I love the title of your new book!
Thank you! I didn’t think of it. It was originally called–
I just love mermaids.
It’s actually a rusalka, which is the mermaid of Slavic folklore. They are these kind of spooky, spectral siren figures that are the souls of wronged women – illegitimate mothers, brides left at the altar, pregnant suicides. So the mermaid in the book is a kind of a spirit. In my first draft I didn’t even mention the word “mermaid.” I had this idea it would be like Zone One, that great Colson Whitehead zombie novel that never once says zombie in it. But then I remembered I’m not Colson Whitehead.
Yeah. I loved “The Little Mermaid.” Did you ever see that?
Right. But they’re forks. I remember that.
This novel is also loosely based on the life of your great-grandmother, Jenny Lipkin. Was she a mermaid?
Not exactly. She was a four-foot-something badass socialist who left the old country behind and made a new life for herself in turn-of-the-century Chicago, who divorced and remarried and redivorced her ne’er-do-well husband Harry, who supported her daughters with her virtuosic sewing, and who once, according to family lore, had her life saved by a pair of shoes.
So why isn’t the book set in early 20th century Chicago? Were you just too lazy to do historical research?
Maybe? Wait, no – I also wanted to fold in my experience of Brooklyn motherhood, because it seemed so strange and interesting and potentially funny.
The Jenny Lipkin in your book lives in a tiny walk-up Park Slope apartment just like you did when writing the book. She has two kids, two years apart, like yours. She has a poorly trained mutt, like you do. She is married to a man. She is short. So, it’s you, right?
Well, no. I mean, I really did try to reanimate the original Jenny Lipkin – someone who battled with depression (in the original’s case, before the rise of psychotherapy), who had this difficult relationship with a husband she couldn’t count on, who had a lot of spunk but also a lot of bitterness and anger. Plunking her into modern-day Brooklyn offers her a chance for redemption: a woman like her can now talk to other mothers about how you can love your kids but still feel freaked out by motherhood. She can, you know, get some medication. She can have some fun. In this case, she also gets a mermaid.
I’m a lot simpler than Jenny Lipkin. And my husband and kids are better than hers. My dog is slightly better than hers. I am short though.
You really are. It’s weird. So, this is your second book.
That’s right. My first novel, How Far Is The Ocean From Here, came out in 2008. It’s about a runaway surrogate mother and her adventures in the desert.
That’s funny, I don’t remember hearing about it.
Did you ever see Splash?
I’m really tired. Can I go to bed now?
Sure. I can’t wait to read your book! Sorry I didn’t get to it yet. There are so many great new novels out right now!
AMY SHEARN is the author of How Far Is the Ocean from Here. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Poets & Writers, The L Magazine, Opium, and Five Chapters, and she writes for Oprah.com and RedbookMag.com. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Visit her online at AmyShearnWrites.com.