In her second novel, [booklink isbn="9781451678284" title="The Mermaid of Brooklyn"], Amy Shearn writes about love, identity, belonging, and the ways in which motherhood changes how we see ourselves in the world. Shearn’s protagonist, Jenny Lipkin, is the overwhelmed mother of two young children. When Jenny’s husband disappears after going out to buy cigarettes, Jenny is pushed to the edge, then pulled back by a spirit-mermaid.
Shearn is the author of a previous novel, [booklink isbn="9780307405340" title="How Far is the Ocean From Here"], and writes for Oprah.com and RedbookMag.com. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.
In a conversation with Literary Reflections Co-editor Kate Hopper, Shearn talks about the inspiration for her novel, mother-heroines, and how writing and motherhood work together in her life.
Kate Hopper: What was your inspiration for The Mermaid of Brooklyn?
Amy Shearn: It started when I was shopping for wedding shoes with my grandmother, and she said, “Did I ever tell you how a pair of shoes saved my mother’s life?” It was a story only the women of the family knew, and it was only then, when I was getting married, that she told it to me. My great-grandmother, a pragmatic and tough woman named Jenny Lipkin, was contemplating suicide but was saved by, what else, her shoes.
Around the time I was told this story, I read about the rusalka, the eerie spirit-mermaid of Slavic lore. Rusalkas are the spirits of suicides, usually of women who have been wronged in some way: illegitimate mothers, women who have abortions, abandoned brides. The real Jenny Lipkin, my great-grandmother, hailed from Eastern Europe and had a tempestuous marriage. More than once, her husband left to “buy cigarettes” and didn’t come home again for years. These two ideas — the rusalka and Jenny Lipkin — tangled in my head. For the longest time, I tried to write an essay about them until my friend, the wonderful writer Amanda Fields, told me that it was actually a novel.
This idea simmered for a few years, until I became a parent and found the last piece of my puzzle: the amusing, maddening, fascinating world of New York City parenting culture. I think I had to be a mother before I could begin to understand how the original Jenny Lipkin could have been driven to the edge and still survived all that she did.
KH: You wrote your first novel, How Far Is the Ocean from Here, before you became a mother. How has motherhood affected your writing in terms of both content and process?
AS: In terms of process, well, I no longer have one. That’s what motherhood does to you! My kids are still little, and I’m home with them almost all the time, so I simply don’t have much time to work on writing. I just try to remind myself that this period of extreme kid-littleness is quite short, and that I ought to enjoy it. That said, I usually have two mornings a week — one on the weekend when my husband is home and one during the week when I hire a sitter — just to write. I have only a few hours at a time, so I must be much more efficient than I used to be. I have painstakingly outlined the novel I’m working on now, so that I can sit down, turn on computer, and get the character from point A to point B.
In terms of content, well, I recently saw the author Maria Semple speak about her fantastic novel [booklink isbn="0316204269" title="Where'd You Go, Bernadette?"]. She said something like, “Once you’re a mother you can’t really not write about that. It’s so big and it’s so confusing, and there is so much to make sense of.” In writing [booklink isbn="1451678282" title="The Mermaid of Brooklyn"], I had this urge to tell the story of motherhood that mothers tell each other on the playground but that I don’t often see in literature: What we are doing is hard, and important, and feels at once epic and overlooked.
I also have a hazily formed idea that I want to write for my children, books their adult selves might enjoy. I’m not sure what that will end up meaning, other than that I think my kids are terribly interesting people, and that the loving myopia of motherhood sometimes makes me see the world in terms of what it can offer them.
KH: In a recent Literary Mama profile, Anne Enright said, “I think it’s very odd and difficult that in fiction, motherhood generally ends the narrative. You don’t have a heroine who has children and then goes on to do something. In terms of contemporary novels, it’s hard to think of a great fictional heroine who’s also a mother.” I’m curious about your thoughts on this, because in The Mermaid, Jenny Lipkin is the mother to two young children, but she’s also very much the heroine of the story. Do you agree that there is a dearth of heroines who are also mothers?
AS: Oh, yes. I think I wrote this book in part because it was what I wanted to read and couldn’t find. Once I’d begun writing, I started seeking out other novels with mother characters who were not portrayed as awful people. I realized that this was no easy task. There are some, of course – Elizabeth Strout’s [booklink isbn="0375705198" title="Amy and Isabelle"] comes to mind, and Maria Semple, whom I mentioned earlier. But for the most part, well-developed, complex mother-characters are hard to find.
There is, too, the old problem that when a man writes about family it’s an Important American Novel and when a woman does so it’s Mommy Lit. I can see why writers might steer away from writing about mother-heroines. Maybe some of these great novels about motherhood have been miscategorized as fluffy lady-books and we’ve overlooked them.
KH: In your recent New York Times article, “A Writer’s Mommy Guilt,” you write about a friend who, after she read [booklink isbn="1451678282" title="The Mermaid of Brooklyn"], said she was worried about you because of the thoughts and actions of the characters in your novel. Can you talk about how it feels to put your fictional work out there and then have it considered nonfiction?
AS: I always knew it was an uncomfortable facet of this novel, how closely Jenny’s life resembles mine. So for a while I was worried that people would think I was as depressed, on-the-edge, and pissed off about being a stay-at-home mom as Jenny — or that they would think I was just a bad mother generally. It's ironic because I wrote the book in part to respond to that particularly awful aspect of contemporary parenting: the mom-judging. Yet I was falling into it!
There’s so much talk in the print media and on the Internet about motherhood but I find this talk very fake — grit-teeth-grin, everything’s-totally-fine. It belies the real difficulty of parenting. I think we owe it to each other to be honest. We love our kids, but damn, motherhood is complicated. As I wrote in that article, I don't really care how the book reflects on me personally. That’s another great thing about being a mom, the Who-Gives-An-F-ness that comes with the territory. I know I’m me, brain-zappingly in love with my kids and just trying my best, but also really exhausted, sometimes near despair at the idea of picking up dolly one more time.
KH: In that same New York Times article, you wrote, “On good days I’m able to see how the peculiar skills of a writer overlap with the peculiar skills of a mother: we work so hard — we must — to notice, to understand, to dig deep, to know.” Can you talk more about how writing and mothering work together for you?
AS: That was a real revelation to me, realizing that being a writer doesn’t make me a worse mother (as I tended to assume, since writing makes me so distracted and wanting to be somewhere else). Writing might even make me a better mother because of the noticing, the digging for motivation, the trying to understand how people work. I think, too, that being a mother has made me much more compassionate and forgiving of people, which opens the door to knowing and accepting all different kinds of characters. Er, you know, people.
KH: How does fiction allow you to explore different facets of the human experience that might not be accessible to you if you were writing memoir?
AS: It’s occurred to me that Jenny’s story is the story of every mother, including me, just with the volume turned way up. I have grumpy days, but I’m not battling postpartum depression. I sometimes feel like my husband and I live in different worlds, but it’s just because he’s at work all day, not because he’s abandoned our family. What I love about writing fiction is how you can take a tiny little seed, just something you’ve noticed about people, and imagine it into a whole story.
KH: What are you working on now?
AS: A novel that I have been researching and outlining for a year. I have 19 pages — but I haven’t been working on it consistently until very recently! It’s set in Brooklyn again, and there’s a librarian and a haunted house. I’m still in those great, unexamined early stages when I just love this project and feel like it’s nothing short of genius, a feeling that is sure to dissolve into anxious self-loathing soon. For now, as with parenting small children, I am just trying to enjoy the moment.