The Freshwater Mermaid
by Gregory Maguire
Issue #2 • October 20, 2012•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
As her plane from Seattle made its approach to Denver International Airport Carter-Ann Bartlett saw the explosion that killed her parents. The sky was clear and the noontime light made of the airport an architectural model surrounded by candy planes on plastic runways. The flight plan of the DC-10 followed a route running parallel and then south of the airport, banking twice to position for a landing on a north-heading runway. Carter-Ann’s eyes had been trained on the fields serviced by circular irrigation systems, splotches of green set in soil the color of newspapers. Her gaze had drifted east toward the terminal just as the detonation of gelignite made a soundless orange thistle bloom out of the west façade. Immediately black smoke spooled out, as if the building were releasing a seam of moiling starlessness.
Gregory Maguire is best known as the author of Wicked, the adult novel that inspired the blockbuster Broadway musical. All four of the novels in The Wicked Years sequence—Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz—have been New York Times bestsellers. Maguire writes for children and teens as well, and his recent work includes Matchless, a revisioning of “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen, and Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation, a book-length essay on the great American artist. An occasional contributor to The New York Times Book Review, National Public Radio, and CNN, and featured in People Magazine, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and on Oprah, Maguire lectures on art and culture both here and abroad. He lives in New England and in France with his husband, the painter Andy Newman, and their three children.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
GM: The title came first—I was at Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks, escorting some English friends around Eagle Lake (showing off our American wilderness to writers whose sensibilities were trained keenly by the Lake District). The conversation turned to differences between English and American uses of nature in the generation of fantastic literature, and Jill Paton Walsh, to make a point, indicated a particularly beautiful stretch of pine-toothed shoreline and said, “There ought, for instance, to be such a thing as a freshwater mermaid.” On the spot I asked for permission to use the term, and, good friend she, was granted it.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
GM: I didn’t conceive of a use for that title or notion of a freshwater mermaid until a year or two later when I was asked to produce a short work for an anthology of stories that in one way or another were intended to include references to reading or other books within them. I remembered an episode in my life involving a dead goldfish, a surviving goldfish, and One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and plucked that vignette wholesale from memory, intending that to be a capstone in a little comic piece. But the first paragraph of the story came out hugely grim—an unexpected development—and then modulating the tone so that the comic bit could still work was, perhaps, the trickiest maneuver in the storywriting.
HT: Was 9/11 an influence?
GM: The Freshwater Mermaid was written before 9/11. But when the anthologists considered the story too severe for a teenage audience, I placed the story in the file, and pulled it out after 9/11 for submission to One Story.
HT: Why do you think the process of mourning remains such a mystery?
GM: The conventional images of the psyche as a wellspring of unplumable depths is, I think, a healthy and correct one. I centered my story at a school near a lake, and the lake stands in, I hope not too obviously, for the vastness and unknowableness of the pysche of a survivor. But in every light, in every day, in every season, there are new glints of character on the surface of that lake, new currents from underwater springs, new clouds of debris obscuring the background. As humans we can only bear to live on the surface of such mystery—we would drown below the surface—but we also cannot move too far away from the shore of what we don’t know. How’s that for the overextension of a metaphor?
HT: When did you come up with the image of the Freshwater Mermaid?
GM: As mentioned above. But I finally came to write the story several years later while an artist in residence at the same haven in the Adirondacks, Blue Mountain Center.
HT: Do you find it difficult to switch between the novel and the short story?
GM: I have ideas for novels three times a day. I have ideas for short stories only when I’m asked—I respond to the assignment.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
GM: I wrote the first draft in a day. I write by hand, slowly and cleanly, and like the look of handwriting on paper; the story isn’t substantially changed from that first effort.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
GM: All the various bits and pieces of advice I’ve ever heard have all meant something, but most of them deteriorate, become part of the atmosphere. I do remember someone once giving me a list of aphorisms and suggestions about how to proceed, which ended with (was it Henry James?) the shrugging conclusion, “Ah, well, one must do it as one can.” And that is both forgiving and challenging to consider.
HT: What are you working on now?
GM: In addition to helping the newest member of our family (adopted from Guatemala) feel at home, I’m busy trying to complete the first draft of my fourth novel for adults, and the second draft of my fourteenth novel for young people.