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Exclusive: Author Christina Henry on her splashy new fantasy novel, The Mermaid

Contributed by
Jun 18, 2018

Humankind has an endless fascination with shapeshifting creatures like selkies, werewolves, and mermaids, with examples of these malleable creatures featured in all manner of paintings, art, literature, cinema, and music for countless centuries.

Mariners' legends and lore of seductive mermaid maidens have circled the Seven Seas since seagoing vessels prowled exotic territories and have now become part of our collective mythology.

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Author Christina Henry tackles the alluring fables of the mermaid in her new historical feminist fantasy novel, The Mermaid. In this captivating book, the legendary 19th century impresario P.T. Barnum satiates his adoring public's need for sensation when he enlists the help of a real-life mermaid in his latest must-see circus-style exhibition.

It's loosely based on the story of the actual "Fiji Mermaid" side-show attraction presented at Barnum's American Museum of Natural History in New York City and Moses Kimball's Boston Museum in the early 1840s, before embarking on a publicity tour with the hoax creature. The notorious specimen on display was a desiccated monkey's upper body with a salmon tail sewn to its torso and was thought to have been created by traditional Japanese fishermen earlier in the century.

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Henry is no stranger to the more fantastical corners of world literature, having also penned the novels, Lost Boy, Alice, Red Queen, and the national bestselling Black Wings series featuring Agent of Death Madeline Black and her popcorn-gobbling gargoyle, Beezle. Here she dips back in time to a more nostalgic, innocent age as an actual mermaid becomes the willing accomplice to the world's greatest showman in a ruse to entertain and startle the masses.

Berkley Books, a subsidiary of Penguin/Random House, is set to make a huge splash on June 19 when they release this enchanting new summer read by one of America's brightest talents, who takes a refreshing new perspective on a familiar fishy tale.

Here's the official description of The Mermaid:

"Once there was a mermaid called Amelia who could never be content in the sea. Once there was a man called P.T. Barnum who longed to make his fortune selling the wondrous and miraculous. Amelia agrees to play mermaid for Barnum, believing she can leave anytime she likes. But Barnum has never given up a money-making scheme in his life…"

SYFY WIRE spoke with Henry about this enchanting new novel and learned where the research process took her, what readers can anticipate in this amusing historical tale, and the inherent romance of a creature that can live both on land and in the sea.

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What was the genesis of this historical fantasy tale?

Christina Henry: I’ve been thinking about writing a story that incorporated the Fiji Mermaid hoax for at least four years. Around that time I bought some books about P.T. Barnum. I did a little bit of research about the man and the hoax and then just let things marinate. 

Most of my story ideas start out as just that – ideas that I let float around in my mind for a while. I don’t outline and I like to write chronologically, so I never start working on a story until I’m ready to commit to it.

One day I had an image of an angry mermaid caught in a fisherman’s net. I wondered what would happen next, and that was the start of The Mermaid.

Can you take us on a quick tour of the plot for The Mermaid?

Amelia, the titular mermaid of the story, gets caught in a fisherman’s net. The fisherman sets her free but she returns to him later, caught by the loneliness in his eyes. She and the fisherman fall in love and marry, but many years later the fisherman dies and Amelia is left on her own, since mermaids don’t age the way humans do. She spends many years trapped in her grief until P.T. Barnum hears a rumor about her and sends his representative to ask her to play the mermaid for him at his American Museum in New York.

There are a lot of themes I wanted to explore in this book – grief and loss, greed and desire, and feeling alien in a human society. Because Amelia is not human she views everything with a slightly distorted lens that forces the people around her to re-think their motivations, their needs and their prejudices.

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Were you familiar with the Fiji Mermaid hoax from P.T. Barnum's odd menagerie and what interesting places did your research lead you?

I was familiar with the hoax, and I wanted my story to follow as much of the real history of the hoax as possible even though my character is a real mermaid.

I tried to retain the basic timeline and facts of the real Fiji mermaid story – things like the fact that the Fiji Mermaid was first presented in New York City at the Concert Hall by a friend of Barnum’s pretending to be a scientist – because I felt it would make the fantastic elements feel true.

The most fascinating part of the research for me was trying to find out what buildings were in the vicinity of Barnum’s American Museum so I could accurately describe what the city was like at the time. The museum itself burned down (twice!) and most of the other buildings are gone, so it was a fun little rabbit hole to follow.

What is it about mermaid myths in art, music, literature, and film that hold such fascination?

I think it’s the very idea of the half-human, half-fish – a creature that is both familiar and alien to us. There’s a wonderful romance in the idea that you can live and thrive on both land and sea. And the mermaid also retains some of the idea of the shapeshifter – she can change half her body from fish to human. Humans seem to be fascinated by magic that will let us transform, which is one of the reasons I believe werewolf stories are also popular.

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With Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water winning Best Picture and a remake of Ron Howard's Splash on the horizon, where does The Mermaid fit into these types of aquatic creature stories?

The Mermaid actually has a lot in common with The Shape of Water. It’s got a historical setting and a similar sort of fairy-tale feeling. I wrote The Mermaid in 2016 so it’s just one of those interesting coincidences.

Anything new on your creative plate for 2018?

I just finished a manuscript for my next novel, Red. It’s a sort-of post apocalyptic Red Riding Hood story about a woman who’s trying to get to her grandmother’s house in a world that’s been ravaged by mysterious disease. I wanted to tell a slightly different story than the ones we’re used to – the main character isn’t a Chosen One who’s going to find out why this happened and solve all the problems. She’s on the fringes, just trying to survive.