On Mermaid in Chelsea Creek

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I first encountered Michelle Tea’s work on the shelf of Left Bank Books in Seattle. By that point, almost everyone under the sun had urged me toward her texts. For whatever reason, I resisted the nudge and let her leant novels sit on the shelf beside my bed for too long. But just a few flips through Valencia while standing in the Left Bank’s aisles, and I was hooked. Tea’s voice caught me, and I found myself following her through her lusts and longings, deeper and deeper into the queer scenes and girl tribes she described.

Her latest book is the first of a trilogy out on McSweeney’s new YA imprint, McMullens, takes us back to Tea’s hometown of Chelsea, Massachusetts, where Sophie Swankoswki and her best friend Ella will do anything to escape the oppressive culture that surrounds them. They play the pass-out game just to get away. The girls, their friendships, and the way they make a way in the world seems a little touched by magic–and maybe it is.

We chatted about her newest teen-targeted venture over email.– Genevieve Hudson

THE BELIEVER: Is this your first foray into the world of fantasy? I’ve noticed a trend in literary fiction that repurposes folk and fairy tale aesthetics into more modern modes. Do you think there’s something about our current cultural climate that lends itself to telling tales through magic?

MICHELLE TEA: I think there has been a real rise in fantasy-type stories in literature and on television; I can’t speak to the cultural shifts that might have provoked this moment beyond the constant hunger for something new. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is my first fantasy book. I was very, very inspired by the His Dark Materials series when I read it some years ago, and it opened my mind to the way fantasy can be utilized and layered over real life. After being burned out with real life from memoir, this was a great way to turn to the stories that obsess me and that I’ve dealt with in memoir - girlhood, poverty, family, tough towns - and play with it in a very different and new way.

BLVR: What books did you read as a younger person?  Did you find it hard to find alternative narratives that carried queer subtexts–was that even something you were consciously searching for? 

MT: I had no IDEA I could be queer as a young person. I was pretty boy crazy up until I realized that girls could be boys, too. As a younger person I liked scary books, like by Lois Duncan, books about secret witches and curses and spells. I loved books about teenaged girls going through a troubling time - getting pregnant or on drugs or anorexic or going crazy or realizing that they’d been kidnapped by their father or that their parents were trying to kill them. I also liked books about girls having less dramatic lives, just regular-level teen drama. But I did find Happy Ending Are All Alike and Annie On My Mind, and those are great YA lezzie books from the 70s. I loved those. I don’t think I related to them like, Oh, I’m gay! But I related to them as girls and I do think there was a bit of, Hmmm, maybe I’ll fall in love with a girl some day, seems cool, anyway …

BLVR: What made you want to write a young adult novel? Did you feel a need to censor your content for a younger audience? 

MT: There were a lot of factors - I have written a lot of memoir and always feel fatigued for a bit at how self-obsessed that requires you to be. I wanted to try my hand at writing something more commercial, but felt intimidated at the thought of writing something commercial for adults, since I don’t really feel like one myself. I can really relate to YA struggles and issues, states of mind, innocence and curiosity. So I thought I’d do that.

I was aware that I couldn’t load up the story with sex and drugs and rock n roll, but as it is a YA story at its core, those elements never really presented themselves anyway. I was told by a former agent I had too many alcoholic men in it, so I cut one out!

BLVR: The main character in the book, Sophie Swankowski, and her best friend Ella have that kind of touched-by-magic, blurry-lined friendship common to many young girls. What’s up with their relationship, and why is it important to explore the intricacies of female friendships, especially in teens and young girls?

MT: Friendships are such important relationships, just in general, and at that age, tipping on teenager-ness, it’s sort of the last moment those friendships are front and center, top priority, in girls’ lives. Soon enough they get bumped and complicated by romantic obsessions, and I think that moment when it all is beginning to change and become threatened is really full and interesting, and of course great narrative conflict. I love writing about girls in general, and I love reading about them, I love girl culture in all its permutations, so girl friendships are great places to tell stories.

