Your debut collection is titled, My Life as a Mermaid, but there aren’t any mermaids in your book. I’m guessing you haven’t actually lived as a mermaid?
Only in my head. I love to swim, though, so that counts for something. Had I known about Weeki Wachee Springs when I was younger, I may have spent a summer or two getting paid to wear a mermaid costume and performing in an underwater theater. But if that had happened, I’m guessing this book—and my life—would’ve turned out differently.
Speaking of “my life,” where did the title come from? If the book is not about mermaids, then what part of it, if any, is about your life?
Before it became the title of a story in this collection, it was a joke I made about a particular way I flip in the water to make myself dizzy, something I’ve been doing since I was eight years old. It doesn’t look like much, and I admit it’s highly ridiculous (or refreshingly uninhibited?) that I still do it as a forty-something woman. Somehow the phrase, ‘my life as a mermaid,’ stuck. I always thought I’d use it as the title of my memoir, but it took on fictional proportions after that.
So you’re saying this book isn’t really about you at all? I have a hard time believing that because I know you and (I say this with love) you turn everything into your own story in some way. I know this is a book of fiction, but which of these stories is true? Or maybe I should ask, what’s not true?
This book is emotionally true. It doesn’t adhere to facts, but I felt all of these stories deeply as I was writing them. For better or worse, I’m very empathic. I put myself inside the emotions of my characters and feel what I imagine they are feeling. I sobbed my way through “What Girls Leave Behind” because it was just so heartbreaking to write. But, it’s not “true.” I didn’t lose my daughters (I don’t even have daughters) and my mother was not an alcoholic. On that note, my mother is still very much alive, God bless, though I appreciate all the phone calls and condolence notes I received after “Small Deaths” aired on local public radio affiliate WYPR.
I take it as a great compliment that readers have confused my fiction with my life, but just for the record:I’ve never been to Honduras; I’m not married to a veteran; I have never tried to break up a friend’s marriage; never saved a toddler from drowning; and was never sent to a Christian camp to dry out, even though I was a complete mess in my twenties.
What is true: For a couple of years, two homeless men hung out on my front steps and called me “Babycakes”; I said, “O.K, goodbye” to my neighbors about fifteen times one day because their move took forever; there was an old prostitute in my neighborhood known as “Betty Boop” who told me I should go back to my old boyfriend and get a dog because, “there’s nothing wrong with him–he’s got a job, no bumps on his head, or nothing.” Once, I became enraged when I saw a man chop a black snake in half for no reason; at a slumber party, I spent part of the evening hiding under twin beds with a popular girl from school talking about Lionel Richie songs; my friend’s mother had me sit under the kitchen light with my mouth wide open while she remarked to neighbors, “You wouldn’t believe how much her teeth used to stick out”; and I had a boyfriend who stuffed his pocket full of condoms while he was breaking up with me. Also, I have always secretly wanted pink hair.
Are these stories sad? They sound sad. What’s up with that?
Yes, some are sad. But sad is just one perspective. There’s also a fair bit of dark humor in theses stories, as well as a few characters you might find in a Coen brothers film. There’s some fragile hope sprinkled in, and the tentative beginnings of change, of women finding their individual voices, of people not drowning. So it depends on how you look at things.
That said, I believe sadness gets a bad rap. No one gets out of life without feeling melancholy from time to time. It’s unhealthy to deny or avoid certain feelings just because they don’t feel good. That’s like eliminating colors from a painter’s palate. Not sitting with discomfort gets us into all sorts of trouble as individuals and as a society. I could say this collection is an exploration of that, but it wasn’t deliberate. So basically, the short answer is, I’m too sensitive for my own good. Also, Chekhov wrote sad stories.
Are you one of those people who take yourself and life too seriously?
Probably. I guess it’s no use trying to convince you that I’m actually a funny person in real life. Or maybe that’s just in my head.
Where have you been all my life? Why did it take so long for you to put out a debut collection?
I always wanted to be a prodigy, but it turns out I’m a late bloomer. However, this collection has been around for about a decade in various incarnations. Before My Life as a Mermaid was the 2012 winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition, it had different titles and a few different stories. As O.K., Goodbye, it was short-listed for the Sharat Chandra Prize in 2003, the Spokane Prize in 2004, and the St. Lawrence Prize in 2010. As Stray, it was one of three finalists for the Washington Writers’ Publishing House contest in 2012. Sententia Books had a strong interest in this collection, too. There were some years when I put the collection aside and worked on other things. When I took it out again, I could see it with new eyes. I revised a few stories, switched some stories out, changed the order, and gave it a new title that seemed more thematically relevant to the collection.
These stories are primarily about women, why should men read this book?
I don’t understand the question. Why wouldn’t men read it? Women read books about male characters all the time. Shouldn’t men want to read about the female experience? I think so. I mean, we live together, can’t escape each other, so it seems to me the world would be a better place if we could all see from the other’s perspective.
On the other hand, if they read it and don’t like it, that’s O.K.. Not everything is for everyone. This world would be a boring place if that were the case.
What’s next for you?
I never talk about my work while it’s in progress. That’s a hard and fast rule for me.
Any last words?
Yes. Thanks for reading this entire interview! And thanks for reading my book!
JEN GROW is the fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her writings have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, Indiana Review and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She’s received two Individual Artist Award from Maryland State Arts. She lives in Baltimore, MD.