Interview with Ann Claycomb

Yes, I gripe about Facebook, but this is the second amazing author I have been introduced to via a writer’s group. The Mermaid’s Daughter is one of those books that grabbed me instantly simply because it has a fresh story to tell. Ann Claycomb  takes something very dear to me—the tales of Hans Christian Anderson—and gives us a modern perspective. When I researched the author, as I am prone to do for books I love, I was surprised to see this is her first novel. Thank you Ann, for this interview. And please note: if you haven’t bought a holiday gift for that special reader in your life….go for it with The Mermaid’s Daughter.

Ann Claycomb believes in the power of faerie, chocolate, and a good workout.  As the plot of The Mermaid’s Daughter might suggest, she is drawn to retelling fairy tales to highlight the thorns around the beautiful castles and the dangers of things that seem too good to be true (they usually are).  Ann lives with her husband, children, and cats in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she is at work on her next novel.

What inspired you to start writing?

I wrote my first “book” when I was four.  It was called The Mice and the Cats and there was for me something about putting a whole story together that was so satisfying—though it might have just been the stapling.  I’ve been writing ever since, though, and I remain torn as a writer between realist fiction and fantasy, because I love great works in both genres. The Mermaid’s Daughter took 10 years from the conception of the project until I considered that I had a finished draft.  I know, I know, that is—as my 10-year-old daughter said at the time—“a really long time!”

What influenced the way you tell a story?

I’m a very character-driven writer and have been since I first started imagining myself as a writer.  I would write character sketches in my English journal, but never had any plot attached to those characters; I just loved to imagine those people, their physical bodies, their temperaments, their clothes, their little tics . . . to this day, it’s those little things that I recall about my favorite books rather than big sweeping plot developments (the tomato and cream cheese sandwiches that Charles Wallace makes for Meg in the first chapter of A Wrinkle in Time, for example, or Scarlett O’Hara’s favorite green plaid dress, which has a grease spot on the basque . . .)  So it was undoubtedly the greedy and omnivorous early reading that first influenced me.  The first writer who kind of exploded in my brain as a stylist was Robin McKinley and I know she influenced me tremendously.  McKinley approaches her novels like a storyteller—just go read closely for the narrative voice—and that is how I want to read, as someone being told a really good story.  One of the ways this has helped me keep writing over the years is by reminding me that stories need not be global in scope or “big” in significance to be important to readers.  I am an inveterate re-reader and the writers I return to again and again are just telling me stories, whether that’s A Christmas Carol or McKinley’s Hero and the Crown.

How do you approach the art of writing?

Oh geez.  I wish I had a good answer for this.  The way to get writing done is to quit your job and put your kids in daycare, then write for four hours a day and work out for two.  I did this for a while (I know—it was AMAZING) but it’s not really financially tenable.  I now have a full-time job as an academic administrator, a partner who also has a demanding full-time job, three kids (two teenagers!) and a full slate of community engagement and volunteering.  So I write in snatches.  Every once in a while, I can’t stand it any longer and I take a few days off to write.  The one thing I have developed is the ability to productively be working on a project while not actually physically writing it.  I can spend a week or even two now quietly churning through a plot or even the wording for a scene before I get a chance to write it down, and that is actually part of my process now.  I think a lot of busy writers probably do develop that ability to keep the writing muscle going in the background—in low gear, as it were.

What do you read for pleasure?

I mentioned the part about being a greedy, omnivorous reader, right?  So here you go: the last book I finished as an Ilona Andrews called White Hot.  I loved it and will grab the next in the series over Christmas.  I also just reread (for at least the third time) Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which is the greatest novel ever written about singers and singing (not that I’ve read a lot of them, because it’s soooo hard to write about music).  I read The New Yorker, which is where I get most of my news and understanding of what’s going on in our world.  But put me on an elliptical machine and hand me an issue of People magazine and I am good for an hour!

As for favorite authors, I’ve name-dropped Robin McKinley and Willa Cather already.  We can add Guy Gavriel Kay and Emma Bull in there, Lois McMaster Bujold, F. Scott Fitzgerald . . .

The Mermaid’s Daughter grabbed me from the start. I love structure in stories and you use a unique approach of alternating Point-Of-View, as well as some first person and some third person. What influenced you in choosing to use this particular structure?

I am so glad you liked the way the story was told!  The structure developed organically and strategically, which is to say that on the one hand I had the idea early on, as I started researching opera, to tell the story like an opera, in acts, with interlude, and different chapters assigned as arias or duets for different characters based on their voices.  Thinking in terms of my readers, though, and how they might engage or not engage with the story, I had the sense that Kathleen couldn’t tell this whole thing, because Kathleen can be a lot to take (!) and of course the sea witches are hard to follow because they’re not interested in clarity.  So we need sensible Harry to tell us part of the story, and Robin, because he knows more of the history than the others . . . and in the end that balance of voices was what made the most sense.

The Mermaid’s Daughter is an expanded fairy-tale. I was hooked just from the title as I grew up with Hans Christian Anderson, Tales of the Arabian Nights and the Grimm Brothers. What led you to this story? Are you planning more along this line? 

I wrote this book because I loved and hated “The Little Mermaid.”  I loved the beautiful story itself—Andersen’s descriptions of the sea are just gorgeous—but the way the prince treats her just made me want to scream.  And I sensed that Disney tried to “fix” it but couldn’t.  The only thing that made sense for me in terms of how curses and magic really work was that she would have made this sacrifice for the prince and then, when he betrayed her, she was just stuck, no way out.  And so how do you unravel that into something like a happy ending or—I like this term better—the right ending?

As for what’s next, my joke is that after spending 10 years killing cocktail party conversations by telling people I’m writing a book about lesbian mermaid opera singers, I’m now working on a story about Rumpelstiltskin, peacocks, and the plague, which is also a conversation-killer!  But I’m also working on another project that brings themes from several fairy tales to bear on a pretty contemporary issue . . . so the short answer is “yes, more to come!”

Any upcoming events?

I don’t have any events coming up!  I’ve talked to some book clubs both locally and not, which has been amazing, and because I’m in academia I’ve also had the opportunity to talk to some classes that have been reading the book, which was wonderful.  I can geek out on fairy tales for literally hours.  So if anyone wants to hear that, get in touch!

Final words of wisdom?

“The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.”  ― W. H. Auden

How about some links for our readers?

Thank you!  Here are the key ones—and thanks in advance to anyone who reviews and rates the book on Amazon or Goodreads.  I am deeply appreciative.

The Mermaid’s Daugher:

Kathleen has always been dramatic. She suffers from the bizarre malady of experiencing stabbing pain in her feet. On her sixteenth birthday, she woke screaming from the sensation that her tongue had been cut out. No doctor can find a medical explanation for her pain, and even the most powerful drugs have proven useless. Only the touch of seawater can ease her pain, and just temporarily at that.

Now Kathleen is a twenty-five-year-old opera student in Boston and shows immense promise as a soprano. Her girlfriend Harry, a mezzo in the same program, worries endlessly about Kathleen’s phantom pain and obsession with the sea. Kathleen’s mother and grandmother both committed suicide as young women, and Harry worries they suffered from the same symptoms. When Kathleen suffers yet another dangerous breakdown, Harry convinces Kathleen to visit her hometown in Ireland to learn more about her family history.

In Ireland, they discover that the mystery—and the tragedy—of Kathleen’s family history is far older and stranger than they could have imagined.  Kathleen’s fate seems sealed, and the only way out is a terrible choice between a mermaid’s two sirens—the sea, and her lover. But both choices mean death…