I think with Sophie and Ella they have a bit of opposites attract thing happening, where they are both brave in ways the other struggles to be. Ella has this casual toughness that is very protective and great in a place like Chelsea, but she has deep, microbial-level fears. Sophie feels sort of protected by and wonderfully included in Ella’s toughness, because she’s more of a wimp, but then she can deal with the world in a very real, practical level that Ella secretly can’t. I love these friendships that happen between girls in rough places, where a female toughness is cultivated and rewarded, yet is still very mysterious and unspoken.

BLVR: About Laurie LeClair, a “troubled” teen girl in Sophie’s life, and the “swelling legend” around Laurie’s newly revealed pregnancy, Sophie has a complicated reaction to the gossip of her peers. You write: “What had begun as a curiosity became something darker. The glee her classmates expressed in sharing the gossip brought up suspicion and scorn in Sophie–just why did everyone want so badly for Laurie LeClair to be such a mess?”

There are many parts in your novel that draw attention to the slut shaming and purity-crosses girls and women have to bear.  It seems impossible to write a book for a young female audience without these observations–and yet many YA books don’t address these very real issues. Why do you think that is?

MT: In spite of having just written a YA book, I don’t think I know enough about the trends in the industry to know why certain topics aren’t addressed. My book is also out on a smaller press able and wanting to take risks, so I also don’t know what the mainstream publishers are saying yes and no to, but my guess is that they are as conservative as the rest of the publishing industry tends to be. I think the culture that creates slut-shaming is everywhere, which means it is inside the book industry too.  

BLVR: Are there certain YA conventions you were conscious of adhering to–or did you just write what you knew about through your experience as a growing girl?

MT: Well, I didn’t make Sophie a big gay, so I fell in with that one. Having the gays as side characters is a lousy convention that I went with, but I do wonder if even having the butch side-character Angel, with her indeterminate gender, was a factor in the book being a hard sell to the mainstream. The whole chosen person coming into their powers story is one that is well known in YA and fantasy and comic books, and I was very aware that I was playing with that storyline. But everything else was just subconscious. What came out came out. And for the record, I don’t know whether or not Sophie is queer. Partly the decision was to not write a gay YA book because that wasn’t the story, not the point of it, and at the place YA is at right now I think it is perhaps hard to have a main character who is gay and that’s NOT the point of the story. In order to tell the story I wanted to tell, and it being my first foray into this neck of the woods, I made the choice to have Sophie, for now, not be gay. I felt okay about it because it really wasn’t the point of this book, but I was also aware of the weirdness and complications and how just having this strategic train of thought is the result of homophobia in publishing and the world.

BLVR: Why mermaids? Why talking pigeons? 

MT: I really love mermaids, and when I got into researching my Polish heritage a few years back I learned about the Warsaw mermaid who protects the city and lives in the river. She has been on the seal of the city for hundreds of years and has gone through many representations. I got sort of obsessed with her in particular, but who doesn’t love a mermaid? They are such wonderful creatures! And I’ve long had an agenda to inspire people to remember that pigeons are animals, are birds. Because they are regarded as gross and pests and diseased, people who even love animals claim to hate them. But it’s just mindless scapegoating. I remember coming across old children’s books that went through all the animals on the farm, and pigeon was depicted too, in a nest, looking like a proper sweet bird. It’s through industrialization and urbanization they’ve come to be demonized, but we built these things, and they’ve transformed us in many of the ways they’ve transformed pigeons. We’re sort of in it with the pigeons and I think fear and even self-loathing is at the heart of our aversion to them.

BLVR: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is part of a series. How many books will follow? Do you already have them mapped out? What can we expect to see revealed in Sophie’s future? 

MT: I have two more mapped out. It sort of got shaped into a trilogy but really I could see many more books, exploring backstories of many more characters. Right now I’m sort of smack in the middle of number two. Sophie and Syrena are traveling through the ocean together towards Poland, and along the way Sophie gets to learn Syrena’s mermaid story. In folklore, the Warsaw Mermaid is the sister of the Little Mermaid of Copenhagen, so I tell their sister story, which is very tragic. There is a lot of exploration of paradox, the basic ones of life, where bad things happen that are meant to happen, and then the evil in the world coming from how we respond to that. Currently they are hanging out in an underwater cave with this family of Norse sea goddesses who like to party and sink ships.

Genevieve Hudson writes, teaches, and makes her home in Portland, OR.

And see Michelle Tea’s playlist for the book here, on largehearted boy.