when you are working with an agent, editor, and publicist, in those various stages of the book’s life, but you learn as you go. It helps to have writer friends who have been through it and can answer questions, even if they you only know them on the Internet. And veteran authors MJ Rose and Randy Susan Meyers have written this book called What To Do Before Your Book Launch that can help writers through the process. 


What is next for you?


I’m writing a new novel – a ghost story! – but so, so slowly. I’ve also been working on short stories and remembering how really hard they are to write. I write regularly for a couple of different websites. But mostly I’m home with my now- 2 and 4-year olds, and (despite the crabbiness about motherhood in my novel) trying to really enjoy and soak up their littleness. 



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