A few months ago, I was sent a copy of The Mermaid of Brooklyn– and I’ll be honest- I did not know who Amy Shearn was. The cover drew me in- but the writing made me stay. It’s funny- with a biting wit that is similar to The Nanny Diaries (in my opinion). After reading it, I had 2 regrets: 1. that I had finished and 2. that Amy is a New Yorker and I’ll probably never get to meet her to tell her in person that I enjoyed The Mermaid of Brooklyn.
Amy was kind enough to agree to an interview- today, we’ll talk about The Mermaid of Brooklyn, Jenny Lipkin, and much more! She’ll be back Wednesday to talk #literarycrush, #literaryconfessions, and guilty pleasures.
Interview with Amy Shearn
Amy, how did the idea of The Mermaid of Brooklyn happen?
I was shopping with my grandmother for shoes to wear at my wedding when she told me the story of how a pair of shoes saved my great-grandmother’s life. My great-grandmother, a tiny, tough woman named Jenny Lipkin, was a virtuosic seamstress, a self-sufficient ball-buster, a strong mother of three girls, and the wife of a really awful man – and yet the tale my grandmother told spoke of such inner turmoil, vulnerability, even a touch of the poetic. This story stuck with me, and somehow combined in my mind with the idea of the rusalka, the malevolent mermaid of Eastern European lore. I was trying to write an essay interweaving the two ideas for the longest time, until one day when I was describing it to a friend in the hopes she could help me untangle it all, and she said, “Um, that’s a novel.” The final piece fell into place when I became a mother. I found myself fascinated by the parenting culture of Park Slope, Brooklyn – half-loving it, half-amused/repelled by it – and that was when I was ready to start writing the book.
Is Jenny Lipkin based on you, Amy? Or any mothers you know? Or is more of a collective idea of mothers everywhere?
I think every character in a novel is a little part of the writer. From the outside, Jenny’s life certainly looks like mine. I live in Brooklyn, I have two kids (although when I was writing the book I only had one), and when I was writing the first draft of this book we lived in a cramped walk-up apartment that was making me crazy. Like Jenny (and like many writers and bookish types, I think) I often find myself feeling like a bit of an outsider, observing everyone else, looking in.
That said, I based her character largely on the original Jenny Lipkin. I knew so many mothers who battled with post-partum depression or depression in general that I felt it was important to speak to that, too, although I was lucky to not have experienced anything so dark and awful after the birth of my babies. And my husband doesn’t disappear on gambling binges! Phew.
How long did it take to write The Mermaid of Brooklyn?
The first draft took about two years, fitting neatly in between the birth of my first child and the birth of my second. Then my agent had some revision ideas, so I spent a few months working through those, and then of course my editor had more notes, and the whole process of her reads, the copyediting, the proofreading, and all that other publishing side business that took another year or so.
The witty lines- I’ve read other reviews that compare the biting wit of A Mermaid in Brooklyn to The Nanny Diaries. Do you have any thoughts on that comparison?
Oh, that’s so nice! I have no idea since I haven’t read The Nanny Diaries, but I’ll take it as a compliment.
Do you think The Mermaid of Brooklyn would make a good movie? Have you ever wondered who could make up the dream cast? I’ll be honest- I’m very interested in knowing who would be the rusalka.
I would love to see TMOB as a movie! While I was writing it I happened to see the film All The Real Girls and thought that then-Zooey Deschanel and then-Paul Schneider would be great as Jenny Lipkin and Cute Dad, mostly because they had this great chemistry, and because I have a weird embarrassing movie-star crush on Paul Schneider. I don’t know – Jenny would be hard to cast, particularly since one of her defining characteristics is being tiny, with size 4 feet (it’s a pretty important plot point!). A lady who works at Powerhouse on 8th, this great bookstore where I had my book launch, told me she pictured the rusalka as Bette Midler, which I think is pretty perfect.
In The Mermaid of Brooklyn, you do not sugar-coat the life of a mother with 2 young children. I find that refreshing. Have you encountered readers who think otherwise?
Oh gosh yes. A few reviewers seem to find Jenny to be quite awful, as if having negative thoughts about the constant, brutal, unappreciated work of parenting meant you didn’t love your kids or weren’t a good mom. A mother-writer I know scoffed at this, and told me over Chinese food the other day, “Any mother who says she hasn’t had thoughts like Jenny’s is LYING!” I think some readers find Jenny to be whiny and self-pitying, too. She is, of course, and that’s part of why she needs so much help from Bette Midler. I mean the rusalka.
It’s hard to be honest about how hard parenting is, because of the fear of being judged – but I’ve found some of the most satisfying experiences to come out of writing this book are all the mothers who say to me, “How did you know? It’s like you’re inside my head! I’m not alone!” We have to be honest with each other. It makes us all feel a bit less mad.
Have we heard the last from Jenny Lipkin? Is her story over? Or might you revisit her one day?
I can’t imagine writing anything else about this character. I love her, but it was hard to spend so much time with her voice in my head. I actually wrote a note to myself while slogging through a millionth round of revisions – I may have even tweeted it! – to remember that writing about a depressed person can be very depressing. It’s like hanging out with that downer friend…for years.
What are you working on next, Amy? Are you still gathering ideas or do you have a book in mind?
I’ve been thinking about, researching, and outlining a new novel for some time now, but only in the past few months have I started writing it. Now that I’m really writing it I feel like I can’t talk about it or I will jinx it somehow. But I’m excited. It feels good to be actually writing again.
*Special thanks goes to Amy Shearn for agreeing to be interviewed!
Amy Shearn, author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn, can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and she has a website as well. Recently, Amy had an article in the New York Times Opinionator section, A Writer’s Mommy Guilt.
To read Traveling With T’s review of The Mermaid of Brooklyn, visit HERE.